Plenty to enjoy: 2016’s top 20 albums

We lost plenty of great musical talent in 2016, but the show must go on. And thankfully, plenty of good music came to our ears this year. Here’s my take on a fine year for albums, a celebration of the 20 best:

  1. David Bowie, Blackstar: 2016 was a year of loss, and the Thin White Duke was one of the biggest. By the time many of us bought this, it was as if Bowie was singing a self-elegy from beyond the grave, but the man was an artist and perhaps that’s the most appropriate way to view this farewell.
  1. Lindsey Stirling, Brave Enough: Stirling’s stirring violin work is a constant on this album, but the wide variety of effectiveness for her vocal partners makes this unfortunately inconsistent. Still, it also means many different folks can find a few tracks to especially like.
  1. Radiohead, A Man-Shaped Pool. Radiohead is always difficult to rank because they’re on a different plane than most bands … it’s not whether their albums are brilliant (they always are) but how accessible and memorable they become.
  1. Sara Watkins, Young in All the Wrong Ways: The former Nickel Creek fiddler makes a coming-of-age tale, yet doesn’t. It’s easy to forget she was just 8 when she co-founded that band and had worldwide fame as a teen, so this intrigues yet remains universal enough to please.
  1. BJ Barham, Rockingham: The frontman for American Aquarium has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and this semi-autobiographical album takes us even further down the road. Barham’s great writing, unshakable honesty and heartfelt vocals make it a journey worth taking.
  1. Bob Mould, Patch the Sky: The ageless Mould continues to craft intelligent and rocking collections full of heft and heart. Sometimes he grows serious, sometimes he waxes amusing, but he always has something worth listening to.
  1. Pete Yorn, Arranging Time: While I’m a big fan of Yorn, the strange thing about his albums are that they are all solid and full of great songcraft, yet fail to leave much of a lasting impression. But in the moment, this is an enjoyable record.
  1. KT Tunstall, KIN: The Scottish songstress returns and in fine form. The record feels like social commentary, a notable journey and yet like an intimate tale told by a friend over a pint. Worth savoring.
  1. Ashley MacIsaac, Helter’s Celtic: MacIsaac continues his reputation as an ace fiddler with an interest in extending the instrument’s footprint through explorations of sampling and hip-hop. He generally succeeds here, although the material isn’t as memorable as one would expect with such an exciting concept.
  1. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob: First, the small kvetch: This is yet another T+S record that is unnecessarily overproduced. The Quin twins’ songwriting and singing are powerful enough on their own, and the overall more rocking feel helps. Even their flawed albums are better than so much else you can find.
  1. Rachael Yamagata, Tightrope Walker. Through many twists and turns of this project, Yamagata assured fans the result would be worth it. It is. The album’s heartfelt lyrics, sultry vocals and overall ambiance were worth the wait.
  1. Drive-By Truckers, American Band: Powered by perhaps the most dead-on topical single of the year, “What It Means,” the latest by the Athens Southern rock powerhouse finds them continuing to evolve and take on new topics many avoid. Listen to this album and you’ll be glad they do.
  1. Alex Dezen, Alex Dezen: The lead singer of The Damnwells continues to excel in his solo efforts. This one is alternately funny and poignant, silly and deep, owing to Dezen’s superb songwriting skills.
  1. Blue Rodeo, 1000 Arms: Probably one of the more rocking albums from the Canadian folk-rock-country outfits, and also one of its best. Guess they’re not mellowing with age but instead trying to capture more vitality.
  1. Lydia Loveless, Real: Loveless has long been due the acclaim that finally came with this album. The unusually piercing honesty and unquestionable sexiness of her material brings to mind the best of Liz Phair, yet with a bit of twang that makes it all quite remarkable.
  1. The I Don’t Cares, Wild Stab: This duo of Paul Westerberg and Julianna Hatfield produces music about as awesome as you would expect. Here’s hoping they care enough to produce more material.
  1. Tokyo Police Club, Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness, Pts. I and II: The Canadian band put out two EPs under a title riffing on the classic Smashing Pumpkins track, and combined they are some fantastic, jagged, exceedingly catchy rock-pop.
  1. Okee Dokee Brothers, Saddle Up: A Western Adventure Album: OK, it’s technically a children’s album, but it’s some very well-written, arranged and performed Americana that can appeal to music lovers of any age.
  1. The Tragically Hip, Man Machine Poem: It’s hard not to get sentimental over the thought of this potentially being the band’s swan song because of frontman Gord Downie’s terminal cancer. That probably made me treasure it more. But Gord and Co. still kick it and even plow some new acreage in a record that more than stands on its own merits.
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Courtesy of Kaleo’s Instagram: The group with a white unicorn … and the year’s best record.

1. Kaleo, A/B: If somebody told you last year that 2016’s best album come from an Icelandic rock band, would you have bought it? Believe it. The blues-influenced “Way Down We Go,” Soundgardenesque “No Good” and mega-melodic “All the Pretty Girls” are three of the best songs of the year and the rest of the album is more than solid. Small wonder you’ll hear it pop up all over your favorite TV shows … the success is well deserved.

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GroupMe: the new secret weapon for our social media team

One of the great things about having students on your social media team is that they bring you new ideas and platforms — some of which even work behind the scenes. GroupMe — which our students suggested — has been a noteworthy new tool that has improved our efforts this semester.

GroupMe is a private messaging service that allows you to share text, photos and video — and to help organize what you do.

This semester, we have our largest social media student team ever — seven students. How do we keep activities organized, especially spontaneously? GroupMe.

With that larger group, most of the students are specializing on one particular channel. But when they get that great content, how do they share it with the rest of us for the other channels? GroupMe.

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img_1493The perfect example of how we use it came this weekend, with a special and decidedly visual event — our first-ever Teddy Bear Toss to benefit local kids. In a nutshell, attendees to the Saturday night men’s hockey game were asked to bring teddy bears (or they could buy them in the arena from the local Girl Scouts) and throw them on the ice after the first Laker goal. A wonderful way to make spirits bright for a number of children this holiday season.

But it’s also clearly great content. Saturday afternoon, I sent a group message asking who was available to get video and/or photos at the game. Two students, Ilyssa and Erika, replied they would be there and they determined Ilyssa (whose main channel is Twitter) would get photos and Erika (whose main channel is Instagram) would get video.

img_1492The Lakers scored an early goal, teddy bears rained down and both teams helped collect them. Great visuals, indeed. Ilyssa’s photos and Erika’s video were posted and shared to appear across Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, all doing very well at showing this event that supported a worthy cause and underscoring we are a caring community.

A lot of people focus on the dazzle and the sizzle of social media, but you can’t do a good job without the structure and the steak. Whether its something as simple as Yousef, our intern who specializes in athletics, telling me he’s taking care of promoting today’s action, or as complex as coordinating a big social media moment on the fly, GroupMe has really been a fabulous addition to our social media game.

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#heweb16 shows it’s a caring community

Not only is HighEdWeb (#heweb16) probably the greatest conference for higher ed web professionals in the world but we were reminded yet again today that it’s a very caring community.

As Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code — which provides computer science and technological learning opportunities to girls of color ages 7 to 17 — gave a moving keynote on the importance of supporting technological opportunities to all, Chris D’Orso of Stony Brook cared enough to go to the Black Girls Code website and make a donation of $16 (in honor of #heweb16) to support the cause.

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And that in itself is lovely, but what happened next showed how truly beautiful the people at #heweb16 are.

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And it continued …

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(I also gave the $16, but was only one of many.)

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Until the giving spirit was everywhere in the room:

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I lost track of how many people donated, and I’m not sure how much total money we raised, but I’m completely sure of this: #heweb16 is an awesome community and I am so blessed to be a part of it.

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‘Our little group’? On being a nerd and being inclusive.

“This is a song about how little groups of people will make themselves into smaller groups of people in order to feel stronger …” — Peter Gabriel, “Not One of Us (Live)”

One of the drawbacks of today’s hypermarketed and ubertargeted and supersegmented society is the loss of inclusivity as people seek those people who think and feel and act just like they do. Of course, this is nothing new as high-school children have been walled off from “the cool kids” and separation by caste and/or class goes back ages. But as Peter Gabriel sagely points out or as former outcasts Nirvana sang about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song that arguably changed the course of music and pop culture — the idea of of “our little group has always been and always will” suffuses society. (And that the teen elitists that line was about would sing along was grand irony.)

Too much passion?

Years ago, the NHL and its broadcast partners attempted to help clueless fans like me by adding a blue dot where the puck was to make it easier to follow (and went a bit far by giving a red comet tail on a hard shot, but anyway). Some hockey fans and purists were aghast. The league sold it as a way to draw in casual fans, but that dreaded c-word just made it harder for traditionalists to take. Maybe if the league had sold it as being for older fans or those with poor eyesight, the reaction could have been better — it’s hard for anybody to despise accessibility measures on their merit. Maybe it still wouldn’t have worked, but who knows? (Happy to report we recently wrapped a Hockey 101 video meant to let students who aren’t hockey fans learn more about the game.)

A dirty little secret to many might be that I have become a big fan of professional wrestling. Yes, the winners are predetermined and it’s a soap opera for guys or whatever you want to say — but it also features a lot of amazing athleticism and great storytelling. (I could write a blog or presentation on the topic of “what professional wrestling has taught me about storytelling” but maybe another time.) I’ve done some writing and commentary on fan site Cageside Seats, which is generally full of great and supportive people who have respectful debates (which itself dispels one stereotype of wrestling fans) but it has its share of those with disdain for casual fans. “WWE is doing this for the casual fans,” the argument more or less goes on some booking decision or character, “when they should reward us smarks and hardcore fans.” (Smarks = smart marks, i.e. people sucked in by wrestling while acknowledging its staged nature.) These people would despise casual fans who tune into John Cena on “Good Morning America” but who didn’t earn their cred by watching indy shows in bingo halls, or something. They mean well, but they need to understand their brand of fandom isn’t everybody’s level of fandom.

With any sport or passion, the idea that people with a more casual interest than you are less worthy of enjoying your thing is silly. Without casual fans, you can’t grow hardcore fans. They don’t offend your fandom or passion. That would be like an advertising agency saying, “nobody will love this product as much as we do, so we shouldn’t even advertise it.”

Rise of the nerds

This topic comes to mind as I prepare to leave for HighEdWeb 2016 (#heweb16), a conference for those who work in higher education web communications, also affectionately known as “nerd camp.” Nerds and dorks and geeks and former outcasts find validation with others like us. Levar Burton is one of the keynotes, which tells you plenty.

fullsizerender-6We generally were the uncool kids in high school, or at least certainly not the cool kids. But a funny thing happened along the way — kids who went into computer science or math or other scientific pursuits started making money and driving the new economy. Nerdy became the new sexy, and while TV shows used to depict nerds as uncool and poorly dressed kids with big glasses who were the butt of comedy, today a show celebrating nerd culture like “The Big Bang Theory” can become a cultural sensation. “Freaks and Geeks” remains respected and loved despite not being a hit during its brief run. Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former #heweb keynoter, is respected and admired. Doctor Who has been a huge nerd, yet he is adored across the globe.

Whereas The Beatles exuded cool, acts like The Replacements embraced awkwardness and dressed like nerds and Nirvana’s uncool coolness turned the pop culture world on its head. It got to the point that even the some of cool kids in high school tried to rewrite their internal biographies to being the pariahs in high school.

And so, for a few days in Memphis at #heweb, the outcasts will become the incasts, we will salute the freak flags that fly and in general much awesome will take place.

My nerd is not your nerd

But I offer one request or caveat to #heweb16 attendees, and those in these situations in general. Not everybody is your level or kind of nerd. Not everybody has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Not everybody knows every corner of the Marvel universe. Not everybody has seen every obscure film that you can quote from memory. And that’s OK: My nerd is not your nerd. Remember this, and be inclusive. Being an outcast once doesn’t mean that you need to make others who don’t share your interests or ardor into outcasts. This isn’t a competition, it’s a conference.

Many times, I’ll probably have to nod my head and smile to something I don’t understand or, if I’m brave enough, simply say I don’t know what somebody’s talking about. And many times, people may not get my insider or obscure references. With any luck and grace, I’ll know to stop and explain something to include them in my strange world.

I was at a (non-#heweb) conference years ago, where some of us were singled out by organizers as “team Tweet” or “the cool kids.” I bristled. I am fortunate to have been going to these conferences long enough to know some awesome people, but I was once that person attending his first #heweb and knowing nobody and feeling like a complete loser because everybody seemed to know more than I did.

So while I’m so humbled and happy to be heading to “nerd camp” in Memphis, I hope I can be one of those pushing inclusivity. Many of us know each other already but, if you’re new, please don’t let that stop you from getting to know us. We were in your shoes too. And if you’re one of us who has been to many #heweb conferences, please do your best to help others into our circle and feel comfortable. Being a nerd is a badge of honor now, but not a license to put those who aren’t your type of nerd — or even not a nerd at all — in an outcast circle we once (or sometimes still) called home.

Be kind and be inclusive. It’s something any good nerd would do.

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Hick’s Law, making choices and leaner websites

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The other day, I hit the up button for the Culkin Hall elevator and a rare thing happened: Both elevators showed up on my floor and opened at about the same time.

My reaction was confusion. It goes against the natural pattern: Hit button, see door open, get in. Now I had to make an additional choice.

How many times have you encountered this unnecessary layer of decision-making in your daily life … especially when visiting a website?

There’s even a scientific theory related to this: Hick’s Law. Also known in some circles as the Hick-Hyman Law, after psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, it posits that increasing the number of choices will cause the time for humans to make a decision increase logarithmically (or by a lot, if you prefer).

True of the elevator story: Normally, shuffling in would take about a second, instead I was confounded and took a few seconds. No harm no foul, but with websites it has more important connotations. (It’s the titular reason one of the seminal works of web usability is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.)

Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine took this theory Hick started developing about 75 years ago and translates it to design, especially for the web:

So, let’s step back and consider the thought process that users go through and how many levels of decision-making a Web design can consist of. For example, instead of just regarding each link in a navigation menu, sign-up form or toolbar as its own option, we should consider the process of interacting with the navigation a decision of its own. For that matter, any given design contains a whole array of top-level “options” that demand decisions of the user.

In choosing whether to read an article, navigate to a new page, fill out a log-in form or perform a search, the user has to mentally process several options before making even a single click. Are they interested in the content on this page? They might decide to skim the headlines to see what stands out to them. Perhaps they are shopping for something. Before even hitting the “Add to cart” button, they have to choose between making the purchase, looking at product details and reviews, and shopping around for something else.

Inciting indecision

More than increased time to decision, the greater danger is that people decide not to choose one of your options because they become frustrated or interrupted. “If you choose not to decide,” the band Rush notes in “Freewill,” “you still have made a choice.” I have opted out of confusing websites, forms that ask for too many fields or transactions that are too complex or take too long. Which is to say, sites not observing Hick’s law can cost themselves transactions, actions and certainly user happiness.

My friend Kyle James (now with NuCloud) gave a conference presentation years ago where he said something to the effect of “if you want your user to take one action, design a landing page with one link.” (Or something, sorry Kyle if I screwed that up.) And it’s true. The opposite is what we find on too many websites — pages overflowing with links, many of them poorly labeled or redundant, which increase user frustration and decrease the chance of completed tasks.

Many in our industry love specialized jargon or vague acronyms or phrases that they understand within their own circles but that are unfamiliar to students, prospective students and parents. Our suggestion is always: Speak like your user. Give them phrases they recognize, especially in your links. When creating web content, there’s no prize for showing off how big your vocabulary is or how many insider buzzwords you know.

Make actions possible

For whatever website you create, three key considerations remain constant:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do you offer? (Or “what is your value proposition,” if you prefer.)
  • What action(s) do you want them to take?

Other key questions about content strategy exist, of course, but those three should drive your creative. Showing what you have to offer (why a visitor should apply to your college, sign up for your service, buy your product, etc.) and then trying to move your audience toward a related action should take priority.

Long rambling paragraphs about your mission statement, links appearing for vanity sake and a barrage of irrelevant graphics that might bury those calls to action and things your visitors are actively seeking work against the success of your site … and of your business.

With the web, less is more. Especially now that so many people use mobile devices requiring a leaner experience. For last month, more than 40% of our external traffic arrived via mobile device, and 50% of our first-time external users were on mobile. They don’t want to scroll past some irrelevant “happy talk” paragraphs and they sure don’t want to roll through 37 links to find what they want.

Let’s use a different elevator analogy. You get on an elevator and it has a set of numbers (1 to 10) on one panel and a set of letters (A to J) on the other. You’re pretty sure you want a numbered floor, but the added choices leave you unsure. Sounds outlandish, right? Yet this is what a lot of websites do by crowding in extra information and links and shiny objects.

We should all be leaning toward lean websites. Let’s make it easy for visitors to get on our sites and go where they want without unnecessary confusion or work. If they can reach their desired web destination on a smartphone while traveling a few floors on an elevator, you are moving in the right direction.

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How losing a job 25 years ago made me a better person today

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I got laid off from my first professional job 25 years ago (give or take a few days). It seemed crushing back then, but ultimately it was a needed wake-up and “grow-up” experience.

The recent trend of posting #sevenfirstjobs (or #7firstjobs?) has been a great reminder of the number of grunt and entry-level jobs many of us worked before finding our paths. But it also reminded me of how what seemed like a dream job got away at the time.

In spring 1991, I was hired to be the office manager of the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The fest was not just a business or attraction, but where I grew up — I spent summers there since I was 9 years old because my mother was a craftsperson there. (Maybe one day she’ll let us build a website for her woodworking business, The Wooden Unicorn.) I did a little bit of everything there over my summers, from fetching thrown objects and knocked-down bowling pins at games to running the Ladder of Truth for four years (helped pay for college!).

So when the owners, who I’d known since I was but a wee nipperkin, interviewed me and offered the job, I was ecstatic. I could use my communication skills in a variety of promotional and administrative ways to help a business I grew up loving.

But it’s not always simple when you’re new out of college and at a place that was long your playground. I was immature, I didn’t have the best attitude and my work wasn’t as good as it should have been. My boss, one of the owners, expressed disapproval but I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have and did not level up accordingly.

One morning toward the end of the season, my boss asked me to sit down for coffee and let me know I would not be renewed for the off-season and next season. At the time, I was rather heartbroken. I worked out the rest of the season and my last day was my birthday. (Happy? Not so much.)

It’s not you, it’s me

At first, I did what many an angry young man would and blamed them for what had to be a mistake. But as weeks of unemployment stretched into months, the truth set in: I should have done a better job. I should have had a better attitude. I should have taken it all more seriously.

Rest assured, that when another special-events job that I really wanted came along — publicity coordinator for Oswego’s Harborfest — I was ready. I went all-out in applying. I didn’t have a news release sample (since my background was more journalism that PR), so I took a risk: Instead of a cover letter, I wrote a news release (“Tim Nekritz applies for Harborfest job”) with the credentials I’d put in a cover letter. I figured it would either get me an interview or tossed aside as too weird.

I got an interview. It went pretty well.

They offered the job to somebody else. She quit after one day.

Then they offered the job to me. I said “yes!” (I had to stop myself from screaming “yes!”)

Work is serious, but fun

I read up on public relations as much as I could and learned a lot about PR on the job, as fortunately the organization had board members and volunteers who were willing mentors because they saw I (now) had a work ethic and a desire to learn. I did not want to let this job slip away, and promised myself I’d be more professional, responsible and responsive to criticism. The learning curve and workload were challenges, but I made it through the first season (as a part-timer) and they offered me a full-time job.

A key lesson is that work is, well, work and requires a serious attitude. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun — it was a very fun job! — but that you have to produce, be part of a team and (if you’re lucky) do what you can to make the people around you better.

I learned and grew as much as I could and seven years later, now with expanded responsibilities as Harborfest’s public relations and marketing director, chose to return to my beloved field of journalism to become arts and entertainment editor of the Palladium-Times. I felt like a different person leaving the job than taking it, having matured and learned and realized every day was an opportunity to grow.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I mustered the maturity to get retained at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone down the path to where I am today. I certainly wouldn’t have learned many of the things I have. Two roads diverged about 25 years ago, and what seemed awful at the time actually paved the way toward many awesome opportunities.

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Facebook Live and incoming student Q&A: a promising idea

On Sunday night, we might have seen the future of Facebook Live in higher education, and it was awesome.

Alyssa Levenberg, known best for her Alyssa Explains It All video blogging series offering advice to incoming students, posted a question to our Class of 2020 + Transfers page: If she did a Facebook Live Q&A, would they participate?

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The answer via likes was a resounding yes, so at 8 p.m. Alyssa went live on her Alyssa Explains It All Facebook page and fielded questions for two hours. The post reads 138 comments, not all of which were questions, but the interest and questions were especially active early and pretty steady throughout the broadcast.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.14.36 PMThe number of viewers at any given time may not look impressive — it hovered in the upper teens and 20s most of the night — but remained fairly consistent and this is about quality of over quantity. Sure, a Facebook Live video of a watermelon with rubber bands can get millions of views, but how much does it impact anybody’s lives? With Alyssa’s webcast, incoming students received words of comfort and encouragement in addition to getting their questions answered. That’s a bigger impact than mere numbers show.

The short throw in terms of promotion and using a relatively new delivery method not yet in wide use may have kept the numbers down a bit, but Alyssa said Monday she was pleased overall.

“I think it went really well!” Alyssa said. “When people first came, they asked a lot of questions, but then it started to die down to only a few people asking. But they seemed to really like me answering them honestly and live for them.” This personal touch from somebody who was in their shoes certainly represents a real value-added for incoming students.

For the rare things Alyssa did not know fluently, a couple of current students (and this blogger) joined the channel to lend expertise or insight when needed, which wasn’t very often. It’s worth noting, I aimed to take a fairly hands-off approach as this was an “unofficial” activity Alyssa just thought of, proposed and ran with.

For future planning for our college and other institutions, a current student (or recent yet dedicated grad in Alyssa’s case) or student team doing a Facebook Live Q&A has a lot of potential. It could work well in different parts of the cycle; during college choice, discussions would more likely involve fit and what a college has to offer, while after students have committed it more moves toward specific questions and concerns (mostly about living on campus, for this session).

Since empowering student ambassadors and storytellers is a big interest, Alyssa’s Facebook Live provided proof this could work. The challenge is finding a student as engaging and knowledgeable as Alyssa — something we think about all the time now that she’s graduated and will one day yield her active ambassador role — but it’s definitely worth considering. Go in with an open mind and don’t necessarily expect it to “go viral” but with an understanding it can genuinely help and satisfy concerns of incoming students. That alone is a worthy goal.

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