Monthly Archives: March 2007

The Starfish And the Spider

I started a new book called the Starfish and The Spider- it’s all about the difference between top-down organizations and those that self-organize and mutate easily, like starfish. Since I am a biologist by nature, this whole analogy automatically appeals, but the underlying idea is most intriguing- how bottom up organizations can outcompete or just plain wear down top down ones.

Let’s assume that blogs, podcasts and other forms of new media are starfish. They are self- organizing communities, assuming there is any overarching sense of organization at all.  Can Starfish become spiders?  What happens if you try to organize starfish into even larger groups?  Can you turn a group of independent minded creatives into a more traditional, top-down organization? And even if you could, would you want to?

Bottom up organizations are fast and nimble. But there is little top down structure, which is a good thing, most of the time. But sometimes, you need to have some level of arrows, of pointers, of community rules, to make sure everyone gets along. A membership pass, perhaps, to this group of starfish. Joining entitiles you not only to benefits, but to responsibilities and an obligation to adhere to the mores of the larger group.

I am currently involved in a project (Podcamp NYC) that started out small and intimate, but is growing into something larger. And as it grows, we can enlarge the tent and keep it organic up until a point. Then we run into the ultimate barrier to all starfish- Governmental regulations and very real restrictions on how groups work in confined spaces. The Aquarium.

Things like fire codes are not things the most adept starfish can change.  It is the boundaries of the Aquarium Wall.   You can only have so many people in a small space. So you have to start making choices for the larger group, which feels very “spidery” or top down.  And most starfish dislike being labled, contained, and forced into something other than their native environment.  They like freedom and choice, and don’t want to do everything by The Aquarium’s rules.

Just like the old chestnut of “Never yell Fire in a crowded theatre”, * based on a very real case where people got trampled to death trying to exit a theatre quickly, when you have large groups of humans in a combined space, you have to start thinking about crowd dynamics.** How we start to act as a giant organism rather than individuals when we get together in large groups. The mass ameoba. Crowd mentality. Safety in Numbers.

Individuals and keeping an event individual oriented works very well in groups up to about 150. Malcolm Gladwell, in the phenomenal The Tipping Point, discusses how a company very near me, Gore Associates, works on this model.  Gladwell states that Gore works in many small buildings, scattered across Delaware and into Maryland, where the size of each working group is limited to about 150. They spawn off new groups all the time, because at 150, everyone can still know each other- the scientists, the secretaries, the janitors, all have a relationship, know each other at work and at home, and this breeds cooperation, not competition.  When the number of people gets beyond 150, things start to become less personal, and the communication becaomes less efficient, less frequent, and more impersonal.  Keeping things small means that the personal touch remains.  When you have a personal relationship with someone, there is a certain amount of intimacy and investment in the relationship, and that creates value for the people involved, and in turn, for Gore, value for the company.

Larger groups can maintain a certain one-on-one feel up to about 200, maybe 250. After that, I bet if you did the research and graphed it out, intimacy and relationships would get a little more tenuous. Competition versus cooperation would increase. People would start looking out more for themselves, and less for the greater good. Because you can no longer maintain the same connection, the same intimacy, with everyone, your brainstarts thinking about “how does this decision effect me?” rather than “How does this decision effect us?” We become less accountable to each other as the group expands.

Yet, conversely, moods stumble through crowds quickly. We may have less one-on-one connections, but we are easily led as a massive unwashed whole. Think of the crowds that get out of control after sporting events. Trust me, a drunken, angry crowd is one of the worst things to see, ever. I still have the willies, just thinking about it. Conversely, at the Super Bowl after 9/11, in a stadium that served hard liquor, (something we could NEVER do at the Eagles Stadium in Philly) I saw the best behaved large crowd, ever, in my entire life. It was amazing. Even the drunks were polite and kind and well behaved. It was a total shocker.

So if bad moods are contagious in an office, think about what happens when they spread through a really large crowd. Each unruly action gives “permission” to the next person to follow along, or take it one step further, and then the situation is rapidly out of control. We justify it as “they did it first” despite the fact everyone’s mother has lectured them about “If Fred jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” since they were about 5.***  We act in ways no one would expect as a crowd, in ways we can’t seem to explain afterwards to ourselves.  “It just seemed to happen all at once” is the phrase you hear on the evening news after some sort of crowd violence.  Not about what your personal responsibility was, but what the “crowd”, what the “other” did.

So with large groups in confined spaces, there are very real world reasons to impose a bit more “top down” order. Safety. Crowd Control. Keeping the mood positive. Keep frustrations to a minimum. Keep people engaged and busy. (Large numbers of people milling around without clear direction is a bad thing, too.) This means planning and less organic, grass roots-ness than starfish are comfortable with.

In the Aquarium, there is limited space and resources, and even starfish in an aquarium will start competing for resources when they start to become scarce. Abundance means cooperation, scarcity means competition.

When you inject abundance into a scarcity driven world, things change. The ecosystem is disrupted. You Tube is abundance driven, traditional media outlets are driven by scarcity.  When you have everyone creating their own content, you create abundance where this form of self expression and entertainment was once scarce.  And if your whole existance is built around scarcity, you get nervous.  If there was an Aquarium on every corner, the tickets would be cheap, or free.  If you run the Aquarium, this is bad.
For example, let’s take the whole stupid paparazzi and media star phenomena.  Gossip columnists trade on the fact that we all don’t get to hang with hollywood stars- if we all got to be best friends with Madonna, or Julia or Brad or George, there would be no cache left to their brand. The scarcity factor would be gone. The value of gossip would decline, because everyone would just know (and no longer care) and therefore, there would be no secrets to uncover- hence the whole new media transparancy issue.

So as we grapple with the very real problems that arise when someone starts getting noticed- when popularity breeds contempt, so to speak-we have to start looking at allocation of scarce resources.   Podcamp is becoming popular.  Resources are not infinite.  How do you make good choices that preserve the sense of sharing and abundance in this Aquarium?

I hate the lack of abundance, of  struggling with enlarging the Aquarium, while placating the predators. I am not good at playing favorites, choosing who gets and who does not. If we only have so much for resources, do we feed the penguins or the jellyfish?  Do we feed the goldfish to the sharks?  New media is fundamentally about abundance, and it seems so counterintuitive to impose scarcity or heirarchy in any way shape or form on this group.

But safety and numbers and scarcity means this has to happen.  Choices have to be made, and allocation of resources in our aquarium has to happen. When 250 becomes a thousand, things change.

When we divide people up, to make the individual session tracks, to try to keep this sense of intimacy and level playing field, we’ll achieve this abundant nature of things.  Separate tanks in our Aquarium.  But to deliver the “lagnappe” or something extra- whether it’s meals, or handouts or whatever, other scarce resources come into play- money, logistics, and the like. We may not be able to do it all. But we can do what we can with great love and respect.

This means needing to have some Spider stuff. We can’t rely solely on the wisdom of crowds. We have tried to make things easy to understand, navigate, and predict as best we can, to try to accommodate every starfish who attends. We’ll screw it up. we’ll guess wrong. We’ll learn and do it better next time. But I owe it to every Starfish I know to make this event as much about abundance and as little about scarcity as possible, without adding too many predators to the mix.

*My favorite has always been the Steve Martin twist on this- “Is it ok to yell MOVIE in a crowded fire house?”

** This is also the whole reason why fire codes exisit- large number of deaths when crowds panic in confined spaces.

*** It comes in the Mom’s Popular Lecture Series kit we receive when kids are born, along with the other chestnuts like “How many times do I have to tell you” “I’m only your mother, what do I know?” and “Wait until your father gets home.”

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Social Media Club, Philly Style

We all have Superpowers

I went to a wonderful meeting at the Bravo Group last night, for the Social Media Club, started by Howard Greenstein. Howard has started many local chapters of the Social Media Club, and it’s something we need desperately in Philadelphia.

There are an amazing number of interesting people in Philadelphia, involved in podcasting, blogging, and video blogging. My early attempts to start a Philadelphia Podcasting group fell a little flat, but it did help get the Podcamp Philly group started, and I think it would really be better cast as a Phila Area New Media Group, aligned with or in addition to the Social Media Club. The New England Area Podcasters and Boston Media Makers groups are very active, bringing the new media people together on almost a monthly basis in Boston, and I have long been jealous, nay, outright covetous of their well organized and tight knit community, and I want something close to home that emulates this.

The Social Media Club’s initial attendees were largely business and PR oriented. They are smart people, trying to get into the blog/podcast/vcast space, but many could up their game substantially by attending any Podcamp. (Of course, we hope they will all come and participate in Podcamp Philly on September 7, 8, and 9th at Drexel University. ) If you are interested in participating, speaking at, or sponsoring Podcamp Philly, please go to the wiki, or you can contact me directly either through a post here, or by email at ldpodcast AT gmail DOT com.

I learned more in a day at PodCamp Boston than I could have learned in a semester at any college. It was eye opening and mind blowing. I felt like I really undestood what networking was after this event for the very first time. Let me explain.

For most people, networking means having superfiscial conversations with a few people, exchanging business cards, following up with an email, perhaps, but largely collecting cards like poker chips, and saving them for future reference. At PodCamp Boston, I met a ton of people, and have ongoing online relationships that range from business to blogging gigs to just plain friends who I love and admire with no fewer than eighteen people. Imagine, attending one event, and getting to know a ton of people, but in less than a year, having eighteen close friends you would have no problems contacting and connecting with your other “real world” friends, knowing they would not only get along, but develop deep and lasting connections that would benefit everyone. Eighteen people scattered across the Country and Canada, you would happily have over to your home, and would feel comfortable calling them up in a minute if you were in town, to go grab a bite or simply hang. These are netwoking ties that are like T-1 lines- they are strong connections, not tenuous ones. They are the connections that enrich my life, the way I look at New Media, and how I problem-solve.

And it’s funny, because I was pretty shy at first at Podcamp Boston. I didn’t know who to talk to, and felt kind of alone, and perhaps over my head. People I considered Podcasting Rock Stars, like CC Chapman and Julien Smith were there, as well as marketing genuises like Mitch Joel. But Chris Brogan and Chris Penn, introduced me to others, pointed people in my direction (and I had never met them before this), and made this group of 250 people feel like a very small town of like minded people. I could never have imagined how this one day in September would change my life, but I am a different person and see the world from a different point of view now. And it is a richer, more connected, and more meaningful world than before.

At PodCamp NYC, my on line world and my real world, so to speak, will align. My family will be coming up to NYC with me. While this means my husband will be showing the kids the sights of Manhattan while I attend my own version of Geekstock, my family with be able to connect my online friends to real people. I think this will finally unite my two worlds into one unified world, with infinite possibilities opening up as we move forward.

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New Media and Brand Affiliation

This post started out from great observations from Chris Penn of the Financial Aid Podcast. Chris wrote about understanding unfamiliar Canadian Brands on his recent drive to Podcamp Toronto, by looking where the brand was located and what its neighbors were in the mall/signage department. ie. If you don’t know what a Tim Horton’s is, the fact that it’s next door to a McDonald’s and Burger King probably means it’s some sort of food joint.

I think this exact same thing is true in new media. While everyone has a chance to be their own individual brand, our affiliated marketing is also important. And I say this as someone who has NO advertising on any blog or podcast as of this point in time. I do promote author’s books through an Amazon link, but that’s it. I do mention businesses and connections I think are useful to my audience, but this is a public service, not a financially motivated thing for me personally.

So here’s the thing. If you look at yourself and your claimed new media space from blogs to podcasts, video to twitter, as a Brand, then where you position yourself, where you spend time on the web, and who links to you is simply affiliated marketing in business terms. (If you want to know more about personal brand, follow the link to CC Chapman’s great posts and podcasts on this subject).

But here’s the key- Every time we comment, every time we blog or podcast, we are saying something abut ourselves, who we affiliate with and where we want to be in this world.

And this is not meaning to say that we should develop friendships based solely on crass self-serving motives relating to building our own personal brand. But let’s also face it- your friends, colleagues and trusted insiders are your best brand marketers- because they like and identify with you. The people you like and associate with says something about you and your values, what you find interesting and compelling. Hell, I’ve found more interesting information, compelling podcasts, blog posts that have changed the way I view the world through this “affiliate marketing” than I would have ever found on my own. By following links, making links, and starting to think in hyperlinks, the web has become a real three dimensional space of information and media as never before.

I have a to-do list a mile long, that involves updating my blogroll on different sites, doing better on my hyperlinks, and getting better about the connecting part of my new media experience. I sometimes get bogged down in the day to day, and have not yet become fluent in this new language. But every time I add a new skill, or start to understand that linking is not really about my own “google juice” but about connections and affiliate marketing, the web becomes a more useful tool for me and everyone who stops by.

I think it’s all about taking on the responsibility for being an internet electrician, connecting wires and pathways to new information for people that come to my corner of the web, giving them the light switches and buttons to push and say- “Wow- that was something cool I never would have found on my own.”

For example, I will give a look and try different blogs and websites my trusted resources recoomend, like Chris Penn, CC Chapman, Chris Brogan, Julien Smith, and Mark Blevis, just to name a few. It’s online, but it’s just the same as if my neighbor points me in the direction of a good sale or local resource I might not know about. It’s friendsourcing and community building. And all of this requires openness, trust and sharing.

This applies equally well to affiliating my podcast project, the LD Podcast, with its natural community. This means participating and communication on great sites like Maya’s Mom, Schwab Learning, and LD Online. This means answering emails and blogposts on my site, and on my posts over at GNM Parents. It means providing resources and links on my site to things I find interesting and useful, so my visitors have a new portal for resources. This also means starting, contributing to, and maintaining conversations. This means building a community, person by person, link by link. And every conversation, every contribution, every link goes towards the goal of building your brand through affiliation and placement.

Yes, it’s placing myself next to other like brands, just like the natural affiliations of book stores and coffee shops. You know my podcast is about education and learning disabilities by where you find it, and by what I discuss. You would expect to find podcasts about education on education sites, just like you expect to find Peanut Butter and Jelly in the same aisle in the grocery store.

While I like being able to think about new media in business terms and with business language, I find it is just another code to express the same feelings and sentiments I use in other parts of my life. The online world is not separate, but an augmentation of the natural world. It’s a communication tool, a community tool, a way to connect with others you might never trip over otherwise. And it’s why I believe that, deep down, the only difference between old and new media is the willingness and ability to create an conversation and community.

In the end, communication is all about language and how you choose to express yourself and your values to those who care. You can call it branding, affiliated marketing, link love, google juice, or Fred, for that matter, but in more unversal terms, it’s about friends and trust and community.

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It’s All About Connections

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

Community has been important since the beginning of civilization.  People self-sort into all sorts of communities, usually based on similar interests.  Communities form around geographic locations (neighborhoods), schools, religion (churches, temples, mosques, etc.) politics, social values, medical conditions – you name it, and there’s a group of people who share similar interests who form a community of like-minded souls.

In these heady days of  the new media revolution, we can now form ever-larger groups of like-minded souls, independent of physical location, or the ability to get together in person.  Yet conferences, like Podcamp, The Portable Media Expo, South by Southwest,  VON, and more are multiplying.  Why?

I think it all comes down to neurology.  For eons, we were built to interact on a face to face basis.  Over time, we developed the ability to pass knowledge from place to place, across distance and time, through the written word.  But once we developed the ability to communicate from a distance through more “personal” methods, using sound (think radio, telephone), these technologies really took off.  We then figured out how to enhance the sound with visuals by adding pictures (movies, television) and whole industries developed.

The internet started out just like tablets and books- transferring knowledge through the written word, almost exclusively.  But we’ve quickly developed the ability to transmit information by audio (internet radio, podcasts, mp3’s) and now video (video blogs, internet TV, downloadable movies and the like).  And it should be no big surprise that these new formats are taking off , just as their predecessors have.

The difference between the “old” forms of media and the “new” forms is that the new forms add interactivity and conversation.  “Old” media is a one way broadcast of information; New media is all about having an ongoing conversation and dialogue with an audience.  If you’re a content producer, you may start the topic of conversation, but your audience continues it, pushes it further, and can continue it, with or without you.

And I think the overall reason why new media conferences are so powerful for attendees is the immediate sense of community and electricity that happens once everyone has “facetime” together.  It’s bringing already developed friendships and relationships into a third dimension, and forging new contacts that expand the community further.  These new connections grow, thrive and bonds increase offline, making the next meet-up with these virtual “old friends” even better.

Content producers often produce their blogs, podcasts, vlogs and other content alone or in small groups.  I think we’re all flattered and a bit taken aback when people notice, comment on, and appreciate our work.  Sure, we are putting it out there, in hopes of other people finding us interesting or compelling, but we never know who will really see it, or if it will resonate for others as it does for us personally.

When we all get together and spend time, the electricity comes from the organic connections, from pushing the envelope, from sharing, from connecting.  We finally get to be in a village where we all fit in, no matter how miscast we might feel in our real life day to day roles.  Friends and family may not  always appreciate our niche interests or esoteric technology fetishes, but at new media events, we get to finally be with our people, our community, and that is a truly amazing thing.

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Commercialization and Monetization- Is there a hidden cost?

This is a topic that many people in the new media world are wrestling with- How can you make money, or make a living, doing what you love? Or does making money at something you love turn it into a job? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I regularly wrestle with this issue, and I’ll take you through my evolving opinions.

Shortly after I began podcasting in earnest, I thought I would measure my success and would have “made it” if I ever managed to get a contract with a podcasting network like Podshow. I do have the LD Podcast posted there, but I have no formal contractual affiliation with Podshow, and never have. For me, it is simply a Myspace for podcasts. Frankly, I have a small, niche podcast, that is more public service oriented than commercially oriented. As a result, it’s not ever going to be a “playa” in the commercial podcasting world, and that’s really OK with me- in fact it’s preferred.

Some of the ways people make money off their podcasts is through things like Google Ad sense. If you place a link on your blog, ads will show up to readers, based on a word search of the text, hoping that readers will go view those sources. The problem with this for a blog or podcast like mine, is that many of the people advertising services and merchandise with the keywords “dyslexia” “learning disabilities” or “ADHD” are hawking “quick fix” cures- the very thing I try to caution parents against in my podcast and on my website and blog. Clearly, adsense makes no sense for me, although for others, there is no conflict of interest at all.

I do have links on my website and blog to an Amazon Online storefront, where I place the books written by Authors and Experts who appear on the podcast, books I recommend, and books my children love. To me, this is done to help promote the authors who gave me their time and expertise to share with my listeners, and it can make purchasing a book easier for the listener- a direct link to what you want. This has netted me a whopping $2.24 to date, so I am not exactly Borders or Barnes and Noble.

Many of the roads to monetization lead through things like Blubrry,  Podshow,  or other networks where ads are placed into your show automatically, or you are asked to do a testimonial about the product.  For many podcasters, this is terrific.  But to most I have talked to, there aren’t many who are making a living solely off their podcast- or not the living the aspire to.    Will podcasting and podcasting ad networks be the answer to monetizing the space?  I’m not sure anyone can say for sure, but here is something else to consider.

A few podcasters have been “discovered” through their shows, and now have agents who are hooking them up with other media deals, whether it’s planning book, film or TV projects (Ze Frank is moving towards feature films, for example).  Almost everyone has an opinion about this, ranging from people decrying the process and crying “sell-out”,  to those who are simply jealous that they haven’t gotten a similar deal, to those who are just happy that podcasting and its talent are finally receiving the attention they deserve for killer content.  I am almost always in the “I am happy to see anyone doing well” category, because I realize that I do not have the type of podcast show that lends itself to “stardom” .  And I am still a bit uncomfortable with the whole public/private persona debate anyway, so this is a good thing for me.

The money I have made through podcasting, so far, has come by way of consulting gigs to businesses, and project work for friends.  And this is great for me.  I can keep my podcast as my passion project, totally within my creative control, while looking to other sources for income producing opportunities.  I don’t mind being called a hobbyist, either.  Just like the passion and love I put into every item I hand knit, I do the same with my podcast.  And I think if I did either one of the them as a job, the content would inevitably change.

You’ll hear people talk all the time about how much fun it would be to run a restaurant or coffee shop, or open a small store.  Sounds like fun, right?  But you”ll find a lot of people who start businesses based on their hobby find that the fun goes straight out when it is now work.  When fun becomes serious business, with deadlines and responsibilities to employees, you can often find that the cooking you did with love for your family doesn’t translate nearly as well  when you are doing it night after night for hundreds of cranky and demanding customers.

So besides the pressure that gets added once money becomes an issue, content can also change.  I’ve noticed a few of my favorite podcasts have started to sound a little more like infomercials now that they have become more business oriented.  There’s still great content, but you can start to hear a difference, and the additional mentions of brands start to stick out in obvious ways.

This makes me believe that monetization is not a cut and dried issue.  There is a slippery slope to consider.  There are factors beyond the pocketbook to take into account.  And I think we all have to remember that many of us went into podcasting to be masters of our own creativity.  We are making our own future opportunities.  Are you willing to sell that creativity, and at what price?  Does it change your obligations, and do you have “to dance with them that brung you” to quote Molly Ivins?

When we consider commercials and monetization, it’s not a black and white choice.  But we do have to remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, either.

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Community Matters

I spent last weekend in Toronto at PodCamp, and presented a session with Mark Blevis and Chris Brogan about Return on Influence.  What Mark and I call the real ROI (rather than return on investment) of new media.  This session was about how the power of new media is in building bridges and relationships between people.  Mark and Chris are just two of the many example of people I would never have had a chance to meet or talk to, outside of podcasting.

Why is this important? 

The internet is a small village, as I’ve said before.  It makes the whole outside world smaller as well.  If you grow up in a small town, you learn very quickly that there are benefits to knowing everyone, and burdens as well.  You know everybody’s business, and they know yours.  You have to get comfortable with the fact that your proverbial window shades are up all the time, and anyone passing by can take a peek, if they are so inclined.

Yet in small towns, individuality can be painful.  If you think something is particularly cool,  you may not be able to share that interest with very many people.  For example, I played squash in high school and college, and was nationally ranked. (Unfortunately, this was back in 1983, and it’s not online).   But since many people think squash is a vegetable and not a game, I was a bit weird to most people I knew.

Because of the interconnectivity of the internet and broadband connections, any odd facet of yourself can find an outlet.  You can research any topic, find a group of like minded people, and no longer feel so alone. This is the main reason I started the LD Podcast-so parents and people with learning disabilities no longer felt alone.  It was so we could all talk openly about what it’s like to manage kids with ADHD in the house, or have a child with Asperger’s.  And by being “out of the closet” on these issues, other people won’t feel so alone or scared.  On the internet, there’s always someone who has your interests or problems, and often times, the collective resources help you solve or cope with your challenges, much more effectively than you could ever do on your own.

There have been recent stories among my group of Super Heroes from PodCamp where one person was stranded due to bad weather with his family in an airport, without their luggage or resources.  Friends, from a distance of several hundred miles came to the rescue through an online sms service called twitter , and got him food, shelter and clothes in his hour of need.  That’s the power of the internet and making new friends.

I found out a friend couldn’t make a conference because of the new passport restrictions, so I offered to pick them up.  We ended up having a really fun road trip, and got to know each other better.  This is friend-sourcing, as Chris Brogan puts it.  You ask your community for help, ideas, information, and they respond, quickly, with great ideas that help you get things accomplished.  Chris Penn, for example, has helped me out on a project, and has given me great advice on how to tweak my website and podcast.  He gives this information freely, without keeping score.

Now like any friendships, you need to give as well as receive.  The more you keep things closed off, the less you share, the less freely help will come your way.

What’s amazing is that since 9/11, people have gotten more and more paranoid and suspicious by nature.  We suspect that the world is a big dangerous place, where everyone wants to take advantage of you.  In some towns, people walk around with non-disclosure agreements in their pockets and hand them out like business cards.  As a lawyer, I am prone to this kind of paranoia, but I like it much better when I can just have a conversation with a friend and talk about stuff. I’d rather share, and possibly take advantage of a positive feedback loop of new information and ideas, rather than one that limits the input and choices I can make.  let’s face it, there are a million good ideas out there, and not all of them will ever see the light of day.  Many will die, because no one has the time, energy or interest to execute them properly.  If I can pitch a good idea over to a friend and let it stick and grow, I am much happier, not because of the “ownership” of the idea, but that it made a difference to someone else.  This is giving back.  This is community.

I ran into a bunch of moms I know at the grocery store, and we naturally began to share stories and opinions of the local schools, news of what was going on- not gossip, but a free exchange of ideas and suggestions.  A lot of the moms I know talk about things they’re looking for for a kid’s birthday, for example,  and just by telling me, I have become deputized and will let her know if I find a source for said item.  By sharing, you just got more eyes, more time, and more resources at your disposal than ever before.

So don’t be selfish.  Share a little.  You won’t be sorry.

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