All posts by Rick Cole

About Rick Cole

Rick is a Social Media Strategist and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Ready for your close up?

7 hacks for the Zoom anxious.

Last weekend, after a golf tournament, I listened to people at my table talking about having too many conference calls. When I say talking, I mean griping about the explosion of meetings, especially all of the video-enabled meetings, they’re having because their offices are closed and they can’t travel. In a nutshell—”Enough with all the video!”

My attention was really piqued by a friend who manages medical facilities across the southeast. She talked about how exhausted she was by trying to look and present herself only using her face. She has a lovely face and smile, and is very articulate. But that doesn’t capture her true energy. She’s an athlete (very accomplished at the collegiate level) who projects joy and vivaciousness with her whole presence. She’s one of those people that lights up a room. She said video conferencing makes her feel “examined” and “in a box.”

What she said resonated with me. I won’t claim to share her constrained athletic dynamism, but I’ve got my talents. And they don’t necessarily play well with a mic button delay and the inability to read the room. I especially don’t like video conferencing with large groups. One or two folks, ok. But being up on a Brady Bunch video grid makes me feel a little exposed.

Who’s looking at me?

If they pin me, can they see me dozing off?

Is my dog doing something untoward in the background?

Why am I looking at myself all the time?”

Zoom anxiety is a thing

So, I started looking around and Zoom anxiety is a thing. I’m not crazy (at least not in this way). The “experts” relate it to social anxiety, which I equate to the emotions I felt in high school when I dropped my lunch tray and everybody looked, or when I went up to a girl and asked for a date. Seriously, I don’t have this affliction, but someone I love does. It can be debilitating.

What I have is probably some type of reverse narcissism. I don’t like being looked at because I don’t look as good as I “should.” I’m far more shallow than deeply troubled. A psychologist might help, but it would take years.

Instead, I sought out the help of another group of experts. Great advice for the ladies or make-up wearing dudes out there. And I found some fantastic sartorial tips for the today’s Zoom-Zoom male. Yet this approach required losing some weight, which is the main reason I hate being looked at in the first place.

No. There has to be some easier way to make me feel better about my bloated face on a video call. A way that doesn’t require any sacrifice or real effort on my part. After pondering this, I decided on the time-honored techniques of avoidance, diversion and disguise.

7 hacks for hiding in plain sight

The error is sitting 17 inches away from the computer.

1. Technical problems

This is the old-school option that never goes out of style. However, over time, they might notice you’re not there (unless you’re the social media guy) and then you’ll have to employ another strategy.

You’re there, but not.

2. Phone only

Smart option for the early adopter. The jig is up once a critical mass of coworkers catch on to your strategy. Then the mandatory “all cameras on” memo goes out.

Being my best self.

3. Pencil drawing avatar

This is like the phone, but the life-like rendering fools others into thinking you’re actually live and in person. Another great thing about this approach is one’s ability to gently erase pounds and years without expensive surgery or time-consuming exercise.

A different colorful option for every day.

4. Mask it

Finally, something good from this pandemic thing. Masks have been used from time immemorial to alter and disguise one’s appearance. Plus, you’ll have a reason rock your fantastic smoky eye technique in the carpool line.

Is he new to the team?

5. Effects

Digital effects are your friend. You can use them to enhance your appearance, place yourself in exotic locales (Paris as a backdrop, anyone?), create a conversation starter, or just distract people from your double chin.

Call from a local point of interest, from your deck, or by your pool.

6. Background noise

If your backdrop is interesting enough, people will look right past you. You can do this digitally, but the unpredictability of the real world is mesmerizing. Who knows, your coworkers might even catch a glimpse of some wild life.

The one guy has his own tie, which is great.

7. Face over talent

We’ve all heard of voice over talent, those silky, resonate voices who narrate commercials, documentaries, etc. Let me introduce “face over talent.” There is a huge pool of out-of-work actors (more than normal) due to Covid-related filming restrictions. For a small fee, these actors will sit in on your call for you, lending you the stunning authority or whimsy of their photogenic visage. This works especially well if you’re never called on. If you are expected to speak, look for actors who have taken a mime class or twoand can move their lips as you give your answers. With all the annoying buffering delays, no one will know the difference.

Right now, I’m trying to decide between these two fellows. Have a favorite?

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Bump in the Night

Stories that scare Smiths.

Stories that scare Smiths.

My family’s holidays include certain movies. Over Easter, we watch The Passion of the Christ. On the Fourth of July, we watch Will Smith in Independence Day. Christmas brings a lot of must sees, including Elf, Trading Places and A Christmas Story.

Halloween is also a great time to watch or read something scary.

This past weekend, my wife and I watched Diabolique, a 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot suspense-filled classic which begs the question, “What is scarier—real life or the supernatural?” (Other movies listed in this blog owe a lot to Diabolique.)

It ends with special instructions from the director.

To me, real life (or what may be possible in real life) is much scarier than the supernatural. Another critical element to a scary story is how you experience it. How old are you? Where do you live? Can you imagine this story happening to you?

And, of course, the artful storyteller knows how to embed a scene deep into your psyche. Lighting, suspense, shock and always the music.

Here are few stories that have scared the folks at Smith.

Don Sanford

The Shining (the movie, though the book is good too).  I think it was Kubrick at his best, even though Stephen King didn’t care for the adaptation.  It felt so real and terrifying. It has plenty of scares in the moment, but it is one of those films that stays with you and seeps into your subconscious. When I think back on famous moments from all the great movies ever made, some of the most vivid images I recollect are snapshots from The Shining. It’s a movie that scares the hell out of you … and keeps on creeping you out into the future.

Guess who’s here?

Glen Gonzalez

 My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. It’s not exactly a Halloween poem, but it certainly strikes me as a dark psychological horror. That classic, understated line: “This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.” conveys the Duke’s fiendish insouciance. You can just imagine what his guest must be feeling at that moment.

Rick Cole

The scariest movie I’ve ever seen is Jaws. I saw it at the theater when I was ten. I spent a lot of time at the beach growing up; still do. To this day, whenever I go surfing or paddling, I have to push down an irrational fear of sharks. The movie isn’t really scary to me now, but Jaws sunk its teeth deep into me at just the right time and place.

It scared me in a swimming pool. lol

Likewise, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood came to me at just the right time. I read it when I was eighteen and had moved into my first apartment all alone. I got it from the library, thinking it was some gangster story. Nope. I had never considered the possibility that there were people roaming the countryside who would kill me for kicks or for a couple of dollars. Capote’s research and writing in that book are so good that I felt like I was more than just an eyewitness to the horror that happened on that Kansas farm. I was also a victim.

Real people are the scariest thing.

Michael Garcia

Anything from Edgar Allan Poe. I always found The Cask of Amontillado to be the most entertaining. A short story rather than a book, but it says so much in such few words.

Not so Fortunato.

Mary Cohen

I thought The Exorcist (book and movie) was the scariest thing I had ever seen. Never ever had I considered that type of demonic possession. 

This will make your head spin.

Julia Wolf

The 1983 movie version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s a lush visual interpretation of the Ray Bradbury novel; terrifying without resorting to blood and guts.

Not really a kids movie.

Sara Levinson

Beetlejuice … which scared the pants off of me when I saw it as a kindergartner.

Don’t say it!

Trey Wood

The War of the Worlds (1938 Radio Drama by Orson Welles from the original story by H. G. Wells).

Listening to the recording of the original production of the radio broadcast delivers a variety of horrors well beyond the actual story that could only be duplicated today if one could somehow meld an NPR episode of This American Life with the two movies, Aliens and The Truman Show, along with the journalistic sensibilities of Twitter and the political advertisements of the season. 

And, oh yeah. Halloween. That was scary, too. 

This theme music is the scariest.

Ken Mock

Psycho. Just because. 

“A shower would be nice.”

Gina Walker

Poltergeist. In reality, multiple cast members had untimely deaths during and after the making of the film, which adds to the creep factor!  Read about the Poltergeist Curse.

“Don’t go into the light!”

Catherine Sturges

The Blair Witch Project. There was so much buzz about this movie. Before it had a wide release, my friends and I bought advance tickets and went to see it. It seemed so real. I was frightened—stayed up all night.

Shaky equals scary.

Amy Crowell

Because I hate scary movies, Ghostbusters. I mean, what a soundtrack.

Who you gonna call?

Thanks to Alexandra Gorn for featured image.

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Living at Work

The new working from home.

Missing the old normal

Home is where the heart is. These days it’s also where the job, the school, the gym and everything else is. COVID-19 and our emergency response forced many of us to “work from home” whether we wanted to or not. Unfortunately, “fifteen days to flatten the curve” has transmuted into seemingly endless shutdowns, school closures and social distancing from everyone except our kids.  

We wake, work, eat, play and sleep in an overly familiar environment, with overly familiar people. How many of us will never complain about a 45-minute commute again? All alone for 45 blessed minutes, cosseted in a personally adjusted, lumbar supported faux leather chair with climate control, listening to your favorite podcast or playlist. Did I mention all alone? Both ways? 

The good old days.

In our minds today, our offices, places we often dreaded, feel like a sanctuary spa. Ergonomically situated workstations, bubbly spring water machines, lunch breaks with menus, the gentle hum of adult (ones we aren’t married to) conversation—Nirvana. 

All of that goodness—commuting, cubicles and chit-chat—is gone and we don’t know when, or if, it’s ever coming back. Working from home has become living at work. 

The Farmer’s Life 

People in agricultural America, before the car, seldom travelled more than eight miles from home in their entire lifetimes. Sound familiar?

We’re all farmers now. Up with the sun to milk cows, do chores, sow crops, move livestock and mend fences. All day, then down with the sun we fall in a heap. Tomorrow, it starts all over again. Do farmers even have Fridays? They definitely don’t have TGIF.

Farmers are renowned for their amazing work ethic. It’s not that they want to be heroes. It’s because their work never stops and neither do they. But their work isn’t really like our work. It’s integrated into their lives in ways ours is not, and cannot be. They can live at work and work can be their lives, because it doesn’t place demands on them that they can’t control. 

Our work comes at us from many directions and countless agendas. Each day we get emails and calls from coworkers and clients presenting new and pressing problems. A farmer doesn’t get emails from the cornfield telling her to drop everything and come running. The farmer knows the corn’s timetable well in advance and integrates it into her workflow. 

Corn answers to her.

Sure, some of the animals can create a little chaos. But that’s why farmers build fences around pastures and sheep pens. Chaos is our work world. Hair-on-fire, Friday afternoon client calls don’t usually happen inside a sheep pen. Unfortunately, we can’t fence in our clients. The way we work is pressurized and demanding. It’s been designed for us to give a total commitment for a limited duration of time. We call it a grind, a rat race, a salt mine. We never call it a dairy farm or a field of kale.  

But now we are living at work. We have brought a rat race into our family room. We might need to make some adjustments. Like farmers, we probably need to build some fences to keep the good in and the bad out.

When Work Never Stops

Did you know that people tend to work more when they live at work (oops, I meant work from home)? It turns out, quite a bit more.  

We work more because there is often no natural stopping point. There simply is no end to work. It’s like the cows that need milking every day. On the day you retire, or fall dead on a Zoom call, you are gently slid away from your desk, a few kind words are solemnly spoken, and then your role and responsibilities are shifted to someone else. The work must go on.

Likewise, when you are at home, there is no natural end to the workday. To me this is the key understanding necessary to healthily and successfully working in this space. Seeing coworkers head for the door is no longer the signal that we’ve reached the end of the workday. I must create my own signals for starting, doing and ending work. I have to recreate boundaries that the workplace used to provide.

Attention, Time, Space and Thought

I need to build fences around what I pay attention to and when. There is a time to talk to my children and a time to take a call. I have to work to make certain neither one tramples on the other.   

I need fences around my time. Work engagement demands a good deal of my time. But so does my family. And so does my personal mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. These time demands need accounting, budgeting and management from me.  

One of the best ways to create healthy work boundaries is to create a separate workspace within your home. This has been a real challenge for many people because they were sent home without prior planning. Adding children to the space has only made it more difficult. Smith has had a remote workforce since our founding (check out the article below).

Maybe the most important fence is one for our minds. It’s the reason I wrote this article. We need to think about the “live at work” situation we find ourselves in. We need to own it and be intentional about making it work for our families and our jobs. This probably won’t happen naturally. 

We’ll have to find ways to push back against endless work, setting boundaries for when we think about work and when we don’t. Just as important, we’ll need to create mental space to give our work the undivided attention it needs. 

Living at work is not the best alternative for most people. But working from home can be very freeing, rewarding and productive. My wife and I both enjoy working from home. My hope is that this temporary situation will help us sort out long-term work arrangements for ourselves, and our organizations. That we’ll end up with a more flexible and accommodating work environment for everyone when this is over. 

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Ban TikTok?

Should employers be concerned about data security?

Is TikTok an amazingly popular (especially with teens) video-sharing app? Or is TikTok a serious threat to personal, corporate and national security? The answer appears to be “Yes!” 

TikTok Boom

TikTok’s growth has been explosive. It’s been the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store since 2018. TikTok is reported to have been downloaded over two billion times (175 million in the U.S.), and to have 800 million monthly active users, from over 150 countries. Users are young, with more than 65% being 34 or younger. And they spend a lot of time on the app, averaging 52 minutes a day on TikTok, with teens spending 80 minutes. This activity has reportedly produced $3 billion in profits last year. This app is no slouch. It’s fun. It’s growing. And its user demographics are a marketer’s nirvana.

TikTok Bust

Despite profound success, TikTok’s future is in serious question. TikTok’s growth story is being overshadowed by controversy. Concerns over user data security and international espionage are at the heart of a snowballing crisis for the Chinese-owned app. Unlike with other outcries over social media/technology privacy issues, these controversies aren’t merely rumors. They’re very serious allegations with matching consequences.

The types of actions governments and corporations have taken against TikTok are really unprecedented. Here’s a sample:

  • 2019: Federal Trade Commission fines ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) for violating online child protection laws.
  • 2019: United Kingdom opens an investigation into TikTok data protection for children.
  • 2019: India places provisional ban on TikTok for issues around pornography and child protections.
  • 2019: A large class-action law suit was filed in California, claiming TikTok illegally transferred personal data of U.S. citizens to China.
  • 2020: India permanently bans TikTok, citing security concerns around Chinese government spying. 
  • 2020: The United States Military bans TikTok from all government-issued phones.
  • 2020: Amazon accidentally releases an internal employee memo asking all employees to delete TikTok from company phones.
  • 2020: Wells Fargo directs employees to remove TikTok from company phones.

So, what is the problem with TikTok? Why are these, and other organizations, so concerned about the app’s access to data. There seem to be two primary areas of concern. The first is personal privacy and illegal consumer data collection. The second is corporate and national espionage—spying done through TikTok on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Data Syphoning

It’s widely understood that mobile devices collect immense amounts of data from user actions. They track your web browsing, app usage, driving, spending, steps, sleeping, etc.  That TikTok tracks user data isn’t controversial. The problem is what data the app tracks, how it tracks it, and what it does with the data.

Not everything is publicly known about TikTok and what it’s doing. However, it is important to recognize that TikTok is a rebranded version of the Chinese app Douyin. Because it operates behind the Chinese Firewall, Douyin was developed using a very different set of priorities, ethics and protections than apps developed in the U.S. and other liberal democracies. The Chinese people are restricted and censored in ways that are illegal here. Supposedly, TikTok runs on a separate set of servers than Douyin to enable these differences. Yet, many believe the app retains most of Douyin’s “China-market” capabilities.

There are many ways a downloaded app, like TikTok, could surreptitiously collect sensitive data from a phone without users being aware. For example, Apple flagged TikTok for copying data from user’s clipboards. Also, an app developer recently reversed engineered TikTok and found that the app has the ability to intercept and open zip files and perform other functions that should not be part of a mobile app. TikTok might also be able to collect very sensitive data, like fingerprint markers. TikTok just raises a lot of red flags for consumers.

“There’s a reason governments are banning it. Don’t use the app. Don’t let your children use it. Tell your friends to stop using it. It offers you nothing but a quick source of entertainment that you can get elsewhere without handing your data over to the Chinese government. You are directly putting yourself and those on your network (work and home) at risk.” 

Bangoral

A Trojan Horse

It’s not only user data that’s at risk. Large corporations and governments are concerned with CCP corporate and military espionage. TikTok is only one example of a concerted international curtailment of Chinese technology companies. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. is considering a ban on TikTok. Australia, Japan and other nations have suggested that they also might join India in banning TikTok.

This is part of a greater effort against Chinese technology. Companies like Huawei are already excluded from the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. The core issue is that many, if not all, Chinese tech companies are controlled to some degree by the Chinese military.  

Considering prior action and the strained relationship between the U.S and the CCP, it should not come as a surprise if the U.S. bans TikTok in the coming weeks and months. 

Protect Your Data

In my opinion, when there’s this much smoke, there’s fire. My response to what’s happening with TikTok is to err on the side of caution. I recommend removing TikTok from your personal phone, or any connected device that also has access to any important data. I recommend parents make this decision for their children. I also recommend any employer whose employees access any company data have employees remove TikTok from that device. 

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