The DIY revolution

“We’re still in the punk rock stage,” says Aziz Isham, president of Brooklyn-based digital media publishing house Arcade Sunshine.

He’s talking about the revolution.

No, not in Syria. (Or in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, et al.) Nor is he talking specifically about Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party.

He’s talking about one part – publishing – of the do-it-yourself revolution.

From community-made and driven political upheavals in northern Africa and the Middle East, to out-of-nowhere media sites like Instapundit, Gawker and their bazillion me-too spinoffs. From self-organizing interest groups creating metaphysics Meetups and Ron Paul rallies, to real estate being bought and sold without the involvement of any Realtors (r) (and without paying their commissions).

Much of this activity is driven by free or low-cost technology that has dramatically reduced the cost – in some cases, to zero – of starting a business, running a not-for-profit activity, or just getting things done. Free blogging sites like WordPress (which powers this very site!) let anyone become a publisher. YouTube, Vimeo and such let anyone become a video producer or star. Free Google analytics tools let publishers understand their traffic. PayPal makes it (relatively) easy for individuals to make and collect micro-payments. ITunes, Amazon and the like provide a marketplace for anyone to sell music or ebooks. Zillow was among the first to provide transparency to the secretive info-hoarding in real estate.

And these are just some of the well-known platforms and tools; there is a steady stream of new technology services being launched all the time.

Most critically, these transparent, collaborative technologies allow fellow DIYers to share knowledge and experience, and Google, Twitter and Facebook help them find each other.

This isn’t exactly news. Linux Journal senior editor Doc Searls has been talking about DIY technology since 2004. Four years later, thinker, teacher, and and social technology expert Clay Shirky published a book on “organizing without organizations,” called “Here Comes Everybody.” (I’ve always wondered if he stole – sorry, “borrowed” – the name from the Autolux song of the same name.)

Even so: as Aziz’s quote alludes, we’re still in the playing-the-church-basement, couchsurfing, Our Band Could Be Your Life phase of the DIY revolution.

Much more recently, DIY has gone mainstream…at least by my own observations; as Herman Cain once said, “I don’t have the facts to back this up.” In the US, it’s riding a wave of populism. And as I think more deeply about my own plan, and about what “Taking the Fork” really means, I keep noticing DIY everywhere.

Beyond easier-to-use technology, social and economic forces have driven more types of people – critically, non-techies – toward DIY. The theme here is a growing mistrust of institutions.

In the US, the Tea Party movement, not to mention the activist base supporting the candidacy of libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, reflects a mistrust of public institutions. The general tone of their battle cry is, “self-sufficiency!”

Private institutions have fared no better. Most blame the financial meltdown in the US on unconscionably idiotic risks by private financial institutions, allowed both by deregulation and the underfunding of any regulatory agencies that did exist; our private institutions screwed us, and our public institutions didn’t do their jobs.

A similar theme is playing out in Europe. An economics-obsessed friend tells me that the Greek crisis came about because of the naive execution of the Euro: Monetary policy, he says, is centrally controlled by the European Central Bank, while fiscal policy is controlled by each member state, with little or no central oversight. So once again, great institutions, because they lacked imagination into the worse cast scenario, failed to do what was expected, if not promised.

And then there’s the issue of transparency – from WikiLeaks to Super PACs to the privacy missteps of Facebook to the growing mistrust of Google, people are demanding better transparency from powerful institutions.

I could point to a thousand more examples of institutions letting people down: sex scandals in the Catholic church, airlines charging you to have a wee, the historic flameout of the Red Sox last September (or maybe that was just one institution returning to its old ways? Anyway.).

There’s a million more examples of DIYing: Home-schooling, micro-loans in the developing world, the slow, locally-sourced food movement, and on and on.

Where is all this going? Stay tuned. Long live the DIY revolution!

It’s the relationships, stupid!

Over the past week I’ve been reminded how much connections, networking and conversations matter.

Last weekend I went to the Boston Globe Travel Show, where I talked to and heard from a variety of other travel professionals. Yes, I heard some new ideas, and some things said sparked new ideas for me. But an even more important element of these conversations, given the personal and professional stagnation I’ve felt over the past few months, was the reaffirmation that I do have something valuable to offer. My history in the tech/internet industry, plus my continuing interest in technology, social media, and business models, gives me perspective and expertise not particularly abundant for many tourism boards, tour operators, and even travel/tourism writers. I can offer this expertise as an adviser, or I can use it as a perspective from which to write or as a competitive advantage.

This week I’ve been hitting Social Media Week in New York. Honestly, most of the dozens of panels essentially cover the same thing over and over again (Social media is important! Crowdsourcing! Curation! Pinterest!), within the context of niches – advertising, travel, health & wellness, journalism, politics, and so on. Nothing I heard blew my mind, but I did meet particular people who are doing interesting things and have interesting things to say.

And now I must shut up and continue following up with a bazillion people or so.

Chumming the waters (and Andrew McCarthy)

Twitter finally paid off.

Last week I followed a link in a random tweet by some random person – I can’t even remember who – and arrived at the site of the Boston Globe Travel Show. It would happen in 4 days, I read, and there would be an “industry” day before the public show. Within minutes I had registered (as “press”) and was ready to meet some fellow travel industry peeps.

There are many reasons why the suburbs (where I’ve been sequestered lo these many months) are a painful, awful place to live (if you don’t have kids in school). The biggest is that you are cut off from other people. Certainly from interesting other people.

Even more important, I was starting to feel like the only “travel person” in the world who was not posting pics from Guatemala or New Zealand or space . Twitter et al is great to follow, discover and connect with people. But the continuing need for humans to connect face-to-face with like-minded people is proven by the steady stream of conferences, trade shows and meetups that sell out on a regular basis. I needed some of that.

The first half of the “industry-only” day consisted of networking meetings. By about 4 I was almost out of business cards.

Among the dozens of people I met were Brian Bigda and his dad, who just started It’s a (you guessed it) bicycle tour aggregator. They’re looking for destination pieces that set the scene and give context for their tours.

Continuing the bike theme, I also met Norman Patry, owner of, which arranges bike tours in Maine, Canada, Italy and a few other places. A former unhappy financial services guy, Norman quit to start SummerFeet, he says, after a series of stern “conversations with my ceiling.”

Getting away from bikes (which still kinda freak me out), I had a great chat with Dan Hopkins of GrassTrack Safaris, which runs low-budget camping safaris in Bostwana. He started the company, he says, “because I like camping in the bush.” His first such experience was in high school, when his aunt paid his way to go on safari with none other than Charles Darwin’s grandson. I imagine such an experience would, you know, be inspiring.

For the second half of the day, they let us loose on the exhibitors – representatives of the tourism boards of countries around the world, as well as a number of tour operators.

My quest was to “chum the waters,” as they say in shark diving. I specifically asked to be put on every single PR list.

As I made the rounds, pressing my business card into every outstretched hand, everyone in the exhibition hall magically consented to rebrand the much-maligned “press trip” as a “fam trip” – so-called “familiarization trips” (arranged and paid for by tourism boards with support from local tourism businesses) that are strictly taboo for those aspiring to ever write for the NY Times Travel Section but without which any travel writer, great or small, cannot afford to do her job.

My far-and-away favorite from this portion was Mario Aguirre from the Honduras Tourism Board. I loved Honduras during my too-brief trip there (despite the hospital stay and stitches) and to which I’ve always wanted to return.

I left that first day exhausted, carrying about 287 kilos of schwag, a giant stack of business cards and an equally giant stack of ideas.

The second day – the first day open to the public – was less interesting for me. With such a crush of people booking cruises and filling out entry forms for free trips, it was hard to have conversations or do business. So I did what any sane person would do. I entered every single trip-giveaway sweepstakes, ate a delicious pork sandwich at the International Culinary Stage, and blathered nonsense (after pressing my card into his hand) at actor, director and wonderfully thoughtful, prizewinning travel writer Andrew McCarthy, who says, “If Americans traveled more, they’d be less fearful.”

Here here!

Personal business plan: zooming all the way out

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my personal business plan, I realized something awful. One of the main pillars of the plan – finding a part-time consulting gig “just to pay the bills” – was wrong.

I could tell it was wrong because the plan contains few details about it – I’m not excited about it, so I didn’t care to fill in the gaps properly. (Also, I woke up at 4:13 am, thinking about it with a sense of dread.) I didn’t want it in there. I didn’t want it to be part of my plan. Ugh. Now what?

This is the second time this has happened. The first time was last year, when I was doing research about “how to be a successful (i.e. money-making) travel blogger.” I read blogs, listened to podcasts, talked to people, started planning…and realized that I don’t want to be a travel blogger – at least not one who earns money primarily from blogging.

“Well, Koukkos, how do you want to make money, given that your lottery tickets never seem to win?” That’s the question that led to my personal business plan.

In other words, I had to zoom out. And now I have to zoom out again.

Think of it this way. Imagine that I’m trying to take a photo. I’m in the forest. I’ve got my 300mm camera zoomed all the way in, slowly panning across the thick green of the trees. I’m doomed – I’ll never get the right shot, because I don’t even know what I’m looking for, never mind where to aim.

That’s where I was with my vague “how to make a good travel blogging site” research. I had my equipment and a vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but no real goal.

So I let my camera hang around my neck and just listen. I hear something calling from above. I look up, and through the thick greenness I notice a spot of red. “I want to take a photo of that bird!” I say to myself. I reposition myself so that the light is behind me. I stand on a fallen tree to get a better angle. I contort myself to compose the shot, zoom in, focus. I’m about to take the photo when I realize…that red thing is just some mundane cardinal in a mundane setting. I definitely want a photo of a bird. I just don’t really want this photo of this bird. That’s where I found myself at the end of my personal business planning.

What I needed to do is to zoom all the way out – all the way into myself. I had to ask myself some fundamental questions. Continuing my hypothetical bird-pic, I asked myself things like:

  • Why do you like taking photographs?
  • Do you particularly like taking photos of birds in forests? Or animals in their natural environment? Or just birds? Or just things with contrasting colors?
  • Is it that you like forests – not necessarily taking photos in the forest?
  • Is taking photos (or walking in forests, or birds) something you want to do for a living?
  • If yes, how can you make a living from it?

…and on and on.

This exercise, guided by online “career coaching” resources and some material from The Five O’Clock Club – materials I got thanks to the disaster of my last full-time job – has been extremely useful. It’s helped me see my options more clearly, and given me a grounded, thoughtful strategy on which to zoom in to everything else – my personal business plan and eventually the specifics of executing that plan.

I don’t think I could have gotten here without all the struggles, diversions and failures of my life so far. And I definitely wouldn’t be here without my successes and achievements. So once again: Here’s to The “f” word!

Just to finish off the photo-taking metaphor…it will take all that work (and more) to find myself in the Central American rainforest, new Nikon D800 in hand (drool drool), tracking a Quetzalcoatl for National Geographic Traveler.