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Engagement: A Philosophical Problem in the Age of Social Media

First, let me say this. My enthusiasm for writing about tech waned a bit when a piece of garbage killed two innocent people and made me watch it, unwittingly, live on Twitter. So I stopped posting.

Maybe I’m back. Maybe I’m not.

I’ve been thinking, though. 

We have a problem with “engagement,” in an epistemological sense.

The only metrics we have to measure this ephemeral concept in the face of the imponderable information glut known as the Internet are clicks and page views. But those don’t give any insight into the process of constructing meaning, the incorporation of information and platforms into our daily lives. They are mindless, meaningless measurements. The fascination with big data seems willfully oblivious to the fact that “data” fails to capture the ultimate fact that real people are actually living their lives inside social media.

This is not trivial. How then can we come at the issue of measuring meaningful engagement in such a way as to render actionable insight?

Consider this example. Let’s say I have 400 followers on Twitter. 20 of them are close friends with whom I share a history of inside jokes, one of which involves a reference to Lumburg from the movie “Office Space.” I post a meme to Twitter with Lumburg saying, “That would be great.” Only those 20 close friends would get the reference is specifically about my boss.

With me so far?

Ok, that leaves 380 other followers who might potentially see the tweet. Of those, many are likely to have seen the movie, and they might enjoy the meme on its own humorous terms; they know the movie and think it is funny. The remaining followers who haven’t seen the movie don’t get anything of value from the tweet: they don’t know the inside joke, nor the broader funny reference to the movie.

Now let’s look at the numbers. After I post the tweet with the meme, I check the “engagement” numbers and see that the post has been viewed 10 times after an hour.

What impact have I had? What meaning have I imparted?

It is possible that all 10 views were the intended audience, my close friends, and they all laughed and had a gay ol’ time. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that those 10 views were people who hadn’t even seen the movie and were left scratching their heads for two seconds before moving on to the next confusing string of 140 characters.

The problem is the undifferentiated nature of these engagements.

In turn, this leads to a back door discussion of content creation, which, on Twitter, often takes the form of a reply tweet. If one of my friends replies to my tweet and says, “You killed it, bro! Grandin Republic, you are the funniest human being I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing,” well then, I can fairly accurately gauge the impact of my post. Retweets are less helpful, and a Like even less so, but they nevertheless imbue the engagement with some modicum of value in the form of feedback; I know the tweet was more than merely seen, I know it was appreciated (somehow…but how, exactly) and by whom.

But again, that is a sidebar. There is obvious content in a conversation. Yet so little of the social media chatter announces itself in such a helpful way means that such an example is not instructive.

No, the issue is not learning when you’ve properly engaged your audience, but rather if you even have at all.

This is the nature of all communication, and it’s corollary, miscommunication. Yet social media clouds the issue, obfuscating the nature of understanding with cloak of “engagement.” WE CAN ALLOW OURSELVES TO BELIEVE WE ARE CONNECTING EVEN WHEN WE ARE NOT.

This is true for interpersonal communication, but my point here is that it is also true for our local start-up community. The risk of self-delusion is high.

And so let’s talk about self-delusion in our next installment, shall we? I’m tired of typing on my dang phone (pardon any typos), plus it is 4:20, so…you know that means…

Almost time for Xpo Wednesday, y’all.

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#Xpo2015, Day Two

Here’s your recap: placemaking, gentrification, karaoke. 

I felt the day was a little slow, to be honest. Low key. You spend all day sitting in an uncomfortable banquet chair, you want a bit of voltage in your speakers, y’know?

But last year’s Day Three was the best of the conference, so I’m ready for something special to happen today.

Let’s get to it.

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“The Zookeeper’s Boy,” MEW

You’re in the mood to be startled and confused by some Danish soft metal?

Yeah, ok, I can help you with that:


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An End to Confusion

My last post –  more specifically, the title of the post – caused a bit of confusion for at least one reader. General life experience tells me that if one person feels it necessary to ask for an explanation, then confusion is widespread, so let me splain.

I titled the post “A Start-Up Solution: Lawyers, Guns, & Money.” In turn, I got back the question, “Where is the part about the guns?”


In my defense, I actually did try to add a “strike” HTML tag to the the word GUNS in the post header, and in preview it looked like it worked. But it didn’t publish that way.

You should have seen this: A Start-Up Solution: Lawyers, Guns, & Money.

So that’s my bad, y’all.

My bigger bad was thinking the reference was obvious. Isn’t everyone a Warren Zevon fan?

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Update: WeEvolveUs

Short and sweet: Roanoke-based WeEvolveUs will exit invite-only Alpha and open to the public on May 8th.

Now ya know.

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“Hey dude, you hungry?”


Nom nom nom…

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Welcome, Redditors!

Hi. Thanks for stopping by.

I have wanted to tell you this for a long time. You see, I’m a longtime lurker, and I have seen a disturbing trend over the past couple of years on r/roanoke. Here’s how it plays out:

Somebody from out of town says, “hey, I’ve never been to Roanoke but I’m coming to town for a job interview/hiking excursion/whatever…what should I do when I’m in town?”

And invariably somebody answers, “you HAVE to go to Texas Tavern and get a cheesy Western with!”

Stop saying this.

Texas Tavern is awful.

It is a local institution, and for folks who live here, fine. Go and support a local business, even a gross one.

But a visitor? Somebody who might have only one meal in Roanoke? You really want them to go eat a parboiled .015 ounce hamburger with egg and relish on it? 

Do me a favor, go put some pickles on your scrambled eggs.

Sound good? No. And it isn’t.

So please stop giving visitors who don’t know better such awful advice.

But again, thanks for visiting!

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Innovation Districts: SHOCKING Revelations!

A cool Venn diagram, courtesy of the Brookings Institue

A cool Venn diagram, courtesy of the Brookings Institue

I’ve been promising a piece about innovation districts for several days on Twitter, but there’s a problem: though this is a fertile subject, I’m interested in it, and I have some things to say about it, the issue is that it isn’t really a good topic for a blog purporting to be about the Roanoke Valley. The whole reason I decided to start writing about the start-up culture that exists here is precisely because we are so different, yet I couldn’t find anyone talking about our deficits and our strengths as a self-sustaining start-up ecosystem. One of the key pieces to unlocking our potential is understanding how successes elsewhere could be replicated here, but also which experiments should be avoided.

So, as I’ve been doing my research, centered on Boston, I kept coming to the conclusion that I was really trying to shoehorn Roanoke into a conversation in which it had no real business.

  • Boston has an MSA population of nearly five million; we cover a much larger geographical area and still barely crack 300,000.
  • Boston has Harvard, MIT, Babson, Boston College, Tufts; we have Virginia Western Community College and Virginia Tech’s medical school.
  • Boston is world-renowned as a center of business and banking; Roanoke is the center of business and banking for Southwest Virginia.

Roanoke isn’t very much like Boston, to put it mildly. Still, it could make sense to replicate the innovation district concept on a population-adjusted scale (Boston’s innovation district is 1,000 acres) IF we had all of those ingredients listed in the Venn diagram above. We don’t; we lag behind significantly in capital investment, even on an adjusted per capita basis.

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. An innovation district is simply a dedicated space to encourage interactions between doers and financiers, and for such a small city we do pretty well at that. I’m thinking here of the growing number of conferences and events, put on by the likes of the RBTC and CoLab – or TechPad in Blacksburg – in order to put interesting people into the same room, just to see what happens. After all, start-up culture is supposedly the antithesis of staid, brick-and-mortar commerce; instead, it is a state of mind, thinking outside the box and trying new things. In that regard, we are building something kind of cool here in the Blue Ridge mountains, even without an innovation district.

We’ll see where it goes.

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We are TEAM RAIN #thunder #lightning

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Lawyers: A Primer

Caring and compassionate attorney, beard game for days

A caring and compassionate attorney.

The reality for most tech start-ups is that they won’t ever need a tech-focused attorney. Just because you’ve built an app doesn’t mean you need an App Lawyer. Still, even though the majority of your questions and concerns are going to involve good old fashioned business law issues, you may prefer to talk to a lawyer who better “speaks your language,” and lucky for you we have some ’round here who claim to do so.

You may be asking yourself, “when do I need a lawyer?” In turn, a lawyer is going to tell you that if you are asking that question, you already need one. If you want peace of mind, sure, consult a lawyer for any and every question, just remember they charge by the tenth of the hour (that means they bill in six minute increments). Lawyers get paid to handle details that you can’t or don’t want to handle yourself, so while you are paying for their time, you are also buying back your own time in the process. Be judicious in your use of your lawyer (be prepared with smart, direct questions before calling) and you’ll be fine. Also, be sympathetic: their job is much, much more boring than yours…you are basically paying them to do your homework for you. Does that sound fun?

So without (much) further ado, here are your Roanoke-Blacksburg-NRV Legal All-Stars, Tech Division! (A bit more ado: in truth, this is just a list of local attorneys claiming some sort of tech experience, not an endorsement of their legal skills; also, please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, these are just some names to begin your search).

Gentry Locke The list has to start with Gentry Locke, as they are the biggest law firm in town. Accordingly, they probably have the highest rates. But if you want the security of having a big, powerful law firm on your side, these are the folks to call. Also, unlike a lot of firms that generally list IP or Business amongst their services, Gentry Locke also specifically touts experience with Software & Technology (and for a law firm, their site is pretty cool).

Woods Rogers The list has to include these guys second, as they are the second biggest firm in town. How would you pick between Woods and Gentry? Why are we pretending this is a legit question for you to ask? Until you get a call from Mark Zuckerberg inquiring about an acquisition, save your money…there are cheaper legal options.

Also, if you want to know the name of another big firm that you shouldn’t bother considering, there is LeCairRyan. Not bothering to provide a link. They are headquartered in Richmond and have offices everywhere, including a smallish outpost in Roanoke.

Ready for something different? How about Mitchell Law? Jeff Mitchell is a sole practitioner in Blacksburg who is “passionate about working with emerging growth companies.” He also has a twitter presence. Seems to be into baseball.

Ugh. Can we be done now? I came up with this long ass list of attorneys, but writing up notes for all these guys…alright, one more. Creekmore is similar to Mitchell Law: they are based in Blacksburg and court start-ups. However, the team is larger, and they have an art gallery or something in their office.

God, what an onerous task I set for myself. But I’ve written this much, might as well post it. I hope this is helpful, but it probably isn’t.

If you think there is a firm that should be listed, put it in a comment, and I’ll see about putting them in a follow-up post.


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