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Sunday, March 28th, 2010

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Something "catchy" ...
The concept of a “viral” expansion is very common in the world of the Internet (although I'm not so sure how well established it is in the quasi-Luddite worlds which aren't obsessively online), with things like videos (often inexplicably) suddenly bursting from well-deserved obscurity to attain millions of views from every corner of the planet. Those in the web professionally have spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out the how/why/what dimensions of this, and, of course, marketers have invested large sums of money to try to replicate this sort of attention for projects featuring their products and services!

An associate of mine (whose site I helped build from a loose collection of “niche” web presences floating around on free web hosts to a social media platform in the Alexa 100k last summer), gave me a copy of Adam L. Penenberg's Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves to help me come to grips on some of the issues we were having to deal with in relation to that project (like “How could we have so much traffic and user minutes but so little ad revenue?”).

In this the concept of “viral” is directly addressed, which expresses itself mathematically as a “viral coefficient”, which is how many people one person will introduce the site, product, or concept to … a figure below 1 indicates low growth, a figure of 1 has slow growth, eventually stalling, but something that has a coefficient above 1 will eventually exhibit exponential growth, with figures as low a 1.2 quickly exploding up the graphs.

This is not, however, a math book. It is, frankly, more of a history of companies which have (or have not) had this sort of growth. One is tempted to think this has been solely a product of the Internet Age, but the near-instantaneous global reach has only super-charged the underlying functions of viral growth, and the book reflects this by first looking at companies like Tupperware in the 50's, and even to the somewhat related model created by the notorious Charles Ponzi in 1919/20. Of course, the dynamics which drove the growth of these examples found extreme expression when the Web came into the equation, and the book looks at many who won, lost, and rode assorted waves (it is amazing how many of these companies have been developed serially by a core group of entrepreneurs).

The dynamics of companies that have “gone viral” are picked apart here, and the concept of a “viral loop” introduced … of particular interest is this list of “Shared Characteristics of Viral Loop Companies”: Web-based … Free … Organizational technology … Simple concept … Build-in virality … Extremely fast adoption … Exponential growth … Virality index … Predictable growth rates … Network effects … Stackability … Point of nondisplacement … Ultimate saturation. Obviously, most of these concepts need the level of explanation that's given in the book (for instance, “Stackability” is the way that one viral company can piggyback on another, in the way that PayPal grew through the already viral eBay), so I won't try to even thumbnail all of those here.

Again, while there is quite a lot of theory in Viral Loop, the examples are always anchored to specific companies, and individuals, so this phases back and forth between a book about virality in general, and a historical document (having lived through the early evolution of the Web myself, I found it fascinating to “have a program” with all the players and their roles detailed!) which tracks the development of the viral model over the past couple of decades. Social media (much covered in this space of late) is only the latest manifestation of what these dynamics produce, and it's interesting to ponder where this all will be going next.

Viral Loop is a relatively recent release (last year), so it's likely to be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor if they have much business or internet product available. Amazon has it at about 1/3rd off of cover, and the new/used guys have new copies that you could get for under ten bucks (including shipping), so it's pretty painlessly available. If you have a more professional or technical interest in things in the Social Media sphere, this is likely something that you should be adding to your “to be read” pile!

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Not the end of the world?
Here's another deal snagged from that B&N.com after-after-after-holiday sale … which is sort of a two-for-one, as it's both something of a comedy book, and it's something that I can feature in The Job Stalker as a career book! Such a deal. Now, as I've pointed out previously, getting stuff for $2/copy tends to eliminate some filters, and, generally speaking, these books are not things that I sought out, so going in on them I don't have any major expectations, so it's a bonus when I find myself being enthusiastic about one of these, after the reading.

Fired!: Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, and Dismissed is listed as being “written and edited” by Annabelle Gurwitch, but this is primarily a collection of other people's stories, so I get the impression that “collected and edited” would probably be closer to the truth, except for the section she contributes on her own experiences, and the introductory essays (and, I suppose the identifying paragraphs that follow most of the 55 entries).

This is, as one could gather from the subtitle, the stories of people who have been fired from various jobs, covering a wide array of situations from high-profile editorial posts to the unhappy characters who got fired mere hours into menial jobs. Gurwitch is an actress/writer and most of the tales here were evidently collected through entertainment industry contacts. There are a few “famous” names adding tales of their career mishaps … Bill Maher, Tim Allen, Bob Saget, Harry Shearer, and even non-comics such as Robert Reich (Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration).

Most of these are reminiscences of youthful false-starts, although a few are about very visible public flame-outs (such as Saget's getting pushed off the CBS Morning Program), and being fired by the truly famous (Gurwitch's own termination by her idol, Woody Allen, or an ad agency gal who managed to be fired by Leona Helmsley three times). They range from one-page e-mail responses to five-page essays, with a couple of interviews, a recipe, and even a song (with full sheet music).

The book is organized in five sections, “The Job So Terrible You Can Only Hope to Be Fired”, “The Firing You Didn't See Coming”, “The Time You Deserved to Be Fired”, “The Time Getting Fired Leads You to Something Better”, and “The Time You Had to Fire Yourself” … with a dozen or so pieces in each, giving the book something of a flow (as opposed to the “type” of firing being randomly distributed through the book). However, one added piece serves to give this a slight whiff of gravitas, a “fired fact” add-on to most of these, which serves to put some hard numbers to trends drifting through the stories. Here's one head-scratcher from these:

Percentage of workers satisfied with their jobs earning less than $15,000 a year: 17.
Percentage of workers satisfied with their jobs earning more than $50,000 a year: 14.
Percentage of workers who would like to fire their boss: 20.
Because on one level Fired! is somewhat of an “insiders joke” for the entertainment industry, the humor used can get a bit raunchy, best exemplified by the awesome line in Dana Gould's piece: “Over the years I had my hand in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist.” … showing the wit that eventually landed him a job as a writer/producer with The Simpsons.

As one might expect, given the bargain price at which I obtained my hardcover copy, this particular edition of Fired! is out of print, although available from the new/used guys for as little as a penny used and as little as a buck new … but it's also now in a paperback reprint via BN.com (Amazon doesn't seem to list that one). If you're looking for a way to help yourself or a friend through an “involuntary separation” experience, this could be a great way to raise the spirits. This is no earthshaking tome of career revelations, but it is a very interesting and engaging look at how many people (several quite familiar) had to deal with these sort of challenges!

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