The Joys of X-Files

Long before there were reality show blow-by-blows, Television Without Pity and even Mighty Big TV, I was recapping “The X-Files” for friends and co-conspirators. I called this little email “X-Files News in Brief” after a newsletter I wrote for Levi’s. With “The X-Files” returning for a six-episode run Jan. 24, I thought I’d dust off this ditty I wrote in 2002, when the show departed the airwaves. At the very least, it will catch you up in time for Sunday’s reboot. (Material not suitable for work.)

THE VERY LAST X-FILES NEWS IN BRIEF*
*At least until the next movie comes out. . .

Yes, gentle readers, “The X-Files” has arrived at the end of its network run. . .As Marita Covarrubias once told Mulder, “Not everything dies.” And so, “The X-Files” will live on in the hearts of fans, in nightly reruns, and soon as a major motion picture franchise, despite Gillian’s insistence that she can’t imagine playing Dana Scully as a senior citizen. Wheelchairs and flashlights? We’ll be there in the first row!. . .To borrow Ten Thirteen’s motto, “I made this” – with a little inspiration from Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. . .Hope it recalls your favorite episodes and highlights the joys of X. . .

A FAREWELL ODE TO “THE X-FILES”

Listen, dear ‘Filers, and you shall grock

This farewell ode to Dana and Fox.

On the tenth of September in Ninety-three,

“The X-Files” debuted on network TV.

Aliens, monsters, paranormal shocks,

Not the usual fare of the idiot box.

 

No one would call you a Girly Girl,

Inhabiting this nightmarish world.

For nine long years you’ve endured such a fright

From freaks ‘n’ geeks that go bump in the night,

Red-eyed mothmen lurking under the bed;

Burger-flippers devouring brains from a head!

Flying saucers that can scorch you into a French fry,

And Flukey and Faster and Tooms, oh my!

 

Fans loved Fox Mulder’s punning reflex,

And watching Wonderbra’d Scully snap on the latex.

But the real truth is, the show made a spark,

From Episode One to Season Number Nine,

With the paranoid thrills the mythology arc

Sent up and down your tingling spine.

Delving into paranoid conspiracy

‘Twas like swimming in porridge;

Each time they solved a mystery,

The government denied knowledge.

 

Down in the basement, Scully met Spooky.

From the first, we knew, she found him quite kooky.

His fringe theories she’d been asked to debunk,

To separate pure science from Fox’s space junk.

But the skeptical redhead began to waver

The night foxy Mulder dashed in to save her

From a yellow-eyed mutant intent on her liver,

Eugene’s cuisine made everyone shiver.

 

Flashlights in hand, off the partners went

To uncover the Litchfield Experiment.

And reveal the secrets of a fallen UFO,

After Deep Throat put them in the know.

Soon doubting Dana no longer had to ask,

Why the paranormal was part of their task.

Her handsome partner was quickly besot,

Like Frohike, he found Scully white hot!

Scully wasn’t Melvin’s only obsession,

Sneezy had dibs on Mulder’s porno collection.

 

With one peek into the Erlenmeyer Flask,

The enemy slowly lifted its mask.

A cunning conspiracy soon laid bare,

The agents knew The Truth is Out There.

 

Season Two saw the X-Files down for the count,

Till Krycek led Fox up to Skyland Mount.

There Duane Barry arranged Dana’s abduction,

Staged to look like an EBE production.

Upon Scully’s return,

The agents would learn

Aliens were here, we had plenty to fear.

The date set for colonization,

Humanity due for extermination.

 

The shows were on fire, the tension got hotter,

Chris Carter certainly was a master plotter.

Though, our favorite outings this sophomore year,

Were the ones about monsters, not alien fear.

Chaco Chicken and Flukeman and “Humbug” were great

And left us wondering, Was it something we ate?

Darin Morgan’s first script turned X into Felini

And then there was Mulder’s itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny red hot Speedo bikini.

 

Season Two ended with a fiery jar,

Mulder stranded in burning boxcar.

Cancer Man lit the fuse, that devilish bomber,

And left us pondering for the rest of the summer,

Whether Mulder’s life he’d managed to erase,

But then, nothing on X-Files disappears without a trace.

 

The black-lunged bastard was in for a surprise,

Killing Agent Mulder doesn’t mean he dies.

Back on the case, Scully in tow,

The most venal man you will ever know

Tipped the special agents where to go.

A dank, dark place with lots and lots of files,

A mine shaft that went on for miles and miles.

It seemed the government had its own plan:

How to survive when shit hit the fan.

 

A new threat arose from the bottomless sea,

Hidden in oil the color of tea.

Mulder escaped the Syndicate’s snare,

Avoiding the fate that was Alex’s share.

The alien plot, Krycek sought to expose,

But spoiler was foiled, oil poured from his nose.

 

Season Three really began to hum,

When Dana and Fox met Jose Chung,

And learned the score from one Clyde Bruckman

That Mulder would die from autoerotic asphyxiation.

How ‘bout those cases of troubled teens?

One rained down lightning on those who were mean.

Two girls who knew how to Carpe P.M.,

A Ronin who sought victims to condemn.

Pusher used his thoughts to control the brain

Scully didn’t believe—her constant refrain—

Cerulean Blue may be like a gentle breeze,

But it ain’t no fun, when your partner has a gun

And he tells you to freeze.

 

The new season shed nary a light

Upon our agents’ perilous fight.

Their latest cases, frankly, were macabre,

Tracking goat-sucking fiends called Chupacabra,

Rattling incestuous rednecks out of their beds,

Searching for Leonard, or one of his heads.

 

In Year Four, we learned little more

About the oily fiend

Slithering onto the scene,

While Russians used Mulder to test their vaccine.

We watched Max’s demise on a wayward flight,

But Max wasn’t alone in deadly plight,

The scariest moment, we must suppose,

Was the cancer found up Scully’s nose.

 

When the curtain rose on Season Five,

Dana Scully was barely alive.

And what of Mulder’s ongoing quest?

A hoax, he was sure, now laid to rest.

No more would he believe in secret UFOs.

His mission: A cure for Scully’s repose.

 

The answer came from a place unexpected,

Cancer had grown when the chip disconnected.

With Dana returned to the fullness of health,

The partners resumed their ventures of stealth.

Trouble found them in a town full of vamps,

Who pulled up stakes on their trailer park camps.

 

Just when Mulder felt no more surprise,

There appeared new aliens without any eyes,

Immolating abductees, a fiery demise,

They seemed to be on a homicidal bender,

Until they encountered Cassandra Spender.

Scully escaped the funeral pyre,

To hear Mulder call her tale the words of a liar,

But soon Fox’s faith would begin to restore,

Once Krycek clued him to the alien war.

The final conundrum: To Resist or Serve?

Fox’s belief never again would swerve.

 

Even more queries the X-Files did raise,

When the agents looked into the case of Gibson Praise.

Was this kid a psychic chess prodigy,

Or Melvin Frohike’s “Mini-Me”?

Turns out the boy had alien DNA,

And so the Syndicate spirited him away.

But which double-dealer had the vaccine?

Would alien invaders discover the scheme?

Is the Syndicate on the side of humanity,

Or evil traitors on the verge of insanity?

Will Fox and Dana learn of the threat?

What do you think? Are we confused yet?

 

When the first reel of the movie unspooled,

The office was closed, the X-Files shut tight,

For our intrepid agents, things didn’t look bright.

But true believers know not to be fooled,

Soon Mulder and Scully would set things aright.

Scully went missing, locked in deep freeze,

While the Syndicate hatched a plot for its bees.

One sting from a hybridized pricker,

Implants a little alien kicker,

Turns an unsuspecting host into jelly,

While baby E.T. grows in its belly.

So Mulder flew to the fortress of ice,

To save dear Dana from evil device.

His reward for being so intrepid?

He finally got to see Dana nekkid.

Scully saw nothing, or so she swore,

Only Fox knew the truth of the alien spore.

 

When X-Files returned from its big-screen premiere,

Things in Hoover building grew even more weird.

Agents Fowley and Spender took over the cases,

Leaving Scully and Mulder in mighty strange places.

For the forces of truth, what could be worse?

Mulder and Scully now reported to Kersh.

With Kersh’s orders would Mulder comply?

Of course not! He spit in the A.D.’s eye.

He snuck under the radar and got into trouble,

When a Man in Black used a time-warp bubble

To become Fox Mulder’s body double.

Morris was sleazy, he macked on Scully,

Her reputation he seemed certain to sully.

Until the time-space warp wefted itself,

And Morris’s life went back on the shelf.

 

In a haunted house, on Christmas Eve,

Scully told Mulder she wanted to leave.

The halls were decked, the night a tradition

Instead the duo were sent to perdition

By suicidal ghosts with a ghastly pact.

But who shot whom? Will we ever know fact?

Was it simply Fox’s paramasturbatory fantasy?

Or murderous spirits in the mood for mystery?

 

Hot on the trail of two missing hikers,

Mulder went looking for little green strikers,

Only to be foiled by psychedelic fungus,

Not, as he thought, aliens among us.

 

Next, an artifact set Fox’s head a-dinging,

Now he was sure, aliens were ringing.

The cause was a chunk of E.T. debris,

Lost on the coast of an African sea,

A spaceship humming on unearthly frequency.

But what were the symbols carved on its skin?

Would Scully find a cure for Mulder within?

If Dana could solve the spacelings’ equation,

Perhaps they could stop the alien invasion!

 

After seven long years, finally an answer;

Fox discovers who really took Samantha.

His sister at peace, her soul among starlight,

Mulder decides to take up a new fight.

 

The latest clue sprang from the very first Files,

Involving the case of abductee Billy Miles.

The alien war has a new footsoldier,

Borne from the chip in young Bill’s shoulder.

The FBI is in on the deception,

But what has this to do with Scully’s conception?

 

Season Eight made us question, Who was the father?

By now, you may wonder, why did fans bother?

Mulder was gone, from this earth he’d been stolen

Only to return, in a condition quite swollen.

Could it be that the death knell had tolled?

Or, simply the way Duchovny acted his role?

 

John Doggett to the X-Files soon was appointed,

How would this play to the X-anointed?

Would fans accept Scully’s new man,

Or treat him as Fox’s also-ran?

Would he be true, or try to deceive her?

Did fans want Scully in the role of believer?

As the season wore down to its inevitable conclusion,

Doggett guarded Dana from creep and contusion.

He found a safe haven to deliver the child,

And kept a straight face in a plot run wild.

 

One thing about shows in the Eighth Season:

Not enough fun, far too much reason.

It left us yearning for Mulder’s puns,

And Darin Morgan’s earlier, funnier ones.

Doggbert kept up a season-long whine

That extended into Year Number Nine.

 

Here’s the story of the final season:

Alien invaders had Fox on the run.

A cover, in fact, for David’s departure

From cult-status show that made him a star.

Leaving John and Monica, our googly-eyed pair,

To investigate the Brady Bunch affair.

And bid adieu to the three Lone Gunmen

Whose heroic deaths stopped bio-Armageddon.

Oh, and there’s the matter of Scully’s son,

Sweet little psychokinetic baby William.

Were the sprite’s powers heaven-sent?

Or birthday gift from the secret government,

To save the world from alien invasion?

Most likely it’s another Carter evasion.

After a decade of clues, tricky to follow,

I hate to admit it, this plot’s too hard to swallow.

 

How will it end? What clues will they leave,

When “Endgame” airs this next Sunday eve?

Will the exit strategy spoil what we know,

For the faithful fans who’ve taped every show?

Fox and Dana deserve a heroes’ farewell,

Not a new rung on the circles of hell.

Will aliens lead us on another goose chase,

Followed by a movie sequel post-haste?

Little to go on, no spoiler to review,

Except for hints in last week’s preview.

One sign is good, should raise all our hopes,

That smiling assassin of night-time soaps,

Greg Sumner, it seems, has Fox on the ropes,

And takes him to task for his Grand Obsession.

X endangered again? Not out of the question.

We’ve watched in awe these last nine years,

Let’s hope the finale allays all our fears.

Whatever Chris Carter may have up his sleeve:

If the Truth is Out There, then I Want to Believe. . .

The Night Before X-Files

X-Files‘Twas the night before X-Files,

And all through the land

Not a creature was stirring,

not even Cancer Man.

 

The cases were filed in their file drawers with care,

In hopes the special agents soon would be there.

But Mulder and Scully were nestled all alone in their beds,

While visions of conspiracies danced in their heads.

 

The agents dreams swarmed with hybridized bees,

and an embrace that was really nothing more than a tease.

And the heroes we’d waited so long to see kiss?

Stung by a bee – postponing our bliss.

 

Barely a year before those same damn bees

Had Skinner scrubbing bathroom floors, down on his knees.

 

The greatest evil doing the duo sought to expose,

Involved Scully’s cancer, the one in her nose.

Then, there was the chip found lodged in her neck,

Which led Mulder to a boxcar and a fiery train wreck.

 

But, trains aren’t the only things that can crash.

A mysterious UFO turned an aircraft to ash.

Amongst the rubble was an old friend named Max,

but little to go on and even fewer facts.

 

It was like Mulder’s trip to the Bermuda triangle,

a foray to find some kind of angle.

But, all Mulder found was a Nazi’s fist,

and a Scully clone who socked him for giving her a kiss.

 

Southward the agents flew, to a factory for chicken,

A gory affair, certain to sicken.

The townspeople wore hideous masks, they wielded sabers,

and dined on a bilious stew made from their neighbors.

 

The next case involved vegetarians.

What a relief!

Til they found suspicious thugs poisoning local beef.

 

Next on our menu of hideous cuisines:

A motley crew of toad-licking teens.

And a monster living high on the hog,

making a meal of Scully’s accessory dog.

 

Then there were villains like Morris and Eddie,

a couple of losers who got to feel heady

When they took Agent Mulder’s body for a spin

and had far more fun than the body Fox was left in.

 

Now you might think these couplets simply a spoof,

But I tell you, I heard him, up on the roof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney Cancer Man came with a bound.

 

He was dressed all in grey from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.

The butt of a Morley he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.

 

His eyes, how they glared! his mouth, how scary!

The end of his cigarette lit up like a cherry!

A simmering menace! A life devoid of mirth,

This man who goes by the name of Raul Bloodworth.

 

He was sallow and smoky – a right bleeper, I said to myself,

And I shivered when I saw him, the evil old elf.

The menace in his eye, and the nod of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had something to dread.

 

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And destroyed all the evidence, then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

 

He sprang to his fleet car, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle,

But I heard him exclaim, e’re he drove out of sight,

“Happy X-Files to all, and to all a good night!”

Book Giveaway to My Wonderful Blog Readers!

No Bad Language Book GiveawayUPDATE: Thank you to all the entrants! The giveaway is now officially closed. Winners and their prizes will be announced soon. 

In appreciation for your kind support during my reading challenge last year, I’m giving away 2 novels and 4 nonfiction books from my Best of 2012 list (and one from my 2011 list) to lucky readers.

Here’s what you have a chance to win:

Fiction

Nonfiction

How to Enter

In the Leave a Reply/Comment section of this post, please tell me:

  • your favorite book of 2012, and
  • which category you’d prefer to win in: fiction or nonfiction

Please include a valid email address or Twitter handle. (These are only so I can contact you if you win. I never use or spam email. If you’re nervous about this, please feel free to connect with me on Facebook, where you can use private email.)

Restrictions

I wish I could include everyone in this giveaway, but:

  • you must be a U.S. resident to enter
  • you must be 18 years of age or older

One entry per person please.

Deadline to Enter

Noon on Monday, January 28, 2013

Details, Details…and Disclaimer

The winners in each category will be selected at random from all valid comments via random.org.

A valid comment includes answers to both questions, a way to contact the commenter via email or Twitter, and belongs to a U.S. resident who is 18 or older.

No Bad Language will pay all costs associated with shipping and handling. Books will be dispatched to winners via the U.S. Postal Service at book rate, which may take up to 5 weeks for delivery.

Copies of Power Questions were kindly donated by one of the authors and his publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The rest of these books were purchased by me as a way to say “Thank You” to you. There is no cost to you; the prize value of each is approximately $15 plus shipping and handling, all paid for by No Bad Language.

Standard disclaimer: Some of these books may contain concepts, descriptions and/or language that could be considered mature in nature. All contents are the creation of the authors; this blog and its owner are not responsible for the material or points of view presented in these books.

If you have questions, please leave a reply below, and I’ll respond as quickly as possible.

Best of luck! Tell your friends!

How to Build a Corporate Culture that Keeps Customers and Employees Smiling

Zappos Shoe Boxes

Zappos shoe boxes. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Say you’re visiting Las Vegas…what’s top of your list of Fun Things To Do?

Mine was: Tour the corporate headquarters of a successful company and learn how it translates its values into exceptional customer service and employee culture.

Okay, so my priorities may be a bit different than yours, but when the company is Internet shoe and fashion sensation Zappos, I leapt at the chance. A couple years ago, I read Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It was interesting to understand his perspective about why a culture, created by employees, works better and has such a strong effect on the bottom line compared to cultures imposed from the top-down.

Zappos Values

Photo by Vickie Bates.

This is a photo-heavy post of our tour, led by the awesome Valerie of the Zappos Insights team, whose motto is “Engage Employees. Wow Customers.”

As you can imagine, I was on board from the get-go, especially when I saw this sign (click on any photo to enlarge), taped to an employee’s cubicle. How great that employees feel so strongly about Zappos Values that they display them.

FYI – here are Zappos’ 10 “Family Core Values”:

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open, Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More with Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

You’ll see most of these Values crop up throughout this post.

The tour focused on customer service and marketing with plenty of culture thrown in for good measure. It’s impossible to separate culture from almost anything Zapponian, as we quickly found out.

The walls, the stairwells, the cubicle jungles (everyone – and I mean everyone – works in a cubicle, as you’ll see) are all painted and decorated by employees. There’s no dress code. There are no rules about personal items on your desk.

Food and drinks are free – and given gratis to thirsty tour-group members – with the exception of certain vending machines, like the Red Bull dispenser, though the money collected through these goes to Operation Smile, a nonprofit that helps children born with cleft lips and cleft palates.

Zappos Hall of Fame

That’s our guide, Valerie, in the Zappos Hall of Fame. Photo by Vickie Bates.

At right, you can see our intrepid guide, the vivacious Valerie, at the start of our tour, in a sort of “hall of fame,” with framed T-shirts that were given to employees when Zappos hit certain milestones. For example, in his book, Hsieh mentions that Zappos had a goal of reaching $1 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2010. They zoomed past the mark in 2008. Hsieh comments:

“Looking back, a big reason we hit our goal early was that we decided to invest our time, money, and resources into three key areas: customer service (which would build our brand and drive word of mouth), culture (which would lead to the formation of our core values), and employee training and development (which would eventually lead to the creation of our Pipeline Team).”

About that customer service…

While there’s a goal of trying to respond to calls within 20 seconds (no one likes to hear endless ringing), there are no requirements about how long customer service reps can talk to callers. That’s right – and the longest call so far? Ten-and-a-half hours, according to Valerie.

Zappos Rrrrr Desk

Problems walk the plank in this department. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Most calls are handled by the regular customer service team members. They’re empowered to make magic happen for customers on the spot without having to escalate the call to someone more senior. Really difficult calls that require research or calming down the rare irate customer go to the “Rrrrrrrrr Desk.” This section is tricked out in pirate booty.

Zappos customer service team members are given time before their lunch breaks to write thank you notes to people they’ve talked to that morning. There are no set talking points, nothing they’re required to say, and they can decorate the cards any way they want. Talk about trust. And what happens when companies trust employees? That’s right: You boost engagement, morale and productivity.

Teams consist of about 12 employees, and they switch teams every six months in an effort to build team and family spirit, said Valerie.

In terms of “walking the talk,” I found it interesting that the white board Zappos uses to record each week’s call totals (see below) also features totals for thank-you cards sent and employee growth and learning classes. I’ve always believed that when you support employees with training, education and skill-building, you help them achieve their own goals, as well as the company’s, and you engage them at the same time. It’s win-win-win.

Zappos Continuous Learning

Zappos call count board and much, much more. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Zappos even offers employees sessions with a certified life coach to establish goals – personal or professional – create a plan for achieving them and receive support and encouragement along the way.

Zappos Coaching

Writing on the wall. Zappos employees express their joy over meeting goals. Photo by Vickie Bates.

One of the moving sights on the tour was this stairwell, where employees shared the goals they’ve achieved and everything they surmounted to get there. Some were about losing weight, gaining confidence, learning new skills. A graffito that really made me say, “Wow!,” mentioned creating an anti-bullying campaign at a child’s school.

I mean, Wow! What a great personal goal, and how cool that a company would care enough to support an employee in its success.

Zappos Monkey Row

Monkey Row at Zappos. Where the senior leaders sit. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Welcome to “Monkey Row,” where the guys who normally wear the monkey suits in a typical corporation sit. No one really dons formal-wear at Zappos, and even the CEO shares cubicle space with the rest of the gang. You can see the red and white “Tony Hsieh” sign in the center of the photograph, behind Valerie.

With something like three tours a day moving through the Zappos hallways, it was amazing at how generous everyone was. Employees twirled noisemakers as we walked through their workspace, cheered, said “Hello,” and basically made us feel warmly welcomed. They answered all questions, were happy to have us take photos, and then gave everyone on the tour a free copy of the beautiful Zappos 2011 Culture Book.

Zappos Culture Book

Yours truly with complimentary copy of the 2011 Zappos Culture Book. Photo by Rochelle Kanoff.

(Get your own free copy here.)

Beyond the daily free tours, Zappos Insights also offers one-on-ones for a small fee, deeper dives at a higher rate, and multi-day boot camps. Why is Zappos so intent on giving away the “secret sauce,” you may ask?

Hsieh discusses that in his book. He says, “Our belief is that our Brand, our Culture, and our Pipeline…are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run.”

“Everything else can and will eventually be copied.”

Basically, he’s happy to share, but he also knows that driving and implementing significant change in corporate culture is not the easiest thing to do. Hsieh believes that “although change can and will come from all directions, it’s important that most of the changes in the company are driven from the bottom up – from the people who are on the front lines, closer to the customers and/or issues.”

Not every company is willing to let that happen.

Zappos Name Tag

Zappos tour name tag. Photo by Vickie Bates.

If you’d like to learn more about the free tours or deeper dives, visit the Zappos Insights website or follow Zappos Insights on Twitter.

A big “thank you” to the Insights Team and Valerie for the fascinating look inside the unique Zappos culture.

Happy 2013!

Dressed up for the holidays: Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Dressed up for the holidays: Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Vickie Bates.

A hearty Thank You to everyone who visited this blog in 2012 – your comments, emails and encouragement have made this a joyous conversation.

Wishing you all good things in the new year, especially with your writing. I hope you enjoy 12 inspired months that make your heart soar.

Lest you think 2013 is a harbinger of bad luck, consider all the wonderful books published in 1913, including:

  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 by Marcel Proust
  • O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  • Roughing It by Mark Twain
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

If I were undertaking a reading challenge in the new year, that might be a great list to start with, along with 1913 poetry collections by Wordsworth and Shelley and adventure stories from the pens of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and L. Frank Baum.

Also appearing 100 years ago were two Bobbsey Twins’ Mysteries and even an account by a Titanic survivor. (If you’re curious, check out a list of 200 books published in 1913 on Goodreads.)

May 2013 be just as prodigious for 21st century authors.

Happy New Year!

The War Over Your Child’s Social Profile

There’s been a lot of talk about revamping the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, originally passed in 1998, to reflect the realities of our social media age.

Many legislators, who voted for the law back when websites were a new thing, want to give COPPA more teeth. This includes updates to ensure social, apps, mobile and gaming platforms – and anything else developers might launch in the future – are clearly specified under its rubric. And they want to incorporate a no-tracking rule to tighten regulations around the collection of personal information from children.

On the other side of No Man’s Land are the companies that seem to define social networking. You’ll hear their concerns couched in terms like “education,” “more targeted services,” even “First Amendment rights,” but underlying the lobbying efforts to defang COPPA is one thing: Money.

Signing Up the iGeneration

With 20 million tweens in the United States wielding $40 billion in spending power, plus the ability to influence the purchases of their parents, businesses – from movie studios to record labels to clothing and toy manufacturers – want to target this demographic.

Tweens are generally pegged between 7 or 8 years old and 12 or 13. (I’m using “tweens” somewhat generally, however the social networks lobbying against COPPA have yet to define, at least publicly, an age group or limit for the under-13s they want to target.)

The tween demographic is “hyper trend-aware,” according to Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer for The Center for Generational Kinetics, a marketing firm. And social networks, which make their money from aggregating information in social profiles and selling it to marketers, advertisers and app developers, are hyper-aware of the profits to be made from tapping into the demographic data of the iGeneration. They’re willing to spend money to make even more down the line.

Facebook has doubled its investment in lobbying this year ($650,000 in Q1 alone) and, in 2011, started a political action committee that donates to representatives on committees that oversee technology issues.

Google, the search giant and developer of Facebook competitor Google+, is also active in the halls of the House and Senate, while Microsoft, founder of Bing, has been lobbying in D.C. for years. Similar efforts are under way in state legislatures.

COPPA and the Cyberbullies

One goal of social network lobbying is to relax requirements set out in COPPA that deal with advertising and other business practices aimed at children, including the collection of information. COPPA defines a child as “an individual under the age of 13.”

The law places the burden on online services – whether they’re websites, social or gaming networks, or mobile platforms – to ensure certain safeguards are in place, including:

  • posting policies regarding the confidentiality of information collected on the site;
  • securing parental permission before gathering data from children;
  • ensuring parents have reasonable access to children’s data;
  • allowing parents to delete data; and
  • restricting the sale of data collected from children without parental consent.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg signaled his intent to take on COPPA “at some point” in a keynote at the 2011 NewSchools Summit.

“My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young age,” Zuckerberg added.

In response to these comments, technology journalist Audrey Watters, on the Edutopia website, posed several interesting questions: “Do we need better legislation about online privacy or do we need better education (or both)? After all, it’s pretty clear that children under 13 want to be – and already are – on sites like Facebook.”

Are the Kids Alright?

Facebook and other social networks do have established processes for removing unauthorized and underage users (some 20,000 a day, according to Facebook). They guard against and quickly delete offensive content and images. And, as PC World notes, Facebook has tighter privacy controls for its teenage members:

“Users between the ages of 13 and 17 get what Facebook’s privacy policy calls a ‘slightly different experience.’ Minors do not have public search listings created for them when they sign up for Facebook, meaning their accounts cannot be found on general search engines outside of Facebook.”

But, children have a way of circumventing such controls – much like kids 40 years ago snuck in to theaters to see films they were considered too young for.

Recent research, by Consumer Reports, finds that 7.5 million children under 13 use Facebook despite being below the official age limit for creating a profile (5 million of those kids are 10 or younger).

“Kids are already doing it” isn’t a particularly strong justification for deflating COPPA. Educating children on the use of social platforms, how to protect their privacy, safeguard themselves from online predators, and ignore the constant bombardment of advertising – certainly, it’s a module that could be added to the packed curricula at grade schools and middle schools. But, we know already that the majority of time kids spend online and on Facebook doesn’t happen during school hours nor is it supervised by parents or teachers.

Facebook especially has shown time and again that it doesn’t respect the privacy of adult users, fessing up only when caught. For this, the social network is subject to a 20-year order by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “agreeing to regular privacy audits to resolve complaints it misled users by making some data public by default without adequate notice,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

But Facebook isn’t alone. Literally as I was writing this, stories began circulating that Google would agree to a $22.5 million settlement with the FTC – reportedly the largest ever against a single company – in order to “put to rest charges that it violated iOS users’ privacy by intentionally bypassing the built-in privacy controls in Apple’s Safari Web browser so Google could track their browsing habits,” according to Digital Trends.

This is one of the reasons the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, a proposed amendment to COPPA, attracted strong bipartisan support.

“Facebook and Google have earned the scrutiny they’ve received,” states Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in the May 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “Social Network Pumps Up Lobbying.” “I see privacy as an ongoing question for Facebook that is not going to be solved by lobbyists and PR experts.”

What Are We Fighting For?

Finally, the most cogent argument against efforts to weaken COPPA is that the law doesn’t ban social networks, like Facebook, from having under-13s as members.

So, what’s the deal?

It is, in fact, Facebook’s choice to impose an age limit because more controls equal less data, and the company wants to be free to collect and sell as much data as possible from its approximately 900 million users. This is Facebook’s prerogative; and Facebook members agree to this transaction with their personal data when they sign up for accounts and every time they provide status updates or click “Like.”

Parents, however, may prefer to keep safeguards in place when their children’s personal data is at stake and for sale.

What do you think about the debate over COPPA? Is it a matter of educating children about privacy and the commercial aspects of social networks? Do laws need to change as new media evolves?

Note: Specifics of COPPA in this post are drawn from Robert McHale’s excellent new book, Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business. McHale offers a more nuanced and detailed discussion of the original law and the 2000 Children’s Online Privacy Rule in his chapter on social advertising.

6 Tips to Get the Most Out of Social Media Conferences

My new business cards surrounded by some of the dozens I’ve collected at BlogHer ’12.

Day One of BlogHer ‘12 is almost over. Here are a few tips I was reminded of today to help anyone learn more, network effectively and engage like a pro at social media and other professional conferences:

1) Break Out of Your Introvert/Extrovert Mold – I’ve written here before about my extreme introversion. Being an introvert isn’t the same as being shy; it has more to do with how much input you can take before you need to recharge your batteries in a quiet, secluded place.

Conferences present constant social and information overload for us “I” types. Normally, this much input makes introverts retreat into their shells or hide behind their smartphones. I’ve spotted a few of us today. Here’s the thing (and I say this with love), when we give off the Don’t Approach vibes, when we Cold Shoulder, when we give tablemates the Silent Treatment, it tends to make fellow conferees uncomfortable. Sure, it’s not our intention, but we risk being branded as standoffish, and we lose out on opportunities, like networking, meeting potential brand sponsors for our blogs, and hearing about job openings.

I have no idea what it’s like to be a social butterfly, but in the interest of equal time, if you’re drawn to the parties and after-parties at conferences, maybe this time set aside the final night for your Little Black Dress. On the first day(s) of the conference, take your social skills to the early morning networking breakfasts. Your extroverted self will shine like a star and, for the rest of the day, you’ll discover what it’s like to attend panels without a hangover. Who knows? You might learn something you otherwise would’ve missed while sawing logs at the post-lunch session.

2) Find a New Posse to Hang With – A VP at a former job was generous in sending her team to professional development conferences. She had one request: We couldn’t eat lunch with our colleagues. We had to wander the luncheons like nomads and join a table of complete strangers, network and learn and share. Long before social media – or the Internet – she understood the value of engaging. Sure, it was risky. We could have networked ourselves into new jobs for competing companies. But there was an equal or greater chance we’d return renewed and inspired and share what we’d learned, improving our own campaigns as a result.

3) Zip It – There’s an unfortunate trend among conference-goers that involves talking almost nonstop through sessions. There’s no question: This is utterly rude and disrespectful to the speakers and everyone else who’s paid a significant amount of money to listen and learn.

People who don’t have the capacity to sit silently through a 90-minute talk don’t belong there. Sure, there’s that last-minute presentation that needs to be multitasked during a panel discussion or the babysitter who has to be able to call no matter what you’re doing. Be graceful enough to recognize that this behavior is disruptive (and never, ever argue when someone asks you to be quiet). That work project, that ringing cellphone, that gossip about a brand that wants to sponsor your blog? As important as they seem, they’re relevant to you and you alone. Gather your things and leave as unobtrusively as possible, even if you just need to take a short phone call.

Conferences are places where you’re expected to bring your best professional self – along with basic manners. Manners aren’t some outmoded ideal, they’re about demonstrating respect for yourself and those around you. When you share your best self, you’ll find you’re the recipient of networking opportunities you never dreamed of.

4) Get Carded – Like a lot of BlogHer attendees, I got all hepped up about creating a new business card for the conference. You give away stacks of these babies at an event like this, and collect just as many.

Some are all business; many as glib as punchlines; others wonders of design. We spend hours fretting over how to present our personal brand, company offerings and blog personalities.

But, after I’d handed out a bunch, I realized I’d blown it. I’d shared my blog URL, my tagline, skill sets and contact info. What I should have done was talk about what I or my blog could do for others. Note the subtle distinction: I assumed I had the WIIFY covered by listing my skills like this: writing, social media, corporate communications.

What the people I’m meeting are really wondering, though, isn’t “What can you do?,” but “What can you do for me?” or “How can we work together?” or “Why should I take the time to read your blog?”

That requires more than a list of professional capabilities. It demands language that says something like: “I help writers develop confidence in their own writing skills.”

5) Learn Something Completely Unexpected – We were reminded today at the newbie breakfast that it can be more beneficial and inspiring to attend a session on a topic you know nothing about, that takes you out of your comfort zone, that throws you in with people whose ideas, skills and ways of working are nothing like your own.

You may feel lost, challenged, afraid someone will call on you, lonely, and/or confused, but you’ll emerge thinking about things in new ways and feeling renewed when you return to your own area of expertise.

6) Practice Real-World Engagement – All of these tips are about real engaging, not the type done behind laptops and mobile devices. They’re about approaching these amazing opportunities with your head up, hand extended, ears open, and eyes ready to make contact. They’re about intellectual and emotional connection.

Social media folks already spend enough time glued to the glowing screen. A conference is our chance to embrace and practice engagement for real. Who knows what exciting connections we’ll make in the process?

Bonus tip: If you’re attending a conference in Manhattan in the summer, don’t stand too close to buildings. Look up at almost any edifice, and you’ll notice a sea of air conditioners protruding from windows on every floor. Now you know where those mysterious drops of water come from when the sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky…

Then the Grammar Gremlins Grumbled

I promised to share examples of grammar errors, especially the ones that trip me up (or out). Please feel free to let me know if you find them useful and to share your favorite grammar gremlins, as well.

Thender confusion
Oh, the pain! The unbearable pain! You’d think I had an impacted fang.

I received a new social media book to review, and right there in the Foreword (not “Forward”), before I’d even reached the numbered pages, was this glaring example of misuse (names withheld to protect the doomed):

“If the embodiment of advertising in physical space is Times Square, than the physical embodiment of social media is a crowded market filled with multiple conversations, debates, announcements, deals, transactions, barters, and yes – networking.”

We’ve all seen “than” used when “then” is called for, but mainly online, in hurried bursts of texting or commenting in forums. Occasionally, I’ve seen it in digital journals. But, this is the first time I’ve caught it committed to print, in a hardcover book, and purportedly penned by the executive vice president of a top-drawer PR firm. (I say “purportedly” because it’s younger folks, who’ve grown up with this misusage, who tend to suffer then/than confusion. So, it’s possible that the Foreword was ghostwritten for the EVP by someone with more familiarity with digital media than grammar, and then went without a proper proofreading.) Either way, last time I checked, a solid understanding of the English language was a prerequisite for jobs in PR.

That was then.

Now, apparently, you can rise to the very top of your division without knowing that “then” is the adverb and “than” a conjunction.

According to the American Heritage DictionaryThen means:

  1. At that time.
  2. Next in time, space, or order; immediately afterward.
  3. In addition; moreover; besides.
  4. As a consequence; therefore.

Than is a conjunction used to introduce the second element or clause of an unequal comparison.

Then (i.e., therefore): She is a bigger fan of “Twilight” than I. But, I am a bigger fan of grammar than the EVP of [NAMELESS PR FIRM].

Hardly and scarcely vs. no sooner
That EVP shouldn’t feel so bad; I learned this one today. Glad I looked it up before using the wrong word. There’s the rub: It’s the commitment to continuous learning that keeps us on the grammatical track.

This is a good one to follow then/than confusion.

I’ll let Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, explain why:

“Watch your whens and thans with these. Use when with hardly and scarcely: We had hardly begun to cook when the smoke alarm went off. Or: We had scarcely begun to cook when the smoke alarm went off. Use than with no sooner: No sooner had we begun to cook than the smoke alarm went off.

Who’s that?
Which of the following sentences is correct?

When the attorney general didn’t get back to us, we called Senator Parthenon’s office, who has an interest in cyberterrorism.

Our dog, Charlie, who hadn’t felt well enough to play all week, is now in the yard chasing a rabbit.

I expected the third person that walked through the doors of the “Star Trek” convention to be dressed as a Klingon.

Sorry, that was a trick question. Each of these sentences abuses the rules regarding relative pronouns, which include: who, whose, that, which and what.

I’ll admit, when I encounter problems with relative pronoun usage, I get a bit batty. That’s when I turn to The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed.

As author Karen Elizabeth Gordon notes, “Who refers only to persons…which refers only to animals and to inanimate, unmoving things.” That can be used for animals or objects.

So, while Senator Parthenon may be keen to prosecute cyberterrorists, his office is an inanimate object (no matter how many aides scurry around inside that office, getting the nation’s business done). If you want to use who with this sentence, then you’ll want to rewrite it like this:

When the attorney general didn’t get back to us, we called Senator Parthenon, who has an interest in cyberterrorism.

You love ol’ Charlie, and it’s hard to refer to him as which or that, especially when he doesn’t feel up to his old tricks after gobbling the entire lasagna you’d planned to serve for dinner. Perhaps a better way of handling this sentence is to retrain it, like this:

Our dog, Charlie, was sick all week, but now he’s in the yard chasing a rabbit.

Good grammarians know that The Transitive Vampire applies to Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi and Borg, as well as Star Fleet graduates. Type this corrected version into your tricorder:

I expected the third person who walked through the doors of the “Star Trek” convention to be dressed as a Klingon.

Live long and prosper, and may your grammar go boldly…

Reading Lessons from Our Dads

Did you hear NPR’s beautiful interview with Alice Ozma, author of The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, and her dad, Jim? It ran last year, timed for Father’s Day.

Reading was an important family tradition for them – one that started when Alice was a little older than that classic image of parent-child reading moments. The lovely thing about traditions is that you can start them at any time; it’s the meaning they hold for you that makes them precious memories, not the length of time you’ve been celebrating them.

Was reading a tradition in your family? Since this is Father’s Day, what books did your dad introduce you to? Or did he impart a general love of reading?

My father was around for only two years of my life and then he was off traveling the world for many years. Before he left, he introduced me to and read to me from A.A. Milne (possibly his personal favorite) and Potter (Beatrix, this was a few years before Harry was born). One of the few family photos he kept from this time is a faded image of me, propped on his knee, while he read Squirrel Nutkin or something similar.

By the time he was gone, I was already an avid reader, enabling contact with my faraway father through the post cards he mailed from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and New Zealand, which is where he was born and grew up. In that way, he introduced me to the rest of the world and an interest in travel and other cultures, and the way to quench that thirst for knowledge was through reading.

It was my stepfather, though, who had the more profound influence on my life as a young reader. He arrived when I was 8 and, as stepparents can do, had an effect on the mood and culture of our family, which unexpectedly turned conservative.

My stepfather had grown up during the Depression, and his family lost everything. As a result, he applied himself to his studies, went to work younger than most his age, and, unlike his classmates, when he got into Yale, had to put himself through with several jobs. Understandably, he appreciated everything he earned and everything he learned.

His conservative outlook applied to all things except reading. He was intellectually curious, a devout reader, and encouraged an eclectic reading taste in me. At 8, I was already used to being able to read anything in the house, whether intended for children or adults, and this he never discouraged, adding his own books to our collection.

In the decade before his death, it was a relief and a joy to discover my stepfather and I had reached an accord, and the common ground was created by a love of reading and the ideas that sprang from books. We shared interests through authors – me supplying him with books by Stewart Edward White, whose adventure stories he’d grown up reading; he sending along the latest John McPhee tome.

My father and I were not able to declare peace, though I did spend the last few weeks of his life with him. It was clear there would be no resolution, so we shared time in each other’s company, looking at picture books of New Zealand. On the desk was a thick volume, C.S. Lewis’ complete Chronicles of Narnia. It was something my dad had always wanted to read, but never got round to and no longer had the strength to pursue. And so, in his last hours, when every breath was a struggle, I read to him of Narnia, in hopes that a familiar voice could help somehow on that final journey.