Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Dragonfly Effect - Book Review

My favorite thing to do is read fiction. Left to my own devices, I'd walk the dogs and read novels for most of my waking hours (leaving time to try to change the world for the better also, of course). For the last few months I've been a member of an online book club - The Rumpus Book Club - that provides members with new fiction one month in advance of general release and interviews with the authors. But its best feature is an online discussion group that is a weird hybrid of the best literature seminar I took in college, a global conversation about babies, beer, and bad T-shirts, and the conversation at the cafe that you can't help but eavesdrop on.

This is all by way of saying that I'm a bit of a literary snob. Reading business books may just be the death of me. Once upon a time their thoroughly scripted format might have helped convey the messages they contained, but now the formula is so familiar as to be hackneyed and obstructive. Who decided that all good ideas must  be simplified into bullet point lists to which a cute name can be applied? Or that smart insights about the changing nature of nonprofits and commerce need to be set aside in a text box? Or that the reader will not be able to understand a concept unless the author includes a 2 x 2 matrix to explain it? Really, no one interested in changing the world is so overtaxed as to need this many "scanning" devices. I understand the pressure - you write a 200 page book knowing that your reader is likely to skim it quickly at best. Give them lots of visuals, lots of catchy nicknames, and then hope the ideas stick - don't worry about prose or storytelling.*

In the case of The Dragonfly Effect the weight of the business book format holds back the ideas. There are some important insights about how social media works and the difference between different platforms for different messages.  The authors, a marketing professor at Stanford and her consultant co-author/husband, know their stuff. The examples of how various campaigns are managed, the staff resources required, and the learned differences between tools (twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs) offer really useful information. Plus, they tell the truth about social media gone bad.

The authors are also smart about the similarities and differences between social media strategies for marketing and for social causes. They lay out tactics, reasonable expectations and the use of metrics for manageable the campaigns. In other words The Dragonfly Effect is useful. Its cute name comes from the fact that dragonflies can move in any directions as long as all of their four wings are moving in concert. They use the metaphor well - integrating tools and tactics, be clear on the direction you want to go, and make sure each individual piece (wing) is functioning and social media can help you get there. (Regardless of what Malcolm Gladwell thinks).

So maybe it's unfair to be so cranky about the required business book format of The Dragonfly Effect. And maybe I should just be glad to have so much fiction stored on my bookshelves that I can always escape there for good prose and a decent story. And, no doubt, a lot of this crankiness is a result of my own multiple writing projects - all of which have me in a funk that will be familiar to any writer anywhere. OK, I'll cop to that.

I think The Dragonfly Effect could be so much better if it had burst the bounds of this form, lived life as a really compelling set of blog posts, lectures, workshops, and/or slide decks. Because the ideas in the book matter. The tactics matter to anyone trying to use these tools to make something happen. The authors do a really good job of simplifying the research. They offer up the "why" behind certain tactics and give well documented reasons in answer to the "what tools when" question. The Dragonfly Effect represents a step beyond the "should we or shouldn't we" literature on using social media. It goes right to the "how do we accomplish our goals" question.

Good stories, well told. That's what helps move change along. No matter the media - see the movies and teams being developed at GoodPitch, for example. The Dragonfly Effect has lots of these stories. 

*I'm nearly finished with a book manuscript. I am guilty of all of the above - essentially turning blog posts and slide decks into some kind of book-esque collection of information. Editors and publishers tell me I'm supposed to hope that lots of people skim it as compared to worrying about the narrative flow and prose. OK. OK. I get it. But I will always prefer good writing to handy bullet point lists.

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