I Am the Bridge, the Tourist Guide, the Ferryman, the Hostess

Next summer I will have been fully self-employed (in a one-breadwinner-home) for ten years. I feel quite impressed saying it. I remember when I hit the 3- and 5-year milestones: most businesses don’t last that long.

In ten years, the industry my work falls in (social media) has evolved tremendously. I started out as a “blogging consultant” in a world which had no Twitter, no Facebook, no “social media”. We had blogs, forums, wikis, and “social software”. I was a pioneer, I found what we then called “the living web” fascinating, and was lucky to be at the right place and the right time in my little corner of the world to make a living introducing others to this incredible digital world I knew.

I helped people build websites, gave talks in schools and businesses about blogs, MySpace (yes!) and later Facebook and Twitter. I helped organisations make sense of these new tools and figure out what they could do with them. During the past five years, I have mainly facilitated relationships between bloggers and organisations, founded and directed French-speaking Switzerland’s first comprehensive course on social media and online communities, and been blog editor-in-chief more than once.

Quite a ride.

For a few years now, I’ve been feeling more and more estranged from the business of “social media”. I definitely still fit in there somewhere, but a lot of it is not really of much interest to me. It feels like it’s been eaten up by marketing: most of the time, trying to do the same old stuff in some new channel.

And in parallel, I’ve felt a growing frustration about the fact that my marketable skills are certainly wider than what I’ve been openly advertising, and that I’m staying stuck in this social media consultant career track because I haven’t managed to identify them clearly enough and figure out (even less communicate) a business proposition around them.

Transitions are great opportunities to stop and think. As my engagement as editor-in-chief for Open Ears ended, I decided to take a real holiday, a good long break to clear my head so I could look at my business with fresh eyes. Taking time away is vital for creativity, and I really hadn’t had much of that these last few years.

It seems to have worked, because it really feels like the pieces have been falling into place this last week, since my return. I’d like to share this thinking in progress with you.

From the beginning, what I’ve found interesting with the internet is people and relationships. The human side of technology. I have a background in humanities, in addition to being a bit of a geek, so the whole “psychology + sociology” side of social media is really what makes me tick. Not so much the “selling” or “branding” part.

A couple of months ago, I was describing my work as blog editor to a potential client. He pointed out that what I was doing was quite a balancing act, and seemed quite admirative. I had never looked at it like that, or thought much of it, but it’s quite true: whether managing a blog or a blogger relations programme, one important thing I do is balance sometimes conflicting interests from the different parties in play.

For example, the brand behind a blog might want more positive content about their products, or more promotional content, and on the other hand the blog’s editorial independence must be preserved or it will lose credibility as a space for authentic expression and relationships. The same goes for blogger relations: if an event invites bloggers, it hopes for positive coverage, but on the other hand the very reason bloggers are courted is because of their independence. So, how do we run a blog without it becoming a corporate mouthpiece, and how do we associate with bloggers without making them sell out?

This is actually a crucial part of my work, but that I hadn’t properly put my finger on until that conversation. More importantly, this means that it is value that I’ve been implicitly providing my clients, without ever selling it explicitly. (Is there a market for this? That indeed remains to be examined.)

I had previously identified this “talent” somewhat in my personal life. I would often find myself mediating between people who have trouble communicating. (Pro tip: don’t do this, it’s not good for your friendships.) I’ve done it too (with more success) in professional situations, by helping maintain communication between parties involved in a project. At one point I wondered if I should consider becoming a professional mediator, but that seemed to be taking things too far: I’m not interested in spending the whole of my professional life helping people resolve disputes.

That’s where things were when I left for India, and a discussion with a close friend and fellow freelancer upon my return revealed to me the common thread in my various professional interests — including some wild dreams and crazy brainstorms alongside stuff I have actually been doing and some I want to do more of. My unifier.

I introduce people to unfamiliar cultures. I am the bridge, the translator, the ferryman. I’m still looking for the best way to say this.

I’ve always said I considered the digital world as a culture, and that my work with social media made perfect sense with my background as a historian of religions, specialised in Indian culture.

This explains why I like working with clients who are “starting out” so much. I introduce them to the digital world. Help them understand how it works. How they can be present in it. What it can bring them.

When I was giving talks in schools, I would tell parents and teachers that I was their “tourist guide to the internet”.

During my last year with Phonak, I gave a series of digital literacy workshops — something I’ve been wanting to provide for years.

When I dream about different lives for myself, I see myself organising guided tours to “my India”, helping expats settle down in Switzerland. Outside of work, playing Ingress, I naturally settled down in the role of welcoming new players. I am the hostess.

In Kolkata, Aleika and I brainstormed business ideas to run in India, and all of them have to do with this same “bridging cultures” theme.

I take people by the hand and show them the way, or sit in the middle so that different worlds can collaborate.

Clearly, these skills go beyond social media, and also do not encompass all of social media. I’m understanding better why I’ve struggled so much with my “social media consultant” label these last years.

There could very well be areas in the business world where such skills are useful, but that I do not know of — or am not thinking of. The doors are open, but I’m not sure what room I’m in yet.

Does this make sense?

This post was originally published on climbtothestars.org on December 4th, 2015.