January 18, 2013

In Defense of Alexandra Samuel

alexandraOver at HBR, resident blogger Alexandra Samuel — she with the fab wardrobe — kicked up a “shitstorm” (as she calls it) on January 16, 2013 with a post entitled “Dear Colleague, Put the Notebook Down“.

The central plot in this missive was for people of today’s organizations to drop their reliance on pen and paper and to adopt an entirely digital transcribing practice. Whether through a tablet or laptop, Alexandra argues “you’d make better use of your time if you took your notes in digital form, ideally in an access-anywhere digital notebook like Evernote that makes retrieval a snap.”

Who am I to argue with that?

I haven’t worn a watch since 1982 when I was eleven and the last time I took a pen and paper to a meeting was, well … never.

That’s right, I’m 41 years-old and I have never carried a pen and paper to a meeting.

I also wrote a 90,000 word book entirely in Evernote … and blogged about it too.

Shoot me, HBR commentators.

When I started out my career as a high school teacher in 1994, the meetings I attended during those three years were ‘spray and pray’. I sat, I listened, I remembered, and I left. No need to write anything down there.

As I ventured over to higher education in 1998, I recall a story involving my Associate Dean. At the first meeting with her and the team when I joined the organization, it took about 5 minutes for her to stop mid-sentence and ask, “Dan, where’s your notebook?”

Of course, I didn’t have one. What the hell was a notebook?

“I remember everything,” I said with a naive grin on my face.

Either perplexed, ticked off or nervous that she had hired the wrong guy, she replied, “Oh really? We’ll see about that.”

At the next meeting, that’s when my all digital note-taking commenced. I arrived with a rather large IBM laptop (no Lenovo sell-off back in 1998) and began my life in the digital world of transcribing. I’ve been clicking — and now tapping — ever since. So, this year is my 15-year anniversary of such a practice. It’s become a habit, a personal discipline, but I honestly don’t think about it anymore. It’s a bit like breathing.

Which brings me back to Alexandra and her post.

With well over 200 comments and 95% of those vitriolic, negative or condescending, it made me and a few others think twice. Although I may have implemented my practice a decade and a half ago, it seems Alex and I are outliers. I too believe it saves time and it would be so helpful for many to at least try the option for a while and see if it suits their work style. Alex is right, and she had the guts to blog about it — at HBR no less — knowing full well what a “shitstorm” it would cause.

I’m in defense of Alexandra Samuel not because she employs the same practice I’ve used for years, nor am I defending her because she had the courage to challenge the reader. I’m defending her because I don’t want to see her reputation suffer. The comments found on the site give me great concern for her reputation, and I’m here to defend it.

Does she deserve the vitriol? Absolutely not. Even the Maple Leafs deserve to win the Cup one day again.

Could she have delivered her message and sage advice in a more helpful or nurturing manner? In my opinion, yes, she could have … and I’ve said as much to her already. (Disclosure: we’re friends)

Where have we landed, however, as an internet society if we stoop to anonymous comments that attack the author, regardless of message or intent? Are we that partisan? Are we that divided? Are we that forgetful of citizenship? What has happened to us when we use terms like ‘ignorant snit’, ‘hack’, ‘obnoxious’, ‘egocentric’, ‘offensive’, ‘unprofessional’, ‘one of the worst pieces of advise (sic) I’ve read on HBR’ and ‘you seem to be an expert in arrogance’.

Alexandra cares. Alexandra shares. Alexandra lives her life in the open so others might learn from her advice, experience as well as from her mistakes. Et tu brute?

Have we become a society where the difference of opinion — even at a reputable place of collaboration like HBR — is attacked by what I might define as verbal violence?

She had the gumption to weigh in on the comments too … well over twenty times.

Alexandra Samuel is a digital pioneer; a champion of change in this new found social world order. She might learn about tone and intent from this experience; however, we all can and will always be able to learn from her. She is open, honest and collaborative. She cares. She shares.

I am in defense of Alexandra Samuel.

You should be too.

10 Replies to “In Defense of Alexandra Samuel”

  1. Dan,

    I don’t think she requires any defense; the article feels intentionally inflammatory. I think she knows her argument is flawed, but took the hardline approach in order to generate controversy, and as a result, engagement (very important for someone with a new book out).

    I’ve noticed a trend amongst bloggers, even good ones, posting “rant” pieces like this that may have a kernel of truth, but seem more focused on generating comments. The founder of bleacher report made a post on Pando Daily that had a similarly specious argument. The post generated a huge number of comments (and he participated actively in the discussion), and was declared a rousing success by Pando.

  2. Despite the fact I am someone who still uses pen and paper (as well as digital tools), you still had me with your defense…right up to the point where you said even the Maple Leafs deserve to win the Cup one day again.

    No. They don’t. Ever.


  3. The wonderful thing about a week like this one is you discover all the people who have your back. Dan, I’m so touched that you’d jump into the fray here. As I wrote on my own blog yesterday, the kind and honest words I’ve had from friends far outweigh the drama/trauma of a whole whack of flames.

    I won’t pretend that I love being called names, but in the context of this blog — and its many fans in the business world — I want to underscore that it is No Big Deal. As you point out, it was the kind of post that any sane person would have expected to draw fire (though I confess I didn’t expect quite this level of hostility). But nobody is attacking me or threatening me or even making fun of my hair (which, let’s be honest, is where this could get really ugly). I am fine, I am safe, and I am even finding new friends and fans and colleagues through the controversy.

    I take pains to underline how OK this is because of the anxieties you raise about the impact this could have on my reputation. This, I think , is where the real danger lies: not to be and my “personal brand” [pukes a little] but to the quality and authenticity of online writing and conversation.

    As my friend Channing writes in her thoughtful post about this whole hoo-ha (http://bit.ly/VBLdcO), “[c]onflict is…the first thing that a lot of companies worry about when they start working with social media.” Not just companies: individuals. And ironically, the more time people spend online, and the more they invest in their online presence, the more worried they may become — partly because they have more to lose once they feel invested in their online reputation, and partly because you can’t spend too much time online before you come across some scary-looking rumbles like the one on HBR this week.

    But you can’t have real impact online if you live in fear of pissing people off. Yes, you want to think carefully about where to tread delicately and where to be bold. Realistically, however, you can’t fully anticipate which of your posts are going to be ignored and which ones will ignite a shitstorm. I wasn’t surprised this time out, but I’ve certainly be surprised before.

    If we promulgate the idea that a generous helping of insults can hurt the reputation of an established online writer, we risk scaring people out of speaking their minds. For the Internet as a whole, that would be a sad thing: while I wouldn’t be sorry to see an Internet that’s a little less flame-y, it would be even worse to see an Internet that was less flame-y because nobody dared to say anything controversial, or write in a provocative way.

    And it’s not like it takes some kind of courageous self-sacrifice to offer a strong opinion online. If you’re prepared to shrug off a little name-calling, finding yourself at the centre of an online controversy can be a good thing for both individuals and organizations. Quite apart from the sheer volume of attention a controversy generates (which is NOT a reason to seek it out, BTW), online uproar can bring all sorts of other benefits: new relationships, a deeper understanding of your own and others’ perspectives, fresh opportunities to share your writing in other places. In my own experience, every time I’ve been through one of these ordeals, it’s had amazing consequences I could never have anticipated.

    So I hope your many fans will remember: not only are there worst things than being attacked online, but being attacked online can actually be good for you. For one thing, you find out who your friends are. And you’re awfully lucky if they include Dan.

  4. “…well over 200 comments and 95% of those vitriolic, negative or condescending…” Warranted for a 100% condescending, wrongheaded article. I’m rooting for Alexandra, and glad she has a friend to both defend her and counsel her on making her case in a more helpful and nurturing manner. Can’t wait to read her next post.

  5. I am absolutely baffled as to why this article would generate such hostility. I don’t find it inflammatory, negative, or condescending – I’m completely confused that people could get so riled up about an article that simply outlines her note-taking history and process. It’s like fighting over learning styles.

    Dan, you sound like my son who could not remember lectures if he took notes, but could practically recite them verbatim. I am much older than you and at one time transcribed annual general meetings in true shorthand, via pen and paper. Ugh. I still take a small notepad into meetings where we’re asked to shut off all electronics, but find mostly I doodle, which I staunchly defend as a memory/creativity device.

    It’s unfortunate that the response to her article has been so vitriolic, because I’m afraid it will support those who believe you have to have every medium shut off during meetings (you are suspected of playing) rather than support the use of innovative sharing technologies like Evernote. Thank-you for supporting and defending her, I would hate to see her stifled in any way.

  6. I was one of those who was insulted by Alexandra’s article, which started with:

    “I knew right away, when you walked in here with a paper notebook — a paper notebook! — I realized that this meeting was not going to be a good use of our time.”

    Now, those who say they can’t see how this can be perceived as insulting or condescending, all I can say is, I don’t understand how you could miss it.

    The tone I picked up throughout the article was “my way is right and yours is wrong.” A couple of snippets:

    “If you’re an after-hours poet, then, yes, that paper notebook will come in handy. For this, though, can you please go back and grab your laptop?”

    “You can walk down the hall and come back with your laptop; if you don’t have one, I’m happy to lend you my iPad while we meet. You can use this time to practice the art of listening while typing, and to work on focusing your attention so that you can stay engaged with this conversation…”

    I see nothing wrong with living your life in the open, and there’s nothing wrong with her ideas about how to improve personal productivity. But you cross a line when you tell other people that their way of doing things is wrong and yours is right.

    I don’t know Alexandra and I’m sure she is a fine person. But I found her post, simply, rude. Even if I was her friend I don’t think I would try to gloss over that there’s a learning opportunity to be had here.

    Not to mention that I disagree fully with her point and think she walks in with some very large misconceptions and assumptions about paper.

    1. You can’t type everything. Some people like to visualize and make diagrams, especially when the topic is complex. Theoretically you can do this with an iPad but with paper it is much easier.

    2. Evernote has some of the best OCR I’ve come across. You can take notes in a paper notebook, take a quick snap with your mobile phone and it’s all in there, searchable, including any sketches or diagrams you might have made in the meeting. No transcription time required.

    So if I walk into a meeting with a paper notebook and a phone, I’ve got everything that Alexandra has and more. But way before that point, she has already decided the meeting will be a waste of our time.


  7. I’m with Dave.

    My problem with the original article isn’t that she believes that electronic notetaking is better than pen & paper. That’s a potentially valid point that we could sit and debate as reasonable adults. In fact, it’s something that *has been* debated by some very serious adults in productivity circles, and the only consensus is that there is no consensus.

    But that’s not the problem. The problem is the thoroughly condescending tone in which she said….well….pretty much everything.

    Throughout the article she either states or implies, over and over again, that the only reasons you’d be using a paper-based solution are ignorance, fear, or because you’re somehow defective.

    I get that she’s probably been on the receiving end of some criticism for wanting to use her iPad/laptop/phone/whatever to take notes and such during meetings. She’s obviously got some sort of axe to grind.

    But reacting to bigoted people who insist on notebooks & pens by turning into a single-minded person who insists on digital doesn’t make her superior – it makes her a bigot with a different opinion.

    This line, to me, says it best:

    “We’re here to get things done. So bring the tools that will help us do that.”

    Those two sentences, in context, have an inevitable implied meaning: “Paper & a pen aren’t tools that a serious professional would use.”

    And that’s just not true prima facie. I can point to numerous highly paid professionals who very much value their time, yet still use paper and a pen.

    The issue isn’t that she has an opinion. It’s not that her opinion is really controversial. It’s that she’s a technology bigot.

  8. I think Alexandra made some important points.

    I also think that each individual human has her or his own cognitive style and ‘habits’ for taking in, digesting and using information encountered in all types of meeting, and who are we to criticize what works, feels comfortable, is most ‘efficient’, etc. for any given individual ?

    That said, I also think that time and the evolution of technology tools, social technology tools and our increasingly inter-woven ‘information spaces” will result in more and more people jettisoning paper and pen. Altho’ per McLuhan there’s likely to be a retrieval of some sort that results in some people becoming even more obstinate about their individual cognitive and sense-making tools and style.

    1. Great points, Jon. Thought experiment: Let’s jump ahead a decade and paper becomes ridiculously expensive (like writing on a sheet of gold). What would people do?

      A) no more notes taking of any kind (and as such, prob, no more meetings)
      B) waiting to download tasks assigned to everyone after the meeting (1984)
      C) electronic notes taking, with a button to share the notes (most likely)

      How many people would press the “share” button?

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