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My History of Stalking

This may come as a shock to some of you, but I have a history of stalking.

It’s true, as soon as I meet someone new, provided I remember their name or something about them, I will Google them, Facebook them, Twitter them, and proceed to find out as much as I can about them via the magic of the Internet.

It’s only when this comes up in conversation that I remember not everyone does the same. Sure, some people do it when they are about to go out on a date (to make sure they other person is not a real stalker, no doubt) or before purchasing a big-ticket item from someone on Craigslist. The extent of my curiosity has raised more than a few eyebrows, however, and though I understand the arguments to the contrary, I think that making information about yourself available and being able to find out information about others is a step forward for society, not a step back.

But first, let’s address the issues people usually have with my stalkerish ways.

One argument that often comes up is that it takes some of the mystery out of meeting someone. The investigative process that once took years can now take minutes, and all those fun little idiosyncrasies might be outed prematurely. What will you talk about if you already know what bands they like, politicians they hate, and have already seen their photos from their trip to the Grand Canyon?

Another argument goes something like this: as more information about you becomes available online, the less control you have over your reputation. If there is a vehicle (like Facebook) available where people can post photos of you and tag them with your name, those photos are much more likely to show up in search results, thereby staining your otherwise spotless reputation.

My issue with both of these arguments is that they don’t consider 1) the direction the world and its relationship with technology is going, 2) the benefits that come with the baggage of having a ‘brand you’ online, and 3) that having a hands-off attitude toward the Internet and its impact on the real world can be much more harmful than taking the time to use it thoughtfully.

It’s undeniable that as the global populace becomes more and more comfortable with the Internet and other technologies, styles and customs and people are changing as well. This is an invention that changed the global economy, and at the same time it has changed our vernacular and religions and how we read maps and just about everything else in the world. To think that by not putting information about yourself online you will keep that information secret is a false assumption. Similarly, to deny yourself access to the same flow of information that everyone else has access to hurts no one but you. To be out of the loop is not romantic, it’s foolhardy.

Think of all the things we have today that are made possible by technology. GPS. One-click purchasing of just about anything from your mobile phone. Video games that operate by reading your brain waves. It’s incredible, really, but to get the full benefit from these technologies, in many cases you have to sacrifice a portion of your anonymity. You cannot take full advantage of 23andMe‘s at-home DNA test without spitting into a cup and sending it off to be analyzed in a lab. That in itself could be construed as pretty violating to some, but even more value can be gained by making your genetic information available on their partner-site, Ancestry.com. It’s like karma: the more you give, the more you get.

Think of it! You can find people who are related to your by having your DNA analyzed, from home, and then connect with relatives you didn’t know you had online through a social network. We live in the future, people, but if you aren’t willing to give a little and contribute to the global information wiki, then you miss out on the premium fruits of humanity’s labor.

Finally, by not playing an active role in the flow of information (especially as it relates to you), your personal brand can suffer. Anything negative or untrue will go unchallenged, either because you don’t know about it or because you don’t have enough of a reputation online to challenge it with authority. It’s a big responsibility, and perhaps not one that you would have chosen to take on, but if you do care what is attributed to your name, the reality is that you had better play at least a small part in the digital sector lest you should be left without recourse because of your disinterest.

Update: May 15, 2016

Thankfully, a lot of the pushback against technology that I describe above is no longer true. Or at least not true in the same way.

There’s actually a more organized front that runs counter to the always-on networks we’re all plugged into, but that counter-movement exists largely because we all use these networks so much, not because we fear and don’t understand them. People take digital sabbaticals because they’re always one their devices, not because they’re afraid of Facebook.

That said, I still think the arguments about owning your online brand are quite valid. Many of us are online, but don’t use the tools available well, which tends to offer you just as little defense against the dangers of identity theft and reputation attacks as not being there to begin with.

Much better to understand the tools, use them just enough to assume ownership of your identity, and maybe put out a few tendrils to ensure you have access to opportunities should they arise, and then establish boundaries so that you aren’t overwhelmed by the options available: turn off most notifications, block contacts from people who aren’t relevant to your life, post only when you have something to say, and so on. Own the technology, don’t be owned by it.

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Sentimentality is the Enemy of Evolution

The Conversation
I was having a conversation over orange juice with one of the handful of English expats I’ve met since I moved to Buenos Aires, and the topic of sentimentality came up. It went something like this:

Me: “…so that’s why I’m traveling from country to country.”
English Expat: “So you sold everything? But haven’t you anything left at home?”
Me: “Well no, actually. My girlfriend and I had a shredding party before we left LA, so all those old photos and journal entries are gone.”
English Expat: “Oh my, how DREADFUL!”
And so on and so forth.

It should be noted that up until that point in the conversation she was totally on board with everything I was saying, even the usual points of contention. Pulling up my roots and moving on? Just fine. Breakup party with girlfriend? How interesting! Getting rid of old mementos? DREADFUL!

The Why
The trouble is that memories tend to get stuck to things. We might only remember a loved one because of the car they left us in their will, or a particular summer with friends because of the sand dollars we are still holding on to from the beach. And it’s great to hold on to memories: there are some periods in my life where the great memories I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire have been almost all that’s kept me going. But as soon as we attach significance to a thing instead of the memory itself, we’re on a downward slope.

This is something I avoid pretty well, but I still find myself falling into it from time to time. An old article of clothing that I was wearing when this or that happened that no longer fits well. The buttons given to me by a famous designer I met back in the day. Silly things that have lost their practicality and so have become clutter, taking up space that I could be using to hold, oh I don’t know, a toaster oven. Something useful.

Don’t Hate Me
I know it sounds cold and callous; trust me, I’ve gotten that response to this aspect of minimalism enough to recognize how it seems to anyone who doesn’t adhere to the same practices. But I want to make it clear that ‘out with the old’ does not mean ‘out with the memories.’ It simply means clearing out the physical baggage you’re carrying around so that you can more comfortably live life. The good stuff is still there, and in fact it’s there whenever you want, not just when you happen to stumble upon that old knick-knack.

In some ways, I imagine it’s probably easier to tuck memories away into an old toy or rocking chair or coffee cup. By imbuing SOMETHING with those memories, you don’t have to deal with them except when you’re in visual or physical contact with those items, and that can free you from the responsibility of carrying around that extra mental weight.

Get a Mental Workout
Unfortunately, though, mental muscles are a lot like any other muscle in that if you don’t exercise them regularly, they can atrophy. I’m not saying you’ll get stupid if you rid yourself of the weight of your memories, but I am saying that not dealing with and accepting old memories can lead to some serious psychoses, and keeping those happy memories separate from your day-to-day thought process can limit the amount of joy you’re able to experience in every day life. You might not be able to appreciate the comedic value of an awkward situation because you aren’t able to drum up the memory of that one time that one thing happened that was similar — too bad you don’t have the dress you were wearing that day with you. It would have been a gas.

Along those same lines, it can be more difficult to learn new things when your memories are kept at arm’s length. Making connections between new things and old things is a big part of forming new long-term memories. The more old things you have stored in that biological hard drive in your skull the more new things you’ll be able to grasp and maintain immediately.

The Most Practical Argument
Lastly, it can just be really physically burdensome to keep so much extra STUFF around. That expat I mentioned at the beginning told me that her room is always a mess and that her friends comment that her place looks like ‘a little girl’s dream,’ full of origami gum wrappers made by friends, old ceramics projects and magazine clippings from years before. Moving, she told me, is a ghastly experience, requiring an inordinate amount of transportation to haul it all. She admitted that traveling here to Buenos Aires was actually a big relief, in part because she didn’t have to deal with all that baggage (literally and figuratively).

It is, of course, everyone’s personal decision how they deal with their past, and some people will always be more willing to have it constantly lingering around the back of their mind than others. Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but if you give it a shot – get rid of something you’ve been holding onto forever ‘just because’ – I guarantee at the very least you’ll have more room for that toaster oven.

Update: May 15, 2016

This is a topic that comes up all the time, particularly when I’m touring with The Minimalists. We use a lot of the same language that I used in this essay, actually — it’s a point that’s brought up a lot, and with good reason.

It’s also worth noting that the English friend from the essay actually does speak like that: like some kind of queen. It’s wonderful, but disorienting if you don’t know for certain that she isn’t messing with you.

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Today I Exhaled

One week ago today I arrived in Buenos Aires, road-worn, bleary-eyed and unable to understand a single word being uttered by the dozens of people I came into contact with as I made my shambling way to my hotel.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I hit a milestone that I always watch out for when I’m in a new place for more than a day or two: I gave directions to someone. I’ve always seen this is a solid yardstick of how my integration is coming along because 1) someone thought I looked and acted enough like a local to assume I knew where things are, 2) I’ve been around long enough that I could give good directions (and in this case, speak the local tongue well enough to be understood), and 3) I’m out of ‘Colin in a new city defensive mode.’

For those of you who haven’t traveled with me to an unfamiliar large city before, when I find myself in a place like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Buenos Aires for the first time, I immediately and reflexively go in to a more defensive posture. I don’t make eye contact with strangers, I angle my arms and increase my swagger to appear more menacing, and I don’t speak unless I absolutely have to. This is a defensive mechanism I’ve slowly lodged into place after spending too much time in big cities fending off pick-pockets, purveyors of small slips of paper advertising call girls, and hustlers looking for handouts. It’s worked so far, and it helps me get my bearings. It doesn’t help me make a lot of friends, unfortunately.

That being said, when I start to feel more comfortable and at home in a new location, I finally start to loosen up. I know my way around a bit better, have a place to keep my stuff, and have a few phone numbers to call, just in case.

As I’m beginning to breath normally again here in Buenos Aires, I’ve also been able to get back to work, something that I’ve been more or less unable to do with any regularity since I left LA (due in large part to the fact that I’m a very fortunate person, surrounded with enthusiastic friends and family who wanted to spend as much time together as possible before I left the US).

New Reading List
One of the things I’ve been tossing around but can finally release a beta of is the Exile Reading List. I get emails from time to time asking me for a list of my bookmarks from people who want to know what I read from day to day to keep up with the different topics that I cover. It’s hard to tell someone about everything in one email, much less give examples of why each blog and site are great, so I’ve started putting together collections of feeds from blogs and sites that I read on a regular basis. Take a look, and if you aren’t up there yet, let me know (I’m only about halfway through the list, so I may not have gotten to you yet, but it couldn’t hurt to check just in case your site has somehow been overlooked or misplaced!). You’ll see that I’m covering a variety of categories, too, so if you have a recommendation, pass it my way: part of why I’m doing this is so that I can tap your brains for new reading materials and find out what I might be missing!

Affiliate Marketing Efforts
Another project I’ve been working on here and there is quite new to me: affiliate and ad revenue generating websites. I don’t have the first of these sites up and running yet, but I’ve found what I think is a pretty solid niche and I’m outsourcing as much of it as possible in order to take myself out of the equation (which is also new to me). I’d love to get some feedback on it when it goes live, since I know my readership has a goodly number of aspiring and current webmaster millionaires within its ranks.

Other Projects
I’m also in the process of pushing out a few other doodads that will hopefully augment the Exile Lifestyle brand a bit. One of them is already up and running; it’s called Hard Is Easy and it’s a tumblog where I’ll be posting more ‘up to the minute’ kinds of writings, photos and links, as opposed to the longer format, theme-based article-style writings I do here at Exile Lifestyle.

Another project I’m finishing up is an e-commerce shop, where I’ll be putting up some of my own products that I’m working on, along with items of interest from other members of the blogging community. And speaking of products, I have 2 more eBooks on the way, both of which will hopefully be useful and both of which will definitely be free.

I’m also still doing design, development and several different types of consultation work through my main business, Colin Is My Name. It’s interesting adapting my work model to living in Argentina, but my clients don’t seem to mind so far!

Where Should I Go Next (Preparing for the Vote)?
You can vote by clicking here! In a few days I will be putting up a poll asking you to vote where I should go next, and I need your help in deciding which countries to put on the poll! I will be taking the first 8 recommendations left in the comments (of this post), so think about it and then post the coolest, most interesting place you can think of in the comments below (the only rule is no active warzones or countries where Americans aren’t welcome…I’ll get to them eventually, but not this time around)!

Heartfelt Thank You
One last note, I want to once again thank all of you for continuing to read and interact with me and each other here on my blog. This experience has been life-changing for me and I’ve met some absolutely incredible people because of the process. It simply wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting and inspiring without you fine folks along for the ride. Thank you thank you thank you and please don’t hesitate to drop me an email sometime and introduce yourself if you haven’t already.

Update: May 15, 2016

I’ve tested out a lot of money-making models over the past seven years, and many of them I’ve dropped for one of many reasons.

This post mentions a few such models. The affiliate stuff was predicated on a concept everyone in the ‘lifestyle design’ world was hyped about, because models promoted in the Four Hour Workweek and books of that sort at the time. It was meant to work something like this:

1. Find a niche that wasn’t yet dominated by some big player.
2. Own that niche by building a dominant brand or website related to the product category. In my case, I had built a few sites for low-energy, ultraportable laptops (later called ‘netbooks,’ but that term hadn’t become popular yet) where I was publishing posts written by other people, with links to Amazon and other websites that sold these computers.
3. Over time become one of the top results in searches for that niche product or service, and earn a small percentage of the sales that come through your links.
4. Retire in Southeast Asia.

I later came to learn that:

1. I don’t like doing affiliate marketing. When it’s for a product I actually care about and use, sure, but predicating an entire business model on it gave me no pleasure, and in fact made me feel quite empty inside.
2. Owning niches and promoting product categories that I didn’t care about was also shockingly unsatisfying to me. I thought I could market and sell anything and feel good about it, being an entrepreneur and all, but it turns out that wasn’t the case. I cared about what I put my name on.
3. The whole SEO/niche marketing/affiliate scene got really sleazy for a while there. It’s what led to content-farms and pop-ups and all that horrible online stuff we hate. I’m glad this angle didn’t work out, because if it had early on, I probably would have forced myself to continue playing in that space for longer than I did.
4. I don’t particularly like humid climates, beaches, hammocks, unbalanced economic power dynamics that encourage women to date foreign men for their money, or many of the other things that were promoted as the true goals of the affiliate marketing, Four Hour Workweek lifestyle.
5. I also don’t really enjoy outsourcing, come to think of it. The work I do, I enjoy. Even the somewhat humdrum, boring stuff can be somewhat zen, if you know the outcome is worthwhile. It’s a nice counterbalance to the highly cerebral stuff.

Also, I forgot that the voting system worked a little bit differently the first couple of times I did it. Rather than having a drop-down list with every country in the world listed, I had people vote in the comment section, and the top eight countries were then put on a list for voting. So there were two steps, and I think the reason I did it that way was to stimulate activity in the comments (which was a thing you were supposed to do back then), and to end up with more overall votes for the winning country (because they would be spread out between eight countries, rather than 190-ish, as is the case today).

That reading list I mentioned is totally defunct, as well. I think that was a means of establishing stronger ties with other bloggers, but I can’t remember for certain.

People who have read my fiction may recognize the Hard Is Easy monicker, which I later recycled into a fictional blog run by one of the characters in my Real Powers series.