Tagged: thoughts

A Letter to My University Self

- by Alyson Shane

Earnest inspired today's post with the project of sharing some thoughts about university life, and writing a 'letter to my college self.' (As a student loan refinancing company, they have some great advice about the financial side of your University experience as well.)

It's weird to think that it's been six years since I started university. So much has changed, and things have worked out in unexpected and amazing ways. I remember being so anxious, so scared, as a student, because I worried about where my life would lead me.

Which is why I decided to pen this letter. It's to myself, at 23, as I was about to start my first year at the University of Winnipeg. Below are some things that I wish I could go back and say to myself:


Dear Alyson

I'm writing to you to address some of the fears that I know you're having right now. Leaving your "safe" government job to pursue your education has been a difficult and emotional process, and there have been a lot of moments of anxiety and uncertainty leading up to this point.

But you're here now, and here are some things that I wish you could take forward with you. Maybe they'll make those moments of doubt a little less overwhelming:

University is Not Like in the Movies

You know how most movies and TV shows portray university as being this coming-of-age, self-discovery and self-actualization process? It's not really like that at all.

The tight-knit groups of friends are the ones who are in specific programs, or already knew each other from high school. At 22, you'll be older than most of your classmates. Every time you walk into a new classroom, you'll be walking into a room of strangers.

This is going to terrify you.

But eventually you'll get used to choosing to sit wherever you want; you'll start to feel more comfortable asking to join tables of students; you'll speak up in class because you don't worry about "sounding stupid" in front of your friends, which will soothe your anxiety.

There are times that it will be lonely, but soon you'll come to relish your spares in-between classes, writing in one of the library hallways with the floor-to-ceiling windows, watching the snow fall. The times where you were forced to be self-directed and independent will help shape how you feel about yourself in the future.

It won't be what you expected, but that will be okay.

Your Career Will Work Itself Out

There was a quiet dread which hung over my university years.

After a few exams I established that I was, in fact, smart enough to be in university (something which has been expressed to me several times by other people) but a lingering fear held onto me for my remainder of my time as a student:

What was I going to do after I graduated?

For most university students, this isn't a huge problem; most people live with their parents while attending post-secondary, but I wasn't afforded that luxury. I was pretty lucky as a student: I managed to find some decent paying jobs with flexible hours during the school year, and always managed to find some full-time summer work, as well. But after university... that big, looming space full of uncertainty sometimes felt like too much to bear. I struggled to determine what I wanted to do, exactly, and where.

It will work itself out in the end. You'll have a few ups and downs, and learn a few heard lessons along the way... but eventually you will develop the confidence and self-awareness to shape your own career and not depend on employers for your self-worth.

You will wind up running your own company, and you'll fall in love with the hustle and excitement and ever-changing nature or business. It will work itself out.

Enjoy Your Time as a Student

University was the first time I enjoyed being in an academic setting. Growing up I was told repeatedly that I was lazy and unmotivated, and that I should give up on any thoughts of attending university because I wasn't smart enough to do well.

You're going to feel anxious and stressed at first, but eventually you're going to fall into the natural ebb and flow of classes, homework, exams, and studying each term. You'll come to appreciate the excitement of a brand new class with a new professor, the feeling of finishing a term paper, and handing in an exam at the end of the year.

Most importantly, make sure to take time to yourself during the day. Find a quiet spot in the library, or on some remote nook or cranny in Wesley Hall. Spread out your snacks, your water, your homework, and enjoy the feeling of happy solitude that will often wash over you during these moments.

Being a university student is like being in a little world of your own. It's not quite high school, and it's certainly not the professional working world, and though you won't fully grasp it at the time, the experiences and time that you have will help build your confidence and independence in a way that nothing else in your life will have allowed to date.

It's Going to be Worth It

The single most defining thing that came from my time as a university student was that I learned to believe in myself.

I know that you don't believe in yourself right now; you feel like it was a fluke that you got accepted in the first place, and I know that impostor syndrome will plague for years after you earn your diploma.

Completing university didn't magically transform me into the person that I am today, but, looking back, it was a stepping stone along the path to believing in myself.

Stay strong,

Alyson (Your Future Self)

Do you have anything you wish you could tell your younger self? Tweet at me or let me know in the comments!


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Why We Need Twitter (or Something Like It) More Than Ever

- by Alyson Shane

For myself, and many people that I know, the world feels like an unfamiliar place right now.

The recent election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the apparent rise of white nationalism, anti-feminism, Islamophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, etc. (also known as the "alt right") has many people feeling scared and confused, and a lot of articles, from WIRED to Mashable, have emerged recently about the "echo chamber" that social media, particularly Facebook, has created which has led us to where we are today.

With that in mind, I wanted to discuss some of the ways in which I believe Twitter is actually getting things right in terms of providing a non-insular opportunity for people to express themselves, easily find dissenting viewpoints, and engage with them in conversation.


Before we begin

I know that there are a lot of dissenting views out there about Twitter, and it's usefulness as a social platform. Before I go too much further, let me get these things out of the way:

  • Yes, I know that their CEO is wildly unpopular
  • Yes, I know they have had issues addressing harassment and hate speech in the past
  • Yes, I know that their value has tanked
  • Yes, I know they have issues acquiring new users

This post isn't about any of those things.

What I'd like to do is discuss some of the things that make Twitter an important and necessary platform for our society right now, and how it (or something with the features I'm going to highlight) must continue to offer in order to allow for citizen journalism, the sharing of thoughts and ideas, and discussion online.

Hashtags (that people really use)

This morning I got up and read (on Twitter) that the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton delivered a speech to United States vice-president elect Mike Pence at the end of their show last night. Within a few hours, right-leaning Twitter users took to the social network to start pushing a hashtag called #BoycottHamilton, urging (rather obviously) Trump supporters to boycott the play.

The fact that a hashtag emerged isn't what's important, but what you see when you click on the hashtag is:


Even in this single snapshot we see a series of diverse opinions. Some don't take it seriously, some are worked up, etc. Not only does a timeline around a hashtag display diverse opinions, but Twitter also offers you this added level of engagement with a hashtag's tweets:


These settings are on by default. This means that in order to find yourself inside a Twitter echo chamber, you literally have to take the necessary steps to insulate yourself against opposing viewpoints.

Compare this to Facebook, which deliberately shows you news items and articles that appeal to you and goes out of their way to make changing those settings a challenge. Yes, hashtags are available to use on Facebook, but according to a 2016 BuzzSumo report, posts without hashtags received more interaction than posts with hashtags. This means that not only are hashtags not popular in Facebook, but that including a hashtag in your post actually lowers the likelihood that someone will engage with it.

So not only is Facebook pushing appealing news at you, but the primary tool at your disposal to find dissenting voices (a hashtag) are rarely used. This means that in order to find different opinions you either need to already be Facebook Friends with someone who disagrees with you, or you have to already subscribe to a Facebook Page or Group where you're likely to hear dissenting views.

But even in that scenario, you still have to actively seek it out, Like, and in some cases apply to join, a Group or Page which espouses views that you disagree with. Then, once you start expressing your opposing viewpoints you encounter the next hurdle: the wall of text. Which brings me to my next point:

Character and post length

Algorithms aside, one of the biggest differences when it comes to hearing opposing viewpoints online, and actually paying attention to them, is that Twitter forces you to be brief, at least in the context of a single tweet.

On Facebook there's no character limit, which means people can (and do) go on ad nauseam to explain their point of view. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it highlights the difference that Twitter acts like a conversation, while Facebook acts like a soapbox.

Being on the receiving end of a "Twitter storm" sucks; I can tell you from experience. But it's much easier to process and digest someone else's point of view in 140 characters than digesting (and responding to) several massive paragraphs (or, if you're unlucky, a single monolithic wall of text.)

Tweets, for all their faults, force people to break up their thought process, which provides opportunities for others to interject, respond, and get involved without having to unpack multiple paragraphs of text. I've engaged in debates with people on Twitter over a specific hashtag and more often than not both sides receive support from people who happened to see the conversation, and wanted to participate.

On the flip side, Facebook allows comments to be up to 63,206 characters in length, according to a 2016 HubSpot article. To put that into context: the average book is approximately 500,000 characters, meaning you can fit an entire novel in 9 Facebook status updates.

Just because tweets are shorter doesn't mean that they won't get ignored, or fluffed off, but when a Facebook user replies with a wall of text, a common sign of trolling, it's much easier to dismiss or simply ignore it.

Encouraging conversations

One of the points that I made earlier was about hashtags, and how searching for a hashtag meant that you could easily find differing opinions. It's also important to note that including a hashtag in your tweets also means that other people can easily find you.

Tweeting about a topic like #BlackLivesMatter, #Election2016 or #MAGA (to name just a few) will not only bring like-minded users out of the woodwork, but it's almost guaranteed that someone from the other side of the political spectrum will tweet back at you.

Tweets which include hashtags are 33% more likely to get retweeted than those that don't use them, and this (somewhat older) article from Sysomos which examined over 1.2 billion tweets in two months, which states that "29% of all tweets produced a reaction - a reply or a retweet. Of this group of tweets, 19.3% were retweets and the rest replies."

This 2016 report found that Twitter accounts for 30% of all global social sharing. At 500 million tweets sent each day (or 6,000 tweets every second), that's a lot of replies and retweets, even if Sysomos' 2010 numbers haven't grown since the article was published.

Not only does voicing your opinion on Twitter increase your chances of interacting with someone who disagrees with you, but when a discussion is retweeted, its visibility becomes amplified too. As more users participate, it increases the likelihood that you will run into someone who disagrees with you even more.

Default "public" profiles

Transparency is, in my opinion, the defining feature which makes Twitter such a powerful tool for discussion: when you tweet at someone your reply is completely public.

Unless you go out of your way to change your Twitter profile to "private," your entire tweet history including replies, retweets, quotes, and media will be available for any one whether they are logged in to Twitter or not. And if a tweet is retweeted, even deleting it later won't delete the retweet copy.

Facebook, conversely, was designed to be a more exclusive experience. From day one Facebook's defining feature has been a user's ability to selectively choose who can see what they share, and, for the most part anyway, the conversations you are able to have are limited to the amount of Facebook Friends you've approved, or the number of Groups or Pages you Like or participate in.

While the average Facebook user's Timeline isn't completely private (posts which tag other users, for example, will show up unless otherwise specified) and their comments may be seen if another user's privacy settings are more lax, overall what you say on Facebook isn't immediately available to the public in the same way that Twitter's Timelines are.

Yes, people are can be "outed" if they say something that another user disagrees with, but unless the person is a celebrity, political figure, or person of interest, the average user isn't going to re-share a hateful comment their coworker made and say "I never realized that so-and-so in Accounting was such an antisemite!"

We just don't call each other out in that way on Facebook at a personal level, and on Twitter, we don't really need to, because whatever a user posts is readily available to the world at large.

Easy access to a variety of opinions

Until recently, when we examined a specific historical event or time we had a limited number of sources to draw from. Nowadays, social media allows us to look into the life of the average person and experience, sometimes in real time, what they are experiencing.

Probably the most memorable of these incidents was the Twitter coverage of the protests over the 2009 Iranian election. Foreign media had been banned from reporting, and the stream of live coverage from everyday citizens on the ground led to a request from the U.S. State Department to put off scheduled maintenance which would have caused an outage in Iran during the protests.

Twitter provided the world with access to real-time information about a national crisis, and ever since has become the go-to source for breaking news including weather, political uprisings, and more. But it does more than just give us "on the ground" access to important events; it allows for public scrutiny of the facts, so that while false information will still get around, corrections have the chance of spreading in realtime too.

By using hashtags to discuss a common theme or event, Twitter users are able to contribute to a global and multi-faceted real-time narrative about what's happening in the world that they live in. Clicking on the hashtag they're using will show them a diverse array of opinions on the topic.

Here's another screenshot of some of the 'Live' #BoycottHamilton tweets:


In closing

To be clear: I don't think that Twitter is the perfect platform. It has its share of flaws and issues, and eventually something will come along to replace it (hence the title of this post).

However, I do think that it's important to discuss the elements of the social network which I think make it good, and relevant. Twitter is an important tool for discussion and news, and provides more opportunities for users to engage with people outside of their "echo chamber."

Now, more than ever it seems, we need to be able to hear what other people have to say.


The Catharsis of Crying

- by Alyson Shane

How many times did you cry this week?

I cried 4 times.

  • On Tuesday: I felt overwhelmed with my workload for the week (short weeks are hard.)
  • On Wednesday: I was thinking about my Grandma, and was excited about seeing her this Christmas.
  • On Thursday: In therapy (obviously.)
  • Today: Watching this interview with Gord Downie and realizing how short my time with the person I love might be.

This used to be something that I was embarrassed about, but over the past few years I've come to accept that crying is just part of my existence. I used to fight it, and try to hold the tears back whenever they came, but these days I just let it out.

It's the best thing I've done for my mental health, if I'm being honest.

A Cryin' Shame(ing)

When I was growing up, my family members made fun of me for crying so much. I've always been moved to tears easily; the second something tugs at my heartstrings - good or bad - my eyes well up. My aunt once told me that she "worried that I was depressed" as a teenager because I cried at the drop of a hat.

In our household, crying was seen as a sign of weakness and something to be ashamed of. Allowing other people to see real manifestations of your feelings wasn't appropriate, and we were regularly warned against the dangers of sharing our thoughts and feelings with other people.

I remember, once, after a breakup in high school, I was crying in my room and my mother popped her head in to see what was wrong. I said "I'm so sad" and she replied by saying "I hope you don't act this way in front of your friends, or they'll start to get tired of hearing about it and stop being friends with you."

My family, which is of British descent, subscribes to the "suck it up" mentality: publicly displaying emotions of heartbreak, sorrow, or anything other than the status quo was always strongly discouraged, and my brothers and I were shamed and often belittled whenever we allowed our emotions to "get the better of us."

But in the last few months and years I've allowed myself to start getting over those fears. When I feel overwhelmed (which is often, running a business is a scary and often stressful undertaking) I just allow the few tears to come, and then wipe them on and move on with my day.


Anxiety and Crying

I have anxiety.

Anyone who has ever felt anxious knows that the plethora of negative emotions that come with it can often feel completely overwhelming, and for a long time I felt guilty because I used crying (secretly) as a coping mechanism. I cried in bathroom stalls and in my apartment when nobody else was home. When I was a kid I would go for long, extended walks through my neighbourhood because I didn't want my family to see or hear me crying.

For years, whenever I cried, or felt like I was going to cry, I would shame myself and feel guilty for not being able to prevent it.

I can't control my emotions.

I'm immature because I need to cry.

I'm not a good person because I cry easily.

However, in therapy (and with some supports from my friends and partner) I've come to realize that crying is just a part of life, and is a normal part of being in touch with my emotions. I used to feel guilty and get upset whenever I cried because I was trying to hide from my own thoughts and feelings, and I am so done with feeling guilty over crying.

Crying and Coming Together

The thing that's changed the most for me, and what led me to write this post, is that crying in front of other people has had the opposite effect from what my family told me it would: it's brought me closer to them.

John and I cry in front of each other regularly. Often, when we talk about our lives, our families, or our feelings for each other, one or both of us will start tearing up. Sometimes, when I talk to my friends about my anxiety, or things that are challenging me, I shed a few tears. And you know what? They don't hate me for it, and it doesn't make them want to be my friend any less.

In fact, knowing that I can be open with the people in my life in such a deeply personal way has been illuminating and life-changing. I can be myself; my sometimes-sad, anxious, messed-up self, and I can cry about it and be honest about it and it's the healthiest change that I've made in a long time.

Benefits of Crying

In fact, crying is actually good for you. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Tears remove toxins. Tears actually remove toxins from our bodies. Tears help humans remove chemicals that build up during emotional stress.
  • Crying relieves stress. Ongoing levels of stress can increase your risk of a heart attack and can damage your brain, and crying can help alleviate those stressful feelings.
  • Crying lowers your blood pressure. Crying has been found to lower blood pressure and pulse rate immediately after a "big cry."
  • It reduces manganese in the body. Crying reduces the body's manganese level. Manganese is a mineral which affects our moods, and is found in up to 30 times greater concentration in tears than in blood serum.
  • Crying means you're human. All mammals' eyes are moistened and soothed by tears, but humans are the only mammals who express tears as a response to emotional stress or stimuli. Tears (and showing emotions) motivate us to empathize with each other, which encourages us to work together and survive.

So you know what? The next time you're feeling overwhelmed, or really happy... just cry it out. Hell, ugly cry if you must. There's no shame in it (as I'm slowly learning), and it's actually really good for you to cry it out sometimes.

Here's to a good cry!



Reflections on 365+ Days of Business Ownership

- by Alyson Shane

A few weeks ago I passed a significant personal and professional milestone:

June 30th, 2016 was my one-year anniversary as a full-time business owner.

The past 365+ days have been an incredible journey; I've learned a lot, made mistakes, discovered a lot about myself and my life has changed in so many ways that it felt appropriate to share some of the things I've learned this past year with all of you:


It's okay to not be a "good employee"

I'll be honest with you: I used to get depressed when I thought about my career. Even after going to university and working roles that were actually in my field (instead of being an accountant, oh my god) I'd still hadn't found a job that did it for me. I'd think of all those years ahead of me, likely spent in dull offices, trying to find a position or organization that hopefully wouldn't bore me to tears after six months and it was so depressing.

I also had a lot of anxiety around being a "good employee." I didn't like sitting at a desk for a pre-determined amount of hours, asking for permission to take an extended lunch or book an appointment, taking a vacation, or playing office politics (ugh). I'm also not afraid to stand up for myself and point out when I think something unfair or just plain wrong, which doesn't bode well in the world of 9-5's.

So what feels different? The biggest thing is that while I'm beholden to my clients, and I technically have more "bosses" now than I did before, we have a mutually respectful relationship which can be hard to find in the office world.

I'm honest with my clients, and they rely on me to create the right content and steer them in the right direction, which results in a level of respect and collaboration that I was never able to enjoy when I worked for someone else.

Your value isn't just tied up in your qualifications

Before I went to university the advice everyone gave me was "you have to go to university! You'll never be able to get a decent job if you don't go to university!" So that's what I did. I spent three years at the University of Winnipeg earning my Bachelor of Arts, and you know what? Not one of my clients has ever asked me about my formal education.

To be clear: I am in no way saying that getting an education isn't worth it. University was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot, but when it comes to running a service-based business my experience has been that it's more important to be able to demonstrate your value and your skills than it is to have a piece of paper that declares it for you.

Instead, people look at my website, blog, social feeds, and where I've been published or asked to speak to see examples of my knowledge.

You can say no to things that you don't want

One of the most empowering things that I've learned in this past year is to say "no" when something doesn't make me feel good. I don't take on projects that I don't want, and I don't work with clients that I don't like.

This is incredibly hard to do; we're conditioned to believe that every opportunity that comes our way may be the last, and especially when you're new to being a solo business owner it's hard not to think "if I don't take this, will I regret it? Why am I turning down money? Who in their right mind turns down money?!"

Except money isn't the key to happiness. Instead of chasing money, I chase value. I've turned down opportunities that could have resulted in a nice boost to my bank account, but which would have made me miserable, and I don't regret them at all. Instead, I focus my energy on finding opportunities and work that are more suited to my tastes and personality, and it feels amazing.

Irregular income takes some getting used to

Before I started working for myself I would say things like "I could never go from biweekly payments, it's so scary!" and you know what? It is, and it takes some getting used to.

Being paid on a monthly or irregular basis means that I have to pay more attention to my bank balance than I did before, but since I was planning to leave my 9-5 I spent a few months building up a nest egg which rolls over from month to month. That way I know that I have enough to cover my living expenses for a few months if a bunch of work dried up at once.

However, I think that this is worth mentioning: even though I get paid irregularly, diversifying my income feels more secure than a single job ever did. When I worked for someone else if I lost my job 100% of my income was gone, but now if I lose a client I just hustle a bit harder and find another one to replace that dip in my income.

Also, as I said above since all of my earning potential is wrapped up in how hard I work it often means that I make double or triple one month what I made the previous one.


The freedom of managing your life is the most worthwhile thing

This is the single biggest takeaway that I can share with you.

I grew up believing that my work was just a means to an end; that I shouldn't expect to like my job or my work and that sitting at a desk doing uninspiring things for 40 hours a week was all I could ever hope for out of my life. This is such utter bullshit, you guys.

I've enjoyed a year of having the freedom to choose the work I want; to take an afternoon off to go shopping with a friend; to work on a Sunday or during the evening; to take a 3-week vacation to Central America and to work on the road.

I do what I want and am building my ideal life on my terms, and I get to grow something amazing and completely my own all from scratch. The work I do is fun and rewarding, and most importantly it makes my clients feel good, too.

Personal takeaways from 365+ days

I used to feel trapped by my life.

I didn't know what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go professionally, and I felt shackled to a corporate work and life that I resented and which, frankly, wasn't a good fit for me. It wasn't until I started building my client list and hanging out with other creatives and entrepreneurs that I realized that doing the thing that you love for a living is the key to being truly happy all the time.

The past 365+ days have been an exercise in un-learning a lot of things that I thought I knew about my value as a person and a creative professional. I've also learned so much about myself and have developed such a deep appreciation for my life that I can barely put it into words. It's been an exciting, challenging, and rewarding experience that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Thank you to my fantastic partner John, my incredible and supportive friends, and to my clients who do me the honour of working with me.

Alyson


How Social Media & Blogging Helped Me Discover Who I Am

- by Alyson Shane

**Trigger warning** For some of you who come from abusive relationships, some of the content in this post may act as a trigger. Please read responsibly.

The other day Meg Athavale of LUMO shared a terrific article on Facebook called "The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship" and one of the sections of the article really stood out for me:

Rather than showing vulnerability, business leaders have practiced what social psychiatrists call impression management--also known as "fake it till you make it."

This really struck a chord with me because as someone who makes their living online, keeping my personal brand as authentic as possible is one of my biggest priorities. Sure, I may not blog or tweet about every tough therapy session or anxiety that pops up, but as a business owner with an audience I believe that I have a responsibility to be transparent about the challenges in my life as well as my successes. I am a human being, after all.

With that in mind, I wanted to discuss the struggle that I've faced with reconciling my "authentic self" (aka, the one you see here, on social media, and in person) with the person that I was raised to believe that I was.



Some backstory

For those of you who don't know me personally, I haven't spoken to my parents or the majority of my family since early 2015 (you can read more about that here). Recently my brother had a baby, and I had to make the decision to not reach out or be involved. This wasn't a decision that I made lightly, but it was the right one for me and my mental health, and I stand by it.

This decision prompted my mother to leave a comment on my blog. Some of her statements (minus the attempts at gaslighting) included:

  • For some reason Alyson, which I have to confess, escapes me, you seem to be under the impression that you are far superior to the rest of us.
  • Maybe because you are a, 'writer', and can use, 'big', words, you think it gives you an advantage that we don't have.
  • I think you need to get down off that pedestal you've erected for yourself and get rid of your overblown ego.
  • You are so focused on living up to your superficial, 'queen of the Internet', alter ego, that you no longer know how to be a decent human being.
  • Could it be that there is a wee bit of human in you after all?

The reason that I'm sharing these personal details is because I don't believe that vague descriptions adequately convey the narrative I grew up with. The comments you see above (which thankfully aren't a part of my life anymore beyond being a very helpful example for the sake of this article) were the things that were told to me on a daily basis.

Needless to say I entered adulthood as a pretty unhappy, insecure, and confused individual.

Discovering myself online

When I first started blogging back in 2003 I couldn't have predicted the multitude of ways that it would eventually come to change my life. I've always gravitated towards writing as my favourite form of self-expression, and blogging has always seemed like a natural and easy way to do it.

My blog is a reflection of who I am and the things that I feel are valuable and important to share, and from day one it caused issues between myself and my family. As illustrated in my mother's comments above, my ability to articulate and share my thoughts, and my willingness to do so, was seen as attempts at being superior and were frequently thwarted with threats of getting "cut out" of the family.

Despite this resistance from my home life I soon realized that I had found a community of like-minded individuals who wrote, shared, and published with the same authenticity that I wanted to be doing. In the late 2000's I started reading Raymi the Minx, the busblog, oceanaria, and a plethora of now-defunct but wonderful blogs who inspired me to be myself, no matter what. I'd always grown up believing that "nobody cared" about my thoughts or feelings, and the blogging community taught me that it wasn't true.

Around 2009 I also began discovering social networks. In particular I gravitated towards Twitter, which helped me express myself and connect with people whom I likely wouldn't have met otherwise. I doubt that I would have met Stef, Colin, Adrian, LJT, Kevin, and a variety of other wonderful people whom I now count among my dearest friends if it hadn't been for Twitter, and being active on this social network helped me expand my reach and connect with colleagues, clients, and a support system that I had never imagined was possible.

Around 2011 my active presence online as well as my obsession with internet culture and memes led to some of my Twitter followers (jokingly) dubbing me the "Queen of the Internet". As odd as it sounds, this nickname, however in jest, helped me start to develop a confidence that I had never experienced before. Suddenly people were turning to me to ask questions about social media and blogging on a regular basis. I started speaking at Red River College's Creative Communications program, at the MBlog conference, and my work was published in the local paper.

Contrasting these successes against the person that I had always believed myself to be (the selfish, superficial person who didn't care about anyone but herself) became harder and harder. Not only were my friends, colleagues, and peers informing a narrative which challenged my previous thoughts and feelings about myself, but I was starting to slowly stop believing those things, as well.

The catalyst

In retrospect the biggest change in perspective came when I published my post Living with the Mean Reds, which detailed how it felt to live with anxiety and feelings of low self-worth every day. At the time I was terrified of hitting "publish", and I was overwhelmed and surprised at the outpouring of support and kind words that I received as a result.

Social media and blogging provided me with a supportive community where over time I was able to learn to shed the negative self-image that I'd grown up believing. By having a space that was completely free from my family's influence I was able to start growing, learning, and not being so afraid all the damn time. I started a business, I started therapy, and I started investing my time and energy into the things that really mattered instead of indulging in drama because I felt obligated to participate


Support from these communities help me finally realize that refusing to make room for the negative things in my life doesn't make me a bad person. It means I have a deep enough understanding of my needs to make hard (and sometimes unpopular) decisions.

Why does this matter?

Social media and blogging are extremely powerful tools which can connect us with people all over the world. They allow us to find communities and support systems online we can start to explore parts of ourselves that scare us, or that we don't feel we can express to the people in our day-to-day lives.

By finding ways to express myself online I was able to discover things about myself, make connections, and find opportunities that simply wouldn't have been available to me otherwise. The encouragement I received from my followers, readers, friends, and my very supportive partner led me to where I am today, and though I'm not perfect I'm working hard at building the life I want and deserve.

Sharing this stuff isn't easy. It's doesn't feel great to admit that my mother is the way that she is, or that my family doesn't understand who I am, but it's the reality that I'm in and I'm thankful to be able to have a platform through which I can share these thoughts and experiences as I work through them.

Through blogging and on social media I was able to find a place for myself and connect with communities of supportive and like-minded individuals who helped me start making a place for myself in the real world and, most importantly, in my own eyes.

Most of the bloggers I've followed over the years don't know how much they helped me, and there's a good chance that if my words help someone that I may never know, either. But if reading about the challenges that I've faced helps someone else seek out the supports they need to start healing and being happy, then that matters a great deal, and I'm happy to share my stories and be a part of that process and thankful to be able to help.

As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for being here with me while I figure this stuff out.

(If anything I've described in this post re: family expectations, relationships, or narratives imposed upon you by your family sounds familiar, I strongly encourage you to check out /r/raisedbynarcissists, a wonderfully supportive Reddit community that has helped me a lot.)


Content Marketing vs Social Media

- by Alyson Shane

One of the things I find myself discussing again and again - with clients, friends, colleagues, and people who are genuinely confused about what I do, is the difference between "content marketing" and "social media."

Usually when I tell people I do content marketing and social media they respond with something like "oh, you just publish stuff on Twitter, right?" which is really only a small sliver of the equation.

While content marketing heavily involved social media, there's much more to creating content than just pushing it out across a variety of social channels. Even though there's a lot of overlap they are, in fact, two very distinct things, each with different goals, strategies, and processes.

So, once and for all, let's clear the air!


The Sun and the Solar System

Social media marketing is the focus of your marketing activity which is located on social networks.

When marketers share content on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, they're operating within the specific confines of those networks. Sure, they're sharing their own content in a lot of cases, but it's on someone else's network, and none of those networks connect to each other all that often (eg: you don't share Tweets on Facebook, and vice-versa.)

Conversely, the centre of every content marketing strategy is the organization's website.

A business' website is designed to be the central place for all of their branded content. Once the content has been published on the central website, it gets shared across the various social networks where the company has a presence. So, "social media" is the act of using specific social networks, and "content marketing" is creating content on your own website to be published and distributed.

The way that I like to describe this process is the "Sun and Solar System." In this example, your brand website is the 'Sun' - the focal point in all of your marketing efforts, and the brightest and most important star in the sky. The other social networks that you use to distribute the content are 'planets' which orbit around the central hub. Like planets in real-life, the 'planets' in this example operate independently of each other, all have unique features, and have one thing in common: they exist because of the 'Sun'.

Types of Content

Social media marketing is designed to fit within the confines of that social network. For example, a Tweet on Twitter needs to be 140 characters or less, Pinterest pins need to have eye-catching photos, etc.

Content marketing, on the other hand, can come in a variety of styles, flavours, and lengths because websites allow for much more creative and extended types of content. On a website brands can publish blog posts, videos, infographics, white papers and eBooks... the sky's the limit, really.

This flexibility in content means that brands can exercise a higher level of creativity in the content they create on their website, because they don't have to worry about falling within a 140 character limit.

Goals

While content marketing and social media marketing are used in tandem to reach specific goals, they actually are designed to achieve two different things:

Content marketing is focused completely on the 'Sun', which allows it to focus more on demand generation and content publishing than on getting the word out about it.

As a brand publishes content on their website, the 'Sun' in the middle of their solar system, they can use social media to direct traffic back to it, developing a relationship with their audience.

Social media is used to promote brand awareness. When a visitor lands on a brand's website, the brand has full control over what kind of experience that visitor is going to have, and they already have the advantage because the potential customer has already indicated interest by going there in the first place.

Because social networks can't be controlled by brands and businesses, the purpose of those networks then becomes to use them as a means to generate discussion and interact with their audience. Additionally, because social networks are mostly democratic (I say 'mostly' because of the recent introduction of YouTube Red) and all user account are created equally, social networks become a place for brands to have informal interactions with their audience.

Social networks also notify you when someone is talking about you, which makes tracking customer mentions, feedback, and criticism a lot easier to track than ever before.

Why Content Marketing?

Content marketing and social media go hand-in-hand, but many people I talk to focus only on the social media side of things because seeing a brand's presence across multiple social networks gives the impression that it's more important.

This is not true, and I'd actually argue that content marketing actually the more important of the two.

That's because in order for your social media feeds to have a way to genuinely connect with your audience, there has to be a central 'hub' (or Sun) at the centre of things to drive brand awareness and help craft a story. You can't tell your audience about who you are if you don't create the kind of content that helps them understand and care, and social networks just aren't as efficient at doing it because you have to play by the rules of each specific network.

This is why content marketing and social media marketing, though two different things with different purposes, are actually intricately linked.

Did this explanation make sense? What do you think about the difference between content marketing and social media? Tell me in the comments!


Vingt-huit

- by Alyson Shane

The Good

Life is good.

I feel so thankful for my friends, the plethora of people who make me smile and touch my life in so many ways. Being able to watch the people I care about grow and create their futures is amazing to watch, and something that I feel fortunate to be able to share with them.

And for John, my partner through everything, who reminds me every day what it is to devote yourself to the things you love, and to always strive to do good, and to act with kindness and sincerity. I love him more than I can describe, and am so thankful for the time we have together.

The life I have now, where I get to wake up to my best friend every morning, spend my days doing work that I love, and experience the (slightly terrifying) adventure that is running a business, is one I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

The Bad

Earlier this year, as part of my efforts to heal and grow, I asked my parents for some space while I started going to therapy. Their reaction was painful to accept: my mom simply didn't respond or acknowledge the email I wrote to her explaining how I felt, and my dad told me to "have a nice life." When confronted with a reality that they didn't like, they decided to gloss over it by simply not dealing with it and hoping it would go away.

I can't describe to you how awful it feels to have your parents disregard your feeling and experiences this way. It's devastating, and it hurts every time I think about it.

However, it was an eye-opening experience for me. I'd grown up believing that behaviour like this was commonplace and acceptable, but talking to a professional helped me understand that this isn't. It's not normal for parents to cut their children out, or punish them with a wall of silence when confronted with something that upsets them, or makes them uncomfortable.

I started realizing that a lot of the behaviours I was working to get rid of: anxiety attacks, crippling fear of failure, feeling like I'm never good enough, were largely the result of my relationship with my parents, and that their decision to cut me out entirely was a blessing in disguise. In the last ten months I've come to have a much deeper understanding of who I am, and what my values are, and what I want from my life than I've ever had before.

Sure, part of that is likely just a result of growing up and the normal maturing process, but not having to defend my actions constantly, or try to find love and approval that didn't come with strings and expectations attached, has made such a tremendous difference in my life.

I haven't talked about this too much because I don't want to air too much of my family's dirty laundry. However, I do feel obligated to touch on it and share it with you, because it's been an important part of my growing process, and because nobody, not even a family member, has the right to treat you badly.

The Incredible

Without a doubt, running my business full-time has been the biggest and most important change in the past year. Honestly, I'm still not used to it. There are days when I find myself walking around in the middle of the day, maybe on the way to a meeting, or doing some errands while the stores are empty, and think "I can do whatever I want today." That's pretty fucking empowering.

I like being one of those people who get excited to talk about work, and it's been an interesting transition to stop thinking of work as something taboo, or something I'd rather not think about or discuss outside of "regular working hours" to something that I love enough to talk about pretty much constantly.

Of course, it's not all roses and fat stacks; running your own business is scary. There's no guaranteed monthly salary, no pension plan, and no benefits. Everything I do, I have to do for myself. But having to depend on myself (and some advice from much-appreciated mentors and colleagues) has given me confidence and helped me discover so much about myself, and I wouldn't trade that for the world.

The Future

For the first time in my adult life I feel excited about what's to come.

This is new for me. For most of my life I felt directionless; unsure of what I wanted, where I'd go, what I would do with myself. I took jobs I didn't like, hung around with people I didn't much care for (and who didn't really care about me in return), and made decisions based on fear.

I was a scared, insecure, and anxious person.

These days I feel different. Sure, I still get anxious, or stressed, or have moments of doubt, but I've been learning to handle them a lot better, and those paralyzing moments are becoming fewer and farther between.

I truly feel like this was the year where I came into my own, and I'm so excited to see where I'm going to go.

As always, thank you for sharing this journey with me.

xox

yr girl Shaner


How Digital Assistants Could Replace Search Engines

- by Alyson Shane

Back when I was a kid, the term "personal digital assistant" usually referred to one of these:


(remember Palm Pilots? No? Just me?)

Nowadays, your personal digital assistant (or PDA, for short) refers to something much more literal, though much more incorporeal. Apple's Siri and the super-popular Google Now (which I use every day and love) are just two examples of modern-day voice recognition software which allows us to speak our commands and questions into our smartphones and get real, tangible results.

I've been using Siri for a while, but my recent foray into Google Now's voice recognition has me thinking about the future of personal digital assistants, and what this means for the future of search engines and SEO.


Our Searches are More Sophisticated

Back in the early days of Google their algorithm was pretty simple: keywords typed into the search box were matched with keywords on websites, and links were counted and mixed in order to determine a ranking system.

These days search engines are much more sophisticated, using a process called semantic search to analyze the intent behind a search query, not just the search query itself, and to rank the most appropriate results based on both of those factors (this is why tactics like keyword-stuffing work against modern websites.)

Similarly to the early days of search engines, digital assistants are becoming more sophisticated all the time. Newer versions of Siri struggled with interpreting spoken words for garbled speech, and generally being unhelpful. However, recent updates to Siri and Google Now have extremely accurate voice recognition capabilities and are quickly learning to adapt to issues like thick accents in a way that, previously, they were unable.

Integrated Internet & Wearables

Okay, so I've told you why digital assistants are being used more often, but why would anyone be using them in place of a conventional search engine?

One of the major differences is that our technology has become interwoven with our everyday lives - once upon a time, not too long ago, the Internet existed as a separate place that we "dialled into" at clunky desktop computers, opened a browser, and typed in our search query. These days, almost all of our devices (smartphone, desktops, laptops, etc) are connected to the internet automatically, making the Internet an integral part of our lives.

The biggest reason for this, of course, are smartphones. The introduction of the iPhone and the subsequent waves of mobile devices featuring web browsing, mobile apps, and a variety of other features means we're always connected to the Internet.

Additionally, as "wearables" like the Apple Watch, the Android Wear, and a variety of other kinds of "smart watches" become increasingly more popular, the need for better and more accurate digital assistants to replace typing searches into a tiny screen will likely increase as well.

What all of this this means is that the Internet isn't some place that you physically go to in order to find information; it's all around us, all the time, and it's becoming available on increasingly smaller screens than ever before. It also means that because we're constantly searching for things on-the-go, a browser-based website might not be the best or most efficient way to look for it.

The Effect on SEO


As the ways in which we search for and find information change, so too will the ways that search engines find, organize and display results. Below are a few ways that I think voice-based searching and the increasing popularity of digital assistants could influence how we search:

Voice-Based Queries

We've already discussed this increase a bit earlier in this post, but if the trend continues we'll start to see spoken queries become longer and more conversational. What this means for bloggers, marketers and other people like me is that having "conversational content" (like what you're reading right now) will become the ideal kind of content to match up with colloquial queries.

This also means that current SEO strategies will have to become more general, and will be less reliant on keywords or short phrases than they currently are.

The Rise of Instant Answers

We're already started to see the beginning of the instant-answer phenomenon with Google's Knowledge Graph, which is a system that provides answers to questions and queries without forcing users to visit a specific website like Wikipedia or IMDB.

If you're not familiar with how Google's Knowledge Graph works, and it's purpose, this quote from super-smart Neil Patel should do a better job of explaining it than I can:

The search engine is primarily designed to collate data about everything on the face of the earth, sync the data with their search algorithm, and make the information accessible quickly and easily, no matter what platform the searcher uses.

Digital assistants will take this further, giving users clever, concise answers rather than redirecting them to a Wikipedia page, or a recipe page with six paragraphs and fourteen photos before the actual recipe. This means that websites may see a dip in traffic and visibility.

Geographic Relevance

Personal aside: this has been one of my favourite things about Google Now. I love having an app that knows where I am and can tell relevant information based on my past queries without having to search for it. Heaven!

Anyway... Since digital assistants are generally used on the go, local businesses can benefit by offering content specific to that geographic region to try and increase foot traffic into their brick-and-mortar stores.

This also opens up interesting new avenues for optimization, where stores could optimize their information so that it gets mentioned by digital assistants more frequently, or when customers are close by.

Meeting Immediacy

Especially as voice recognition becomes even more commonplace and sophisticated, I think we'll see people start to turn to their digital assistants for more immediate and complex needs. So we'll be saying more complex commands like "find me an East Indian restaurant open past 8pm tomorrow night" as opposed to searching "East Indian restaurants in Winnipeg" and going through a list of restaurant hours, taking up a bunch of time.

This means that the demand for tutorial-like content will likely increase, which will have an impact on content creators to adapt the way that they write, or how they share audio and video-based content. I'm looking at you, 1000+ word long recipe articles.

What Does All This Mean?

To quote the ever-wise Bob Dylan "the times, they are a-changin'" and technology is continuing to shape how we live our lives at an increasingly aggressive pace.

While it may take some time for digital assistants to replace search engines, I do think that voice recognition is the way of the future, and that we'll eventually see most forms of traditional text-based search engines become phased out. This means that content creators, marketers, and other digital-types will have to adapt our strategies in order to continue to get noticed.

What are your thoughts on digital personal assistants and SEO? Tell me in the comments!


Having a Family of Choice

- by Alyson Shane


Yesterday I spent my Thanksgiving surrounded by some of the people who matter most to me. We made dinner, had drinks, shared stories, and otherwise enjoyed each other's company. It was a terrific way to wrap up the long weekend, and I'm still glowing just thinking about how much fun it was.

This is the first Thanksgiving I've had without my family in a long time, and as we move into a season where, traditionally, we spend more time with our families, I wanted to talk a little bit about creating a Family of Choice, and how it's helped me.

Some backstory

For those of you new to this blog, I haven't communicated with my parents since last winter. Shortly after the new year I decided to seek out therapy and to start to work through a variety of anxieties and issues related to self-worth that were the result of my relationship with my mom, and one of the things my therapist suggested was to take some space from my mom while I focused on healing.

Needless to say asking for space didn't go over very well, and the fallout was that now neither of my parents speak to me. As a result I don't really speak to any of my extended family, and have very limited contact with my two younger siblings.

I don't talk about it very often because it's a difficult topic to discuss; most people have pretty solid relationships with their families, and even the ones who have rocky ones generally maintain some level of contact with their families despite regular drama and other issues that families deal with.

On being 'No-Contact'

I think that one of the hardest things that adults face is whether or not we should keep negative people in our lives. For many of us, there's that one relationship that we know we shouldn't maintain, but we do so because (often) we feel guilty about not maintaining it.

Think about that one "friend" who you don't really like, but always get invited around because they've always been there, or that family member who you despise but still invite to Christmas because you "have to."

Stop the madness! You never "have to" do anything that upsets you or makes you feel uncomfortable.


If someone is making you feel bad, guilting you, or otherwise upsetting you on a regular basis, you don't have to include them in your life. Getting to be a part of your life is a privilege, not a right.

For example, I have a family member whose way of "helping" was to challenge me on every single thing I did - I shudder to think about the hours I spent defending all of my decisions, from who I was dating, to my career choice, to where I wanted to go on vacation. It was insanity! I'd see their name pop up and my blood pressure would rise just thinking about the argument that was going to ensue.

If someone in your life is making you feel this way -your parent, friend, colleague, whatever- you have a right to ask them to stop. If they respect you, they will. If not, then it's okay to not politely explain why they don't get to be privy to your life and decisions anymore.

Creating a Family of Choice

"Family of Choice" is just what it sounds like: the people you choose to have around you in your life, and who are close to you. These people differ from your "Family of Origin" which are your blood relatives; mum, dad, siblings, etc.

I've heard lots of people make comments like "friends aren't the same as family" which I think is total BS. I really feel like many of us use "they're family" as an excuse to put up with meddling, guilt, and other nonsense that we wouldn't otherwise put up with from anyone else. How insane is that?

Being blood relatives doesn't (and shouldn't) make maintaining one relationship more important than maintaining others, and just because someone isn't related to you by blood, that shouldn't diminish the importance of the relationship.

Being close to your Family of Choice is just as good as being close to your Family of Origin, if your situation permits it - there's no law stating that just because you weren't born into the same family, that you can't care about someone the same way you would a blood relative.

Creating and cultivating my Family of Choice has been a really important part of navigating this whole No-Contact experience for me. Knowing that I have a handful of close friends whom I can turn to in a crisis helps alleviate feelings of loneliness or isolation which I occasionally feel when thinking about my present circumstances.

In addition to being a support system, a healthy Family of Choice can also serve as a benchmark for other relationships in our lives. Why would we want to spend time talking to or putting up with people who make us feel bad, or tear us down, when we have a support system of great people we can reach out to instead?

Why does all of this matter?

It matters because we have a right to be happy, and to surround ourselves with kind, positive people who care about us and want to see us succeed.

Most of the time this is pretty easy to do; lots of us are lucky enough to have defaulted into families who are supportive, and manage to find great friends, partners and colleagues whom we care about, and who want the best for us, as well.

However, it's easy to start to fall into the habit of allowing negative people to start to infiltrate our lives, and to start giving them too much weight and authority over our thoughts and our actions. This can be especially true if we've grown up in a family, or have that one family member, who makes us feel like shit. We put up with it because we're used to it.

Creating a Family of Choice means that you get to choose the people you want to share your life and experiences with. It means taking control over your own happiness, and ensuring that everyone who touches your life does so in meaningful and positive ways.

I didn't write this post to encourage you to cut out your family or anything like that, but I wanted to write something to let you know that we can look to outside sources (friends, partners, colleagues, mentors, etc) to help us feel fulfilled and loved. It's hard, and it's a weird process, but it does work and it's worth doing if you aren't getting the supports that you need from your Family of Origin.

We all have the tools at our disposal to build the kind of families and lifestyles that we want to have - what that looks like is entirely up to you.

Have you ever struggled with letting go of a difficult relationship? Was it a friend, family, or loved one? Tell me in the comments, or if it's too personal, send me an email - I'm always available to chat.


Smiling With My Teeth

- by Alyson Shane

I was going back through some old photos the other day and I noticed a trend that I think a lot of people fall into: I was making the same face in every photo.

See what I mean?

Going back farther, I noticed that I had the habit of making what I refer to as the "Ugly Girl Face" - aka, a generally grotesque or distorted face in photos. 

This face, referred to as the "After Hours Sex Face" thanks to a video that I'd seen online, was one that I pulled because I didn't like how I looked in photos. I felt self-conscious about my hair, my makeup, my personality, and most importantly my weight. 

Making the AHSF was my way of drawing attention away from aspects of myself that I was uncomfortable with; I was able to hide behind it, even in photos.

After a while I started to grow up and become more confident and the AHSF (thankfully) became a relic only available in old, old Facebook albums. 

Except around this time another trend emerged: I started making the same face in every photo. 

If you look at photos of me from 2010-2013, I make the same face in almost every picture: head cocked to the side, close-lipped smile, etc. 

While these photos don't necessarily make me look bad (that would defeat the purpose) they certainly don't express my personality in any memorable way. 

Then, around mid-2014 this started to change. I started smiling with my teeth, laughing in photos, and sharing images of myself that didn't look totally posed and put-together. In fact, my "candid" laugh photos started to rapidly become my favourite pictures. 

The more I thought about this shift, the more I realized that the way that I smiled in the photos was indicative of how comfortable I was with myself: I've spent the last year going through some major emotional and personal changes, which seem to have manifested themselves in a way that I hadn't previously thought about.

I realized that over time I had gone from one extreme to another: distorting my face to mask how I felt about myself deep down, to accepting who I was and sharing it with a huge burst of laughter and a smile.

It makes me wonder about women who pull faces in photos, or strike the same pose in every group photo. Is this what, subconsciously perhaps, is going on? Why do we worry so much about how people perceive these photos of ourselves?

Have you noticed changes in how you present yourself in photos over the years? If so, why do you think that is? Let's discuss!


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