On Thursday afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a talk with Malcolm Gladwell at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa. It done in a Q and A format and hosted by local journalist Mark Sutcliffe. It was an awe inspiring 90 minutes, to say the least. We laughed, we thought, we even got a little emotional at times. We also supported the United Way/Centraide of Ottawa, so we felt good on many levels.

Gladwell told many stories, but the one that has stuck with me over the past few days was “Million Dollar Murray”. If you aren’t familiar with the story, you can go have a read over here. It’s about a homeless man living on the streets of Reno. Murray was an alcoholic, and spent much of his time in and out of treatment, emergency rooms and jail. One day, someone decided to total up how much it was costing the city of Reno to keep Murray on the streets and “manage” him. It turned out that over 10 years, Murray cost the city of Reno over $1 million. You read that right. $1 million and the end result was that after 10 years, Murray was still homeless. The story goes on to suggest that if the city of Reno was to get Murray off the street, into an apartment, and give him the treatment and counselling and support he needed to stay there, that would only cost them about $15,000 a year. You read that right too. Of course, this type of arrangement isn’t without it’s share of challenges, and you can read the article to find out more about those.

The point is not what Murray does or doesn’t cost the system. The point Gladwell made in his talk was that by making one small change to how society is looking at the problem of homelessness – by solving it instead of managing it…that there’s enormous potential to make a real difference in the lives of the chronically homeless. He suggested to us that experimenting with different methods to achieve this should not be ruled out.

It’s experimentation that I want to talk with you about today.

A pinch of this, a dash of that. The online circles I tend to travel in are mostly made up of a mish mash of PR, advertising, media and marketing types. These folks are for the most part extremely good at what they do. I follow them, read their blogs, converse with them, do business with them, and socialize with them. I do it on many levels, with many different tools. I throw in bits and pieces of my own stuff, and share what I know. In return, I get to learn what they know. It creates a very symbiotic relationship. Sometimes I give more. Sometimes they do. In the end, we both have the opportunity to benefit. This is what works for me. The mish mash. I don’t spend too much time with any one group. I don’t just listen to one or two gurus. I find the people that I’m interested in.

Everyone’s secret recipe is different. Sometimes the recipe changes. Sometimes you need to experiment, try on different hats. Sometimes you need to be totally engaged, sometimes you need to back away. But in the end it’s your secret recipe, to do with what you please.

Lead, follow, or get a life. There are literally thousands of people out here in the social media world that want to give you advice. What’s wonderful is, there are thousands that have extremely good advice to give.

Yet it seems to me that we have a tendency to hang on the every word of a select few. And when we’re not hanging on words, we’re following the same select few around to every conference and meetup  on the continent just to get a sneak peek or the latest insight (or worse, just to “be in their presence”. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen those kinds of tweets, and I know you have too.). I’m not saying that the upper crust of social media are not worth listening to. Quite the contrary. What I am saying is this. You know how certain types of tropical fish will follow your finger across the glass, no matter where you go? I often imagine that a lot of conferences are like this. One finger flits around the outside of the bowl and the rest of the goldfish follow its every move. Original thought gives way to hero worship, seeing and being seen, and suddenly, the intended value gets entirely lost. This is one of the reasons I’m very particular about which conferences and meetups I attend.

The world will always have leaders and followers. If you are a leader, then lead. Be a trailblazer. Nobody’s telling you not to. In fact, we need you. If you are a follower, then that’s great too. A good leader is only as good as the calibre of her following. But there’s following, and there’s just plain silly. Followers, in my book, are there to learn, absorb, then go off and do something real with what their leaders have shown them. The just plain silly aren’t following. They are being silly. Hoping that the leader will notice them, hoping the leader will give them something even though they are offering nothing in return.

And, uh, Suze. You’ve totally lost me. So, you say…what does any of this have to do with Malcolm Gladwell and his philosophy about experimentation? Simple.

We have at our disposal an entire planet’s worth of knowledge. We have the ability to connect with just about anyone, anywhere, anytime. We can build relationships like never before. Yet for some reason, many people in the online space seem intent on trying to make the rules for everyone. They say:

You MUST tweet this way. You MUST choose this Facebook vanity name. You MUST blog this many times per day or week. You MUST always consider your brand, your community, your followers. In that order. You MUST hang on the every word of Mr. Super Blogger.

No. No. NO.

You MUST experience this space the way YOU want to experience it. You MUST try things….experiment. Some stuff will work. Other stuff will fail miserably. This is choose your own adventure time, people! You get to decide what you’re going to do with this remarkable thing called the World Wide Web.

Remember….the thing about being a trailblazer is that there’s nobody ahead of you to fight the tigers.

What’s your grand experiment?