New to blogs, Patricia’s first post is on the role of the Bible to Friends: The early Quaker community, unified and ordered under Christ their head, was guided and empowered to do this same work of convincing others. Their mission – above all else – was to publish the Truth to the world. What is our mission today? Our mission is the same – to preach the Gospel; to present the power of God to grieving, doubting Thomases and Marys…
On Twitter earlier today, Jay T asked “Didn’t u or someone once write about how Q’s behave on blogs & other soc. media? Can’t find it on Qranter or via Google. Thx!” Jay subsequently found a great piece from Robin Mohr circa 2008 but I kept remembering an description of blogging I had written in the earliest days of the blogosphere. It didn’t show up on my blog or via a Google search and then I hit up the wonderful Internet Archive.org Wayback Machine. The original two paragraph description of QuakerQuaker is not easily accessible outside of Archive.org but it’s nice to uncover it again and give it a little sunlight:
Quakerism is an experiential religion: we believe we should “let our lives speak” and we stay away from creeds and doctrinal statements. The best way to learn what Quakers believe is through listening in on our conversations.
In the last few years, dozens of Quakers have begun sharing stories, frustrations, hopes and dreams for our religious society through blogs. The conversations have been amazing. There’s a palpable sense of renewal and excitement. QuakerQuaker is a daily index to that conversation.
I still like it as a distinctly Quaker philosophy of outreach.
There’s some pieces making the round to the effect that some of the old school NYC bloggers are coming back to blogging. From Fred Wilson, The Personal Blog:
There is something about the personal blog, yourname.com, where you control everything and get to do whatever the hell pleases you. There is something about linking to one of those blogs and then saying something. It’s like having a conversation in public with each other. This is how blogging was in the early days. And this is how blogging is today, if you want it to be.
Wilson cites Lockard Steele in Back to the Blog:
Back then, we’d had a ton of stupid fun linking to each other’s blog posts for no other reason than that they existed and that it amused us greatly. Who wouldn’t want back in on that?
Another one of his citations was Elizabeth Spiers, who followed up with a post Anything I Care About:
I don’t have to write as narrowly as I do when I publish in a regular media outlet. The upside of that for me is that I don’t feel compelled to stick to a particular topic. I can write about, as Fred put it, “anything I care about.”
One of my first thoughts is how annoyingly insider these posts feel. One of the qualities about the current internet is that our filtering mechanisms are so sophisticated and transparent that we don’t always see how self-selected a sliver of social media we’re seeing. Facebook and its mysterious algorithms are the example we all like to complain about. But Twitter is a different beast depending on who you follow and Google searches use hundreds of different signals to tailor results. Just because your cohort all stopped personal blogging in exchange for professionalized blogs ten years ago doesn’t mean it’s a universal phenomenon.
Whenever someone says they’re starting (or restarting) a blog I like to wait a few months before celebrating, as there’s a big difference between intent and actual writing. But I like the idea that personal blogs might be making a comeback among some of what we used to call the digerati.
But let’s not get too snobby about domains: how are Facebook posts not a personal blog? Is it just a matter of URLs? I have Facebook friends who put care into their online persona. People use Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram partly because they come with built-in audiences – but also because their crackerjack engineers have taken away the friction of blogging. When Wilson decided to experiment with this nouveau-blogging, he photoblogged a trip to his WordPress site. What happened? The photos were all oversized. One of the commenters asked Wilson “isn’t this a bit similar to what you’re already posting on Tumblr and Foursquare?” Well, yeah.
Anyway, all this is to say that I’ve blogged a lot more since I decided to make my Tumblr my personal blog. I’ve got the near-frictionless posting that keeps my photoblogging looking good but I’ve maintain the controlled URL of martinkelley.com to future proof against new technological platforms. But is it just the URL that makes it a personal blog?
[Update 2015: Despite the posting ease and nice display the Tumblr never matched the traffic on my WordPress site. Since reading is as important as writing, I’ve moved my main writing back to the WP-powered QuakerRanter]
Continuing my recent post in reimagining blogs, I’m going to go into some contextual details lifted from the Quaker publications with which I’m either directly associated or that have some claim to my identity.
My blog at Quaker Ranter dates back to the proto-blog I began in 1997 as an new homepage for my two year old “Nonviolence Web” project. The new feature was updated weekly with excerpted material from member projects on Nonviolence.org and related organizations that already had independent websites. We didn’t have RSS or Twitter then but I would manually send out emails to a list; we didn’t have comments but I would publish interesting responses that came by email. The work was relaunched with blogging software in 2003 and the voice became more individual and my focus became more Quaker and tech.
The articles then were like they are now: reversely chronological, with categories, tagging, and site searching that allow older material to be accessed. The most important source of archive visibility is external: Google. People can easily find material that is directly relevant to a question they’re addressing right now. In many instances, they’ll never even click through to the site homepage, much less categories, tags, etc. As I said in my last post, these first-time visitors are often trying to understand something new; the great majority bounce off the page and follow another search result on a matter of a few seconds, but some small but important percentage will be ripe for new ideas and connections and might be willing to try new associations.
But it’s random. I’m a bit of a nerd in my chosen interests and have been blogging long enough that I generally have at least a few interesting posts on any particular sub-topic. Most of these have been inspired by colleagues, friends, my wife, and random conversations I’ve found myself in.
Some of the most meaningful blog posts – those with legs – have involved me integrating some new thinker or idea into my worldview. The process will have started months or sometimes years before when another spiritual nerd recommended a book or article. In the faith world there’s always books that are obscure to newcomers but essential for those trying to go deeper into their faith. You’ll be in a deep conversations with someone and they’ll ask (often with a twinkle in their eye) “have you read so-and-so?” (This culture if sharing is especially important for Friends, who traditionally have no clergy or seminaries).
A major role of my blog has been to bring these sorts of conversations into a public realm – one that can be Googled and followed. The internet has helped us scale-up this process and make it more available to those who can’t constantly travel.
When I have real-world conversations now, I often have recourse to cite some old blog post. I’m sharing the “have you read” conversation in a way that can be eavesdropped by hundreds.
But how are people who stumble in my site for the first time going to find this?
The issue isn’t just limited to an obscure faith blog. Yesterday I learned about a cool (to me) blog written by a dad who researches and travels to neat nature spots in the area with his kids and writes up a post about what-to-see and kid-issues-to-be-aware-of. But when it’s a nice Saturday afternoon and I find myself in a certain locale, how can I know if he’s been anywhere nearby unless I go through all the archives or hope the search works or hope his blog’s categorization taxonomy is complete?
What I’m thinking is that we could try to create meta indexes to our blogs in a wiki model. Have a whole collection of introductory pages where we list and summarize relevant articles with links.
In the heyday of SEO, I used to tag the heck out if posts and have the pages act as a sort of automated version of this, but again, this it was chronological. And it was work. Even remembering to tag is work. I would spend a couple of days ignoring clients to metatag each page on the site, only to redo the work a few months later with even more metadata complexity. Writing a whole shadow meta blog indexing the blog would be a major (and unending task). It wouldn’t garner the rush of immediate Facebook likes. But it would be supremely useful for someone wanting to explore an issue of particular interest to them at that moment.
And one more Quaker aside that I think will nevertheless be of interest to the more techie readers. I’ve described Quakerism as a wiki spirituality. Exhibit one is the religious movement’s initial lack of creeds or written instruction. Even our pacifism, for which we’re most well known, was an uncodified testimony in the earliest years.
As Friends gained more experience living in community, they would publish advices – short snippets of wisdom that were collectively-approved using consensus decision making. They were based on experience. For example, they might find that members who abused alcohol, say, or repeatedly tested the dress code might cause other sorts of problems for the community and they’d minute a warning against these practices.
These advices were written over time; as more were approved it became burdensome to find relevant advices when some issue started tearing up a congregation. So they were collected into books – unofficial at first, literally hand-copied from person to person. These eventually became official – published “books of disciplines,” collections of the collective wisdom organized by topic. Their purpose and scope (and even their name) has changed over the ensuing centuries but their impulse and early organization is one that I find useful when thinking about how we could rethink the categorization issues of our twenty first century blogs and commenting systems.
In last weekend’s NYTimes Magazine, Michael Erard writes about the history of online comments. Even though I was involved with blogging from its earliest days, it surprised me to remember that comments, permalinks, comments, and trackbacks were all later innovations. Erard’s historical lens is helpful in showing how what we now think of as a typical comment system – a line of reader feedback in reverse chronological order underneath content – grew out of technological restraints. It was easiest to code this sort of system. The model was bulletin boards and, before that, “guestbooks” that sat on websites.
Many of these same constraints and models underlay blogs as a whole. Most blog home pages don’t feature the most post popular posts or the one the writer might think most important. No, they show the most recent. As in comments, the entries are ordered in reverse chronological order. The pressure on writers is to repeat themselves so that their main talking points regularly show up on the homepage. There are ways around this (pinned posts, a list of important posts, plug-ins that will show what’s most popular or getting the most comments), but they’re rarely implemented and all have drawbacks.
Here’s the dilemma: the regular readers who follow your blog (read your magazine, subscribe to your Youtube, etc.) probably already know where you stand on particular issue. They generally share many of your opinions and even when they don’t, they’re still coming to your site for some sort of confirmation.
The times when blogs and websites change lives – and they do sometimes – is when someone comes by to whom your message is new. Your arguments or viewpoint helps them make sense of some growing realization that they’ve intuited but can’t quite name or define. The writing and conversation provides a piece of the puzzle of a growing identity.
(The same is true of someone walking into a new church; it’s almost a cliché of Friends that a newcomer feels “as if I’ve been Quaker my whole life and didn’t know it!” If taught gently, the Quaker ethos and metaphors give shape to an identity that’s been bubbling up for some time.)
So if we’re rethinking the mechanical default of comments, why not rethink blogs? I know projects such as Medium are trying to do that. But would it be possible to retrofit existing online publications and blogs in a way that was both future-proof and didn’t require inordinate amounts of categorization time?
I must admit I’ve been thrown off my blog reading by the demise of Google Reader, closed July 1 with only a few months warning. I remember when Google’s was the newest member of the RSS reading options. Its simple interface and relatively-solid performance eventually won me over and its competitors gradually stopped innovating and finally closed.
In the last few months other services have taken up the challenge of replacing Reader, but it’s been a chaotic process and a gamble which would be rolled out in time. One of my go-to programs, Reeder, now works for the phone but not the Mac app. It runs off of the Feedly service, which I now use in the browser to access my feeds.
I rely on these blog reading services to keep track of over 100 blogs. RSS may not be sexy enough to be a mass-market service but for those of us whose temperments or hobbies run toward curation, it’s an essential tool. As the new systems mature, I hope to keep up with my Quakerquaker reading more thoroughly.
I think about what constantly-flowing information means for blogging. In some ways this is Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. But what if someone started a stand-alone blog that wasn’t a series of posts, but rather a continuous stream of blurbs, almost like chat. For example: “I just heard…” or “Microsoft launching this is stupid, here’s why…” — things like that. More like an always-on live blog, I guess.
It’s sort of strange to me that blogs are still based around the idea of fully-formed articles of old. This works well for some content, but I don’t see why it has to be that way for all content. The real-time communication aspect of the web should be utilized more, especially in a mobile world.
People aren’t going to want to sit on one page all day, especially if there’s nothing new coming in for a bit. But push notifications could alleviate this as could Twitter as a notification layer. And with multiple people on “shift” doing updates, there could always be fresh content, coming in real time.
Just thinking out loud here.
Good out loud thinking from MG about where blogging’s going. I’ve realized for while now that I’m much more likely to use Twitter and Tumblr to share small snippets that aren’t worth a fully-formed post. What I’ve also realized is that I’m more likely to add commentary to that link share (as I’m doing now) so that it effectively becomes a blog post.
Because of this I’m seriously considering archiving my almost ten year old blog (carefully preserving comment threads if at a possible) and installing my Tumblr on the QuakerRanter.org domain.
A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fascinating early look-back at the relationship between social media and the largely-nonviolent revolution in Egypt written by David D Kirkpatrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumultuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak is finally out. Most of the quotes and inside knowlege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, who became an activist in 2005.
Lesson One: Years in the Making
The Times starts off by pointing out that the “bloggers lead the way” and that the “Egyptian revolt was years in the making.” It’s important to remember that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Bloggers have been active for years: leading, learning, making mistakes and collecting knowledge. Many of the first round of bloggers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effectively neutralized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legally recognized opposition parties.” “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said one blogger. A lesson we might draw for that is that blogging isn’t necessarily a stepping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The culture of blogs and mainstream movements are not always compatible.
Lesson Two: Share Your Experiences
The Egyptian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The context was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent.” Still, it was important to share tips: “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” a blogger recalled. Some of the tips were exceedingly practical (how to avert tear gas – brought lemons, onions and vinegar, apparently) and others more social (sharing torture experiences). Lesson: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.
One of the interesting sidelights was how the teachings of American nonviolence strategist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Serbian youth movement had based their rebellion on his tactics and the Egyptians followed their lead, with exiled organizers setting up a website (warning: annoying sound) compiling Sharp’s strategies:
For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.
As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tickles me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egyptian protests. America really can export democracy sometimes!
Lesson Three: Be Relentless in Confronting Lies
The Times reports that Maher “took special aim at the distortions of the official media.” He told them that when people “distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact checking role. People turn to independent sources when they sense a propaganda machine. The creator of a Facebook site was a Google marketing executive working on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and newspaper articles [and] repeatedly hammered home a simple message.”
Lesson Four: Don’t Wait for Those Supposed To Do This Work
Most of this social media was created by students for goodness sake and it all relied on essentially-free services. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Muslim Brotherhood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scrambled not knowing what to do as protests erupted in the major cities. Eventually the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full organization followed suit but it was not the leaders in any of this.
When we’re talking about popular organizating, money and established credentials aren’t always an advantage. What’s interesting to learn with the Egypt protests is that the generation leading it doesn’t seem to have as strict a religious worldview as its parents. This came out most dramatically in the images of Christian Egyptians protecting their Muslim brothers in Tahir Square during times of prayer. This is having ramification in copycat protests in Tehran. Iranian leaders tried to paint the Egyptian students as heirs to their own Islamic revolution but it seems practical considerations are more important than setting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one – protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood might well take over from Egypt protesters now that Mubarak is out).
On a personal note…
It’s interesting to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s campaign has mimicked some of the features of the Egyptian protests. Their blog has been pretty relentless in exposing the lies. It’s attracted far more media attention than the professionally-staffed Diocesan press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talking with churches in other regions to compare tactics and anticipate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of seven churches nationwide with round-the-clock vigils but it’s the only one with a strong social media component. It’s average age is probably a generation or two younger than the other vigils which gives it a certain frank style that’s not found elsewhere. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is exploding now with arrests of recent Diocesan officials and revelations from the District Attoreny that dozens of priests with “credible accusations” of pedophilia are still ministering around kids and while church closings and the pedophilia scandals are not officially connected, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admitting that they arise from a shared Diocesan culture of money and cover-ups. Again, “repeatingly hammering home a simple message” is a good strategy.