Listening in on our Quaker conversations

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.

A comeback of personal blogging?

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, your​name​.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 mar​tinkel​ley​.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]

Wikifying Our Blogging

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 Non​vi​o​lence​.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.

Rethinking Blogs

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?

Retooling after Google Reader

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.

The End of the Web, Search, and Com­puter as We Know It:

parisle­mon:

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 Quak​er​Ran​ter​.org domain.

Lessons in Social Media from Egyptian Protesters

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.