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.

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.

Opening Doors and Moving on Up

Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence has announced that Barry Crossno will be their new incom­ing Gen­eral Sec­re­tary. Old time blog­gers will remem­ber him as the blog­ger behind The Quaker Dharma. FGC’s just pub­lished an inter­view with him and one of the ques­tions is about his blog­ging past. Here’s part of the answer:

Blog­ging among Friends is very impor­tant.  There are not a lot of Quak­ers.  We’re spread out across the world.  Blog­ging opens up dia­logues that just wouldn’t hap­pen oth­er­wise.  While I laid down my blog, “The Quaker Dharma,” a few years ago, and my think­ing on some issues has evolved since then, I’m clear that blog­ging is what allowed me to give voice to my call.  It helped open some of the doors that led me to work for Pen­dle Hill and, now by exten­sion, FGC.  A lot of cut­ting edge Quaker thought is being shared through blogs.

I thought it might be use­ful to fill in a lit­tle bit of this story. If you go read­ing through the back com­ments on Barry’s blog you’ll see it’s a time machine into the early Quaker blog­ging com­mu­nity. I first posted about his blog in Feb­ru­ary of 2005 with Quaker Dharma: Let the Light Shine and I high­lighted him reg­u­larly (March, April, June) until the proto-QuakerQuaker “Blog Watch” started run­ning. There I fea­tured him twice that June and twice more in August, the most active period of his blogging.

It’s nos­tal­gic to look through the com­menters: Joe G., Peter­son Toscano, Mitchell San­tine Gould, Dave Carl, Bar­bara Q, Robin M, Brandice (Quaker Mon­key), Eric Muhr, Nancy A… There were some good dis­cus­sions. Barry’s most exu­ber­ant post was Let’s Begin, and LizOpp and I espe­cially labored with him to ground what was a very clear and obvi­ous lead­ing by hook­ing up with other Friends locally and nation­ally who were inter­ested in these efforts. I offered my help in hook­ing him up with FGC  and he wrote back “If you know peo­ple at other Quaker orga­ni­za­tions that you wish me to speak to and coör­di­nate with or pos­si­bly work for, I will.”

And that’s what I did. My super­vi­sor, FGC Devel­op­ment head Michael Wajda, was plan­ning a trip to Texas and I started talk­ing up Barry Crossno. I had a hunch they’d like each other. I told Michael that Barry had a lot of expe­ri­ence and a very clear lead­ing but needed to spend some time grow­ing as a Quaker–an incu­ba­tion period, if you will, among grounded Friends. In the first part of the FGC inter­view he mov­ingly talks about the ground­ing his time at Pen­dle Hill has given him.

In Octo­ber 2006 he announced he was clos­ing a blog that had become largely dor­mant. It’s worth quot­ing that first for­mal goodbye:

I want to thank those of you who chose to actively par­tic­i­pate. I learned a lot through our exchanges and I think there were many peo­ple who ben­e­fited from many of the posts you left. On a purely per­sonal note, I learned that it’s good to tem­per my need to GO DO NOW. Some of you really helped men­tor me con­cern­ing effec­tively lis­ten­ing to guid­ance and help­ing me under­stand that act­ing locally may be bet­ter than try­ing to take on the whole world at once.

I also want to share that I met some peo­ple and made con­tacts through this process that have opened tremen­dous doors for me and my abil­ity to put myself in ser­vice to oth­ers. For this I am deeply grate­ful. I feel sure that some of these ties will live on past the clos­ing of the Quaker Dharma.

Those of you famil­iar with pieces like The Lost Quaker Gen­er­a­tion and Pass­ing the Faith, Planet of the Quak­ers Style know I’ve long been wor­ried that we’ve not doing a good job iden­ti­fy­ing, sup­port­ing and retain­ing vision­ary new Friends. Around 2004 I stopped com­plain­ing (mostly) and just started look­ing for oth­ers who also held this con­cern. The online orga­niz­ing has spilled over into real world con­fer­ences and work­shops and is much big­ger than one web­site or small group. Now we see “grad­u­ates” of this net­work start­ing to take on real-world responsibilities.

Barry’s a bright guy with a strong lead­ing and a healthy ambi­tion. He would have cer­tainly made some­thing of him­self with­out the blogs and the “doors” opened up by myself and oth­ers. But it would have cer­tainly taken him longer to crack the Philadel­phia scene and I think it very likely that FGC would have announced a dif­fer­ent Gen­eral Sec­re­tary this week if it weren’t for the blogs.

Quak­erQuaker almost cer­tainly has more future Gen­eral Sec­re­taries in its mem­ber­ship rolls. But it would be a shame to focus on that or to imply that the pin­na­cle of a Quaker lead­ing is mov­ing to Philadel­phia. Many parts of the Quaker world are already too enthralled by it’s staff lists. What we need is to extend a cul­ture of every­day Friends ready to boldly exclaim the Good News–to love God and their neigh­bor and to leap with joy by the pres­ence of the Inward Christ. Friends’ cul­ture shouldn’t focus on staffing, flashy pro­grams or fundrais­ing hype.  At the end of the day, spir­i­tual out­reach is a one-on-one activ­ity. It’s peo­ple spend­ing the time to find one another, share their spir­i­tual jour­ney and share oppor­tu­ni­ties to grow in their faith.

Quak­erQuaker has evolved a lot since 2005. It now has a team of edi­tors, dis­cus­sion boards, Face­book and Twit­ter streams, and the site itself reaches over 100,000 read­ers a year. But it’s still about find­ing each other and encour­ag­ing each other. I think we’ve proven that these over­lap­ping, dis­trib­uted, largely-unfunded online ini­tia­tives can play a crit­i­cal out­reach role for the Soci­ety of Friends. What would it look like for the “old style” Quaker orga­ni­za­tions to start sup­port­ing inde­pen­dent Quaker social media? And how could our net­works rein­vig­o­rate cash-strapped Quaker orga­ni­za­tions with fresh faces and new mod­els of com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Those are ques­tions for another post.