The demise of online subcultures?

An inter­est­ing pro­file of a niche com­mu­ni­ty affect­ed by the shift of atten­tion from community-led sites to Face­book, “How Face­book – the Wal-Mart of the inter­net – dis­man­tled online sub­cul­tures.”

Over time, these chal­lenges to the BME com­mu­ni­ty became increas­ing­ly prob­lem­at­ic. Mem­bers delet­ed accounts or stopped post­ing. By 2015, the main com­mu­ni­ty forum – which used to have hun­dreds of posts a day – went with­out a sin­gle com­ment for over six months.

Hav­ing pre­dict­ed many of the web’s func­tions and fea­tures, BME failed to antic­i­pate its own demise.

It’s def­i­nite­ly some­thing I’ve seen in my niche world of Quak­ers. I start­ed Quak­erQuak­er as an inde­pen­dent site in part because I didn’t want Google and Face­book and Beliefnet to deter­mine who we are. There’s the obvi­ous prob­lems — Beliefnet hir­ing a pro­gram­mer to make a “What Reli­gion Are You?” test based on a few books picked up the library one after­noon.

But there’s also more sub­tle prob­lems. On Face­book any­one can start or join a group and start talk­ing author­i­ta­tive­ly about Quak­ers with­out actu­al­ly being an active com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber. I can think of a num­ber of online char­ac­ters who had nev­er even vis­it­ing a Friends meet­ing or church.

Our tra­di­tion built up ways of defin­ing our spokes­peo­ple though the prac­tices of record­ed min­is­ters and elders, and of clar­i­fy­ing shared beliefs though doc­u­ments like Faith and Prac­tice. I’ll be the first to argue that this process has pro­duced mixed results. But if it is to be adapt­ed or reformed, I’d like the work to be done by us in a thought­ful, inclu­sive man­ner. Instead, the form of our dis­cus­sions are now invis­i­bly imposed by an out­side algo­rithm that is opti­mized for obses­sive engage­ment and adver­tis­ing deliv­ery. Face­book process is not Quak­er process, yet it is large­ly what we use when we talk about Quak­ers out­side of Sun­day morn­ing.

I think Face­book has helped alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties form. I’m grate­ful for the pop-up com­mu­ni­ties of inter­est I’m part of. And there are sites with more user gen­er­at­ed con­tent like Wikipedia and Red­dit that hold an inter­est­ing middle-ground and where infor­ma­tion is gen­er­al­ly more accu­rate. But there’s still a crit­i­cal role for self-organized inde­pen­dent pub­li­ca­tions, a niche that I think is con­tin­u­ing to be over­shad­owed in our cur­rent atten­tion ecosys­tem.

Quaker news editor needed

Here at Friends Jour­nal, we’re very lucky to have some very com­mit­ted vol­un­teers. Karie Firooz­mand and Eileen Red­den sends books out to dozens of vol­un­teer read­ers and pull the results togeth­er into our month­ly books col­umn. Rose­mary Zim­mer­man reads through all the poet­ry that comes in, care­ful­ly select­ing pieces to appear in the mag­a­zine. Mary Julia Street reworks the birth notices and obit­u­ar­ies that come in to include more inter­est­ing details than you get in most news­pa­per list­ings.

Last year we won the “Best in Class” award from the Asso­ci­at­ed Church Press. We’re proud, of course, but I was pleas­ant­ly. Com­pared to most denom­i­na­tion­al mag­a­zines, Friends Jour­nal is crazi­ly under­staffed. For­give the pugilis­tic metaphor, but these vol­un­teer edi­tors are a big rea­son we punch above our weight. Cut­ting through cul­tur­al sta­t­ic and the man­u­fac­tured busy­ness of mod­ern life and reach seek­ers is a never-ending chal­lenge. Think about whether you might be led to work with us on this

The extend­ed dead­line is Jan­u­ary 16th. MLK Day. Learn more at:

Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

Near the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his pre­sen­ta­tions.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mat­ed a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slack­er obvi­ous­ly hadn’t even tak­en five min­utes to skim Tufte’s Wikipedia page). There were small­er mix­es of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sect­ed var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sent­ed data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being with­held.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (dit­to for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty to inquiry.
  • Tufte is a big believ­er in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­al­ly called out “flat sur­faces” and mate­r­i­al that is “adja­cent in space” to give an almost the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­i­ty over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • He urged us not to pan­der to our audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables and yet peo­ple read these sites every day. Why can’t we have the same lev­el of data-rich acces­si­bil­i­ty in our work lives? “Have we sud­den­ly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level execs in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their boss­es to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beau­ty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come togeth­er in beau­ty. It is amaz­ing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “It’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­i­ty: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s argu­ments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell there must be a long list of per­son­al sto­ries inform­ing this part of the work­shop – lessons learned, yes, but sure­ly oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­ur­al to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger and coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to do the hard work to see whether your chal­lenger might be cor­rect.

He remind­ed us that when we’re in a room full of peers, every­one present has been fil­tered and select­ed over the years. You should assume the room will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he thun­dered at an emo­tion­al crescen­do. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thickest-skinned are stung by chal­lenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when he’s chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­i­ty to ratio­nal­ly con­sid­er things, he told us it could took him three to five years to real­ly accept the valid­i­ty of dis­sent­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me and I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­al­ly ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (I’ve been an actor in these con­flicts in the past, though these days I gen­er­al­ly play a role some­where between an agent and medi­a­tor). It’s good to see intel­lec­tu­al debate as a process and to remem­ber that it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­clud­ed, before going back to visu­al­iza­tions.

He end­ed by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tif­ic works by Galileo and Euclid. He felt a gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we in the audi­ence were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last for­ev­er and give us clear lever­age in clear think­ing.”

 

Update: appar­ent­ly some num­ber of data visu­al­iza­tion peo­ple have dis­liked his work­shops. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing­ly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps Tufte has tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion or I caught him on a good day. More like­ly, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion and was sur­prised that Tufte focused so much on crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I have a par­tic­u­lar soft spot for quirky and opin­ion­at­ed peo­ple who don’t fol­low scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a cer­tain sense to me. But then I’m a phi­los­o­phy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.

You go to a book club for one book, learn of a dozen more…

Jane-JacobsI’m just com­ing back from a book club (adult con­ver­sa­tion? But… but… I’m a par­ent… Real­ly?). The top­ic was Jane Jacob’s 1961 clas­sic, The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities. The six of us gath­ered in a Collingswood, N.J., cof­fee shop were all city design geeks and I could bare­ly keep up with the ideas and books that had influ­enced every­one. Here is a very incom­plete list:

Update: And also, from Genevieve’s list:

  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Dou­glas Adams, for its absur­dist humor around the bureau­cra­cies of plan­ning
  • Green Metrop­o­lis. David Owen,
  • What’s Up With That: Build­ing Big­ger Roads Actu­al­ly Makes Traf­fic Worse,” an arti­cle by Adam Mann in Wired on the phe­nom­e­non of induced demand.
  • Vision Zero Ini­tia­tive
  • The Pine Bar­rens. John McPhee, the clas­sic which I brought up.
  • The Pow­er Bro­ker. Robert Caro.
  • The Ecol­o­gy of Com­merce. Paul Hawken
  • Orga­niz­ing in the South Bronx. Jim Rooney
  • Re: race: Dal­ton Conley’s Being Black, Liv­ing in the Red and When Work Dis­ap­pears by William Julius Wil­son.
  • Re: bicy­cles: Urban Bik­ers’ Tricks & Tips. Dave Glowacz

Excuse me for the next six months while I read. 🙂

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.

Something afoot circa 2004

Came across an 2004-era page of mine (the Baby Theo home­page) via an Archive​.org search today. Here was a descrip­tion on the side­bar:

This web­site is part of a infor­mal emerg­ing net­work of Friends that are reach­ing across our insti­tu­tion­al bound­aries to engage with our faith and with each oth­er. The “min­istry of the writ­ten word” has often sparked gen­er­a­tional renew­al among Friends and there’s some­thing afoot in all these com­ments and linkbacks. There are lots of poten­tial projects that can be launched over the new few years (books, work­shops, con­fer­ences, etc) so if you like the direc­tion of this site and the ques­tions it’s ask­ing, please con­sid­er a dona­tion to the non​vi​o​lence​.org site.