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.