Mixing it up

Back in Novem­ber I start­ed a blog post that ran out of umph and stayed in my drafts. At time time I was react­ing to the pro­gres­sive debates about safe­ty pins as a sym­bol but it seems we’re are in anoth­er round of self-questioning, this time around the Women’s March and oth­er ini­tia­tives. As I find myself fre­quent­ly say­ing, we need lots of dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple orga­niz­ing in lots of dif­fer­ent styles. So may­be this blog posts’s time has come again.

May­be this is just anoth­er stages of grief but I’ve been notic­ing a num­ber of online dis­cus­sions in which pro­gres­sives are shut­ting down oth­er pro­gres­sives for not being pro­gres­sive enough. Every time I see a pos­i­tive post, I can pre­dict there’s going to be about three enthu­si­as­tic “yes!” com­ments, fol­lowed by a 500-word com­ment explain­ing why the idea isn’t rad­i­cal enough.

Folks, we’ve got big­ger prob­lems than try­ing to fig­ure out who’s the most woke per­son on our Face­book feed.

Suc­cess­ful social change move­ments are always a spec­trum of more or less politically-correct and rad­i­cal voic­es. It’s like a chord in music: strings vibrat­ing on dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cies sound bet­ter togeth­er. Some­times in pol­i­tics you need the crazy rad­i­cals to stir things up and some­times you need the too-cautious lib­er­als to legit­imize the protest mes­sage.

Some years ago I was part of an cam­paign in Philly that tar­get­ed what many of us felt was a pro­pa­gan­da push around Colum­bus Day. An attempt by all of the con­cerned activists to come togeth­er pre­dictably went nowhere. There were too many dif­fer­ences in style and tac­tics and lan­guage and cul­ture. But that break­down in coör­di­na­tion allowed each sub­cul­ture to pick a tac­tic that worked best for them.

The Quak­ers did their vis­i­ble agit­prop lead­ing and got detained. The anar­chists made cre­ative posters and set off sur­rep­ti­tious stink devices. Some anony­mous pranksters sent out fake press releas­es to dis­rupt media cov­er­age. The resul­tant news cov­er­age focused on the sheer diver­si­ty of the protests.

If protest had indeed come from a sin­gle group fol­low­ing a sin­gle tac­tic, the dis­sent would have been buried in the fourth para­graph of the cov­er­age. But the cre­ativ­i­ty made it the focus of the cov­er­age. Diver­si­ty of tac­tics works. Mis­takes will be made. Some pro­gres­sives will be clue­less – may­be even some of the ones con­sid­er­ing them­selves the most woke. It’s okay. We’ll learn as we go along. We might laugh at how we used to think wear­ing safe­ty pins was effec­tive – or we might won­der why we ever thought it was mean­ing­less sym­bol. What­ev­er hap­pens, let’s just encour­age wit­ness wherever and when­ev­er it’s hap­pen­ing. Let’s be gen­tler on each oth­er.

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?

Share my offendedness (pleeeaaase)

Some­times I see blog posts that make me real­ly sad at the state of jour­nal­ism. Phi­ly­Mag is the lat­est but you have the fol­low the daisy-chain of ramped-up hyper­bole back just to make see how ridicu­lous it is.

The restau­rant chain Red Robin recent­ly made a fifteen-second TV ad whose joke is that its veggie-burgers are per­fect for cus­tomers whose teenage daugh­ters are “going through a phase.” It’s had rather lim­it­ed air­play (it’s the 450th or so most run ad in the past 30 days) but still, Busi­ness Insid­er ran a piece on it which claimed that “the chain man­aged to insult all poten­tial veg­e­tar­i­an and veg­an cus­tomers” with the ad. For evi­dence, it cit­ed three mild com­ments on Red Robin’s Face­book page. Fair enough.

But then the page-view-whores at Huff­in­g­ton Post saw the BI piece and wrote that Red Robin is “under fire for diss­ing veg­e­tar­i­ans,” still cit­ing just those Face­book com­ments. Under fire? For three com­ments?

Sens­ing fresh (veg­gie?) meat, Philly­mag links to Huff­Post to claim that ”veg­e­tar­i­ans and veg­ans far and wide are freak­ing out” and that a boy­cott has been declared. The author tells us that “‘Offend­ed’ gets tossed around so rapid­ly” and it must be true, right?, as she uses it three more times just in her open­ing para­graph. It’s a pity that none of the three Face­book com­menters were con­sid­er­ate enough to actu­al­ly use the words “out­rage” or “boy­cott.” One described the ad as “dis­ap­point­ing” (ouch!). Anoth­er used the word “dis­sat­is­fied” (zing!), though he was speak­ing not about the ad per se but rather a recent vis­it to the restau­rant.

Seems like if there is an epi­demic of offended-ness going on, we might take a look at the des­per­a­tion of what pass­es for mod­ern jour­nal­ism the­se days. Offended-ness must get page views, so why not be offend­ed at being offend­ed? (I imag­ine some hack fur­ther down the pageview food chain is right now read­ing the Philly­mag piece and typ­ing out a head­line about the world­wide veg­an army issu­ing a fat­wa on the teenage daugh­ters of Red Roof exec­u­tives.) Is this real­ly the kind of crap that peo­ple like to share on Face­book? Do Inter­net users just not fol­low links back­ward to judge if there’s any truth to out­rage posts on out­rage? I usu­al­ly ignore this kind of junk even to read past the ridicu­lous head­line. But the phe­nom­e­non is all too ubiq­ui­tous on the inter­webs the­se days and is real­ly so unnec­es­sar­i­ly divi­sive and stereotype-perpetuating.

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.

Google’s Sidewiki 101 for Brand Managers

One of the great things about Web 2.0 is the empow­er­ment of aver­age users. With Twit­ter and Face­book pages, indi­vid­u­als can now respond back to com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions with a few strokes of the key­board. Google’s recent­ly entered the fray with an intrigu­ing project called Sidewiki. Once again, com­pa­nies and non­prof­its inter­est­ed in man­ag­ing their online brands need to be aware of the new medi­um and how to track it.

What is Sidewiki?
Google start­ed its sidewiki project in Sep­tem­ber 2009. It’s a side­bar that can attach to any page on the inter­net via the Google Tool­bar. Users gain the abil­i­ty to com­ment on any page on the inter­net. Google uses a rank­ing sys­tem based on votes and var­i­ous algo­rithms to deter­mine the order of the com­ments.

When a user of the Google Tool­bar vis­its a page with Sidewiki notes they see a small blue but­ton of the left side of the page with two white chevrons (see screen­shot on the right). Click­ing on this opens the Sidewiki side­bar. Here they will see com­ments left by pre­vi­ous vis­i­tors. They are be able to add their own com­ments.

Vision­ar­ies have long dreamed of a web with this kind of two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion but sim­i­lar side­bar com­ment­ing sys­tems have failed to gain enough momen­tum to become viable. If this were just anoth­er venture-capital-fueled attempt, it would be some­thing mar­keters could ignore unless and until it became wide­ly used. But with Google behind Sidewiki, it’s a ser­vice we need to take seri­ous­ly from the start.

Users Talk­ing Back
When we put togeth­er web­sites, we get to con­trol the mes­sage of our lit­tle cor­ner of the inter­net – we have the final say on the mate­ri­al we present. If Sidewiki becomes pop­u­lar, this will no longer be true. Fans, dis­grun­tled employ­ees and com­peti­tors can all start mark­ing up our sites – yikes! But those brands that have embraced the Web 2.0 mod­el will love anoth­er place where they can inter­act with their audi­ence. Today’s mar­ket­ing goal is mind­share – how much of a user’s atten­tion span can you win over. The more you get vis­i­tors to think about your brand or your mes­sage, the more like­ly that they will buy or rec­om­mend your pro­duct or ser­vice. You need to be active on what­ev­er online chan­nel your audi­ence is using.

Watch­ing the Con­ver­sa­tions
What’s a good brand man­ager to do? The first thing is to make sure you have the lat­est ver­sion of Google Tool­bar installed on your work­ing browser (get it here) and that you have the Sidewiki ser­vice enabled (I’ve start­ed a Sidewiki for this entry so if it’s work­ing you’ll see the blue but­ton in your browser).

Brand Man­age­ment
Google allows web­site own­ers the first com­ment. If you are reg­is­tered as the own­er of a site via Google Web­mas­ter Tools, then you get first say: when you post to the Sidewiki of a page you con­trol, Google gives you the top spot. This is very good. Should you do it?

Prob­a­bly not. At least not yet. I don’t see peo­ple using Sidewiki yet. Most web­sites still don’t have any com­ments. Even Google’s projects often fail to gain trac­tion and there’s no guar­an­tee that Sidewiki will take off. If your page doesn’t have any com­ments, I wouldn’t rec­om­mend that you make the first. If there are no Sidewiki entries, the blue but­ton won’t be there and vis­i­tors prob­a­bly won’t even think to com­ment.

If you notice that a vis­i­tor has start­ed a Sidewiki for your site by leav­ing a com­ment, then it’s time to log into your Google Web­mas­ters account and leave an offi­cial wel­come mes­sage. Even though you’re sec­ond to the con­ver­sa­tion, you will get first posi­tion thanks to your own­er­ship of the web­site.

The intro­duc­to­ry note should briefly wel­come vis­i­tors. It will appear alongside your web­site so there’s no need to repeat your mis­sion state­ment, but it is a place where you can give help­ful nav­i­ga­tion tips and stress any action­able items that the casu­al vis­i­tor might miss. You might con­sid­er invit­ing vis­i­tors to sign up for your site’s email list, for exam­ple.

The Future
Users can tie their Sidewiki com­ments into Twit­ter and Face­book accounts. They can leave video com­ments. If the ser­vice takes off there will sure­ly be a mini-industry built around com­ment opti­miza­tion. Spam­mers will get hard at work to game the sys­tem. But none is real­ly hap­pen­ing now. Despite a bit of fear-mongering on mar­ket­ing blogs, Google Sidewiki is a long ways away from being some­thing to lose sleep over. 

More Infor­ma­tion:

For other uses, see Light (disambiguation)

Even though my last post was a five min­ute quick­ie, it gen­er­at­ed a num­ber of com­ments. One ques­tion that came up was how aware indi­vid­u­al Friends are about the speci­fic Quak­er mean­ings of some of the com­mon Eng­lish words we use — ”Light,” “Spir­it,” etc.(dis­am­bigua­tion in Wiki-speak). Mar­shall Massey expressed sad­ness that the terms were used uncom­pre­hend­ing­ly and I sug­gest­ed that some Friends know­ing­ly con­fuse the gener­ic and speci­fic mean­ings. Mar­shall replied that if this were so it might be a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence based on geog­ra­phy.

If it’s a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence, I sus­pect it’s less geo­graph­ic than func­tion­al. I was speak­ing of the class of pro­fes­sion­al Friends (heavy in my parts) who pur­pose­ful­ly obscure their lan­guage. We’re very good at talk­ing in a way that sounds Quak­er to those who do know our speci­fic lan­guage but that sounds gener­i­cal­ly spir­i­tu­al to those who don’t. Some­times this obscu­ran­tism is used by peo­ple who are repelled by tra­di­tion­al Quak­erism but want to advance their ideas in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, but more often (and more dan­ger­ous­ly) it’s used by Friends who know and love what we are but are loathe to say any­thing that might sound con­tro­ver­sial.

I’ve told the sto­ry before of a Friend and friend who said that every­time he uses the word com­mu­ni­ty he’s mean­ing the body of Christ. New­com­ers hear­ing him and read­ing his arti­cles could be for­given for think­ing that com­mu­ni­ty is our reason-for-being, indeed: what we wor­ship. The prob­lem is that ten years lat­er, they’ll have signed up and built up an iden­ti­ty as a Friend and will get all offend­ed when some­one sug­gests that this com­mu­ni­ty they know and love is real­ly the body of Christ.

Lib­er­al Friends in the pub­lic eye need to be more hon­est in their con­ver­sa­tion about the Bib­li­cal and Chris­tian roots of our reli­gious fel­low­ship. That will scare off poten­tial mem­bers who have been scarred by the acts of those who have false­ly claimed Christ. I’m sor­ry about that and we need to be as gen­tle and hum­ble about this as we can. But hope­ful­ly they’ll see the fruits of the true spir­it in our open­ness, our warmth and our giv­ing and will real­ize that Chris­tian fel­low­ship is not about tel­e­van­ge­lists and Pres­i­den­tial hyp­ocrites. May­be they’ll even­tu­al­ly join or may­be not, but if they do at least they won’t be sur­prised by our iden­ti­ty. Before some­one com­ments back, I’m not say­ing that Chris­tian­i­ty needs to be a test for indi­vid­u­al mem­ber­ship but new mem­bers should know that every­thing from our name (“Friends of Christ“) on down are root­ed in that tra­di­tion and that that for­mal mem­ber­ship does not include veto pow­er over our pub­lic iden­ti­ty.

There is room out there for spiritual-but-not-religious com­mu­ni­ties that aren’t built around a col­lec­tive wor­ship of God, don’t wor­ry about any par­tic­u­lar tra­di­tion and focus their energies and group iden­ti­ty on lib­er­al social caus­es. But I guess part of what I won­der is why this doesn’t col­lect under the UUA ban­ner, whose Prin­ci­ples and Pur­pos­es state­ment is already much more syn­cretis­tic and post-religious than even the most lib­er­al year­ly meet­ing. Evolv­ing into the “oth­er UUA” would mean aban­don­ing most of the valu­able spir­i­tu­al wis­dom we have as a peo­ple.

I think there’s a need for the kind of strong lib­er­al Chris­tian­i­ty that Friends have prac­ticed for 350 years. There must be mil­lions of peo­ple parked on church bench­es every Sun­day morn­ing look­ing up at the pul­pit and think­ing to them­selves, “sure­ly this isn’t what Jesus was talk­ing about.” Look, we have Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians com­ing out again­st the war! And let’s face it, it’s only a mat­ter of time before “Emer­gent Chris­tians” real­ize how lame all that post-post can­dle wor­ship is and look for some­thing a lit­tle deep­er. The times are ripe for “Oppor­tu­ni­ties,” Friends. We have impor­tant knowl­edge to share about all this. It would be a shame if we kept qui­et.