Chatting with Greg Woods

Yes­ter­day I had a nice video chat with my friend Greg Woods, whose arti­cle, Orga­niz­ing Young Adult Friends Online, appeared in November’s Friends Jour­nal. Greg and I have been hav­ing vari­a­tions on this con­ver­sa­tion for years. Back in 2011, we worked togeth­er along­side Stephen Dot­son to put togeth­er a now-dated Young Adult Friends web­site (watch us eat in double-time in its pro­mo­tion­al video!). I believe it was the fourth YAF orga­niz­ing web­site I had built since the mid-90s. Greg is now putting togeth­er a net­work of Quak­er cam­pus min­istries. It’s one of those obvi­ous needs that I hope Friends will support.

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. 🙂

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?

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:

How and why we gather as Friends (in the 21st Century)

On a recent evening I met up with Gath­er­ing in Light Wess, who was in Philadel­phia for a Quaker-sponsored peace con­fer­ence. Over the next few hours, six of us went out for a great din­ner, Wess and I test­ed some tes­ti­monies,
and a revolv­ing group of Friends end­ed up around a table in the
conference’s hotel lob­by talk­ing late into the night (the links are
Wess’ reviews, these days you can reverse stalk him through his Yelp
account). 

Of all of the many peo­ple I spoke with, only one had any kind of
fea­tured role at the con­fer­ence. With­out excep­tion my conversation
part­ners were fas­ci­nat­ing and insight­ful about the issues that had
brought them to Philadel­phia, yet I sensed a per­vad­ing sense of missed
oppor­tu­ni­ty: hun­dreds of lives rearranged and thou­sands of air miles
flown most­ly to lis­ten to oth­ers talk. I spent my long com­mute home
won­der­ing what it would have been like to have spent the week­end in the
hotel lob­by record­ing ten minute Youtube inter­views with as many
con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants as I could. We would have end­ed up with a
snap­shot of faith-based peace orga­niz­ing cir­ca 2009.

Next week­end I’ll be burn­ing up more of the ozone lay­er by fly­ing to Cal­i­for­nia to co-lead a work­shop with Wess and Robin M. (details at Con​ver​gent​Friends​.org,
I’m sure we can squeeze more peo­ple in!) The par­tic­i­pant list looks
fab­u­lous. I don’t know every­one but there’s at least half a dozen
peo­ple com­ing who I would be thrilled to take work­shops from. I really
don’t want to spend the week­end hear­ing myself talk! I also know there
are plen­ty of peo­ple who can’t come because of com­mit­ments and costs.

So we’re going to try some exper­i­ments – they might work, they might not. On Quak­erQuak­er, there’s a new group for the event and a dis­cus­sion thread open to all QQ mem­bers (sign up is quick and pain­less). For those of you com­fort­able with the QQ tag­ging sys­tem, the Deli­cious tag for the event is “quaker.reclaiming2009”. Robin M has pro­posed using #con­ver­gent­friends as our Twit­ter hashtag. 

There’s all sorts of mad things we could try (Ustream video or live
blog­ging via Twit­ter, any­one?), wacky wacky stuff that would distract
us from what­ev­er mes­sage the Inward Christ might be try­ing to give us.
But behind all this is a real ques­tions about why and how we should
gath­er togeth­er as Friends. As the bank­ing sys­tem tanks, as the environment
strains, as com­mu­ni­ca­tions costs drop and we find our­selves in a curi­ous new econ­o­my, what chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties open up?

Convergent Friends, a long definition

Robin M posts this week about two Con­ver­gent Events hap­pen­ing in Cal­i­for­nia in the next month or two. And she also tries out a sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion of Con­ver­gent Friends:

peo­ple who are engaged in the renew­al move­ment with­in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, across all the branch­es of Friends.

It sounds good but what does it mean? Specif­i­cal­ly: who isn’t for renew­al, at least on a the­o­ret­i­cal lev­el? There are lots of faith­ful, smart and lov­ing Friends out there advo­cat­ing renew­al who don’t fit my def­i­n­i­tion of Con­ver­gent (which is fine, I don’t think the whole RSoF should be Con­ver­gent, it’s a move­ment in the riv­er, not a dam).

When Robin coined the term at the start of 2006 it seemed to refer to gen­er­al trends in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends and the larg­er Chris­t­ian world, but it was also refer­ring to a spe­cif­ic (online) com­mu­ni­ty that had had a year or two of con­ver­sa­tion to shape itself and mod­el trust and account­abil­i­ty. Most impor­tant­ly we each were going out of our way to engage with Friends from oth­er Quak­er tra­di­tions and were each called on our own cul­tur­al assumptions.
The coined term implied an expe­ri­ence of sort. “Con­ver­gent” explic­it­ly ref­er­ences Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends (“Con-”) and the Emer­gent Church move­ment (“-ver­gent”). It seems to me like one needs to look at those two phe­nom­e­non and their rela­tion to one’s own under­stand­ing and expe­ri­ence of Quak­er life and com­mu­ni­ty before real­ly under­stand­ing what all the fuss has been about. That’s hap­pen­ing lots of places and it is not sim­ply a blog phenomenon.

Nowa­days I’m notic­ing a lot of Friends declar­ing them­selves Con­ver­gent after read­ing a blog post or two or attend­ing a work­shop. It’s becom­ing the term du jour for Friends who want to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from business-as-usual, Quakerism-as-usual. This fits Robin’s sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion. But if that’s all it is and it becomes all-inclusive for inclusivity’s sake, then “Con­ver­gent” will drift away away from the roots of the con­ver­sa­tion that spawned it and turn into anoth­er buzz­word for “lib­er­al Quak­er.” This is start­ing to happen.

The term “Con­ver­gent Friends” is being picked up by Friends out­side the dozen or two blogs that spawned it and mov­ing into the wild – that’s great, but also means it’s def­i­n­i­tion is becom­ing a mov­ing tar­get. Peo­ple are grab­bing onto it to sum up their dreams, visions and frus­tra­tions but we’re almost cer­tain­ly not mean­ing the same thing by it. “Con­ver­gent Friends” implies that we’ve all arrived some­where togeth­er. I’ve often won­dered whether we shouldn’t be talk­ing about “Con­verg­ing Friends,” a term that implies a par­al­lel set of move­ments and puts the rather impor­tant ele­phant square on the table: con­verg­ing toward what? What we mean by con­ver­gence depends on our start­ing point. My attempt at a label was the rather clunky conservative-leaning lib­er­al Friend, which is prob­a­bly what most of us in the lib­er­al Quak­er tra­di­tion are mean­ing by “Con­ver­gent.”

I start­ed map­ping out a lib­er­al plan for Con­ver­gent Friends a cou­ple of years before the term was coined and it still sum­ma­rizes many of my hopes and con­cerns. The only thing I might add now is a para­graph about how we’ll have to work both inside and out­side of nor­mal Quak­er chan­nels to effect this change (Johan Mau­r­er recent­ly wrote an inter­est­ing post that includ­ed the won­der­ful descrip­tion of “the love­ly sub­ver­sives who ignore struc­tures and com­mu­ni­cate on a pure­ly per­son­al basis between the camps via blogs, vis­i­ta­tion, and oth­er means” and com­pared us to SCUBA divers (“ScubaQuake​.org” anyone?).

Robin’s inclu­sive def­i­n­i­tion of “renew­al” def­i­nite­ly speaks to some­thing. Infor­mal renew­al net­works are spring­ing up all over North Amer­i­ca. Many branch­es of Friends are involved. There are themes I’m see­ing in lots of these places: a strong youth or next-generation focus; a reliance on the inter­net; a curios­i­ty about “oth­er” Friends tra­di­tions; a desire to get back to roots in the sim­ple min­istry of Jesus. What­ev­er label or labels this new revival might take on is less impor­tant than the Spir­it behind it.

But is every hope for renew­al “Con­ver­gent”? I don’t think so. At the end of the day the path for us is nar­row and is giv­en, not cho­sen. At the end of day — and begin­ning and mid­dle — the work is to fol­low the Holy Spirit’s guid­ance in “real time.” Def­i­n­i­tions and care­ful­ly select­ed words slough away as mere notions. The newest mes­sage is just the old­est mes­sage repack­aged. Let’s not get too caught up in our own hip verbage, lec­ture invi­ta­tions and glo­ri­ous atten­tion that we for­get that there there is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to our con­di­tion, that He Him­self has come to teach, and that our mes­sage is to share the good news he’s giv­en us. The Tempter is ready to dis­tract us, to puff us up so we think we are the mes­sage, that we own the mes­sage, or that the mes­sage depends on our flow­ery words deliv­ered from podi­ums. We must stay on guard, hum­bled, low and pray­ing to be kept from the temp­ta­tions that sur­round even the most well-meaning renew­al attempts. It is our faith­ful­ness to the free gospel min­istry that will ulti­mate­ly deter­mine the fate of our work.