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.

Floating on Clouds

Last week­end I found myself with the sce­nario no solo web design­er wants to be faced with: a dead lap­top. It was eigh­teen months old and while it was from Hewlett Packard, a rep­utable com­pa­ny, it’s always had prob­lems over over­heat­ing. Like a lot of mod­ern lap­top mak­ers, HP tried to pack as much proces­sor pow­er as they could into a sleek design that would turn eyes on the store shelf. They actu­al­ly do offer some free repairs for a list of half a dozen mal­adies caused by over­heat­ing but not for my par­tic­u­lar symp­toms. When I have a free after­noon, a big pot of cof­fee and lots of music queued up I’ll give them a call and see if I can talk them into fix­ing it.

Once upon a time hav­ing a sud­den­ly dead com­put­er in the mid­dle of a bunch of big projects would have been dis­as­ter. But over the last few years I’ve been putting more and more of my data “in the cloud,” that is: with soft­ware ser­vices that store it for me.

Email in the Cloud

I used to be a die-hard Thun­der­bird fan. This is Firefox’s cousin, a great email client. I would take such great care trans­fer­ring years of emails every time I switched machines and I spent hours build­ing huge nest­ed list of fold­ers to orga­nize archived mes­sages. About a year ago Thun­der­bird ate about three months of recent mes­sages, some quite cru­cial. At that time I start­ed using Google’s Gmail as back­up. I set Gmail to pick up mail on my POP serv­er and leave it there with­out delet­ing it. I set Thun­der­bird to leave it there for week. The result was that both mes­sages would be picked up by both services.

After becom­ing famil­iar with Gmail I start­ed using it more and more. I love that it doesn’t have fold­ers: you sim­ple put all emails into a sin­gle “Archive” and let Google’s search func­tion find them when you need them.You can set up fil­ters, which act as saved search­es, and I have these set up for active clients.

Why I’m hap­py now: I can log into Gmail from any machine any­where. No recent emails are lost on my old machine.

Project Man­age­ment in the Cloud

I use the fab­u­lous Remem­ber the Milk (RTM) to keep track of projects and crit­i­cal to-do items. Like Gmail I can access it from any com­put­er. While mess­ing around set­ting up back­up com­put­ers has set me back about ten days, I still know what I need to do and when I need to do it. I can review it and give clients renewed timelines.

An addi­tion­al advan­tage to using Remem­ber the Milk and Gmail togeth­er is the abil­i­ty to link to emails. Every email in Gmail gets its own URL and every saved “fil­ter” search gets its own URL. If there’s an email I want to act on in two weeks, I set up a Remem­ber the Mail task. Each task has a option­al field for URLs so I put the the email’s Gmail URL in there and archive the email so I don’t have to think about it (part of the Get­ting Things Done strat­e­gy). Two weeks lat­er RTM tells me it’s time to act on that email and I fol­low the link direct­ly there, do what­ev­er action I need to do and mark it com­plete in RTM.

Project Notes in the Cloud

I long ago start­ed keep­ing notes for indi­vid­ual projects in the most excel­lent Back­pack ser­vice. You can store notes, emails, pic­tures and just about any­thing in Back­pack and have it avail­able from any com­put­er. You can eas­i­ly share notes with oth­ers, a fea­ture I fre­quent­ly use to cre­ate client cheat­sheets for using the sites I’ve built. Now that I use Gmail and it’s URL fea­ture, I put a link to the client’s Gmail his­to­ry right on top of each page. Very cool!

Anoth­er life saver is that I splurge for the upgrad­ed account that gives me secure serv­er access and I keep my pass­word lists in Back­pack. There’s a slight secu­ri­ty risk but it’s prob­a­bly small­er than keep­ing it on a lap­top that could be swiped out of my bag. And right now I can log into all of my ser­vices from a new machine. 

Keep­ing the Mon­ey Flow­ing from Clouds

The lat­est Web 2.0 love of my life is Fresh­books, a ser­vice that keeps track of your clients, your hours and puts togeth­er great invoic­es you can mail to them. I’m so much more pro­fes­sion­al because of them (no more hand writ­ten invoic­es in Word!) and when it’s billing time I can quick­ly see how many unbilled hours I’ve worked on each project and bang!-bang!-band! send the invoic­es right out. Because the data is online, I was able to bill a client despite the dead com­put­er, pro­vid­ing my exact hours, a detailed list of what I had done, etc.

Oth­ers

Cal­en­dar: I always go back and forth between lov­ing Google Cal­en­dar and the cal­en­dar built into Back­pack. Because I can nev­er make up my mind I’ve used ICal feeds to cross-link them so they’re both synced to one anoth­er. I can now use whichev­er is most con­ve­nient (or whichev­er I’m more in the mood to use!) to add and review entries.

Pho­tos: Most of the pho­tos I’ve tak­en over the past four years are still sit­ting on my dead lap­top wait­ing for me to find a way to get them off of the hard dri­ve. As trag­ic as it would be to loose them, 903 of my favorite pho­tos are stored on my Flickr account. And because I emailed most of them to Flickr via Gmail most of those are also stored on Gmail. I will do every­thing I can to get those lost pho­tos but the worst case sce­nario is that I will be stuck with “only” those 900.

Your Exam­ples?

I’d love to hear how oth­ers are using “the cloud” as real-time backup.

Making New Factions

Strange­ly enough, the Philadel­phia Inquir­er has pub­lished a front-page arti­cle on lead­er­ship in Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing, “Friends frus­trate some of their flock, Quak­ers bogged down by process, two lead­ers say”. To me it comes off as an extend­ed whine from the for­mer PhYM Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary Thomas Jeav­ons. His cri­tiques around Philadel­phia Quak­er cul­ture are well-made (and well known among those who have seen his much-forwarded emails) but he doesn’t seem as insight­ful about his own fail­ings as a leader, pri­mar­i­ly his inabil­i­ty to forge con­sen­sus and build trust. He fre­quent­ly came off as too ready to bypass rightly-ordered decision-making process­es in the name of strong lead­er­ship. The more this hap­pened, the more dis­trust the body felt toward him and the more intractible and politi­cized the sit­u­a­tion became. He was the wrong leader for the wrong time. How is this wor­thy of the front-page news­pa­per status?

The “Mak­ing New Friends” out­reach cam­paign is a cen­tral exam­ple in the arti­cle. It might have been more suc­cess­ful if it had been giv­en more sea­son­ing and if out­sider Friends had been invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate. The cam­paign was kicked off by a sur­vey that con­firmed that the great­est threat to the future of the year­ly meet­ing was “our grey­ing mem­ber­ship” and that out­reach cam­paigns “should tar­get young adult seek­ers.” I attend­ed the year­ly meet­ing ses­sion where the sur­vey was pre­sent­ed and the cam­paign approved and while every Friend under forty had their hands raised for com­ments, none were rec­og­nized by the clerk. “Mak­ing New Friends” was the per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to tap younger Friends but the work seemed designed and under­tak­en by the usu­al sus­pects in year­ly meeting.

Like a lot of Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions, Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing has spent the last fif­teen years large­ly rely­ing on a small pool of estab­lished lead­er­ship. There’s lit­tle atten­tion to lead­er­ship devel­op­ment or tap­ping the large pool of tal­ent that exists out­side of the few dozen insid­ers. This Spring Jeav­ons had an arti­cle in PYM News that talked about younger Friends that were the “future” of PYM and put the cut-off line of youthfulness/relevance at fifty! The recent polit­i­cal bat­tles with­in PYM seemed to be over who would be includ­ed in the insider’s club, while our real prob­lems have been a lack of trans­paren­cy, inclu­sion and patience in our deci­sion mak­ing process.

Philadel­phia Friends cer­tain­ly have their lead­er­ship and author­i­ty prob­lems and I under­stand Jeav­ons’ frus­tra­tions. Much of his analy­sis is right. I appre­ci­at­ed his reg­u­lar­ly col­umn in PYM News, which was often the only place Christ and faith was ever seri­ous­ly dis­cussed. But his approach was too heavy hand­ed and cor­po­rate to fit year­ly meet­ing cul­ture and did lit­tle to address the long-term issues that are lap­ping up on the year­ly meet­ing doorsteps.

For what it’s worth, I’ve heard some very good things about the just-concluded year­ly meet­ing ses­sions. I sus­pect the year­ly meet­ing is actu­al­ly begin­ning a kind of turn-around. That would be welcome.

 

Don’t miss:

Of Theo, threats and selective press quoting

The Baby Theo blog got a men­tion in today’s Philadel­phia Inquir­er, It’s almost as good as being there, by Kathy Boc­cel­la. They missed out on a huge rat­ings bonan­za by not pick­ing Theo for their pic­tures. Stranger was that two inter­views pro­duced only one off-topic sub­stan­tive line: “Mar­tin Kel­ly [sic] expe­ri­enced the worst of it when some­one threat­ened his infant son on his Baby Theo Web page [via Archive​.org, as it appeared around the time this arti­cle was written].

Above: Theo on learn­ing he wasn’t going to be the fea­tured baby pho­to in the Inquir­er piece… Real pho­to cap­tion: This week­end Julie Theo and I took a mini vaca­tion to the Penn­syl­va­nia coal regions. One of the stops was the beau­ti­ful­ly restored Tamaqua train sta­tion, where Theo’s great great grand­fa­ther, the first Mar­tin John Kel­ley, worked as a Read­ing Rail­road con­duc­tor. We woke the lit­tle guy up from a car nap to see the sta­tion and snap this pic­ture, cru­el par­ents that we are.

The Baby Theo site has been a lot of fun and it’s had great com­ments and emails of sup­port. It’s real­ly a shame that the arti­cle only used it to strike that tired old refrain about the pos­si­ble dan­ger lurk­ing on the internet.

The threat had noth­ing to do with Theo or with the baby blog. I’ve run a promi­nent anti­war web­site (closed, was at non​vi​o​lence​.org) through two wars now, and in the nine years of its exis­tence I’ve amassed quite a col­lec­tion of abu­sive emails. I try not to take them too seri­ous­ly: most come from sol­diers or from the fam­i­lies of solid­ers, peo­ple desparate­ly afraid of the future and sure­ly torn by the acts they’re being asked to com­mit. The inter­net pro­vides the psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance for oth­er­wise good peo­ple to demo­nize the “com­mie Saddam-loving peacenik cow­ard.” You could get mad at a Pres­i­dent that active­ly mis­leads the coun­try into war but it’s eas­i­er to turn your anger on some schmuck who runs an anti­war web­site in his spare time. Send­ing threat­en­ing emails is itself cow­ard­ly and anti-democratic, of course, and as I’ve writ­ten on Non​vi​o​lence​.org, it’s ter­ri­bly inap­pro­pri­ate for “mil­i­tary per­son­nel to use gov­ern­ment com­put­ers to threat­en the free speech” of a dis­sent­ing Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. But it hap­pens. And because it hap­pens and because South Jer­sey has its share of pro-war hot­heads, you won’t see our spe­cif­ic town men­tioned any­where on the site. When I asked the Inquir­er reporter if they could not men­tion our town, she asked why, which led to the threat­en­ing emails, which led to the ques­tion whether Theo specif­i­cal­ly had been threatened.

And yes, there was a retired Lieu­tenant Colonel who sent a par­tic­u­lar­ly creepy set of emails (more on him below). The first email didn’t men­tion Theo. It was just one of those every­day emails wish­ing that my fam­i­ly would be gang-raped, tor­tured and exe­cut­ed in front of me. I usu­al­ly ignore these but respond­ed to him, upon which I received a sec­ond email explain­ing that he was mak­ing a point with his threat (“You, your orga­ni­za­tion and oth­ers like you rep­re­sent the ‘flab­by soft white under­bel­ly’ of our Nation. This is the tis­sue of an ani­mal that is the tar­get of preda­tors.” Etc., etc., blah, blah, blah). This time he searched the Non​vi​o​lence​.org site more thor­ough­ly and specif­i­cal­ly men­tioned Theo in his what-if sce­nario. This was one email out of the thou­sands I receive every month. It was an inap­pro­pri­ate rhetor­i­cal argu­ment against a political/religious stance I’ve tak­en as a pub­lic wit­ness. It was not a cred­i­ble threat to my son.

Still, pre­cau­tion is in order. I men­tioned this sto­ry to the Inquir­er reporter only to explain why I didn’t want the town list­ed. When I talked about the blog, I talked about old friends and dis­tant rel­a­tives keep­ing up with us and shar­ing our joys via the web­site. I talked about how the act of putting togeth­er entries helped Julie & I see Theo’s changes. I told Kathy how it was fun that friends who we had met via the inter­net were able to see some­thing beyond the Quak­er essays or polit­i­cal essays. None of that made it through to the arti­cle, which is a shame. A request to not pub­lish our home town became a sen­sa­tion­al­ist cau­tion­ary tale that is now being repeat­ed as a rea­son not to blog. How stupid.

The cau­tion­ary les­son is only applic­a­ble for those who both run a baby blog and a heav­i­ly used polit­i­cal web­site. When your web­site tops 50,000 vis­i­tors a day, you might want to switch to a P.O. Box. End of lesson.

For­tu­nate­ly with the inter­net we don’t have to rely on the fil­ter of a main­stream press reporters. Vis­i­tors from the Inquir­er arti­cle have been look­ing around the site and pre­sum­ably see­ing it’s not all about inter­net dan­gers. Since the Inquir­er arti­cle went up I’ve had twice as many vis­its from Google as I have from Philly​.com. Viva the web!


More:
For those inter­est­ed, the freaky retired Lieu­tenant Colonel is the chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of a pri­vate avi­a­tion com­pa­ny based in Flori­da, with con­tracts in three African nations that just hap­pen to be of par­tic­u­lar inter­est to the U.S. State Depart­ment. Although the com­pa­ny is named after him, his full name has been care­ful­ly excised from his web­site. I don’t sus­pect that he real­ly is retired from U.S.-sponsored mil­i­tary ser­vice, if you know what I mean… Here’s your tax dol­lars at work.

A few news­pa­per web­sites have repub­lished up the Inky arti­cle and two blog­ging news sites have picked up on it:

  • Yet Anoth­er Baby Blog­ging sto­ry uncov­ers dan­ger — but it’s not true ran in Blog​ging​Ba​by​.com: “When some­one threat­ened his son on his Baby Theo Web page, he took the site down; but left up a pic on his home page. Well, that is, accord­ing to the arti­cle, which some­how man­aged to not check its facts (maybe, ummm – go to the link you includ­ed in your arti­cle?) and dis­cov­er that, in fact, Baby Theo’s page is alive and well. We’re glad, Theo’s a cutie.”
  • Baby blog­gers ran in Net­fam­i­lynews. “The $64,000 question(s) is: Is this a shift of think­ing and behav­ior or, basi­cal­ly, a mis­take?.. Mar­tin Kel­ly, whose baby was threat­ened by some­one who vis­it­ed his baby page, would lean toward the mis­take side of the ques­tion.” (No I wouldn’t, as I explained to the web­mas­ter later)

WRL Current Commentary

I’m intrigued by a new page on the War Resister League’s site named “Cur­rent Commentary”:www.warresisters.org/commentary.htm. The cur­rent con­tent isn’t ter­ri­bly excit­ing — a col­lec­tion of presumably-unpublished let­ters to the _New York Times_ — but it would be excit­ing to see WRL’s take on cur­rent events. I’ve missed David McReynold’s once ubiq­ui­tous emails and sus­pect peo­ple would be will­ing to look to WRL again for com­men­tary on cur­rent events,