So we’ve been asked to write a “synchroblog” organized by Quaker Voluntary Service. It is a weekday and there are work deadlines looming for me (there are always deadlines looming) so my participation may be spotty but I’ll give it a shot.
The topic of this particular synchroblog is Friends and social media and in the invite we were asked to riff on comparisons with early Friends’s pamphleteering and the web as the new printing press. I’m spotty on the details of the various pamphlet wars of early Friends but the web-as-printing-press is a familiar theme.
I first mangled the metaphors of web as printing press nineteen years ago. That summer I started my first new media project to get pacifist writings online. The metaphors I used seem as funny now as they were awkward then, but give me a break: Mark Zuckerberg was a fifth grader hacking Ataris and even the word “weblog” was a couple of years away. I described my project as “web typesetting for the movement by the movement” and one of my selling points is that I had done the same work in the print world.
Fractured as my metaphors were, online media was more like publishing then that it is now. Putting an essay online required technical skills and comparatively high equipment costs. The consistent arc of consumer technology has been to make posting ever easier and cheaper and that has moved the bar of quality (raised or lowered depending on how you see it)
Back in the mid-1990s I remember joking snarkily with friends that we’d all someday have blogs devoted to pictures of our cats and kids – the humor in our barbs came from the ridiculousness that someone would go to the time and expense to build a site so ephemeral and non-serious. You’d have to take a picture, develop the film, digitally scan it in, touch it up with a prohibitively expensive image software, use an FTP program to upload it to a web server and then write raw HTML to make a web page of it. But the joke was on us. In 2014, if my 2yo daughter puts something goofy on her head, I pull out the always-with-me phone, snap a picture, add a funny caption and filter, tag it, and send it to a page which is effectively a photoblog of her life.
The ease of posting has spawned an internet culture that’s creatively bizarre and wonderful. With the changes the printing press metaphor has become less useful, or at least more constrained. There are Friends who’s intentionality and effort make them internet publishers (I myself work for Friends Journal). But most of our online activity is more like water cooler chitchat.
So the question I have is this: are there ways Friends should behave online. If we are to “let our lives preach,” as the much-quoted George Fox snippet says, what’s our online style? Do we have anything to learn from earlier times of pamphleteering? And what about the media we’re using, especially as we learn more about electronic surveillance and its widespread use both here at home and in totalitarian regimes?
In just two decades, the world wide web has transformed and democratized access to information all around the world. I am proud of the role Google has played alongside many others such as Yahoo, Wikipedia, and Twitter. Whether you are a student in an internet café in the developing world or a head of state of a wealthy nation, the knowledge of the world is at your fingertips.
Of course, offering these services has come with its challenges. Multiple countries have sought to suppress the flow of information to serve their own political goals. At various times notable Google websites have been blocked in China, Iran, Libya (prior to their revolution), Tunisia (also prior to revolution), and others. For our own websites and for the internet as a whole we have worked tirelessly to combat internet censorship around the world alongside governments and NGO promoting free speech.
Thus, imagine my astonishment when the newest threat to free speech has come from none other but the United States. Two bills currently making their way through congress — SOPA and PIPA — give the US government and copyright holders extraordinary powers including the ability to hijack DNS and censor search results (and this is even without so much as a proper court trial). While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don’t believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.
My Twitter followers will know I’ve been slightly obsessed by Google’s new browser, Chrome, since word leaked that it was going to be released today (Tues, Sept 2). I’ve been hitting reload on the download site fairly obsessively. A few minutes ago my persistence was rewarded and I’m writing to you all from the new browser (here’s the official release announcement).
Why a New Browser?!?
Before I begin, let me recommend the Google Chrome online comic book for those with tech interests. Google does a good job explaining why they’ve joined the browser wars. At first glance it seems a needless move: they already fund much of the development on the open source Firefox browser. But Firefox, like Microsoft Internet Explorer and every other browser, is built around certain assumptions about how browsers process applications. Google is starting from scratch and thinking about the browser as an operating system running increasingly sophisticated applications (like Gmail). Chrome separates memory process and internet permissions in new ways.
Obviously, Google is going after Microsoft (the initial release of Chrome is Windows only) – not just its browser but its Vista operating system as well. With the expansion of high speed internet access and so-called “cloud computing,” functions that used to require stand-alone clients can now be handled inside the browser. Email has probably become the most widely adopted browser applications but you can also do things photo editing and video recording through the browser. Google knows that once an application is running inside a browser, the operating system doesn’t matter. Gmail works equally fine from Vista, Mac OS X, or Linux.
It is in Google’s strategic interest to advance the state of browser technology and they do that with Chrome. But it is in the interest that everyone have access to these latest innovations and that all browsers can run the most sophisticated applications Google engineers can put together. So Chrome is open source and Google invites other browsers to incorporate many of its features.
First Thoughts on the Product:
The download was quick and easy (of course).
I was surprised that when installing it only offered to import my MS Internet Explorer bookmarks. My most complete and up-to-date bookmark list is in Firefox (synced among my operating systems by the excellent Foxmarks extension).
I went pretty immediately to Gmail. Google says they’ve rewritten a lot of the background rendering code from scratch and I was expecting to see instantaneous loading. Frankly, it seemed to load as quickly as it does in Firefox. Any apparent speed increase isn’t immediately obvious (this is a testament to how fast they’ve managed to get it to load in all browsers).
The interface is very simplified: few buttons, tabs up top, no status bar. There’s a lot of surprises here, like an automatically generated page with thumbnails of your most frequently visited sites (see image, right), an idea borrowed from Opera browser’s “Speed Dial” feature (available through to Firefox users through the Speed Dial extension).
You can also “Create application shortcuts” which turn services such as Gmail into client-like applications that sit on your desktop (screenshot right). Open them up from here and the normal location bar and browser buttons are gone.
There’s a lot more to explore here. It’s obvious that Google has put a lot of thought into this. I’m not going to dismiss any feature or oddity too quickly. They helped a lot of us rethink how we organize email using a single “Archive” folder instead of the elaborately-maintained folder hierarchy. Google actually have put out a number of half-baked and under-supported services (Froogle and Google Checkout come most immediately to mind) but it’s clear that the Google Chrome browser is a very serious initiative by the company.
Will I Use It?
The big question, right? Actually, I won’t use it much for now. For one thing, I’m a Mac user. I have a Windows XP virtual machine running most of the time courtesy of VMWare’s Fusion. I’m sure Google has set a high priority to make Mac OS X and Linux versions of Chrome – they’re whole strategy rests on this being woven into the browser lingua franca that keeps Microsoft’s Vista at bay, remember?, but until that time Chrome won’t be my natural first choice.
But I’m also going to miss my Firefox extensions. I forgot that the web has lots of ads (Adblock Plus). And I don’t like the extra clutter of Gmail without Better Gmail 2 (just the “Folders4Gmail” feature of the latter saves my eye more scanning time than any speed tweak Chrome delivers). And these days the Web Developers Toolbar, Lastpass, FireFTP extensions are pretty essential to my work day.
But if a native Mac version was released? And if Firefox extensions started being rewritten for Chrome? I just flipped back to my regular browser to check something and even after an hour with Chrome, Firefox felt so heavy and clunky. It is possible to see Chrome could a serious contender for my attention.
I will say that these guys are really good trackers. I sometimes think if I said “hittail” in my sleep I’d awake to an email thanking me for the mention. I’m always surprised at how many companies don’t follow their own public commentary on them across the internet, but Hittail certainly does.
I was referred to a website the other day that barely exists, at least
in the way that I see sites. It’s homepage was built entirely in Flash, was completely invisible to search engines and barely functioned in Firefox. Domaintools.com gave it an SEO score of zero (out of a scale of one hundred). It’s Google PageRank was three out of ten, making it less visible that my kid pages.
But this was a website for a high-flying web development house, a
company that works with some of Philadelphia’s most prominent and
well-endowed cultural institutions. Their client work isn’t quite as
invisible, but their website for Philadelphia’s relative-new $265
million performance arts center has a PageRank equivalent to my
personal blog – youch!
I think there’s a lesson here. Prominent cultural institutions don’t look at Google (and SEO-friendly
developers) because they’re big enough and well-known enough that they
assume people will find them anyway. They’re right, of course, but how
many more people would find them if they had well-built websites? And
what’s the long-term vision if they’re relying on their established
reputation to do their web marketing?
It’s perhaps impossible
for a net-centric start-up to replicate a hugely-endowed cultural icon
like an orchestra or ballet, giving some degree of insulation to these
institutions from direct internet competition. But if these nonprofits
saw themselves in the entertainment business, competing for the limited
attention and money of an audience that has many evening-time
possibilities, then you’d think they’d want to leverage the internet as
much as they could: to use the web to reach out not only to their
existing audience but to nurture and develop future audiences.
Are the audiences of high brow institutions so full of hip young audiences that they can steer clear of web-centric marketing?
A look at the new class of “Single Page Aggregators.”
Way back in 1997 I was one of dozens of lots of web designers trying
to figure out how to bring an editorial voice to the internet. The web
had taken off and there pages and links everywhere but few places where
they were actually organized in a useful manner. As I’ve written before,
in December of that year I started a weekly updated list of annotated
links to articles on nonviolence, a form we’d now would recognize as a
eighteen months ago I started a “links blog” of interesting Quaker
links, incorporated as a sidebar on my popular “QuakerRanter” personal
blog. I eventually gave the links their own URL (QuakerQuaker.org)
and invited others to join the linking. I always stumble when trying to
tell people what QuakerQuaker is all about. The best definition is that
its a “collaboratively edited blog aggregator” but that’s a horribly
The rise of blogs is creating the necessity for these sort of theme-based aggregators. This morning I stumbled on Original Signal, a new site that organzes the best Web 2.0 blogs. A site called PopURLs does the same for “the latest web buzz.” A site called SolutionWatch has written about these in Tracking the web with Single Page Aggregators. We’re all on to something here. I suspect that sometime this fall some clever person will coin a new term for these sites.
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].
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 nonviolence.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 Nonviolence.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 Nonviolence.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!
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 BloggingBaby.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)
Nonviolence.Org was founded by Martin Kelley out of a home office way back in 1995. Over the 13 or so years of its existence, it won accolades and attention from the mainstream media and millions of visitors. It’s articles have been reprinted in countless movement journals and even in a featured USAToday editorial.
The past eleven years have seen countless internet projects burst on the scene only to wither away. Yet Nonviolence.org continues without any funding, attracting a larger audience every year. As the years have gone by and I’ve found the strength to continue it, I’ve realized more and more that this is a ministry. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends I’m committed to spreading the good news that war is unnecessary. In my personal life this is a matter of faith in the “power that takes away occassion for all war.” In my work with Nonviolence.org I also draw on all the practical and pragmatic reasons why war is wrong. For more personal motivations you can see at QuakerRanter.org, my personal blog.
A Nonviolence.org Timeline
In 1995 I was editor at an activist publisher struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing book world. Many of the independent bookstores that had always supported us were closing just as printing costs were rising. The need to re-invent activist organizing and publishing for the 1990’s became obvious and I saw the internet as a place to do that. One of the earliest manifestos and introductions to the Nonviolence Web was an essay called The Revolution Will be Online.
I began by approached leading U.S. peace groups with a crazy proposal: if they gave me their material I would put it up on the web for them for free. My goal was to live off of savings until I could raise the operating funds from foundations. “Free typesetting for the movement by the movement” was the rallying cry and I quickly brought a who’s-who of American peace groups over to Nonviolence.org. I knew that there was lots of great peace writing that wasn’t getting the distribution it deserved and with the internet I could get it out faster and more widely then with any traditional media. For three years I lived off of savings, very part-time jobs and occasional small grants.
Through 1998, Nonviolence.ommarg developed into a web “portal” for nonviolence. We would feature the most provocative and timely pieces from the NVWeb member groups on the newly-redesigned homepage, dubbed “Nonviolence Web Upfront.” A online magazine format loosely modeled on Slate and the now-defunct Feed Magazine, it also contained original material and links to interesting threads on the integrated discussion board. With these popular features, the Nonviolence.Org became a “sticky” site, one which attracted regular visitors. The combined visibility for member groups was much greater than anyone could obtain alone and we earned plenty of awards and links. There was a New York Times tech profile (boy was that a weird photo shoot!) and I was invited to write the guest Op/Ed in USA Today.
But this model couldn’t last. A big problem was money: there’s were too few philanthropists for this sort of work, and established foundations didn’t even know the right questions to ask in evaluating an internet project. Nonviolence.Org was kept afloat by my own dwindling personal savings, and I never did find the sort of money that could pay even poverty wages. I took more and more part-time jobs till they became the full-time ones I have today. At the same time, internet publishing was also changing. With the advent of “Blogs” and open-source bulletin board software, Nonviolence.org has continued to evolve and stay relevant.
Nonviolence.org continued to be one of the most highly-visible and visited peace websites, being highly ranked through the first Gulf War II, the biggest U.S. military action since the web began. This model of independent activist web publishing was still critical. The Nonviolence.org mission of featuring the best writing and analysis continued until 2008 when Martin finally mothballed the Nonviolence.org project and sold the domain.