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.

Friends on Giving

The new issue of Friends Journal is available online. This month looks at Giving and Philanthropy. There's some good reflections from Friends on why they give to the causes and institutions they do. There's also a nice piece from Quaker fundraiser Henry Freeman on the "language of Quaker values." If you're trying to unpack what it means to be Quaker, this on-the-ground perspective is one way to parse out the reality of Quaker testimonies.

Remembering Juanita Nelson

juanita04One of the coolest activists of her (or any) gen­er­a­tion is gone. Juani­ta Nelson’s obit­u­ary is up on the nation­al war tax coalition’s site. My favorite Juani­ta sto­ry was when some agents came to arrest her at home and found her dressed only in a bathrobe. They told her it was okay to go into her bed­room to change but she refused. She told them that any shame was theirs. She forced them to car­ry her out as her clothes fell off. Talk about rad­i­cal non-coöperation!

Update

Pam McAl­lis­ter point­ed out on her Glob­al Non­vi­o­lence: Sto­ries of Cre­ative Action Face­book page that this sto­ry is online. Here’s a bit more of Juani­ta her­self telling that bit:

Sev­en law enforce­ment offi­cers had stalked in. I sat on the stool beneath the tele­phone, my back lit­er­al­ly to the wall, the sev­en hem­ming me about in a semi­cir­cle. All of them appeared over six feet tall, and all of them were annoyed.

“Look,” said one, “you’re gonna go any­way. You might as well come peace­ful.”

There they stood, ready and able to take me at any moment. But no move was made. The rea­son was obvi­ous.

“Why don’t you put your clothes on, Mrs. Nel­son?” This was a soft spo­ken plea from the more benign deputy. “You’re not hurt­ing any­body but your­self.” His pained expres­sion belied the asser­tion.

The essay where that came from is much longer and well worth read­ing.

Preaching our lives over the interwebs

Hel­lo Jon, A.J. and Wess,

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?

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?