Reor­ga­niz­ing the meet­ing orga­ni­za­tional chart

Reor­ga­niz­ing the meet­ing orga­ni­za­tional chart. Jnana Hod­son:

Bring­ing this per­spec­tive home, as some of us have looked at the actual work of Dover Meet­ing, we’ve seen that our com­mit­tees might be regrouped into four or five larger bod­ies that might not have to be defined as com­mit­tees. Call them min­istries, work­ing groups, teams, “minis” for “mini-meetings/ministries,” or what­ever, they could be gath­ered around a set of con­cerns and have a coör­di­na­tor or care­taker instead of a clerk. 

Ezra Klein on Vox’s the­ory of aggre­ga­tion

Ezra Klein on Vox’s the­ory of aggre­ga­tion:

I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of Vox. But I like hear­ing Klein explain how they aggre­gate.

Often­times aggre­ga­tion hap­pens less pub­licly, too: all reporters, all the time, are writ­ing arti­cles informed by other people’s work, ideas, and the­o­ries. Most all intel­lec­tual endeav­ors end up being a pas­tiche of good points made by peo­ple who came before you — if you’re lucky, you can add a lit­tle bit to the whole, and help those who come after.

Much of my work has been aggre­ga­tion and I agree that done right–and with clear attributions–it can help grow not just a media pub­li­ca­tion but a small media ecosys­tem.

Ezra Klein on Vox’s the­ory of aggre­ga­tion

Ezra Klein on Vox’s the­ory of aggre­ga­tion I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of Vox. But I like hear­ing Klein explain how they aggre­gate.

Often­times aggre­ga­tion hap­pens less pub­licly, too: all reporters, all the time, are writ­ing arti­cles informed by other people’s work, ideas, and the­o­ries. Most all intel­lec­tual endeav­ors end up being a pas­tiche of good points made by peo­ple who came before you — if you’re lucky, you can add a lit­tle bit to the whole, and help those who come after.

Much of my work has been aggre­ga­tion and I agree that done right–and with clear attributions–it can help grow not just a media pub­li­ca­tion but a small media ecosys­tem.

Friends and eat­ing dis­or­ders

My col­league Gail Whif­fen Coyle recently inter­viewed Made­line Schae­fer about her strug­gles with eat­ing dis­or­ders, a video con­ver­sa­tion around her Silent Bod­ies arti­cle in the March issue of Friends Jour­nal.

Until we started work on this arti­cle, I don’t think any of us at the Jour­nal fully real­ized just how silent the magazine–and Friends–have been on this sub­ject over the years. I’m immensely…proud, really… of Made­line for shar­ing such a per­sonal story. It’s not easy, for her or her fam­ily (won­der­ful peo­ple all) who are shown in their human frailty and imper­fectabil­ity. I hope that by shar­ing sto­ries like these we can have more of those nec­es­sary but dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions around our din­ner tables and in our meet­ing­houses.

This is the first of a multi-part series from Made­line, the most per­sonal piece. In future install­ments we’ll learn more of the his­tory of Friends and eat­ing dis­or­ders.

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?

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.

Visual sto­ry­telling through ani­mated gifs and Vine

NPR’s Planet Money recently ran an arti­cle on glass recy­cling, How A Used Bot­tle Becomes A New Bot­tle, In 6 Gifs. The Gif part is what intrigued me. A “gif” is a tightly-compressed image for­mat file that web design­ers leaned on a lot back in the days of low band­width. It’s espe­cially good for designs with a few dis­creet col­ors, such as cor­po­rate logos or sim­ple car­toons. It also sup­ports a kind of prim­i­tive ani­ma­tion that was com­pletely overused in the late 90s to give web­pages fly­ing uni­corns and spin­ning globes.

Ani­mated gifs have grown up. They make up half the posts on Tum­blr. They are often derived from funny scenes in movies and come with humor­ous cap­tions. The Planet Money piece uses them for sto­ry­telling: text is illus­trated by six gifs show­ing dif­fer­ent parts of the recy­cling process. The move­ment helps tell the story–indeed most of the shots would be visu­ally unin­ter­est­ing if they were sta­tic.

The short loops reminds me of Vine, the six-second video ser­vice from Twit­ter which I’ve used a lot for silly kid antics. They can also tell a sim­ple story (they’re par­tic­u­larly well suited to repet­i­tive kid antics).

In my work with Friends Jour­nal I’ve done some 7–12 minute video inter­views with off-site authors using Google Hang­outs, which essen­tially just records the video con­ver­sa­tion. It’s fine for what we use it for, but the qual­ity depends a lot on the equip­ment on the other end. If the band­width is low or the web­cam poor qual­ity, it will show, and there are few options for post-production edit­ing. But hon­estly, this is why I use Hang­outs: a short web-only inter­view won’t turn into a week­long project.

Pro­duc­ing high-quality video requires con­trol­ling all of the equip­ment, shoot­ing ten times more footage than you think you’ll need, and then hours of work con­dens­ing and edit­ing it down to a story. And after all this it’s pos­si­ble you’ll end up with some­thing that doesn’t get many views. Few Youtube users actu­ally watch videos all the way through to the end, drift­ing away to other inter­net dis­trac­tions in the first few min­utes.

I like the com­bi­na­tion of the sim­ple short video clips (whether Vine or ani­mated gif) wed­ded to words. My last post here was the very light-weight story about a sum­mer after­noon project. Yes­ter­day, I tried again, shoot­ing a short ani­mated gif of Tibetan monks vis­it­ing a local meet­ing­house. I don’t think it really worked. They’re con­struct­ing a sand man­dala grain-by-grain. The small move­ments of their fun­nel sticks as sand drops is so small that a reg­u­lar sta­tic photo would suf­fice. But I’ll keep exper­i­ment­ing with the form.

Out­reach gets peo­ple to your meet­ing­house / Hos­pi­tal­ity keeps peo­ple return­ing.

Over on Twit­ter feed came a tweet (h/t revrevwine):

seo - Google SearchTo trans­late, SEO is “search engine opti­miza­tion,” the often-huckersterish art of trick­ing Google to dis­play your web­site higher than your com­peti­tors in search results. “Usabil­ity” is the catch-all term for mak­ing your web­site easy to nav­i­gate and invit­ing to vis­i­tors. Com­pa­nies with deep pock­ets often want to spend a lot of money on SEO, when most of the time the most viable long-term solu­tion to rank­ing high with search engines is to pro­vide vis­i­tors with good rea­sons to visit your site. What if we applied these prin­ci­ples to our churches and meet­ing­houses and swapped the terms?

Out­reach gets peo­ple to your meet­ing­house /
Hos­pi­tal­ity keeps peo­ple return­ing.

A lot of Quaker meet­ing­houses have pretty good “nat­ural SEO.” Here in the U.S. East Coast, they’re often near a major road in the mid­dle of town. If they’re lucky there are a few his­tor­i­cal mark­ers of notable Quak­ers and if they are really lucky there’s a highly-respected Friends school nearby. All these meet­ings really have to do is put a nice sign out front and table a few town events every year. The rest is cov­ered. Although we do get the occa­sional “aren’t you all Amish?” com­ments, we have a much wider rep­u­ta­tion that our num­bers would nec­es­sar­ily war­rant. We rank pretty high.

But what are the lessons of hos­pi­tal­ity we could work on? Do we pro­vide places where spir­i­tual seek­ers can both grow per­son­ally and engage in the impor­tant ques­tions of the faith in the mod­ern world? Are we invi­ta­tional, bring­ing peo­ple into our homes and into our lives for shared meals and con­ver­sa­tions?

In my free­lance days when I was hired to work on SEO I ran through a series of sta­tis­ti­cal reports and redesigned some under­per­form­ing pages, but then turned my atten­tion to the client’s con­tent. It was in this realm that my great­est quan­tifi­able suc­cesses occurred. At the heart of the con­tent work was ask­ing how could the site could more fully engage with first-time vis­i­tors. The “usabil­ity con­sid­er­a­tions” on the Wikipedia page on usabil­ity could be eas­ily adapted as queries:

Who are the users, what do they know, what can they learn? What do users want or need to do? What is the users’ gen­eral back­ground? What is the users’ con­text for work­ing? What must be left to the machine? Can users eas­ily accom­plish intended tasks at their desired speed? How much train­ing do users need? What doc­u­men­ta­tion or other sup­port­ing mate­ri­als are avail­able to help the user?

I’d love to see Friends con­sider this more. FGC’s “New Meet­ings Tool­box” has a sec­tion on wel­com­ing new­com­ers. But I’d love to hear more sto­ries about how we’re work­ing on the “usabil­ity” of our spir­i­tual com­mu­ni­ties.