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: up the steps, down the slide, up the steps, down the slide, up…).

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.

Facebook consulting explained

Over the last year or so I’ve been asked to do an increas­ing amount of Face­book con­sult­ing. Most weeks I get a cou­ple of emails ask­ing for help and ask­ing how this sort of con­sult­ing works so I thought I’d explain my experience.

First off: Face­book is not all that hard. Putting a great-looking Face­book page up to sup­port your group, cause or school doesn’t require any pro­gram­ming. But it can be con­fus­ing, part­ly because Face­book is always in-process. They keep adapt­ing it and tweak­ing it. If you bought a book on Face­book cam­paign­ing a year ago, it would already be out of date.
My first job is to ask a few good ques­tions about what you want to do on Face­book and then set up the begin­nings of a site. I spend too much of my time already on Face­book but I also keep up with a lot of Face­book blogs and have recent copies of such won­der­ful tomes as “Face­book Mar­ket­ing for Dum­mies.” In most cas­es my job is to rec­om­mend a Face­book strat­e­gy based on best prac­tices and then to start up a Face­book Page for you. There are cer­tain flour­ish­es I can give, such as pick­ing a good icon or mak­ing a cus­tomized tab for first-time vis­i­tors. But the real val­ue of Face­book is clients shar­ing infor­ma­tion direct­ly with their audi­ence so my most impor­tant work is get­ting you excit­ed about doing it your­self. I’m real­ly just a cheer­leader for you.
I typ­i­cal­ly spend any­where from two to eight hours help­ing a client put togeth­er a Face­book page. If it looks like a project on the small end of the scale, I just charge the expect­ed amount upfront. I do keep track of my time: if we go over a lit­tle bit, I let it slide; if we still have a bit of a bal­ance then I’m there for ongo­ing ques­tions. Face­book con­sult­ing is not the core of my busi­ness but it can be a nice break from a big six-month devel­op­ment project and it’s helps with the cash­flow. I’m also a nat­u­ral­ly curi­ous fel­low so I like learn­ing a lit­tle bit about the kinds of things.

Bradley J Winkler LLC

Bradley Winkler LLC Home RemodelingIn ear­ly Decem­ber 2009, I got a call from a prospec­tive client who want­ed me to build a web­site for her husband’s home improve­ment busi­ness. The catch? She want­ed it to be a sur­prise Christ­mas present! She start­ed col­lect­ing pic­tures from his clients and I went to work with a sim­ple but expand­able Word­Press site. Reports are that Brad was thrilled!
See it live: http://​www​.bradley​win​kler​.com/