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 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.

Bike To Work Day 2012

Insanely, I decided to participate on Bike To Work Day despite living 32 miles from Philadelphia. It took 3:20 hours but was fun and not too scary. The night before I looked up Google Driving Directions for bicycles and when I found it gave me an interesting route I decided to follow it. Much of the ride was eighteenth century stagecoach roads and a road following alongside the old Reading Railroad Seashore Line.

In album Bike to Work Day 2012 (19 photos)

At home, waiting for enough daylight to set out.

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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:

Mike’s Precision Carpentry

Mike's Precision CarpentryMichael Oliveras is a long-time union carpenter making the entrepreneurial jump and starting his own business: Mike’s Precision Carpentry, serving the New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware from his shop in Hammonton, NJ. He came to me looking for a webpage to advertise his new enterprise.
It’s a simple design, a typical small-business site of half-a-dozen pages. The color scheme matches his business cards for a bit of branding. Oliveras faced a problem typical for new businesses: a lack of good photos. The work he’s done for many years is not technically his own (per the employment contracts) so for now the pictures are a mix of the few jobs he has done on his own and a few stock images. I’m sure he’ll have a well-rounded portfolio before long and we’ll be able to fill out the site with his own work. In the meantimes, he added a couple of great pictures of him and his family on the “About Us” page to give it that personal touch.
See it live: