In praise of an editor past

Frances William Browin from the September 15, 1968 Friends Journal.
When I became an editor at Friends Journal in 2011, I inherited an institution with some very strong opinions. Some of them are sourced from predictable wellsprings: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s foundational mid-century style guide and the editorial offices of the Chicago Manual of Style. But some is all our own, logically tested for consistency with Chicago but adapted to Quaker idiosyncrasies.

One of our most invariable (and contested) formats comes from the way we list congregations. Quick aside for non-Quakers: you will often see a Quaker meeting listed as  Town Monthly Meeting, Town Friends Meeting, Town Quaker Meeting, etc. People often have strong opinions about the correct ways to write them out. Sometimes an author will insist to me that their meeting has an official name that is use consistently but I can usually find this isn't true within a few minutes with the help of Google.

To cut through this, Friends Journal uses “Town (State) Meeting” everywhere and always, with specific exceptions only for cases where that doesn’t work. Town, state abbreviation in parentheses, capital-M meeting. This formatting is unique to Friends Journal--other Philadelphia-based Quaker style sheets don't follow it. We’ve been doing it this distinctively and consistently for as long as I can remember.

Fortunately we have digital archives going back to the mid-1950s thanks to Haverford College's Quaker and Special Collections. So a few months ago I dug into our archives and used keyword searches to see how far back the format goes. Traveling the years back it time it's held remarkably steady as "Town (State) Meeting" until we scroll back into the fall of 1962. The October 15 issue doesn’t have consistent meeting listings. But it does announce that longtime Friends Journal editor William Hubben is going on a six-month sabbatical, with Frances Williams Browin filling in as acting editor.

It didn't take her long. The next issue sees a few parentheses unevenly applied. But by the November 15th issue, nineteen meetings are referenced using our familiar format! There’s the “member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting” who had just published a pamphlet of Christmas songs for children, an FCNL event featuring skits and a covered-dish supper at “Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting” and the announcement of a prominent article by “Kenneth E. Boulding, a member of Ann Arbor (Michigan) Meeting.”

I've tried to imagine the scene... Browin situated in her new temporary office... going back and forth, forth and back on some listing... then finally surprising herself by shouting "enough!" so loudly she had to apologize to nearby colleagues. At the end of the six months, Hubben came back but only as a contributing editor, and Browin was named editor. Friends Journal board member Elizabeth B Wells wrote a profile of her upon her retirement in 1968:

Her remarks usually made sparks, whether she was expressing an opinion (always positive), exerting pressure (not always gentle), or making a humorous aside (often disturbing). For in her amiable way she can be tart, unexpected, even prejudiced (in the right direction), then as suddenly disarmingly warm and sensitive.

This sounds like the kind of person who would standardize a format with such resolve it would be going strong 55 years later:

She was so entirely committed to putting out the best possible magazine, such a perfectionist, even such a driver, that her closest colleagues often felt that we knew the spirited editor far better than the Quaker lady.

It’s a neat profile. And today, every time an author rewrites their meeting’s name on a copyedited manuscript, I say a quiet thanks to the driven perfectionist who gives me permission to be prejudiced in the right direction. Wells's profile is a fascinating glimpse into a smart woman of a different era and well worth a read.

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.

Trying out Google PhotoScan

Today Google came out with a new app called Pho­to­Scan that will scan your old pho­to col­lec­tion. Like just every­one, I have stash­es of shoe­box­es inherit­ed from par­ents full of pic­tures. Some were scanned in a scan­ner, back when I had one that was com­pat­i­ble with a com­put­er. More recent­ly, I’ve used scan­ning apps like Readdle’s Scan­ner Pro and Scan­bot. The­se de-skew the pho­tographs of the pho­tos that your phone takes but the resolution’s is not always the best and there can be some glare from over­head lights, espe­cial­ly when you’re work­ing with a glossy orig­i­nal pic­tures.

Google’s approach clev­er­ly stitch­es togeth­er mul­ti­ple pho­tos. It uses a process much like their 360-degree pho­to app: you start with a overview pho­to. Once tak­en, you see four cir­cles hov­er­ing to the sides of the pic­ture. Move the cam­era to each and it takes more pic­tures. Once you’ve gone over all four cir­cles, Google stitch­es the­se five pho­tos togeth­er in such a way that there’s no per­spec­tive dis­tor­tion.

What’s remark­able is the speed. I scanned 15 pho­tos in while also mak­ing din­ner for the kids. The dimen­sions of all looked good and the res­o­lu­tion looks about as good as the orig­i­nal. The­se are good results for some­thing so easy.

Check out Google’s announce­ment blog post for details.

Quick scans from an envelope inherited from my mom.

Throwback from 2005: “Aggregating Our Webs

One of the first iterations of QuakerQuaker, from January 2006.
One of the first iter­a­tions of Quak­erQuak­er, from Jan­u­ary 2006.

Look­ing back at a 2005 post that start­ed to lay out what was to become Quak­erQuak­er:

May­be the web’s form of hyper­link­ing is actu­ally supe­rior to Old Media pub­lish­ing. I love how I can put for­ward a strong vision of Quak­erism with­out offend­ing any­one – any put-off read­ers can hit the “back” but­ton. And if a blog I read posts some­thing I don’t agree with, I can sim­ply choose not to com­ment. If life’s just too busy then I just miss a few weeks of posts. With my “Sub­jec­tive Guide to Quak­er Blogs” and my “On the Web” posts I high­light the blog­gers I find par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing, even when I’m not in per­fect the­o­log­i­cal uni­ty. I like that I can have dis­cus­sions back and forth with Friends who I don’t exact­ly agree with.