[Don’t waste your time reading my hasty post before you read Ethan Zuckerman’s take: “Mourn, and take action on guns.”]
Another senseless American tragedy with much chaotic wailing in social media, including my own. More traditional media, as ever, is ready and willing to tell us what we are thinking, if not what we should be thinking. The Onion manages to be more real than “real” news in this:
Americans reported feelings of overwhelming disgust with whatever abhorrent bastard did this and with the world at large for ever allowing it to happen, as well as with politicians, with the NRA, and above all with their own pathetic goddamn selves, sitting in front of a fucking computer instead of doing fucking anything to help anyone—Christ, as if that were even fucking possible, as if anyone could change what happened, as if the same fucking bullshit isn’t going to keep happening again and again and fucking again before people finally decide it’s time to change the way we live, so what’s the point? What the hell is the goddamned point?
Roger Ebert had an interesting take on the media’s role in his review of Gus Van Sant’s film “Elephant,” inspired by the Columbine shootings. I’ve seen this quote 2-3 times on the interwebs over the last 24 hrs:
… I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
This news is everywhere. It filled the front page of Austin American-Statesman today, with a max point size headline saying “Our Hearts Are Broken Today.” The New York Times says “Nation Reels as Shooting Details Emerge.” I don’t question the sincerity of most responses, though there were also outrageous viral hoaxes like this one, posted on Twitter (I fell for it):
The National Rifle Association has been quiet so far – here was their last tweet, evidently before news of the shooting had spread:
— NRA (@NRA) December 14, 2012
I saw at least one post, at Google+, that suggested we should arm elementary teachers. The reality just doesn’t sink in. This image (evidently with old stats) was posted to Facebook:
Beyond all the noise, I know there’s the reality of twenty families experiencing the worst sort of pain and loss; those of us more distant, however touched we are by this tragedy, can only imagine… At the moment, having pulled together this post, I find myself wanting to be silent for a while. Flaubert said “…a friend who dies, it’s something of you who dies.” I didn’t know any of those people who died in Connecticut, the force of media can’t truly connect me to them, yet here is a sadness, a sense of loss, a quiet depression.
For the last two decades I’ve been preaching about the limits of “community management” – no one can “own” a community or tribe; top-down approaches fail. You can lead, you can facilitate, but you can’t dictate – you have to listen to the community, and be sensitive to community input.
At larger scale, this is the rationale for democracy, “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is difficult, you can’t have a true and pure democracy and make it work – but when we talk about democracy we’re seldom talking about a system that’s purely that, a direct democracy. We always have vertical hierarchies, however flat they might be, and we always need leadership. Few members of a community will have the understanding and perspective required to make decisions; success depends on their input. But success also depends on a system that supports a sense of open, public discussion preceding whatever decisions are embedded in policy.
We see this in micro in online communities and social networks. On a platform like Facebook, for instance, there’s a persistent tension between what Facebook wants to do and what its users will accept; Facebook-the-company has been forced to back off on policies that were perceived by users as too constraining. It’s an ongoing dance, and to the extent that the users of Facebook are its product (sold as eyeballs to advertisers), the system must empower its users while at the same time depending on a more passive form of information consumption (the kind that makes advertisers happy). Facebook is a company, it makes platform decisions, but to the extent users feel locked out or ignored, they’re cranky and might ultimately walk, if they feel they have no input, no control over the online environment. You didn’t have this with television, because television doesn’t create the same sense of place or community. It was media, but not social media.
Coding Horror has a post that about online social space and community empowerment, quoting the 1990 paper “The Lessons of LucasFilm’s Habitat.” Habitat was an early online game/community, “one of the first attempts to create a very large scale commercial multi-user virtual environment.” This quote could have been written about any number of online platforms that have emerged over the last two-plus decades:
… we shifted into a style of operations in which we let the players themselves drive the direction of the design. This proved far more effective. Instead of trying to push the community in the direction we thought it should go, an exercise rather like herding mice, we tried to observe what people were doing and aid them in it. We became facilitators as much as designers and implementors. This often meant adding new features and new regions to the system at a frantic pace, but almost all of what we added was used and appreciated, since it was well matched to people’s needs and desires. As the experts on how the system worked, we could often suggest new activities for people to try or ways of doing things that people might not have thought of. In this way we were able to have considerable influence on the system’s development in spite of the fact that we didn’t really hold the steering wheel — more influence, in fact, than we had had when we were operating under the delusion that we controlled everything.
The author of the Coding Horror post, Jeff Atwood, points to his earlier post about lessons learned managing the Stack Overflow community, “Listen to Your Community, But Don’t Let Them Tell You What to Do.” That strikes me as a good description of the process of practical democracy: those who hold power (community managers, legislators, executives) must listen (actively, seriously), but they have to make their own decisions from their perspective, which is different from the perspective of the average community member or citizen. As Atwood says in his “Listen” post, “Community feedback is great, but it should never be used as a crutch, a substitute for thinking deeply about what you’re building and why.” I.e. leaders have to work hard at having the right perspective and understanding to make meaningful, “right” decisions. He goes on to say that “half of community relationships isn’t doing what the community thinks they want at any given time, but simply being there to listen and respond to the community.” Spot on.
I recently posted about the acquisition of the seminal online community, the WELL, by some of its members. At Social Media Today, my friend and former WELL director Cliff Figallo has an informative and insightful post that gives some context. “The people who log in and participate can be numbered in the hundreds,” he says, “but thousands of people have been active members at one time or another and many of them still think of the community as just that – a true online community that they consider to be their first home in Cyberspace.” He notes its history and influence:
In many ways, The WELL called attention to the social imperative in the early days of the Internet and the Web. It was one of the very first businesses to get an Internet domain name in 1992 – well.sf.ca.us. It inspired early Web developers to design platforms that would support social interaction. In 1996, Wired Magazine put The WELL on its cover, calling it “The World’s Most Influential Online Community,” and documenting some of the melodrama and technical “exploration” that had made it something more than an online forum.
When Katie Hafner was writing that piece for Wired, which later became a book, she interviewed me, and in her office she had a diagram that showed how the WELL derived influence from the communal movement in the sixties, and how it conveyed that influence to the larger Internet and the World Wide Web. Along with the BBS world, Usenet, and email lists, as Cliff says, the WELL inspired the social web – but not just developers, also users who, like me, were discovering that computers are platforms for communication and social connection.
Many of us who are still members of the WELL, and dissatisfied with a lack of depth in drive-by interactions on social media platforms, are hoping to see new growth within the community following its acquisition.
I came to the Internet via the The WELL, an online community that started as a bulletin board system in 1985. I read about The WELL in the Whole Earth publications: CoEvolution Quarterly/Whole Earth Review. An avid follower of Whole Earth in its various published forms, I was eager to get closer to the community of people who wrote for, read, and published the catalogs and quarterlies. I got a loan, bought a PCs Limited 8086 computer and 300 baud modem so that I could dial in, and spent months winning my wife over to the idea of a huge long distance bill to dial into Sausalito from Austin, Texas. Later the WELL and I both connected to the Internet, so I could use telnet to log in. I invested more and more time and conversation in the community. My membership in the WELL led me to a new career, a set of friends I never would have found otherwise, and various paths to venues for writing and cultural foo.
Salon has owned the WELL for quite a few years, allowing it to be its own thing and sustain its vibrant community of conversations. Now the WELL has been sold – to a coalition of its members.
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 20, 2012 — Salon Media Group (SLNM.PK) and The Well Group, Inc. today jointly announced that The WELL is now under the ownership of The Well Group, Inc., a private investment group composed of long-time WELL members.
The Well Group, Inc. consists entirely of long-time WELL users with an average tenure exceeding 20 years. The purchase marks the first major online business taken private by users of the business itself.
The WELL represents one of the earliest platforms for online dialogue, supporting lively debates and conversations since its founding in 1985. The Well Group, Inc. is excited to take over the management of The WELL, and continue offering the valuable products and services that subscribers have come to expect over the years.
“The WELL welcomes the opportunity to support its existing base and extends an invitation to like-minded individuals looking for a social network that puts the free exchange of ideas at the forefront,” explained Earl Crabb, CEO of The Well Group, Inc. “We are extremely grateful to Salon Media Group for working with us to make this transition a success.”
“In a world where online platforms come and go, this is a testament to the dedication of a truly remarkable community,” explained Cindy Jeffers, CEO of Salon Media Group. “As a true pioneer of the digital age, and a forerunner of today’s ubiquitous social networks, The WELL has played a central role in the origin of countless creative endeavors and cultural movements. We wish The WELL countless more under their new management.”
Howard Rheingold’s written a good short piece for the Atlantic explaining why the WELL is historically important, and how the WELL exemplified online community (and was probably the first). He also mentions the WELL’s importance in influencing the evolution of the World wide Web of today, something I suggested in an earlier post.
Here’s Howard talking about the WELL, also featuring John “Tex” Coate:
John McDermott at Financial Times writes “How to have a conversation”:
What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.
Reading that, I realize I suck as a conversationalist (but wait, I shouldn’t talk about myself…) A commitment to learn and act on those principles is in order… online and off.
Later in the article, McDermott mentions “the ‘six ways to have a better conversation.’ These, according to the school, are: 1. Be curious about others; 2. Take off your mask; 3. Empathise with others; 4. Get behind the job title; 5. Use adventurous openings; 6. Have courage.”
If you take off your mask, will you disappear?
Google-funded Code for America was in Austin Saturday for a codeathon using data accessible via the city’s data portal. I dropped by the geek chic coworking facility Conjunctured, where the codeathon was happening, and hung out long enough to get a sense of the projects the ~40 coders were tackling. Those included a Bike Accident and Route Safety app, an app for finding miscellaneous stuff around town, and a “garden dating” app (to help people who want a community garden find a space). What was missing? For at least one project (Find It), there were fewer sources of data than the developers would’ve liked. I realized that it’s not enough to bring coders together to create apps – we should also be cultivating data sources. A project to build databases and facilitate citizen input would be a logical complement to the various codeathons.
Follow John Robb and pay close attention to what he has to say, because he has his finger on the pulse. He’s currently promoting the concept of resilient communities, defined here:
A resilient community is the path to a safe, prosperous, and vibrant future for us, our kids, and our neighbors — despite an increasingly chaotic world…. We take control of our future. We implement the only solution that can give us the a safe, secure, and prosperous future. We become resilient. We find ways to help local people, businesses, and municipalities to PRODUCE, and that’s and important word, more of what we rely upon…. Fortunately, we now have the technology and the insights required to produce with quality and efficiency at the local level like never before.