The Church of One Tree: A civic parable

Juilliard Park is one of the jewels of Santa Rosa. It occupies 8.8 acres downtown, adjacent to the SOFA Arts District where, last weekend, thousands gathered for the 10th annual WinterBlast festival. Here’s how the Press Democrat describes the SOFA district:

Loosely gathered around the intersection of South A Street and Sebastopol Avenue, the neighborhood once had a shady reputation, but about a decade ago it began to change, and over those years it emerged as a destination for cuisine and culture.

And it continues to evolve. Today, you’ll find a picturesque cluster of small, independently owned shops, galleries, restaurants and even a live theater company.

We love the neighborhood and its energy. It was a major factor in our decision to move to Santa Rosa. When a small studio became available next door to the Atlas Coffee Company (labeled 1 on the map), Luann jumped at the opportunity. The timing was perfect. WinterBlast introduced hundreds of people to her work and to the stories that inspire it.

On the other side of the park is a landmark labeled Ripley Museum / Church of One Tree (2 on the map). Here’s the history:

The Church of One Tree was built in 1873 from a single redwood tree milled in Guerneville, California. The tree used to construct the Church stood 275 feet high and was 18 feet in diameter. Robert Ripley, a native of Santa Rosa, wrote about the Church of One Tree — where his mother attended services, — as one of his earliest installments of “Believe It or Not!” In 1970, Ripley repurposed the Church of One Tree as the Ripley Memorial Museum which was stocked with curiosities and “Believe it or Not!” memorabilia for nearly two decades. In 2009, the City of Santa Rosa restored the site adding several modern upgrades so that it could be utilized for every type of occasion.

Although that city web page doesn’t say so, the building was moved to Juilliard Park in 1957. It’s one of several landmarks that the city rents out for private events, so it’s no longer open to the public. The building is oddly sited. During the meeting Mayor Scott Bartley called it “backwards.” The front entrance faces the park, not the street, and is sheltered by a grove of redwood trees. That’s made it a magnet for the homeless who use the park. Private events have been disrupted; prospective renters have been spooked; a martial arts class that regularly rented the space found the situation untenable and bailed out.

To address these issues the city’s recreation and parks department proposed a fence that would enclose both the building and the nearby grove of redwoods. I’m not sure when or how I heard about the proposal (Luann hadn’t), but I attended this week’s city council meeting in part because the fence was on the agenda. I wanted to learn more about the issue, and to see how Santa Rosa would handle it.

Both the process and the outcome made me feel good about our new home town. Here’s the item that appeared on the council’s agenda for November 18:


BACKGROUND: The Recreation and Parks Department desires to increase use of the Church of One Tree and protect the building. The Church of One Tree site abuts Juilliard Park. The Master Plan for Juilliard Park was established in 1932, and was most recently amended on February 11, 2014. The Church of One Tree (Church) was placed on the site adjacent to Juilliard Park in 1957, and the building was used as the Ripley Memorial Museum from 1970 to 1998. The building was designated by City Council as a Landmark in 1998. The building has been restored and also modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A motion to recommend approval of the fence was approved by the Board of Community Services on July 23, 2014. A resolution to approve the fence design, with conditions, was approved by the Cultural Heritage Board on November 5, 2014.

RECOMMENDATION: It is recommended by the Department of Recreation and Parks that the Council, by resolution, approve the
Juilliard Park Master Plan Amendment, adding a fence to enclose the Church of One Tree.

When the item came up at the council meeting I thought it might be a done deal. Kelley Magnuson, deputy director of Recreation and Parks, opened her presentation with a slide summarizing the rationale for the fence:

  1. Increase use of the Church of One Tree
  2. Protect the building
  3. Incorporate redwoods within Church of One Tree

Slide 7 showed how the fence would reach into the park to enclose the redwood grove in front of the building. Slide 8 showed the view from Sonoma Avenue. Here, at the back of the building, the fence would block two entrances to the park. The gates (we later learned) would open only to admit guests to private events.

Although two bodies had endorsed the plan — the Cultural Heritage Board and the Board of Community Services — the council immediately began to ask about alternatives.

Councilor Erin Carlstrom:

Instead of building a fence, if we were to engage in more person-to-person contact — enforcement, security, interaction, funding homeless service providers…for example, what would it cost to increase our downtown bicycle patrol? Or adding security for events?

Councilor Ernesto Olivares:

I’m trying to understand how just having a fence solves the problem, it sounds like we have a bigger issue. If the drug use that was on the back porch of the church is now on the other side of the fence, we’re still dealing with an issue. What’s the broad plan to make the park — and the church — safer?

Kelley Magnuson was now in a tough spot. It was becoming clear that the problem she’d been tasked to address had been defined too narrowly. “Our objective today was to get your input on how to increase the use of the building, and protect it,” she said, “but I do agree there’s a larger issue.”

Mayor Scott Bartley, who is an architect, now made a not-entirely-facetious comment:

Why don’t we just pick the building up and turn it around so it faces Sonoma Avenue? Then we can just lock the door, it’ll look like a normal church, and nobody will think anything about it.

He then opened the public comment period.

First up was Ray Killion, who lives three doors down from the Church of One Tree. Here was the opening of his three-minute statement:

I’m against the direction of this fence. Aesthetically, a black iron fence is forbidding, it’s uninviting, it’s put there to say “you’re not welcome here,” and that’s not what I see as a proper message we want to send about our neighborhood.

Ray Killion made the following points, which were echoed by subsequent speakers:

  • Blocking both Sonoma Avenue entrances to the park would deny access to neighbors and visitors, as well as police, fire, and ambulance personnel.
  • The fence wouldn’t solve the crime and nuisance problems in the neighborhood.
  • If the fence must be built, at least keep the gates to the park open.
  • The Juilliard family had given the land to this city on the condition that “the whole of said property shall be forever used for park purposes only and for the use and benefit of the public in general and particularly the citizens of the city of Santa Rosa.” (This quotation from the deed was repeated several times during the evening.)

Referring to the language of the deed, Ray Killion concluded:

I would like to contrast that with what the parks department puts in the agenda tonight: “reserving this part of the park for the use of paid customers.” That’s not the purpose of a public park maintained with public money for the use of the public.

Jack Cabot has lived in the neighborhood for 24 years, owns 8 properties, and was deeply involved in the redevelopment of the SOFA district. In his statement he stressed how “eyes on the street,” which have multiplied thanks to the SOFA renaissance, would again diminish if the paths around the church were blocked.

Bob Wishard, another longtime resident, said that he and his wife had founded Juilliard Park’s original neighborhood watch 23 years ago. He added his voice to the “eyes on the street” chorus.

Floyd Fox reiterated the deed’s stipulation that the whole property was granted for public use. He added this quote: “a breach of any of the foregoing conditions shall cause said premises to revert to the said grantor, his heirs, or assigns.” He also cited resolution 23412 (1998), which established landmark status for the Church of One Tree. Quoting from the resolution — “the proposed Landmark has specific historical, cultural, and architectural value” — he concluded by asking: “Have you weighed the impact the fence would have on those values?”

Jim Macken extolled the park as a resource that should enhance the city’s ability to rent the building. Inappropriate uses of the park are “symptomatic of a larger problem” that the fence won’t fix, he said.

Edward Collins, a neighbor, opposed the fence because it would cut off access to the park and reduce citizen oversight. He also reiterated the deed’s stipulation of full public use. And he closed by referring to this clause in resolution 23412: “the Council found that the proposed Landmark designation is a Class 8 exemption under CEQA.” That exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act would, he argued, be jeopardized by the fence. He cited California Public Resources Code, Section 21084 and CEQA guideline 15300.2 in support of this argument. “If the city wants to proceed with the fence,” he said, “I think it will require a full CEQA review.”

(This was a nice civic moment. I don’t know what the councilors and city attorney were thinking but their faces said: uh oh.)

Next up was Jennifer Collins. “Being closed when not rented excludes the public from a cultural heritage landmark for the benefit of the paying few,” she said. “It punishes the neighborhood, not only by preventing us from using paths we all use regularly without incident, but also by sending a message to everyone that they are not welcome, and that this is a bad neighborhood.” She advocated for better lighting and for surveillance. And she argued that the city’s failure to maximize its revenue from the property is mainly a marketing failure. “There are no signs encouraging visitors to the Luther Burbank Gardens to come on over. Share a docent from there during peak tourist season to show off the church.”

Duane Dewitt, who often appears before the council, spoke next. “I’ve been going to this park since the 1950s,” he said. “When I was a boy we could sit under the redwoods on a hot day, and then go into the Ripley Museum.” He suggested using private security guards during events, and finding ways to open the building to the public at other times.

In her presentation, Lucinda Moore affirmed the historical value of the building, reiterated the importance of open access, and supported the idea of event security as an alternative to a fence.

Matt Martin, who is executive director for Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), was the next speaker. “The best practice for engaging with the homeless community,” he said, “is to do so face to face.” The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors recently allocated $925,000 for that purpose. In Santa Rosa, he said, it will fund outreach teams to engage with the homeless who live along the city’s creeks. He suggested that the city and SAY might be able to collaborate to bring such a team to Juilliard Park.

Next up was Cat Cvengros who is chair of the Board of Community Services. It was her board’s recommendation to build the fence. Now that idea was clearly in trouble. “When this item came before our board back in July,” she said, “we looked at the church as a revenue generator.” The fence does address the revenue problem, she said. “But you’re right, it does not address the larger issue.”

Anne Seeley, chair of Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa, put her finger on the underlying issue. “We have at war here two different concepts. One is that a previous council directed Recreation and Parks to maximize income (unlike all other departments that aren’t required to) versus all the people who want keep the park open and free.”

That concluded the public comment period. Councilor Julie Combs now made a moving statement, part of which was quoted in the Press Democrat’s story (Santa Rosa council rejects fence at Juilliard Park) the next morning:

We are in some ways defining who we are as a community. We are making a decision about whether we put up fences and increase policing and security, or whether we fund park maintenance and alternatives for homelessness. If we fund park maintenance workers we put eyes on the park, we have a cleaner park, and we encourage people to attend. We have historically put our parks department in an untenable situation. We ask them to provide clean parks without providing them with alternative maintenance funds. I know that this council has turned down increased park maintenance funding on several occasions. So I ask staff to come back with a proposal for park maintenance.

The fence was now dead in the water. But since it was the active agenda item there needed to be a motion not to amend the park’s master plan to allow the fence. Some comments from discussion on that motion:

Councilor Robin Swinth:

As number of the neighbors pointed out, we’re dealing with a larger issue here. It’s an issue of homelessness, and it’s actually a regional issue. We need to get all the stakeholders at the table to resolve this. It’s the neighbors, it’s the homeless advocates, it’s the business owners, it’s the council, there needs to be a broader discussion.

Councilor Carlstrom:

I serve as our representative to the Russian River Watershed Association. One day a very excited woman came to us from the city of Oakland, extolling the virtues of a project they had implemented to install a new water filtration whiz-bang deal, and they’d gone through and cleaned out this big old homeless encampment. I looked at her and said: “Where’d they go?” She looked at me with a blank stare. I get it. You’ve got a siloed job. That’s what we’ve got here. I want to make sure we recognize my appointee to the Board of Community Services, Cat Svengros, as well as our Cultural Heritage Board, for their efforts on this. I know you took a lot of time to discuss this, and it was brought to you in a siloed way, and that’s your job. I want to be clear that I don’t overturn lower boards’ decisions lightly.

Mayor Bartley (echoing citizen comments about marketing the Church of One Tree):

We developed this building as a rental space. It was restored to be an income generator. The big issue — and it’s a different, more global issue — is how we do that. And I think it can be done. When I hear $350 to rent a church for three hours — that’s the bargain of the century. There should be more zeroes. We’re not marketing like we should. If we do that, and fill it with people, it’ll be a success.

Well done, Santa Rosa! Everyone involved was thoughtful, well-spoken, and open to compromise. Homelessness is a major issue here, and there’s plenty of frustration simmering, but the dominant tone wasn’t anger, it was compassion and a determination to work together to do the right things for the community as a whole. That’s part of what I came to see, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I also came to see how well the city’s online services support governance and citizen engagement. On that front there’s room for improvement. The video capture system works impressively well. You can find meetings — including the most recent one I attended on Tuesday — here. The service provider is Granicus, the same company that serves our former home town, Keene, as well as many other cities. It’s wonderful to be able to review council meetings online, anytime and anywhere. Back in 2008, in an interview with Tom Spengler, who was then CEO of Granicus, I was excited about the possibilities it opened up.

Soon after Keene implemented the Granicus service, though, I had to temper my enthusiasm. In Gov2.0 transparency: An enabler for collaborative sense-making I reflected on a key challenge: building accessible context around civic issues. Immediate stakeholders — government officials, citizens directly involved in decisions — create that context in meetings that are open, to be sure, but still often opaque to the uninitiated. Participants share a context that isn’t accessible to more casual observers.

Consider my situation. Our small investment in the SOFA district makes us minor stakeholders in issues affecting Juilliard Park. We’d like to be as well-informed about those issues as I am, now that I’ve plowed through hours of video and dozens of online documents. But that exercise was far too time-consuming to undertake on a regular basis, with respect to Juilliard Park or any other issue that affects us. And in fact, another such issue was on this week’s council agenda. We live in a neighborhood called the West End, near Railroad Square. There’s a train coming to town, and it runs right through our neighborhood. It’s a wonderful thing, and was in fact another factor in our decision to relocate here. But there’s always a tradeoff. In this case, it’s the possible closure of one of the streets in our neighborhood. Here’s a sign I pass every time I walk downtown:

It’s easy to joke about the URL for the draft environmental impact report, which is so long the sign can barely accommodate it. I’d rather my city’s content management system enabled it to form mnemonic URLs, like:


Which, of course, would also make a nice hashtag. In Tags for Democracy I showed how a city can promote a tag, like #SantaRosaRailroadCrossings, as a magnet for conversations that span multiple social networks and institutional websites.

But here I just want to focus on the page behind that formidable URL. It’s an overview of the project, with links to the draft environmental impact report as a whole (600+ pages!) and to the report’s individual sections.

The SMART train will stop at two stations in Santa Rosa, one of which doesn’t yet exist. Construction of the new Guerneville Road station will require a new railroad crossing at Jennings Avenue. Whether it should be an at-grade crossing or an elevated crossing is one key issue under discussion. A related issue is the possible closure of an existing crossing. An at-grade crossing at Jennings Avenue would be the simplest solution, but the California Public Utilities Commission rations the number of these. So adding a new at-grade crossing would require closing a street in our neighborhood. The elevated crossing wouldn’t entail that tradeoff. But as the visualization in the report shows, it’s a monstrosity.

I’ll bet few Santa Rosans have seen that illustration. Yes, the document is online, but it’s daunting. During upcoming conversations about the tradeoffs involved in choosing an at-grade or elevated crossing, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to link directly to that illustration?

Actually you can, and in fact I did just that two paragraphs above. Here’s the link behind the word visualization in that paragraph:

It’s a little-known fact that you can form a link to any page within a web-hosted PDF file by appending #page=NUMBER to the URL. It’s challenging to get people onto the same page in open civic discussions; I wish this mechanism were more widely known and used.

Here’s another bit of information that could usefully be highlighted with a link. James Duncan lives near the Jennings site, and has crossed the tracks there for decades. In his statement to the council, he zeroed in on the state requirement to ration the number of crossings:

The pivotal, threshold issue — that isn’t really being discussed — is the position of the Public Utilities Commission to close a crossing in exchange for an at-grade crossing at Jennings.

It’s true there’s a general policy to maintain the status quo. And the interpretation, as I understand it, is that the crossing that exists at Jennings, and has been used all these years, is not [air quote] legal. But there’s no information about what constitutes legal. The federal government maintains an inventory of railroad crossings in the entire nation. But they have a category for what they call uninventoried crossings, and there’s a simple procedure for adding uninventoried crossings to the inventory.

Has James Duncan correctly identified a way out of the painful tradeoff at the heart of this issue? I don’t know, the council doesn’t know, James Duncan doesn’t know, but somebody knows. That person might be a government official or a private citizen (residing in Santa Rosa or elsewhere). A connection between that person and this issue might be brokered by a government official or by a private citizen. But one thing’s for sure. That person won’t want to wade through a 600-page report and hours of video. We’ll want to focus his or her attention on specific parts of documents, and specific parts of video testimony.

The Granicus service enables such linking. That’s how I was able to form the above link to James Duncan’s three-minute statement within the nearly 7 hours of video from Tuesday’s marathon session. But it’s cumbersome to create a link that jumps into the video at specific points. And using those links require a plugin (Flash or Silverlight), which rules out playback on most mobile devices.

If you do create a link, you’ll notice that the URL looks like this:

In this example, entrytime=18150 denotes the number of seconds from the start of the video. It works out to 5 hours, 2 minutes, and 31 seconds, as you can see in this screenshot of the beginning of James Duncan’s statement:

Here’s what you see when you invoke the tool that helps you form a link:

The player pauses, and the clipping tool opens in a new window overlaid on top of it. Note that the beginning of the proposed clip doesn’t correspond to the 5:02:31 point at which the video is paused. (Click the image to enlarge it and see that more clearly.) You can scroll to that point within the clipping tool, but since the player is paused there’s no audio or video to guide you. To appreciate how clumsy that mechanism is, consider this screenshot from a Santa Rosa city council meeting that’s been posted to YouTube:

Right-clicking the video brings up a menu from which you can select Get video URL at current time. If you’re at the 1:20 mark in that video, the link you can copy and paste looks like this:

That’s how simple and convenient it can be. And YouTube offers a further convenience. People navigate videos in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds. We’re not good at converting between that notation and raw numbers of seconds. But computers are really good at that. So YouTube supports this alternate syntax:

So really, you don’t even need a special clipping tool to link into a YouTube video at a specific point. You can just add minutes and seconds to the end of any YouTube URL. Their computers will figure out that 1m20s adds up to 80 seconds. Why should referring to a specific point in a city council meeting be any harder than that? It shouldn’t.

The programming to make deep linking in the Granicus player as convenient as deep linking in the YouTube player isn’t rocket science. Why hasn’t it been done? In my experience, these omissions happen because people don’t expect or demand capabilities that software could easily deliver.

Here’s something else that would expand access to archived council videos. Closed captions aren’t part of the service package that Granicus provides to every city, but Santa Rosa’s service includes them. If you turn on the closed captions while watching a Santa Rosa council video, you’ll see that they’re quite good — much better than the auto-generated captions available for YouTube videos. I suspect that’s true because Granicus provides a human transcriber as an optional part of its service.

Transcription quality notwithstanding, text synced to video is a powerful asset. In the Granicus implementation, it enables videos to be searched. For example, you can search the closed captions for Floyd Fox. Here’s the result:

The search returns three items because Mayor Bartley mentioned Floyd Fox three times: twice as an on-deck speaker, and then once as the current speaker. The third link jumps to Floyd Fox’s statement. Although you don’t land in quite the right spot — Floyd’s remarks begin at 3:06:40, the link based on caption search takes you to 3:07:00 — it’s amazing that you can search nearly 7 hours of video and quickly locate Floyd Fox’s statement.

But what if you didn’t know Floyd Fox was speaking? The names of citizens who make public comments don’t appear on the agenda, because they aren’t known in advance. During a meeting, people who wish to speak submit requests written on yellow cards. If the closed caption transcript were available alongside the video, you could scan within it to quickly absorb the sense of various parts of the meeting, and to find things that you didn’t know to look for. The transcript obviously exists. It can be displayed during video playback, and it can be searched. Why isn’t it available as a complete document? Again, it’s trivial for the software to do that. But nobody expects that feature, so nobody asks for it, and it doesn’t happen.

I first wrote about open government technology back in 2006, when Washington DC became the first city to publish data directly from its internal systems. In 2008 I explored a then-new service called Granicus. All along I’ve envisioned a world in which governments run transparently, publishing data that enables citizens and governments to work together. We’ve come a long way. But I am not yet satisfied. Even when meetings and supporting documents are available online, as they often now are, it’s harder than it should be to create the contexts needed for effective collaboration.

Context is, ultimately, a service that we provide to one another. If you’ve read this far, you know more about the fence around the Church of One Tree than anyone who didn’t attend the meeting. I created that context for you. Somebody else could do the same for the railroad crossing issue, and for any other issue in any other town. But it’s so painful to assemble that context that few will try, and fewer will succeed. Better tools aren’t the whole answer. Engaging with online civic proceedings isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But if it were easier to do — fun, even — the motivated few could do powerful good for their communities.

The Nelson diaspora

This will be our first winter in California. I won’t miss New Hampshire’s snow and ice. But I’ll sure miss our regular Friday night gatherings with friends in Keene. And on Monday nights my thoughts will turn to the village of Nelson, eleven miles up the road. There, for longer than anyone knows, people have been playing fiddle tunes and celebrating a great contra dance tradition. On a cold winter night, when the whirling bodies of the dancers warm up the old town hall, it’s magical.

Gordon Peery, who for decades has accompanied the dancers on piano, once lent me a DVD documentary about the Nelson contra dance tradition. In a scene filmed at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s, the Nelson contra dancers appeared on the same stage as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. I had no idea!

Here’s a video of a couple of minutes during a typical Monday night dance. To most people who don’t know the building, or the village, or the people, or the tunes, or the tradition that’s stayed vibrant there for so many years, it won’t mean much to you. To a few, though, it will resonate powerfully. That’s because Nelson, NH is the origin of a contra dance diaspora that spread across the country.

Although we aren’t contra dancers, we visited from time to time just to savor the experience. Then, a few years ago, in search of musical companionship, I began attending the jam that precedes the dance. There, beginning and intermediate musicians to learn how to play the dance tunes, mainly ones collected in these two books:

The Waltz Book opens with a tune written by Bob McQuillen, who played piano at the Nelson dance decades until his death in early 2014. And the book closes with a tune by Niel Gow, the Scottish fiddler who died in 1807.

The Waltz Book also includes a couple of Jay Ungar tunes, including Ashokan Farewell. Most people think it’s a tune from the Civil War. In fact Jay Ungar wrote it in 1982, and it became famous in 1990 as the theme of Ken Burns’ documentary about the Civil War.

The New England Fiddler’s Repertoire might also have included a mix of recent and traditional tunes. Instead it restricts itself to “established tunes” — some attributed to composers from the 1700s or 1800s, others anonymous. But it’s full of reminders that people have never stopped dancing to those traditional tunes. Here’s the footnote to Little Judique:

February 12. Played for a Forestry Meet dance in a barn with a sawdust floor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. The temperature was 15 degrees below zero.

– Randy Miller, dance journal, 1978

As I page through these books now, and continue to learn to play the tunes in them, I’m grateful to have lived in a place where they were celebrated so well, and to have participated (in a small way) in that celebration. How will I continue that here? I don’t know yet, but I’m sure I’ll find a way.

Swimming against the stream

Congratulations to Contributoria! The Guardian’s experiment in crowd-funded collaborative journalism is a finalist in the digital innovation category of the British Journalism Awards. (Disclosure: Contributoria’s CEO and cofounder, Matt McAlister, is a former InfoWorld colleague.) The site, which launched in January 2014, runs on a 3-month cycle. So the November 2014 issue is online now, the December 2014 issue is in production, and the January 2015 issue is in planning. There are now ten issues archived on the back issues page. Here are the numbers from that page in a spreadsheet:

Who pays the writers? Contributoria’s business page explains:

The writers’ commissions are provided by the community membership pool and other sources of funding such as sponsorship. Initial backing came from the Google sponsored International Press Institute News Innovation Contest. We are currently funded by the Guardian Media Group.

Contributoria is a market with an internal currency denominated in points. I’m currently signed up for a basic membership which comes with 50 points I can direct toward story proposals. If I upgrade to paid membership I’ll have more points to spend. As a Supporter you get 150 points. As a Patron it’s 250 points plus delivery of each issue in print and e-pub formats. I like to support innovative experiments in journalism, such as the (dearly departed) Ann Arbor Chronicle [1, 2], so I may upgrade my membership. But I’m not sure I want to vote, with points, for individual proposals. I might rather donate my points to the project as a whole.

What I would like to do, in any case, is keep an eye on the flow of stories, cherrypick items of interest, and perhaps follow certain writers. So I looked for the RSS feeds that would enable me to do those things, and was more than a bit surprised not to find them. Here’s the scoop:

That was back in February. Nine months later Contributoria’s RSS feeds are still, presumably, climbing the todo list. How could a prominent and potentially award-winning experiment in online journalism regard RSS as an afterthought?

I mean no disrespect, and I won’t point any fingers because they’d point right back at me. I was an early adopter of RSS and an original member of the RSS Advisory Board. For many years an RSS reader was my information dashboard. I used it to organize and monitor items of interest from formal and informal sources, from publications and from peers. It was often the first window open on my computer in the morning.

And then things changed. I don’t remember exactly when, but for me it was even before the demise of Google Reader in July 2013. By then I’d already resigned myself to the notion that social streams were the new RSS. The world had moved on. Many people had never used RSS readers. For those who had, manual control of explicit lists of feeds now seemed more trouble than it was worth. Social graphs make those lists implicit. Our networks have become our filters. Mark Hadman and I might wish Contributoria offered RSS feeds but we’re in a tiny minority.

Of course the network-as-filter model isn’t new. The early blogosphere gave me my first taste of it. Back in 2002, in a short blog entry entitled Using people as filters, I wrote:

As individuals become both producers and consumers of RSS feeds, they can use one another as filters.

It worked well for years. I subscribed to a mix of primary sources and bloggers who were, in turn, subscribed to their own mixes of primary sources and subscribers. I often likened Dave Winer’s notion of triangulation — what happens when several sources converge on the same idea or event — to the summation of action potentials in the human nervous system. It was all very organic. I could easily tune my filter network to stay informed without feeling overwhelmed.

I doubt many of us feel that way now. Armando Alves certainly doesn’t. In Beyond filter failure: the downfall of RSS he laments the decreasing availability of RSS feeds:

I’m afraid the web/tech community has done a lousy job promoting RSS, and even people I consider tech savvy aren’t aware how to use RSS or how it would improve the way they consume information. Between a Facebook newsfeed shaped by commercial interests and a raw stream of information powered by RSS, I’d rather have the latter.

Let’s pause to consider an irony. Armando’s Medium page invites me to follow him there, but not by means of RSS. Instead the Follow link takes me to Medium’s account registration page. There I can log in, using Facebook or Twitter, then await the account verification email that will enable me to enter yet another walled garden.

There is, in fact, an RSS feed for Armando’s Medium posts. But only geeks will find it. Embedded in the page is this bit of code:

<link id=”feedLink” rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” title=”RSS” href=”/feed/@armandoalves”>

That tells me that I can subscribe to Armando in an RSS reader at this URL:

More generally it tells me that I can form the feed URL for any author on Medium by appending the @ username to

How would a less technical person know these things? You wouldn’t. At one time, when RSS was in vogue, browsers would show you that a page had a corresponding RSS feed and help you add it to your feed reader. That’s no longer true, and not because the web/tech community failed to promote RSS. We promoted it like crazy for years. We got it baked into browsers. Then social media made it seem irrelevant.

But as Armando and many others are beginning to see, we’ve lost control of our filters. In the early blogosphere my social graph connected me to people who followed primary sources. Those sources were, it bears repeating, both formal and informal, both publications and peers. We made lists of sources for ourselves, we curated those lists for one another, and we were individually and collectively accountable for those choices.

Can we regain the control we lost? Do we even want to? If so let’s appreciate that the RSS ecosystem was (and, though weakened, still is) an open network powered by people who make explicit choices about flows of information. And let’s start exercising our choice-making muscles. I’m flexing mine again. The path of least resistance hasn’t worked for me, so my vacation from RSS is over. I want unfiltered access to the publications and people that matter most to me, I want them to be my best filters, and I’m available to return the favor. I may be swimming against the stream but I don’t care. I need the exercise.

Getting the digital autonomy we pay for

As an armchair educational technologist I’ve applauded the emerging notion that we should encourage students to build personal cyberinfrastructure, rooted in a domain of one’s own, that empowers them to live and work effectively. Doing so requires some expertise, but not necessarily this kind:

Authorship has blossomed since the dawn of social media; but even in its rise, authorship has been controlled by the platforms upon which we write. Digital pages are not neutral spaces. As I write this in Google Docs, I’m subject to the terms of service that invisibly manipulate the page; and I am also subject to the whims of the designers of the platform.

Owning our own homes in the digital requires an expertise that this writer does not have. I don’t own my own server, I haven’t learned to code, I haven’t designed my own interfaces, my own web site, nor even my own font. I must content myself to rent, to squat, or to ride the rails.

[Risk, Reward, and Digital Writing]

That’s Sean Michael Morris writing in the journal Hybrid Pedagogy. I agree with the premise that many are disempowered, but not with the conclusion that they’re stuck with that fate. Digital autonomy isn’t a nirvana only geeks can attain. We can all get there if we appreciate some basic principles and help create markets around them.

I’ve owned and operated servers. Nowadays I mostly avoid doing so. I host this blog on, and accept the limitations that entails, because it’s a reasonable tradeoff. Here, on this blog, at this point in my life, I don’t need to engage in the kinds of experimentation that I’ve done (and will do) elsewhere. I just need a place to publish. So I’ve outsourced that function to WordPress.

I haven’t, though, outsourced the function of writing to WordPress. I still write with the same text editor I’ve used for 25 years. When I finish writing this essay I’ll paste it into WordPress and hit the Publish button. This is not an ideal arrangement. I would rather connect my preferred writing tool more directly to WordPress (also to Twitter, Facebook, and other contexts). I’d rather that you could do the same with your preferred writing tool. And I’d like the creators of our writing tools, and of WordPress, to get paid for the work required to make those connections robust and seamless.

The web is made of software components that communicate by means of standard protocols. Some of those standards, like the ones your browser uses to fetch and display web pages, are baked into all the browsers and servers in a way that enables many different makes and models to work together reliably. Other standards, including those that would enable you to connect your favorite writing tool to your favorite publishing environments, are nonexistent or nascent. If you would like those standards to exist, flourish, and work reliably everywhere — and if you are willing to support the work required — then say so!

One of the Elm City project’s core principles is the notion that you ought to be able to publicize events using any calendar application (or service) that you prefer. In this case there is a mature Internet standard. But many vendors of calendar publishing systems don’t bother to implement it. When I ask why not they always say: “Customers aren’t asking for it.”

I don’t want most people to run servers, write code, or design interfaces. I just want people to understand what’s possible in a world of connected, standards-based software components, to recognize when those possibilities aren’t being realized, to expect and demand that they will be, and to pay something for that outcome. is a valuable service that I could be using for free. In fact I pay $13/year for domain mapping so I can refer to this blog as instead of That’s useful. It helps me consolidate my online presence within a domain of my own. But is that really critical? My wife blogs at Her homepage at links to the blog. Writing this post reminds me that I keep forgetting to create the alias Maybe I will, now that I’m thinking about it, but I’m not sure she’d notice a difference. People find Luann online in the spaces she chooses to inhabit and call her own.

I’d rather she had the option to spend $13/year for a robust connection between Word, which is her preferred writing tool, and WordPress. And then be able to transfer that connection to another writing tool and/or publishing platform if she wants to. Gaining this autonomy doesn’t require deep technical expertise. We just need to understand what’s possible, demand it, and be willing to pay (a little) for it.

We are the media

In an item posted last week, There was no pumpkin riot in Keene, I drew a distinction between two different events that became conflated in the national awareness. There was no rioting during the pumpkin festival at one end of Keene’s Main Street. And no pumpkins were smashed during the riots in the college neighborhood at the other end of the street. But as Reed Hedges noted in a comment on my blog:

The imagined scene of a quaint and boring pumpkin festival erupting in anarchy and violence for no reason was too amusing to resist viral spread across national and internet news.

In conversations about why the story went off the rails, I keep hearing the same refrain. It was “the media’s” fault. Yes, but that begs the question: Which media? Stories are no longer framed exclusively by newspapers, TV, radio, and their counterparts online. Using social media we all participate in that framing, for better and for worse. When we point the finger of blame at “the media” we must also point back at ourselves.

We’re becoming more aware of how and why to be critical consumers of online information. The corollary is not yet widely acknowledged. Because we collectively shape the stories that inform public awareness, we must also learn to be careful producers of online information.

In the aftermath of that chaotic night in Keene, an acquaintance (and prominent local citizen) mentioned in a Facebook post that two people had died. His source? He’d heard it from someone who had in turn heard it on a police scanner. In fact nobody died. I don’t think that careless report amplified the collective misconception, but it easily could have. Our online utterances are news sources. When we like, retweet, and tag those utterances, we shape the flow of news. This is a new kind of power. We’ve got to use it responsibly, and hold ourselves accountable when we don’t.

Let’s talk

Ray Ozzie, in conversation with Ina Fried and Walt Mossberg last week, reflected on his decades-long effort to enlist computers in support of collaborative work. Ina asked whether the tools he’s built — Notes, Groove, now Talko — have been ahead of the curve. Ray’s response:

With Notes it was an uphill battle, and then once it took off, it took off. We built a very substantial business around that, which is what gave me confidence there’s a macro-economic basis for computer-supported collaborative work. If you solve collaboration problems, there’s money to be made.

With Groove that wasn’t the case. It was a niche audience. But Groove is where I got excited about voice. It was used primarily by non-governmental organizations — in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, after Katrina, in many situations where people from different organizations needed to get together very dynamically to get something done. People used the text and file-sharing features in Groove, but they also used the push-to-talk button much more than we expected. Because when you want to convey emotion and urgency, there’s nothing better than your voice.

It’s ironic that Talko’s effort to re-establish voice as a primary mode of communication is ahead of the curve. Somehow we’ve come to accept that talking to one another isn’t a primary function of the devices we call phones, but that typing on them with our thumbs is.

With Talko, you speak in a shared space that’s represented as an audio timeline. Conversations can be asynchronous (like email) or synchronous (like chat), and the transition between those modes is seamless. When I bought my first iPhone in order to try Talko — it’s iOS-only for now — I contacted Matt Pope, Talko’s co-founder, to let him know I was available for Talko-style conversation. Over a period of days we chatted asynchronously, creating an audio timeline made from his voice messages and mine. In that mode Talko is a kind of visual voicemail: a randomly-accessible record of voice messages sent and received.

At one point I happened to be reviewing that conversation when Matt came online, noticed I was active in the conversation, and switched into synchronous mode by saying “Cool! Serendipitous synch!” Just like that we were in a live conversation. But not an ephemeral live conversation. We were still adding to the audio timeline, still building a persistent and shareable construct.

I’d been revisiting my conversation with Matt because, in a parallel Talko conversation with Steve Gillmor, he and I wondered how to exchange Talko sessions. Matt used our live conversation to explain how, and inserted an iPhone screenshot into the stream to illustrate. (Mea culpa. It would have been obvious to me if I’d been a more experienced iPhone user.)

When I hung up with Matt I captured the link for our conversation, which was now a record of a back-and-forth voice messages over several days, plus a live conversation, plus a screenshot injected into the conversation. And I added that link into the parallel conversation I’d been having, on and off for a few days, with Steve.

Talko’s business model is business. In that realm, voicemail is a last resort. And nobody loves a conference call that has to be scheduled in advance, that includes only invited attendees, that leaves no record for attendees (or others recruited later) to review and extend. Email is the universal solvent but it’s bandwidth-challenged with respect to both speed and emotional richness. Voice is a radically underutilized medium for communicating within and across organizations. It’s not a panacea, of course. On a plane, or in a meeting, you often need to communicate silently. But a smarter approach to voice communication will, I’m certain, solve vexing communication problems for business.

And not only for business. My most pressing collaboration challenge right now is helping my sister coordinate care for our elderly mother. My sister lives in New Jersey, I’m in California, mom’s in Pennsylvania. We are in ongoing conversations with mom, with each other, with staff at the facility where mom lives, with her friends there, with an agency that provides supplemental care, and from time to time with the hospital. Communication among all of us is a fragmented mess of emails, text messages, voicemails, pictures of handwritten notes, and of course phone calls. It’s really one ongoing conversation that would ideally leverage voice as much as possible, while enhancing voice with text, images, persistence, tagging, and sharing. I wish I could use Talko to manage that conversation. The iOS-only constraint prevents that for now; I hope it lifts soon.

There was no pumpkin riot in Keene

Recently, in a store in Santa Rosa, my wife Luann was waiting behind another customer whose surname, the clerk was thrilled to learn, is Parrish. “That’s the name of the guy in Jumanji,” the clerk said. “I’ve seen that movie fifty times!”

“I’m from Keene, New Hampshire,” Luann said, “the town where that movie was filmed.”

It was a big deal when Robin Williams came to town. You can still see the sign for Parrish Shoes painted on a brick wall downtown. Recently it became the local Robin Williams memorial:

Then the penny dropped. The customer turned to Luann and said: “Keene? Really? Isn’t that where the pumpkin riot happened?”

The Pumpkin Festival began in 1991. In 2005 I made a short documentary film about the event.

It’s a montage of marching bands, face painting, music, kettle corn, folk dancing, juggling, and of course endless ranks of jack-o-lanterns by day and especially by night. We weren’t around this year to see it, but our friends in Keene assure us that if we had been, we’d have seen a Pumpkin Festival just like the one I filmed in 2005. The 2014 Pumpkin Festival was the same family event it’s always been. Many attendees had no idea that, at the other end of Main Street, in the neighborhood around Keene State College, the now-infamous riot was in progress.

No pumpkins were harmed in the riot. Bottles, cans, and rocks were thrown, a car was flipped, fires were set, but — strange as it sounds — none of these activities intersected with the normal course of the festival. Two very different and quite unrelated events occurred in the same town on the same day.

The riot had precursors. Things had been getting out of control in the college’s neighborhood for the past few years. College and town officials were expecting trouble again, and thought they were prepared to contain it. But things got so crazy this year that SWAT teams from around the state were called in to help.

In the aftermath there was an important discussion of white privilege, and of the double standard applied to media coverage of the Keene riot versus the Ferguson protests. Here’s The Daily Kos:

Black folks who are protesting with righteous rage and anger in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson have been called “thugs”, “animals”, and cited by the Right-wing media as examples of the “bad culture” and “cultural pathologies” supposedly common to the African-American community.

Privileged white college students who riot at a pumpkin festival are “spirited partiers”, “unruly”, or “rowdy”.

Unfortunately the title of that article, White Privilege and the ‘Pumpkin Fest’ Riot of 2014, helped perpetuate the false notion that the Pumpkin Festival turned into a riot. When I mentioned that to a friend he said: “Of course, the media always get things wrong.”

It would be easy to blame the media. In fact, the misconception about what happened in Keene is a collective error. On Twitter, for example, #pumpkinfest became the hashtag that gathered riot-related messages, photos, and videos, and that focused the comparison to Ferguson. Who made that choice? Not the media. Not anyone in particular. It was the network’s choice. And the network got it wrong. Our friends in Keene saw it happening and tried to flood the social media with messages and photos documenting a 2014 Pumpkin Festival that was as happy and peaceful as every other Pumpkin Festival. But once the world had decided there’d been a pumpkin riot it was impossible to reverse that decision.

Is Keene’s signature event now ruined? We’ll see. I don’t think anybody yet knows whether it will continue. Meanwhile it’s worth reflecting on how conventional and social media converged on the same error. There’s nothing magical about the network. It’s just us, and sometimes we get things wrong.