Category Archives: Uncategorized

Can Santa Rosa become a city that thinks like the web?

I want cities to connect the dots between open government, web literacy, and citizen engagement. And I want to help the city I live in do that. For many years that city was Keene, NH, and while I can point to a few successes I can’t say that Keene is now a great model of the kinds of web-mediated engagement I envision.

Now that I live in Santa Rosa, I’ll try to help my new city connect those dots. The timing is fortuitous. In the wake of the 2013 Andy Lopez shooting Santa Rosa’s then-mayor Scott Bartley appointed an Open Government Task Force. The charter was:

…to develop a report that will inform the community about the current status of open and transparent government practice in the City of Santa Rosa; to review the exceptions, limitations and restrictions imposed by State or Federal law or Constitution; and to present options for improvement or additional best practices that the Mayor and City Council may wish to consider.

The final report, happily, takes a holistic view that encompasses not only government transparency but also citizen engagement. That’s the area in which I think I can help.

In The Church of One Tree: A civic parable I looked at how government and citizens interacted on a couple of issues, and explored some ways in which better web literacy could have improved those interactions.

Today the Press Democrat ran my editorial, Open government is a two-way street, which distills the pitch down to 600 words.

Can Santa Rosa become a city that thinks like the web? It seems genuinely to want that. If so, I’m here to help!

Remembering Bob Stout

A couple of years ago I wrote about recovering from an injury. At the time I thought it started as a pulled muscle that cascaded when my determination to keep running and cycling led me to compensate with various misalignments. The physical therapists I saw at the time agreed, so when the acute phase died down we worked on restoring the range of motion I’d lost in my right leg. I recovered some, but not all, of that range, and eased back into hiking, and then running and cycling.

Things haven’t felt right since, though. I’ve never regained my full range of motion in that leg, and I’ve been feeling a lot of discomfort in both quads as well as in the right groin where the initial problem began.

When I talk about full range of motion I mean something different from what most people mean. Take a look at this young man doing front stalders on the horizontal bar. Think about the leg and hip flexibility required to do that. In high school and in college I used to do stalders. Since then I never lived near a gym where I could swing on a high bar, though it’s something I still dream about, could do, and would do if there were a gym that had the gear and would let me use it.

It’s natural to assume that only a young person can be that flexible. Not so. There have been a few role models in my life who have shown me what’s physically possible in later life, and one of them was Bob Stout. In 1952 he was a U.S. Olympic gymnast. In 1972, when I was getting into the sport as a 15-year-old, he worked out with my high-school team and showed us that a man then in his late forties could still hold an iron cross on rings (something I could never do), swing high bar, and demonstrate the full hip extension required for the stalder. As far as I know he was still doing those things when he died at age 56, of a heart attack, while jogging.

I am 58. Until recently I could also reach nearly that same hip extension. Then, after the incident a couple of years ago, my flexibility diminished by a lot. The hypothesis I hope will prove true is that I got myself into a vicious cycle. An injury made it hard to stretch, so I avoided stretching, which made stretching even harder. Ditto for squatting. I’ve been avoiding it because it was uncomfortable, that made it even more uncomfortable.

The hypothesis I am afraid will prove true was suggested by a physical therapist I saw last week. He thinks I have osteoarthritis of the hip. If he’s right, I’m looking at no more running, reduced hiking, lots of pain management in order to maintain activities like hiking and cycling, and joint replacement at some point. I guess the X-ray will tell the tale, and that won’t be for a few weeks. Meanwhile, it’s suddenly a high priority to maximize strength and flexibility. Whatever the state of my hip joint(s) turns out to be, those will be key assets.

I know how to maintain those assets. I don’t know what the limits of recovery are, once muscle has been allowed to atrophy and connective tissue to tighten. So, I’m doing that experiment now. I’ve seen noticeable improvements just in the past few days. I have no idea how far I’ll get, but I’m grateful to Bob Stout for his inspiring example.

On getting paid (or not) to write

Danielle Lee writes the Urban Scientist blog for Scientific American. In 2013 she wrote a post about an ugly incident in which she was invited to write for Biology Online, asked about payment, declined the offer when she learned there would be none, and was called a whore. Scientific American took down the post an hour after it was published, late on a Friday, and then restored it the following Monday after verifying DNLee’s claim. The Biology Online editor’s name-calling was horrific. But his email also included a lesser insult:

You will enjoy a great deal of exposure from our 1.6 million monthly visitors.

I heard the same thing from Wired a few years ago, when I was invited to write an online column. They weren’t paying. But I was otherwise employed, I missed writing for a wider audience than my blog attracts, and I bought the claim that appearances on’s home page would yield useful visibility, feedback, and engagement.

It didn’t work out that way. That was the loneliest writing gig I’ve ever had. On-site comments were few and far between. And reaction elsewhere — on Twitter, in the blogosphere — was anemic as well. I felt like I was talking to myself in an empty room while, below in the engine room, machines were talking to other machines, spinning page counters unconnected to any real audience.

Now I’m writing for InfoWorld again, and it’s a much more pleasant experience. That’s partly because InfoWorld does pay contributors. It’s not a living. The world has changed since I left InfoWorld 8 years ago, when there was still a print magazine. But there’s a real exchange of value.

As important to me, if not more important, is the connection to an audience. With InfoWorld I’m feeling that connection again. I can see conversations forming around my columns and features, and those conversations lead me to new ideas. That’s a dynamic I cherish.

Could I still earn a fulltime living writing about technology? Probably not, and I’m sometimes wistful about that. It’s something I do really well; arguably it’s my strongest talent. But the world’s supply of creative talent far exceeds the commercial demand for it. The vast majority of writers, artists, and musicians need day jobs. That can be a good thing. In my writerly niche it certainly is.

The kind of technology journalism I’ve practiced didn’t exist until BYTE came along in the 70s. Like all the tech publications that followed, we faced a dilemma. Do you hire practitioners who can learn to write? Or do you hire journalists who can learn about technology?

The best answer, of course, was (and is): Hire practitioners who are also reporters and writers. Then make sure they keep developing their practical knowledge and skills. At BYTE, and then at InfoWorld the first time around, I was blessed with the opportunity to do that. Such opportunity may not come again. That’s OK. I need to be able to deliver value in other ways too. Doing so will keep me from devolving into a pundit.

What’s not OK is writing for commercial publications that don’t pay. If there’s no market for something I want to write, I’ll put it here instead of on Medium or Facebook or some other site that earns in the currency of dollars but pays in the currency of (presumptive) attention.

Fringe benefits of the attention economy

A decade ago I captured the peak of my Internet fame in this screenshot:

That was near the end of an anomalous few years during which the top result, when searching Google for “jon,” was my blog. I enjoyed it while it lasted, knowing that Jon Stewart would inevitably eclipse me, as he did in 2005 and as many others have since.

I was among the first to write professionally for the web, so for a while many of the pages in Google’s index containing “jon” were mine. That was just a lucky first-mover advantage. I knew it would erode over time as, appropriately, it has.

I still enjoy some residual benefits, though. My blog’s popularity translated to Twitter when it appeared on the scene, and although my Twitter reach has grown only modestly since, I was recently reminded that it remains another kind of first-mover advantage.

When United charged me for an error it made on a recent flight reservation, none of the regular customer service channels were responsive. So:

And then:

I’m hardly a celebrity on Twitter, but airing my complaint in a way that 5000 people might notice got results. I was grateful, direct-messaged my thanks, and received this DM reply:

You’re welcome, be sure to tweet us if you need anything. ^HN

I certainly will. But your mileage will almost certainly vary. Of those who try this method, how many will have enough Twitter reach for United to worry about? When I mentioned that on Facebook, Tony Byrne said:

I’ve wondered a lot about the equity of this. Supposedly social customer supt costs 8x traditional cust supt but brands do it for precisely the reason you cite and they are very aware of your Klout score when you complain. Too many of us digerati remain too smug about this, as if we deserve special treatment for being active on Twitter…

There’s nothing new about the attention economy. But there are always new ways to unfairly distribute attention.

Online scientific collaboration: the sequel

In 2000 I was commissioned to write a report called Internet Groupware for Scientific Collaboration. That was before modern social media, before blogs even really got going. But was already well-established, and wikis and calendar services and Dave Winer’s proto-blog, Manila, and many kinds of discussion forums were relevant to my theme. On the standards front, RSS, MathML, and SVG were emerging. One of my premonitions, that lightweight and loosely-coupled web services would matter, turned out to be accurate. Another, the notion of a universal canvas for creating and editing words, pictures, data, and computation, remains part of the unevenly distributed future, though projects like IPython Notebook and Federated Wiki rekindle my hope that we’ll get there.

Now I’m writing an update to that report. There’s unfinished business to reconsider, but also much new activity. Scientific collaboration happens in social media and on blogs, obviously. It happens in scientific social media. It happens in and around open access journals. It happens on GitHub where you can find open software and open data projects in many scientific disciplines. It happens on Reddit, on StackExchange-based Q&A sites, on citizen science websites, and in other places I don’t even know about.

I want to interview researchers engaged in various aspects of online scientific collaboration. I’m well connected to some of the tribes I need to reach, but need to cast a wider net. I want to hear, from practitioners in natural sciences, social sciences, and digital humanities, about ways you and your colleagues, in disciplines near and far, do, and/or don’t, collaborate online, both in specific contexts (OA journals, academic social networks) and wider contexts (blogs, mainstream social media). How does your activity in those settings advance your work (or not)? How does it help connect your work to society at large.(or not)?

If you’re somebody who ought to be involved in this project, please do get in touch here or here. And if you know someone who ought to be involved, please pass this along.


Another Internet miracle!

I’m among the many fans of the entertaining physics lectures that made Walter Lewin a star of stage (MIT OpenCourseWare) and screen (YouTube). And I was among those saddened, last month, to learn that charges of harassment had ended his career on the OpenCourseWare stage.

When it severed its ties to Lewin, MIT made the controversial decision to remove his lectures from Searching for perspective on that decision, I landed on Scott Aronson’s blog where I found much useful discussion. One comment in particular, from Temi Remmen, had the ring of truth:

I agree Walter Lewin’s lectures should be made available through a different source so everyone around the world may enjoy them. Having known him for most of my life, I am not in the least surprised that this happened to him. None of us enjoy his downfall. However, he managed to alienate many of his peers, colleagues and people in his personal life to an extreme. It is my gut feeling, that prominent people at MIT had enough of his antics, in spite of his success as a teacher and brilliance as a scientist. In the scientific community, he is widely known for being very demeaning and insulting to those he does not feel are as intelligent as he is — and for having had numerous problems with women in the past. His online sexual harassment does not appear to warrant this kind of punishment, not even by MIT. This was a long time coming and they got rid of him this way. Emails destroy careers. Sorry to say. I feel sorry for Walter too for lacking the insight to treat others better and that he did this to himself.

That was on December 10th, the day after the news broke. I read the comment thread a few days later, absorbed the discussion, and moved on.

So I was surprised the other night by Conor Friedersdorf’s The Blog Comment That Achieved an Internet Miracle, inspired by that very same comment thread. When I’d last checked in, the Aronson thread ended at about comment #75. The comment to which Friedersdorf refers was #171, posted on December 14.

It would be insane to add many more words to the outpouring that followed the now-infamous Comment #171, both on Aronson’s blog and elsewhere. So instead I’ll just add a couple of pictures.

Contributors by number of comments:

Contributors by number of bytes:

What these charts show is that two people dominate the thread which, by the other night, had grown to over 600 comments. There’s Scott Aronson, the author of the blog, who in the two weeks leading up to Christmas wrote 107 comments adding up to about 30,000 words (assuming an average word length of 5 characters). And there’s Amy, who over those same two weeks wrote 82 comments adding up to about 36,000 words.

I can’t begin to summarize the discussion, so I’ll just agree with Conor Friedersdorf’s assessment:

Aaronson and his interlocutors transformed an obscure, not-particularly-edifying debate into a broad, widely read conversation that encompassed more earnest, productive, revelatory perspectives than I’d have thought possible. The conversation has already captivated a corner of the Internet, but deserves wider attention, both as a model of public discourse and a window into the human experience.

There were many interlocutors, but one in particular stood head and shoulders above the crowd: Amy. How often is she mentioned in three widely-cited blog posts about the Comment 171 affair? Let’s look.

0: (Conor Friedersdorf)

0: (Laurie Penny)

0: (Scott Alexander)

Another Internet miracle!

A network of neighbors

A new acquaintance here in Santa Rosa recommended Nextdoor, a service that describes itself as “the private social network for your neighborhood.” Yet another social network? I know. Back in 2007 Gary McGraw nailed the problem of social network fatigue. “People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network,” he said, “but I’m already part of a network, it’s called the Internet.”

Nevertheless, I joined. We’re new in town, and I don’t want to let my antipathy to walled gardens get in the way of making useful connections. If you haven’t seen Nextdoor it’s because you haven’t joined it. Nextdoor resembles Facebook in many ways. But it’s only visible after you sign up, and you can only do that by proving residence in a neighborhood.

The signup protocol is intriguing:

The postcard method seems safest but I didn’t want to wait. The credit card method is immediate but I dislike using my card that way. So I tried the phone method. You’re asked to provide a phone number that’s billed to your residence, then the phone receives a code you use to complete the signup.

How did the site get my service provider, AT&T, to confirm that my phone’s billing address matches the one I was claiming on Nextdoor? Beats me. On reflection that feels as creepy as identifying to a social network with a credit card, maybe creepier. It’s shame that services like Nextdoor can’t yet verify such claims with identity providers that we choose for the purpose — banks for example, or state governments. But I digress.

Once you sign in, Nextdoor begs you in the usual ways to help grow the network. It prompts you to upload contacts who will be targets for email invitations, and offers a $25 Amazon Gift Card if you’ll post an invitation link on Facebook or Twitter. But there are some uniquely local alternatives too. Nextdoor will send postcards to nearby households, and help you make flyers you can post around the neighborhood.

Nextdoor’s map of my neighborhood reports that 51 of 766 households are claimed by registered users. A progress bar shows that’s 7% of the total neighborhood saturation to which it aspires. The map is a patchwork quilt of claimed addresses, shown in green, and ones yet to be assimilated, shown in pink.

The neighborhood directory lists people who live at the claimed addresses, it links to their profiles, and it offers to send direct messages to them. Local chatter appears on the neighborhood wall and is what you’d expect: a filing cabinet is available for $85, a neighborhood watch meeting will be held next month.

This social network is private in an interesting way. The zone of privacy is defined by the neighborhood boundary. You can most easily find and interact with others within that zone. But you’re also made aware of activities in the wider zone of nearby neighborhoods. Maps of those neighborhoods aren’t as detailed. But you can see posts from people in nearby neighborhoods, communicate with them, and discover them by searching for things they’ve said.

Our neighborhood is near Santa Rosa’s downtown. Nextdoor considers fifteen others, comprising much of the downtown core, to be nearby neighborhoods. You can choose to communicate with nearby neighbors or not. If you do, you reveal less about yourself than to immediate neighbors. It’s a clever design that encourages people to explore the boundaries between what’s public and what’s private, to realize how the online world renders such distinctions fluid and relative, and to learn to behave accordingly.

None of this will appeal to everyone, much less to millenials like Carmen DeAmicis who covers social media for Gigaom. But in a recent Gigaom post she explains why she suddenly found Nextdoor compelling:

Twenty-somethings in urban areas by-and-large don’t have kids, their lives don’t revolve around their home and they know their neighbors hardly, if at all. So even though I covered Nextdoor, I never felt compelled to actually become a user.

That changes today. Nextdoor has introduced a new element to its application that makes it a must-use network, even for the disinterested younger generations. It has started partnering with police and fire departments across the country — in 250 cities initially, with more to come — to use Nextdoor to communicate about emergencies and safety issues with local residents.

Given that Nextdoor sings a familiar tune — “We will NOT require members to pay to use Nextdoor and we will not sell users’ private information to other companies” — that’s a plausible business model. But to partner cities it’s yet another channel of communication to keep track of. And to citizens it’s yet another fragment of online identity.

Cities need to engage with people as individuals, members of interest groups, and residents of neighborhoods, in multi-faceted ways that reflect personal preferences, local customs, and generational trends. Nextdoor is interesting and useful, but I would rather see neighborhood social networks arise as organically online as they do on the ground. There isn’t an app for that, but there is a network, or rather there will be. In that network you’ll choose various parties to certify claims about aspects of your identity to various other parties. Those claims will define your affiliations to various geographic and interest groups. Your communication within those groups will flow through channels that you specify. What is that network? We’ll call it the Internet, and we’ll all be neighbors there.