“Respect your readers.”

Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti emailed a sort of vision statement to staff recently, and I liked the front-and-center position he gave to the ol’ #1 Rule of Editorially Driven Publishing (you know, the kind where the content you put out actually has to be better than what people can easily find elsewhere):

RESPECT OUR READERS 

By which he means that there are some absolute no-no’s Buzzfeed will not engage in:

We don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions.  Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!

We don’t show crappy display ads; we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share.

We never launched one of those “frictionless sharing” apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying.

We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story.

We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read.

We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.

And the one thing you strive always to do:

We focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers. In the long term is good for readers and good for business.

Amen.

Your online-communications program needs a data scientist and data-visualization expert. Really.

Whenever I get talking about how the grotesque and growing inequality in America is warping and corrupting our politics — which is often — I usually bring up these brilliant Mother Jones charts . There are 11 in all; here are two examples:

 

WINNERS TAKE ALL

The superrich have grabbed the bulk of the past three decades’ gains.

MotherJones.com: Average U.S. Household Income, 1979–2007

 

OUT OF BALANCE

A Harvard business prof and a behavioral economist recently asked more than 5,000 Americans how they thought wealth is distributed in the United States. Most thought that it’s more balanced than it actually is. Asked to choose their ideal distribution of wealth, 92% picked one that was even more equitable.

 

MotherJones.com: Americans' Perception of Distribution of Wealth

 

I like them because they lay out the whole story in a way that suits the attention spans of our age — they make the overall shape of a complicated story apprehendable in seconds, with much greater economy than words can usually manage. (One notable exception: title of Joe Stiglitz’s recent Vanity Fair piece, Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%. Ain’t that a great turn of phrase?)

Point is, if you want your message amplified by crowds of people, if you want your content to go viral, you have to accept the following: You have less than 5 seconds to induce your users to stay and really read/watch what you have to say. Fail to make a strong enough impression, and they’re on to the next click.

Which is why, as advocacy groups close out the fiscal year and hash out next year’s budgets, any decisionmaker charged with persuading web audiences to get things done on the organization’s behalf ought to consider this proposition: If you don’t already have them, your next two critical hires should be Data Scientist and Data Visualization / Digital Illustration Ninja. Sometimes these skillsets can be found in a single person, but in my opinion this function is so critical to effective online storytelling for general audiences that I’d start with the assumption that you’ll be building a team, not just integrating one individual into your existing org chart.

Whether you’re, say, an advocacy organization or think tank or candidate for elective office, you’ve got to explain policy — a tall order, given the itchy trigger fingers of web users. You may already be generating reams of content explaining your programmatic work and policy recommendations. But if nobody’s reading it….

Imagine, now, what you could do communications-wise with a great data analyst/statistician/hacker and a storyteller of the Jonathan Harris or Chris Jordan variety. Whole different ballgame.

Update: One more example of visual presentation of meaningful number-crunching, from MoveOn (using data from ThinkProgress):

Would spiritual practice make us better activists?

Generally, the staff blogs of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the principal organization I’ve worked/consulted for over the last  decade, are worldly in character. They deal in rational ideas, matter-of-fact reporting, heavy-duty policy prescriptions, and the quotidian hand-to-hand combat over control of the public debate that are an issue advocate’s stock-in-trade. That’s one reason a new post from Peter Malik, director of NRDC’s Center for Market Innovation (can’t get much more reality-based than that), struck me as so unusual.

Malik is just back from Ecuador, where he spent four days in the company of the Achuar people, whose village life deep in the Amazon is much as it was “before contact.” He describes a sort of communal early morning ritual the Achuar practice every day:

We got up at 4 a.m. and slowly assembled in the communal longhouse. It was pitch black, with only the perpetual fire smouldering in the middle of the floor offering some light.  Sitting silently in a circle alongside the Achuar, we were soon offered bowls of wayusatea.  Drinking gradually, we individually trickled beyond the edge of the compound to make ourselves vomit.  Once reassembled, the most important part of the day could begin.

Ingesting the wayusa tea (made of a regular herbal extract) and the subsequent purging makes one enter a lucid, highly alert state of mind.  And as dawn starts to turn the sky to the east slightly gray, the Achuar relay their dreams from the previous night to each other.  On the basis of the interpretation of these dreams, they decide to go hunting or fishing that day, they glean what the weather has in store and receive all information necessary to give the day direction and content.  Dreams and their interpretations are an invaluable daily compass for the Achuar.

In fact, the whole early morning period is.  They use the clarity and calmness of the mind for the discussion of any contentious issue, and resolve  it by compromise.  In addition, any proposal to marry must be made during this period.  By the time it is light—around 6 a.m. —the day has content and no issue of importance has been left unresolved.

Strange?  Yes and no.  The highest entity in the Achuar world is Pachamama.  It represents all the beings and objects in the world and extends to all of the universe and all of time, past, present and future.  As such, it is the ultimate One.  Everyone and everything in Pachamama is interconnected.  And all actions, large and small, affect all of Pachamama.  Of course the complexity of such a web of relationships is literally infinite.  That’s why the Achuar believe in the role of the mysterious and resort to their dreams in order to determine the direction of their actions.  It is a humble and wise posture, one that considers people deeply integrated into the surrounding world and doesn’t put them above anyone or anything else.  It is the ultimate holistic view.

Wow. I was moved to leave the following comment:

What a treat to read this story.

In the western world, we typically give no time and energy at all to starting the day with a centering practice like you describe — the alarm rings, and we go from dreams to a full-tilt sprint of doing, doing, doing. Who has time to reflect, to reconnect with a sense of the whole of things, how we fit into it as individuals, the very real way in which we are interdependent with all else?

The problem with this way of living, in my experience, is that it makes each new day nothing more than a continuation of the past’s momentum. It forestalls the possibility of intentional change, which requires a surrender to … well, stopping, and listening, and looking deeply. And in the end, the daunting global problems we face today will overwhelm humanity if it is not up to the challenge of making intentional, rather than adaptive, change.

I have been so angry and frustrated of late with the American political landscape. But I wonder what would happen if I (and everyone concerned about climate change) were to live as the Achuar do and begin the day with contemplation. I’ve tried this but it hasn’t become true habit. I bet I’d do a better job living well and in a less resource-intense way. And maybe I (we) wouldn’t see those on the other side of the divide as the “other”; maybe, in affirming each day that we are all one, new possibilities might open for engaging those folks.

When people consider how humans might evolve from here, it’s usually increased intelligence we think of. But I suspect that if humans avoid going the way of the dinosaurs, it will be because of increased spiritual capacity more than brain power.

I’ve actually been thinking about how spiritual practice might affect my work for years. I decided long ago that I really needed some sort of centering practice, for many reasons. But I’ve always struggled to make it stick, to establish it as daily practice. One reason is the the voice in my head that tells me things like, You can’t go to sleep … you need to finish that task! and You can’t get up at 6 for morning meditation — you’d be on 3 hours of sleep and useless at work! and even If you really gave yourself to this Buddhism business, you’d lose your edge — your competitiveness, fighting spirit, ability to work from urgency and anger and passionate resolve.

But then I look around, and the evidence suggests that maybe I’m somehow wrong about the value of that “edge,” at least as I’ve relied on it to this point. Maybe what’s more important is living from principles. If I put a spiritual practice centered on principles first and foremost, would I be a better communications pro? I think that kind of questions is worth consideration — for all of us.

Meditations on personal data trails

How cool is it to learn that some half-baked thoughts I’ve been intermittently returning to are in fact shared by complete strangers?

Thursday, in an email back-and-forth with a friend, I wrote:

The density and specificity of the data trail we all produce in an increasingly wired, ubicomp world is a nearly constant back-burner preoccupation for me — I’m both massively creeped out by what capital and power most certainly wants to do with it and intensely interested in what us peasants might do with it if we learn to claim for ourselves and leverage the data we produce. 

Activists have encouraged people to “vote with their wallets” for years; why couldn’t this be extended to include who knows how many varieties of the data we are now producing? Google, Facebook et al are raking in billions on top of our clicks, our “time on page,” the precise circumstances of our decision to “bounce” from a website we’ve lost interest in. That of course is just a tiny piece of what can be tracked/measured in exact detail — they’ve got our “social graph,” our locations, what/when/where/how often we buy things, blah blah. The upside — the potential for growth — in all sorts of business models lies in collecting the data we produce and locating opportunities within it. 

Well, that’s my fucking data. My online identity, growing ever richer and more nuanced and three-dimensional. I’m not getting rich off it. Which is fine with me, as long as it’s clear that I own it and am free to choose who gets to use it, to what end, and for how long. I’ll trade the dollar value of that data for other kinds of value — environmental concessions, social justice, quality of life, etc.; I’ll trade for a degree of control (asserted through collective action) over the world I live in. But I’m not inclined to give it away for baubles or whiskey or smallpox-infested blankets. 

I don’t know if human beings really have the capacity to demand control over their data streams and manage them in a way that reflects their values and priorities. But it’s one of those possibilities that I hang on to, out of need of hope that we’re not, as a species, just accelerating toward the buffalo jump.

And then the very next evening I find — via none other than Tim O’Reilly — a blog post by a writer / web thinker named Venessa Miemis, who’s clearly shared some of my preoccupations: Why the Online Identity and Data Ownership Debate Matters. Excerpt: 

We have multiple accounts and multiple levels of relationships within and across those social networks. When we click around on sites we are leaving a trail of ‘digital exhaust’, defining our habits, preferences, curiosities, and explorations. We don’t have control/access/ownership of this data, but 3rd parties do. Each of these pieces, and all the contextual information around it, is INCREDIBLY VALUABLE, but currently fragmented, fractured, and scattered. Shouldn’t we have access to it ALL, so we can connect the dots and make effecitve and meaningful choices?

Why can’t I just export my data, activity, and relationships from each service, and be in control of who gets to see it, which parts they get to access, and how they use it once I give them permission?

Why isn’t there an easy way for me to have an overview of everything about me, and be able to selectively share information about myself, my interests, my capacities, my needs, or my resources?

Go read it — great links, great discussion in comments, even a perfectly on-point video embed from The Onion. 

Its moments such as this that keep feeding my hope that the Internet can and will eventually make the world a better place. Only connect!

Why might a social-media pioneer kill his online identity?

A memory synapse just fired and caused me to notice that I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Sam Harrelson — an Asheville–area resident and one of the smartest, most interesting intellectual omnivores and tech thinkers I’ve discovered since moving to this area — on Twitter in ages. A quick hunt told me that he’s deleted his Twitter account, and had this to say about why:

The whole “social media” or web2.0 scene is blood-boiling to me because instead of creating open spaces (or a web), we’re locking ourselves and our data down into proprietary walled gardens that are much more interested in making money by observing our behaviors to maximize “relevant” advertising than creating sustainable platforms for human development. So, I killed my Facebook, Google and Twitter accounts last night. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t blame them. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple etc are corporations. Corporations are inherently out for themselves and their stock holders. I blame myself for falling into the trap of shiny and nifty free/freemium services in exchange for my data and my online identity. I want my children and students to grow up in an era that includes an open web that isn’t based on advertising or 3rd party cookie data mining. [emphasis mine] I’m doing what I can to make that happen.

Hits home, hard. Five years ago I was burning with excitement over the the social web’s immense promise for humanity, but pretty much from the get-go I saw a potential deal-killer inherent in the privatized environment in which it was being built: there would be a quid pro quo, and it wasn’t clear yet whether we end users were going to get a fair deal. Yes, the new web2.0 services were giving us incredibly powerful tools to extend our identities, connect with others, and get things done together. And on the cheap — often free. But what would these services take in return?

For Google, Facebook, Twitter, the answer has always been this: a slice of the value of our self-expression, online. There is immense and variegated value in our data. Wired, our every gesture can be is recorded — what we like and don’t like; how we make decisions about what to purchase or give attention to; who our friends are; our physical location; every last detail of what we actually do when using a connected device — and there’s huge value in that. And of course there’s value in any content we produce within these services as well.

I’ve always said it’s fine with me if others get rich from my online self-expression — as long as they recognize that they are using my data, and maintain an open, respectful, upfront, and fair dialog with me about how they plan to use my data. I hoped that the conventions of how institutions — corporations, governments, nonprofit organizations, etc. — related to their customers and constituents would move toward something like Doc Searls’ VRM model:

VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management. VRM tools provide customers with both independence from vendors and better ways of engaging with vendors. The same tools can also support individuals’ relations with schools, churches, government entities and other kinds of organizations.

In a narrow sense, VRM is the reciprocal — the customer side — of CRM (or Customer Relationship Management). VRM tools provide customers with the means to bear their side of the relationship burden. They relieve CRM of the perceived need to “capture,” “acquire,” “lock in,” “manage,” and otherwise employ the language and thinking of slave-owners when dealing with customers. With VRM operating on the customer’s side, CRM systems will no longer be alone in trying to improve the ways companies relate to customers. Customers will be also be involved, as fully empowered participants, rather than as captive followers.

These days I’m not feeling like we’re moving in the right direction. Facebook constantly pushes the envelope of what, by fiat, it is doing with our data. Today, a couple of tinkerers discovered that Apple never bothered to let customers know that iPhones are collecting time-stamped location data.

I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel on participating in the current social-web landscape, but I think I understand why Sam bailed and I’m certainly feeling less blazingly sunny about the web proving to be a positive, democratizing force for humanity, at least in the short term. Clouds on the horizon. Sam says he’s still working for an open web — me too, and I’ll try to follow on this post with some looks at what’s happening out there to see that an open web is built and protected as a public commons.

My father, in forwarding me an article about how we expect too much from technology, had this to say: “Technology which is not fundamentally created and implemented to advance individual and collective well-being will be destructive of life generally. Technology created within the present world system will be on balance a negative force for life on earth.” I don’t necessarily want to believe that — changing the “present world system” is rather a tall order. But I worry that he may be right.

p.s. — the Wendell Berry poem Sam quotes in his post about nuking his Goog/FB/twitter accounts is a miracle, says more than I could ever manage about where all this touches the core. Read it.

 

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