Lessons learned from online journals

There are lessons to be learned from the first round of online journals, hammered out over time in the private spheres of close friends and associates. Many from that time have moved on to other things, but their legacy remains at the core of blogging's foundations.

Write for an audience of friends.

When you have an audience of a million people, there's no way to anticipate what the best viewpoint to reach them all is; remember that your writing is an expression of your viewpoint, and express it as such. Express your viewpoint as if you were talking to a group of friends: clear, to the point, and perhaps a dash of humor.

Aesthetics speak a thousand words.

The appearance of a site frames the content contained within, setting the tone for the reader. If your color schemes makes it painful to read, they won't. If your paragraphs blend together and your punctuation is rare, they won't. Aesthetics are reflected unconsciously in the mind of the reader, directly affecting their interpretations and feelings.

Passion and eloquence garner respect.

There's nothing more boring than a long-winded essay on a topic that the author can't seem to find inspiration to write about. Keep your words focused, on topics you personally care about; whether they agree or not, your readers will thank you.

Relationships are built on honesty.

Many forget that the Internet isn't a faceless crowd, it's a crowd of invisible faces. Each reader will remember you; perhaps not by words, but they will take away some small thing. Your writing has a direct effect upon anyone who listens, and some will remember you. These days, the world is a very small place; you may find yourself discussing what you've written face-to-face someday.

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Can the paparazzi survive in a world of DRM?

Recent discussion has shown that there are a few who think they can identify certain places -- movie theatres, for instance -- and ask devices within that place to, say, not ring audibly. Some have built Faraday wood, isolating the outside electronic world from within.

I propose a device that allows individuals to state their preference regarding their public "image", so to speak; those who don't mind being filmed without permission (potential actors, for instance) could purchase a small radio-responsive device indicating their willingness. Introduce a forced blurring function into the camera for the likeness of those not indicating otherwise, and now Digital Rights Management serves the purpose of protecting my likeness from media attention, if the manufacturers were to comply.

This aspect of DRM provides a mechanism for controlling the "spotlight" effect of public fame -- where one's life becomes public for all who care to see. Requiring media organizations to honor this DRM (industry-wide Macrovision, so to speak) protects the concerned citizen from media exposure without their explicit consent, provided in person or electronically.

Combined with a modified Creative Commons "attribution" license, I can indicate that I prefer to receive a copy of any media in which I participate, unwitting or not. Sometimes it's not feasible, but if I was worth taping, I'd like to see too -- currently there's no way to indicate that.

With limits stated by individuals and the cameras required by law to run DRM, privacy is honored in a way that it cannot be guaranteed today. At what cost? The crowd may have a few blurred faces in the family's Disneyland vacation videos.

The technological possibility to do this seems within reason, given the presence of face-identifying cameras -- and sometimes I just want to control distribution. The benefit to individuals seems a remarkable gain for such a cost.

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Cooperative, distributed reporting

Tonight's bout of insomnia gave me the opportunity to participate in something very cool. People from SpyMac, MacRumors, MacNN, MacTeens, MacCentral, and Mac-TV came together on IRC in just a few minutes before the Apple Expo keynote, with the intent to share information with the entire community. As information came in from various sources, it was redistributed through four different IRC channels and three websites (four, if you count the KevTV hoax) to a waiting community of listeners.

The immediacy of the flow of information was eerie to watch, even as a blogger; something would be posted in one channel, a few seconds later it'd be in three, then both websites and all the channels would have it. In the span of sixty seconds every unique droplet of relevant information was spread to every listener by just a few speakers.

One of the major channels I was a part of was directed for the duration by someone not accustomed to using IRC, that had never done this before or seen it happen; two hours of unplanned effort behind me, I feel that I've made a valuable contribution to something unseen but valuable: community.

I counted over sixty people in the channel I moderated; apparently on IRC across the four channels I watched there were more than a thousand people, and I can't even begin to wonder how many people watched on the websites. I guess next time I'll have to plan to be here; I don't want to miss the opportunity.

Building a profitable education

Many students fit badly into the current school system. With many feeling as though it's just "a waste of time", resentment is growing in each successive generation of youth towards their education. The educational problems are only one part of this, too; with social resentment growing between the ostracized and the social elite, schools are turning into emotional (and, unfortunately, physical) zones of class warfare. I'll address both problems simultaneously, by proposing a radical departure from the current curriculum.

I'd like to see a school built where the student's grade (and graduation) depends entirely on the profit -- while they get credit for the classes, to graduate they must form a business and succeed. It puts an entirely new spin on "getting a degree", as now they have the added credential of creating a successful business. That's worth far more than their weight in gold, and makes for a useful depth of education in business.

Ideally, the school would be run for-profit (a business role model for doing things in an open, proper manner). By selling a share of stock for a credit in any given term, it could provide people access to a real-life college business education, while giving students the power of a shareholder's influence over a company. The twist, though, is that the student must own the share of stock: students must be shareholders. Introduce profit sharing, and now it's to each student's benefit to succeed. With the proper structure, competition could be allowed to run rampant (pure capitalism); as well, competition could be downplayed, for the benefit of the community (cooperative capitalism).

I feel that such a drastic change in the educational process would be of great benefit to students who feel that the current system is unable to help them achieve their goals. By providing a real-life, internship-like education in the realities of cooperation and competition in business, the students could acquire a set of skills comparable with those taught in secondary business schools – while developing confidence in their social interactions and resume experience for advancing their real-world careers.

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Voice training with Demosthenes

My blogging has been modeled after the essays from Ender's Game, one of the more influential books I've known. The character I always identified with was Valentine: changing the woirld one essay at a time, driven by a purpose. Now with blogging I have a chance to feel that control, to know that I'm having some (admittedly tiny) effect on the world.

With services like LiveJournal, TypePad, and AOL Journal, everyone can. For the cost of a few bucks a month, you gain the chance of syndication at places you've only read news at like Slashdot or the BBC. Someone might notice what you're saying out there in the world, and like it. A few stay and listen; the rest smile (or frown) and move on.

I'm working on things that will allow those without money to access blogging, to have some small influence in things. A voice is a big gift to give to someone who feels they don't have one. Progress is slow, but I expect it won't be too long; all the parts are on the workbench, at least. It all may yet work out — and then something cool will happen.

AOL Journal brings in the potential of millions of new voices, and how the existing communities react to this will be the sociological event of the year; whether it happens or not, the ripples have already begun.

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Preventing social implosions

Many social groups implode when their community reaches a certain threshold of growth. If the population continue to grow unchecked, without certain adaptations made by the community, they may collapse under the load of the growth -- something no group should have to go through. I've addressed some ways that groups can take advantage of the Internet to help survive these ‘growing pains’ without imploding under the weight of their members.

The growth rate of a given group is somewhat hard to map out ahead of time; predicting the results of decisions not yet made by the group can be tricky, sometimes; as such, the exact time at which to apply these rules is unclear to anyone outside of the group itself. When implemented at the right time in the group, they do seem to function effectively as a curative influence.

A community cannot exist on its own, in a petri dish; select a crew (of one or more) for ambassadorial communications with other groups -- both in your area, and farther away. You can tap the ‘net to locate the contact information for groups with interests that verge on your group's, using popular categorical sites like DMOZ and Yahoo!. Even two or three loose, social ties to other communities can infuse people with an amazing energy to do more -- and two distinct groups are more likely to find a solution to their problems working together.

The ‘net can be used to contact interested individuals, as well; it's not limited to groups, which has worked out perfectly for Howard Dean's campaign fund so far. As communication is established between individuals within and without the group, a kind of “extended family” is born of the people that are, in whatever small way, in touch with your group's consciousness. This is where the internet can come into play; communications between individuals can be facilitated easily using person-to-person and person-to-group communication software such as announcements, discussion lists, and instant messenger. By increasing the flow rate of conversation, the members of a group can retain a ‘connection’ to those within the group, without losing touch of the primary goal: to be connected to people.

Often times, a group is noticed by a much larger group of people; the subsequent influx of many new members can force groups to the threshold of collapse, if they're not prepared to deal with the unexpected growth. When initially forming, many groups find it healthier (and more conducive to interactions) to avoid imposing a rigid (if any) structure on their process; decisions are made when they need to be made, problems are addressed as they arise, members share responsibilities and power as they see fit.

Unfortunately, a model lacking an official process doesn't seem to scale well beyond a certain population; at some point, the decisions become complex, the people emotionally involved, the (lack of) structure incapable of supporting the weight of the members. Introducing structure into such a situation, even if just in a limited fashion, makes an enormous difference to how well things are handled. The introduction of a lightweight tiered structure of leadership (president, vice, board, committee chairs) can drastically shift the efficiency of the group's decision-making process; responsibilities can be broken apart and delegated to small portions of the group, without requiring the group as a whole to address them. The task load can be distributed across the group, taking advantage more efficiently of the variance in the individual skill-sets.

These are only a few of the advantages that can be introduced into the group-forming process; applied at the proper stage of growth, these changes can greatly increase the chances of a group's survival, while making them more capable of approaching their chosen tasks effectively. They're not appropriate without change for every group, but they seem to work for most; the key is to apply them at the right time, when the need has just made itself apparent, when growth is affecting the group's overall efficiency. At that time, targeted application of these principles can save a group from self-destructing, unlocking a group's ability to grow without collapse -- and continue to be successful.

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Identity surfing, pseudonymity, reputation

Real reputation is emotional. The penalty for identity surfing is and should be leaving your reputation (friends) behind.



Truly anonymous identities, by design, cannot have reputation; there's nothing to distinguish one anonymous person from another one, thus reputation cannot result.  A very good example is Slashdot's "Anonymous Coward"; by choosing to remain anonymous, you evidence no identity whatsoever, remaining truly anonymous.  You can also choose to evidence a name, url, email, and/or Slashdot account -- however, the option to choose none remains.

There's another kind of identity, a "pseudo-anonymous" (?) identity.  It retains the aspect of anonymity that shields the participant(s) in that identity's communication from identification, while allowing the identity to be distinguished from other identities.

anon.penet.fi used to give out these identities; many Usenet posters developed relationships with others that were filtered through a pseudonym like "an256748@anon.penet.fi"; other anonymous remailers now do the same.

Reputation doesn't port to truly anonymous systems easily; if you're truly anonymous, you have no identifiable attributes -- including reputation.  This is both bad and good; you can't tell if the person who's posting now is any better than the one before, but they're secure from the prying eyes of whoever.  With a pseudo-anonymous identity, though, reputation asserts itself.

Given a uniquely-identifying characteristic, reputation seems to be a pervasive feature of social networks; either in the minds of the participants (the perl5-porters mailing list), or by a vaguely descriptive adjective (Slashdot's "karma" ranking), or by a numeric point ranking (eBay's "reputation" ranking); examples abound.

Conversational education

I find myself, from time to time, in discussion regarding topics on which I have a lack of depth, of experience; economics, business, law and the like; this is one of the most effective ways to learn that I've found. Recently, though, I've started noticing that some communities don't accept this as a valid method of learning.

One of my social communities refuses to hold discussion on some topics with me, until I've formally educated myself via other means; we clash over and over again on the core issue of "terminology". There's a rigid set of terminology definitions that I'm expected to know, without which discussion is refused. It's very strange; where normally I'd learn out of the discussions the context and usage of the terminology, the chance never appears. Without access to ongoing discussions, I haven't been able to internalize the terminology required to "gain access", as it were, to the discussions.

Another community reacts to my lack of knowledge by derailing active topic discussions just long enough to, as far as I can tell, prove how utterly incompetent my statements are. I don't mind this, even though it's usually done in a derogatory (if humorous) fashion. Generally, though, the content of my comments is left unaddressed; discarded or ignored, perhaps due to my lack of skill. After this occurs several times, I'll leave a discussion, upset at having my words trivialized (or worse, ignored).

One of my friends suggested that I might find communities more open to this kind of learning at universities, and I appreciate the suggestion; it's not one that occurred to me, and it makes sense. I have an uneducated question, though: what's different about a university setting? What thing is present at a university that isn't present in some of my peer communities?

I think that what's missing from these communities is a desire to teach, a willingness to answer questions asked solely to assist learning. It didn't occur to me until recently that, sometimes, people don't want to teach; I was introduced to this when one of the communities asked me to stop expecting them to teach. I guess that makes sense, but I haven't figured out how to adapt to it yet.

For the duration of my childhood, my social community didn't include my student peers. I was familiar with most of the teachers, and my extended family (which includes at least four teachers). It never occurred to me that I couldn't ask questions, and so I always did. In that manner I made my way to the end of high school, learning a wide variety of things.

I think I can attribute a great deal of my success with computers to my family finding books that could answer the questions I asked, and to my teachers for allowing me to muck about with their computers as I learned. By the end of middle school, I'd been acting as an off-and-on assistant to the school's "IT guy", partially managing several computers throughout the building for them.

Another side effect of this learning seems to be a sort of "wisdom" or "maturity" or "common sense" or "intuition", something that's apparently not present in everyone; it's rather hard to describe. I guess it's best labeled as having a knack for seeing the truth behind something, for choosing the right decision in unusual circumstances, for perceiving things that I ought to be entirely unaware of. My sister evidences this same quality, as does my entire extended family -- at least, those I've had the opportunity to meet.

I'm part of two communities that enjoy teaching, that seem willing to do so far more often than do the members of two other communities. I'm much more a fan of the kind that enjoy teaching, and I stress out occasionally interacting with those that don't. I can stop asking them to teach, but then I'll miss the opportunities when they're willing -- and they have so much knowledge that I can't stand not to ask.

I'm moving back to the West coast in a couple of months, to be near my family; there's still many things left for me to learn (and I miss them anyways). I'd like to find more people, though, that don't mind this conversational style of education; I'm just not sure how to ask that question, I guess.

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