When I was a kid and learned about the political assassinations in the ’60s, I was shocked. I asked my dad, “How could this happen?” He said, “It was a different time.” I interpreted that to mean everyone was crazy back then. However terrible American politics were, at least we weren’t assassinating politicians anymore. I was slightly proud of that.
Today I added that pride to the pile of other childish things I’ve had to let go of. Today our broken, ineffective, poisonous, acrimonious political system became a broken, ineffective, poisonous, acrimonious, murderous political system when Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a meeting with the public. Twelve people were wounded or killed, including an Arizona federal court judge, John Roll, and a nine year-old girl.
The suspected shooter is named Jared Lee Loughner and all we know about him so far is that he may have posted some weird You Tube videos. But we do know a few things for certain:
We know that the murder weapon was a 9mm Glock 19 handgun with a 30-round magazine.
We know that, even if Giffords survives the attack, her political career is over.
We know that, as of this writing, six people were murdered today.
We know that Giffords’ name appeared on an image distributed by Sarah Palin, along with a gunsight’s crosshairs over Arizona and the text “It’s time to take a stand.”
Those are the things we know. Here are some things I’d be willing to bet will happen in the next few days and weeks:
Arizona politicians and political pundits will find a way to blame this on immigration and violence from Mexico, even though the suspect is a twenty-something white kid.
The NRA and pro-gun advocates will find a way to imply that all of this could have been avoided if we’d just had less gun regulation, even though it was an atrocity committed with one of their weapons.
Sarah Palin and her supporters will find a way to blame this on Obama instead of taking responsibility for their “don’t retreat, reload” rhetoric.
What happened today won’t change a damn thing, even though it should. In two weeks, it will be completely gone from the mainstream media discourse.
But today is a bad day for all of that. Today is a bad day for political arguments that just go in circles forever. Today should just be a day for grief and shame.
I am ashamed. I’m ashamed it came to this. I’m ashamed to be an American today. I’m ashamed that we all spent so much time pointing and laughing as Palin and her ilk spread like cancer in the body politic. I’m ashamed that it takes something this awful to wake us up, if we wake up at all.
And grieve for what we’ve lost as a country. I grieve because our elected government worked so hard to give us a landmark healthcare program, and we’re all too selfish and stupid to accept it. Instead of working together to continue to improve the lives of the American people, newly-elected Republicans have made it their mandate to undo the last two years of progress. And now their hateful “take back our country” rhetoric has resulted in a politician getting shot in the head.
Someday, when your kid asks you why they can’t get healthcare when they’re sick, why no one did anything when Palin and her pals dismantled America, and how it could have gotten so bad so fast, I hope you can come up with a better answer than “It was a different time.”
Because I can’t.
Here’s Giffords talking about being a target on Palin’s crosshairs ad back in March: “When people do that, they’ve gotta realize that there’s consequences.”
One of the side effects of being in the business I’m in is that I hear certain phrases a lot. I’ve learned to let go of the terminology and focus on the meaning, but every once in a while a term’s actual meaning belies a fundamental misunderstanding that deserves to be examined. So let’s talk about the term “social media” for a moment.
When people say “social media,” they usually mean things experienced on computers, specifically blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This stands in contrast to all the other media that is presumably not social, like TV, radio, and print. But here’s the thing: all media is social. The new stuff just moves faster.
Let’s put aside the fact that media is, in actuality, lifeless and cannot be truly social. Humans are social, the stuff we make is a byproduct of that activity.
I ran a newspaper in the early 90s, and everything about it was social. The articles came out of meetings between real people, reported by people in social situations. When the paper was published, it was consumed by people in the community, and their responses were impossible to miss. When we pissed people off, we knew it. This was before mainstream email adoption, so we got actual letters, postcards, and phone calls.
Often that feedback made it into the next issue, which, in turn, created another round of feedback. It was a kind of slow-moving conversation, and it was entirely social.
This is true of all media. Radio has call-in shows, TV has audience feedback mechanisms (reviews, Nielsen’s). These older forms of media aren’t simply consumed and then forgotten – they are digested, discussed, and used to create the next generation of media. It’s social, it’s just slow.
Fast-forward to now. The very same process happens on blogs, Twitter streams, and Facebook walls. The only difference is time. The newspaper conversation happened in sets of biweekly bursts of activity. Now it happens in an intense real-time never-ending stream of updates, replies, and mentions.
I’m not saying this is good or bad, because it doesn’t matter. It’s simply happening. But I’m entirely sure that there’s no going back. I agree with Douglas Coupland, who recently said: “In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness.”
All media is social because human beings are social. The only difference is that it happens much, much, much faster now. We’ve sped up the refresh rate in our mediated conversations so much that the previous version looks like it’s not moving at all.
If we’ve sped up the social experience around media this much in a decade or two, just imagine the amphetamine-fast hyper-social media the next decade will bring.
* The grammarian in me knows that it should be “All Media Are Social” but that just sounds too weird. “Media” has become singular in the same way “data” has.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of performing at Muni Diaries Live, an evening of personal storytelling about the crazy things that happen on San Francisco’s Muni. As much as I loathe hearing my own voice, I really like the story, so here’s a video.
So as you may have noticed, there’s a new design here on the ol’ dotcom. As much as I loved the previous blue design, I wanted to do something with a little more personality. And when Adam Ellis did an illustration of me and Bug, it was just the inspiration I needed.*
The design is intended to be flexible, but it looks best on wide displays. If the screen is more narrow, the column width narrows and the illustration overlaps the word “Powazek” until it finally dips below it. I need to do a little more work in this area, but I’m happy with this technique for now.
I also wanted to challenge myself to make a mostly monochrome design. The ads are color, as are the hover states on links, but otherwise it’s all black and white. I have to thank John Gruber for the link treatment idea. I’ve always like the way he handled underlines and hover states.
This design features the most sparse footer the site has ever had. As usual, do as I say, not as I do. Besides, if you can’t break rules on your own site, where can you?
Comments are still off as I contemplate how to enable feedback mechanisms that don’t make me want to curl up and die. But I am experimenting with Twitter links at the bottom of posts I want responses to, like so.
Congratulations on getting a Twitter account (or having one for a while)! You’re now taking part in the biggest social experiment in human history (more on that later). But just because you’re floating in a global sea of idle thoughts doesn’t mean you have to drown.
You can be a grownup and participate on Twitter, but it takes some doing. Here are the two ways I’ve found to use Twitter as an adult.
Way 1: Curate Your Follower List
At the bottom of your main account page, there’s an innocuous checkbox labeled “Tweet Privacy.” It defaults to unchecked. If you check it, your tweets will only be seen by people you approve.
This is a good option for private people. Your tweets will not be indexed by search engines and no one will see what you tweet except your chosen followers. It allows you to speak freely without worrying too much about reactions from strangers. A lot of people I talk to don’t seem to know that this is even an option.
But it’s a pain. While your tweets are private, your other information (name, url, bio, location) is still public and viewable on your profile page, along with a message that you’re protecting your tweets so people can find and ask to follow you. As a result, you’ll get an email every time someone wants in, and each time you have to make a decision.
I spent my first year or so on Twitter operating this way and it was a drag. The mental overhead it added was worse than the idea of strangers reading my idle thoughts. So, eventually, I turned the option off and went public (deleting a few drunken tweets beforehand, of course).
Way 2: Participate Publicly but Carefully
I love Twitter, but there’s a lot of social media noise that comes from simply having an account. All the numbers on your profile page are like scores, which can make you feel like you’re losing from the start. So here’s how I use Twitter and mostly retain my sanity.
Turn off New Follower Emails. I turned off the emails that tell me who started following me from the get-go. They just made me worry too much. “Who is that? Should I follow them? Why are they following me?” Instant writer’s block.
To turn them off, go to your settings under Notices and uncheck the box labeled “New Follower Emails.” This way, you can concentrate on the fun part without the constant email reminders.
Ignore your follower count. (Aside to Twitter: Why can’t we turn that off?) The number goes up, the number goes down. Who cares? Your follower number has no bearing on your self-worth, but when it goes down, you can’t help but feel bad. Make a conscious decision to ignore it.
Interact judiciously. Follow people who seem interesting, stop following anyone who’s not. You don’t have to follow everyone you know – that’s what Facebook is for. Check your @Mentions, but remember that you don’t have to reply when someone talks at you. Block anyone who bothers you. Remember that you are solely responsible for where you point your attention. If what you see upsets you, direct your attention somewhere else.
Turn off retweets when necessary. Just because you enjoy following someone’s tweets doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy everything they retweet. Unfortunately, you can’t turn retweets off altogether (aside to Twitter: please?), but you can disable retweets from individual members by going to their profile page and de-greening the retweet icon.
Remember where you are. Any thought worth thinking takes more than 140 characters to write. Twitter is useful for a great many things, but nuanced discussion of important topics is not one of them. Twitter is like shouting over the band in a bar. You can do it, but you have to keep it short: “I love this song!” Don’t get baited into a back-and-forth with a stranger. The immediate, short nature of Twitter is good at amping up disagreement, and bad at reaching understanding.
Twitter lets you reveal a little bit of the running commentary in your brain to the people who may care enough to follow it. At its best, it’s a reminder that we’re all connected, and no matter how you feel, someone out there feels like that, too. In this way it’s the biggest social experiment in human history. It’s a sci-fi plot worthy of Philip K. Dick: “What if a technology made us all slightly telepathic?” Twitter is connecting our brains in ways we don’t fully understand yet.
But Twitter is still evolving, and its usage evolves, too. How we use it now is different than how we used it a couple years ago. There is no one right way to use Twitter, and you should ignore anyone who says there is. Including me.
Twitter is not one cohesive community, but a giant overlapping cloud of mini-communities, each developing its own set of norms. It’s up to you to decide what works best for you.
"It was perfectly obvious to me in that moment that our ability to celebrate and affirm another’s brilliance, creativity, ambition is exactly correlated to how much we are honoring and standing with our own." Amen.
I’ve spent the last few years talking to magazine publishers, editors, and bookstore owners about the future of print in our digital age. And at some point in almost every conversation, the person I’m talking to uses the word “serendipity” when singing print’s praises.
Serendipity is the moment of joy that comes from looking for one thing and finding another. In a magazine, this can happen when flipping pages. In a bookstore, it’s noticing an attractive book on your way down the aisle.
The implication in these conversations is that digital media somehow cannot create these happy accidental discoveries. But that’s just crazy talk.
Serendipity powers the social web. It’s why every website has a “share this” link. Serendipity is at the core of why Twitter is fun, YouTube is valuable, and everyone you know has a Facebook account.
YouTube is a great example. We’re all familiar by now with the phenomenon of getting caught in a string of YouTube videos. Watch just one cute cat video and at the end the site will suggest another. Then another. Then another. After a few minutes you’re somehow watching people race lawnmowers. That’s serendipity.
Google’s search results are another great example. How many times have you conducted a search only to find a link to something that wasn’t exactly what you were looking for, but was interesting anyway?
Serendipity is the last bastion of the print apologist. It’s the final straw grasped by people trying to justify their enduring love of print. Don’t get me wrong. I love print, too. I sell it! But I don’t want to prop up that love with bullshit.
There is a difference between serendipity in the physical world and digital serendipity: the digital kind has more potential. I can design a brick and mortar store window display and create a serendipitous experience for potentially hundreds of passers-by. Or I can do it online and reach millions.
Even though digital media is good at serendipity, a lot of it is accidental. The serendipity doesn’t occur on your website, it happens in Google or email or some other social site. But I suggest that’s because the designers of digital media are relying on the fabric of the web to create those experiences for them (and sometimes it does).
But we should be designing for serendipity. If you make a website, take a look at it and ask yourself, “when someone comes here looking for one thing, where do I have the opportunity to tell them about something else?” It could be in a footer, for example. This can be tricky, because you don’t want to interrupt a self-directed experience. Just look for the cracks where you can leave hints about what else is available. Hint: Newspapers have been designed this way for years. Crib, crib heartily.
Other notable examples of design for serendipity:
On the New York Times website, when you scroll to the bottom of an article, another article slides out to tempt you.
I already mentioned YouTube’s end-of-video links to related videos, but note also how much space in their current page design is devoted to “Suggestions” of other videos related to the one you’re on. Fully a third of the page! Serendipity keeps people on site, which is good for business.
iPad app Flipboard is basically a serendipity engine, mapping your social graph from Twitter and Facebook, grabbing all the content they link to, and formatting it as a magazine for your serendipitous perusal. Print serendipity begets digital/social serendipity. Brilliant.
So to sum up, I have two things to say to two groups of people:
1. Designers of digital media: There are many serendipitous routes that lead people to your stuff. Understand what they are and nurture them. But don’t become over-reliant on them. Design your stuff to create serendipitous connections between things. Look for every opportunity to hint that there’s much more to be discovered. Take the time to design the serendipity in to the experience.
2. Lovers of print: I love print, too, and yes, there’s something very special about that moment when you’re flipping through a book or a magazine and you discover something new. But that experience can just as easily happen online, especially if designers are doing their jobs (see #1). But just because you have’t yet had a serendipitous experience in digital media, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It just means designers have more work to do. But mostly you should just stop pretending that digital media cannot also be serendipitous. It just makes you look old, honey. Sorry.
David Murr suggested Wikipedia for serendipitous experiences, which is a great tip. Note that every page sports a random article link. A friend of mine once set his browser to use that as the default URL, so every time he opened a new browser window there was some random surprise there. I could never do that because I’m too easily distr….