The BlogHer Geek Lab in Washington, DC was loaded with questions about how to improve a blog and increase its reach.  I ended up on my soapbox more times than I expected, ranting about misinformation and imploring bloggers to rethink their strategies.

I’m summarizing most of my rants below because I think they’ll be helpful to some people.  Please keep in mind that I’m coming at this from my own experience.  I’m not an “ad revenue” blogger, and there are plenty out there who can give you tips on what they’ve done to be successful. I encourage you to go talk to them, too.

The Goals Rant

If you ask me, “How can I make my blog better?” I’m going to ask you what “better” means.  What are your goals? If you don’t know, stop whatever you’re doing right now and figure them out.  Here are some common ones:

I want to…

  • express myself in a creative, positive way.
  • vent my frustrations in a safe and constructive way.
  • work through some challenging issues.
  • document a process or experience.
  • create a space for myself that’s separate from my daily life.
  • establish a certain kind of reputation.
  • convey a certain tone and aesthetic.
  • serve a certain community in a certain way.
  • build a community that supports me.
  • make money with ads and affiliate revenue.
  • find new work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • maintain my existing work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • give friends and family a way to keep track of me.
  • keep track of my thoughts and the interesting things I’ve found on the web.

If you have a lot of these goals (and hopefully some others I haven’t named yet), that’s great!  Now you need to prioritize them. Which ONE do you care about first and foremost? How about second? Third? Fourth? Lay them all out in order — NO TIES! It’s fine if your priorities change in the future, but you need to be honest with yourself about what they are right now.

Once you’ve got that, you’ll know what “better” means. And you’ll probably be able to brainstorm about 20 answers to your original question without any help from me now, too.

The Money Rant

So you want to make money from blogging, and you’ve heard that ad revenue is the way to go.  That’s great and I completely support you, but let’s talk about it for a minute.

Read the rest of this entry »

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We had a steady stream of conversations and template hacking in the Geek Lab at BlogHer Boston yesterday. Here were some of the major questions that came up (and my quick-version answers, for those hacking at home):

Q: How can I find photos that are okay to blog?

A: Here’s a trick: go to Flickr’s Advanced Search page and scroll to the very bottom. Check the box that reads “Only search within Creative Commons licensed content.” If you’re planning to use the picture on something you’re selling, also check the “commercial use” box. If you’re planning to edit the picture, also check the “modify, adapt” check box. Then scroll back up to the search term box and run your search as usual. All of the photos that come up will be ones you can legally use on your blog. Most will require “attribution”, which means you should clearly display the username of the person who originally uploaded it and include a link back to the Flickr page the photo lives on.

Q: What’s RSS? What’s a blog reader? What should I be doing with these?

A: I’m just gonna cheat right now and show you the Common Craft video:

Q: How can I give my readers a way to receive automatic updates about my blog posts by email?

A: There are a few different ways to do this, and today we used Feedburner. Go to Feedburner.com, create an account, and follow their instructions to create a Feedburner RSS feed for your blog. Then go to the “Publicize” tab, click “Email Notifications,” and activate it. Follow their instructions to put the subscription form (or a link to it) on your blog. (Hint: we figured out that if you’re using WordPress.com, you have to use the link instead of the subscription form.)

Q: How do I add a link or an image to a blog post?

A: If you’re just starting to blog, creating posts that look the way you want can be a pain. So before you go any further, get to know the toolbar at the top of your text box. It’s usually a series of buttons, starting with bold and italic, and moving on to lists, text alignment, links, images, and other nifty bells and whistles. Just poke around and figure out what they all do. The one for creating a link is usually a picture of a metal chain link, or a globe, or both (I know, it’s weird and non-intuitive, but they were trying to be metaphorical…). The option for adding an image will usually give you two options: upload from your hard drive or enter the URL to a photo that’s already somewhere on the web.

Q: How do I add stuff to my sidebars? What if I have to work with code?

A: If you’re using WordPress, try going to Presentation -> Widgets. If you’re using Blogger, try Layout -> Page Elements. If you’re using Typepad, try Design -> Select Content. Assuming your template supports it, you can usually get away with simple drag-and-drop customizing that will let you do really neat stuff.

You may find yourself needing to use HTML and/or CSS to make it work the way you want it to, though. This can get tricky, but don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. If you’ve used HTML before, refresh your memory by checking out the HTML Cheat Sheet. If you’d like to learn some new skills from scratch, check out some of the tutorials available for HTML and CSS — they’re free. If you want do some deep customization but you don’t want to touch any code, consider hiring someone who knows what they’re doing to help you. And if you don’t want to touch code and you don’t want to spend money, it’s probably time to switch to a better free template.

Q: I want to customize my blog more! How do I switch to WordPress software?

A: Great! First, make sure you really want to do this. It’s a lot like moving into a new house — you’re going to feel discombulated for a while, but if it’s worth it, it’s worth it.

To get started, you need a domain name and a hosting account. A number of attendees highly recommended Bluehost.com as a place to get both of these, but there are many options. (Sidenote: a good place to research a hosting company’s reputation is the Web Hosting Forum.)

Once you’ve got that all set up, go to WordPress.org and download the most recent version of the software. It’ll be a large file, and you should unzip it and upload it to your new hosting account via FTP (your host can tell you how to do this). Then go to the URL where you think your blog should now be, and you’ll probably see an installation page. Follow the instructions and pay careful attention when it asks you about importing content from an existing blog. That’s the holy grail. After you’ve got your content loaded in, the resources available at WordPress.org will help you start customizing things. This is also when you should start searching the web for free WordPress themes, which is hands-down one of most exciting searches you will ever do.

 

All in all, it was an inspiring day and informative day. I especially loved connecting with (::deep breath::) Naked Anarchists, Lisa Williams, Beth Kanter, Alissa Kriteman, Suzanne Reisman, Dana Rudolph, Sassymonkey, Liz Henry, Kristy, Lisa, Elisa, Jory, and a bunch of others. What a powerful posse of brilliant women!

And now… onto Washington DC!

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This Saturday and Monday, I’ll be organizing the Geek Lab at BlogHer’s Reach Out tour in Boston and Washington DC.

So what’s the Geek Lab? Here’s the official spiel:

Every city on the Reach Out Tour will feature a Geek Lab happening in parallel to the Blogging Basics track and each city’s Custom track. Part OpenSpace, part mentoring program, part hack-fest. If you’re an advanced geek, here’s your all-day Birds of a Feather opportunity. If you’re not an advanced geek, here’s where you’ll find them…and find answers.

Whoever shows up will either get help or give help, or — in the case of most people — both.  I’m going to ask you about your experience levels, remind you that the stuff you already know is immensely valuable, and find out what directions you’re trying to grow in. Then we’ll skip the rest of the small talk and dive immediately into making our blogs better.

Between a core group of traveling smart folks (like blog hacker extraordinaire Liz Henry) and your fellow conference attendees, the Geek Lab will have the resources to help you with pretty much anything you’re looking for.

There’s a palpable energy that builds in the air whenever you get a room full of mostly-women into brainstorming and creative problem-solving mode, especially when technology is involved. It’s exciting and inspiring, and it leaves you with a renewed motivation to hack and revise your entire world.

Here’s what I’ve found from other events like this:

  • If you don’t know what you want help with, you’ll figure it out as soon as you start talking.
  • If you don’t know how you can help other people, you’ll figure it out as soon as they start talking.
  • Getting help is wonderful.
  • Being helpful is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.

So if you’ll be at the conferences and you’d like some personalized bursts of brilliance, just show up to the Geek Lab, find the woman with the shaved head, and say hello.  The rest will take care of itself.

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i heart blogherI spent four long days at my grandmother’s hospital bedside in New Hampshire and got back here just in time for BlogHer.  That is to say, I’ve been on emotional input overload for the last week, and my brains are a little muddled.  That is to say, the post that I’d like to write about where BlogHer is in the context of its own history and the broader evolution of social media will have to wait.  And so will the post about all the neat stuff I learned at panels this weekend.  In the meantime, I want to give you the post where I shower lots of people with the love that’s still ricocheting around in my brain from the last few days, because that’s what matters right now. That is to say, if you don’t like love, you should probably just stop reading.

Still here? Great! I’m in love with…

  • Mle-Mle for being extraordinarily gracious about the fact that I accidentally locked her out of my apartment and made her roam the streets of San Francisco without sleep for an entire night.
  • Susan Mernit for inviting me to speak on such an inspiring and affirming panel, and for moderating it with such skill and compassion.
  • Fivestar for showing up, for pointing me in the direction of the queers, for helping me flirt with the mommybloggers, and for sporting the hottest blog redesign I’ve seen in awhile.
  • JenB for being so beautifully warm, welcoming, and open when she sat next to me on the panel that I felt like I was chilling out with family instead of speaking in front of 100 people.
  • by Shannon RosaShuna for letting me turn into a cuddly fuzzy pet cat on more than one occasion, and for raising her hand to say (something like) When we own something about ourselves and put out it into the world, the people who want to criticize us can no longer use it against us.  
  • Elkit for hugging me for a full five minutes to help me get my bearings after a painful-to-face serious of panels when my mind and heart and body were already completely exhausted.
  • Amy for making so much space for me.
  • Koan for showing up and telling a hard story to tell, and an important story for people to hear.
  • Nicole Simon for laughing with me as we ate messy Chinese food over a display of $900 shoes at Macy’s.
  • Lisa Williams for wearing dead sexy cowboy boots and for calling me the “Queer Oprah.”
  • Angryrock for crashing the conference (crash! smash! bash!) and for griping up a storm of entertainment.
  • Debbie and Laurie for being consistent voices of strength, reason, guidance, and encouragement. Always.
  • Me in the underwear dept at Macy's, by Liz HenryLiz Henry for licking chocolate off my face and letting me bounce my breasts gratuitously on her head.
  • The Queen of Spain for attempting to introduce me to one of the heads of the Obama campaign while I bounced my breasts gratuitously on Liz Henry’s head, and for gracefully changing the subject by asking me to go hug her husband innappriately on her behalf.
  • Deb Roby for becoming stronger and more gorgeous every day.
  • Maria Niles for slipping me a new vibrator (shhh!).
  • Stephanie for telling her story with an honest smile.
  • Jess for telling her story with honest eye contact.
  • Schmutzie for being a totally charming real person and getting into a mutual-fangirl-oglefest session with me.
  • Denise for hugging me just slightly more often than she teased me.
  • Carfi for getting the word out about the fact that we’ve built the best damned conference widget EVAR, for making me continually proud of my work, and for always wearing a conspicuous hat.
  • Jenijen for kissing me on the cheek whenever she walked by me.
  • Kirrily for pre-stalking me, finding me, and getting me super excited about the direction women’s spaces are moving with O’Reilly conferences.
  • Beth Kanter for sidling up to share tech tips, happy life news, and stories about how her kids are becoming dangerously similar to me.
  • Sean for being the most attractively dressed human being at the conference (sorry, ladies).
  • Genie for standing up tall in all the ways I like to think I would, too, if I were paying as much attention to the world as she does.
  • Lisa, Jory, and Elisa — BlogHer’s founders and fearless leaders — for winning my heart, devotion, and adoration forever and ever and ever.

There’s more.  I’m just too wrapped up in love pillows to keep typing.  You’ll have to take my word for it — the rest of them are amazing, too.

And on that note, thank you everyone for fantastic weekend!  See you again in the fall for the BlogHer Reach-Out Tour (which — yay! — I’ll be tagging along for)!

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I’m a huge fan of BlogHer. Their conferences, community, and resources have changed my relationship to the Internet and grounded in me in a sense of belonging. Seriously — I went a really long stretch of my life thinking that women’s issues, technology, and writing didn’t belong in the same room with one another, and that I was just a fragmented oddball for being passionate about all of those things at once.

But one magic day, I met Liz Henry at a literary reading, and she told me I needed to go to WoolfCamp. Then everyone at WoolfCamp told me I needed to go to BlogHer. And my life has been on the upward spiral of awesomeness ever since.

That’s why I’m overjoyed to be speaking on a panel this summer at BlogHer 2008. This is the community that took me in as a misfit internet duckling and told me I would turn into a beautiful blogger swan. Being invited to speak is a huge honor to me.

Here’s the panel description:

Who We Are: “Coming Out” via Blog

“No, this doesn’t only apply to the most common meaning of “coming out”, but rather to taking the brave step to reveal and address something highly personal to your blog community. The risks are real, but what about the rewards? Susan Mernit will moderate a discussion with some very brave bloggers. Stephanie Quilao blogs about health and a positive body image. Making the decision to blog a bulimia relapse risked losing a core audience who counted on her to be a voice of body image reason. How did they react? JenB has been up front about both mental and physical health issues on her blog. Does she feel supported…or judged? Finally, Sarah Dopp did launch a new project about being gender queer. At first she used a pseudonym, although she shared the site with people she knew. Eventually she came out and associated her real name with the site. Was there fallout? Or none at all. Find out how coming out via blog turned out for these women, and share your own story.”

I’m going to be up there with some incredible people talking about deeply personal stuff, and I hope you’ll come (you know, so I can turn bright red when we make eye contact from across the room). This particular panel is on Day 2 at 1:45 pm.

And if you’ve never been to BlogHer before, I sincerely hope you get off your butt and come this year. It’s in San Francisco from July 18-20 (that’s a weekend). In the past, they’ve sold out out of full conference badges way before the event, so REGISTER RIGHT THIS MINUTE.  Go.  Now.  I’m serious.  Don’t give me that look.  Just do it.

And if the idea of paying for an expensive hotel room is the reason you’re hesitating, talk to me. San Francisco is my home turf. I might be able to hook you up. ;)

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Unless you’ve been following my twitter feed or partying in Austin, TX, you haven’t heard much from me in the last week. That’s because my laptop died a horrific logic board death in Oakland Airport, just before I boarded my flight to SXSW. Emails and blogging quickly became a thing of the past, and I resigned myself to in-person interactions and text message documentation. Now I’m back online with a cheap desktop PC while the Apple store continues to try to fix my baby, and I’ve got a week’s worth of epiphanies and adventures to blog about. So here’s the abridged version.

What’s SXSW?

SXSW (pronounced “South By Southwest”) is actually three different festivals that happen all at once in Austin every March. Most famous is the Music festival, where every band who’s any band comes to town and plays a show. Then there’s the Film festival, where all the top independent films of the year screen their glories. And there’s also the Interactive festival, which no one except us geeks actually knows about, because Music and Film are far more glamorous. It’s all one big 5-day party of brilliance with exceptional speakers and wild nightlife and the most fun many geeks get to have all year long.

What did I learn?

Here were some of my major “Aha!” moments from the panels and conversations.

From Kathy Sierra on wooing users…

  • A successful website is one that makes a user feel like they are awesome.
  • Adding randomness to a situation increases the chances for serendipity, which increases the chances that people will think an experience was perfect and was meant to be.
  • Since lots of people still think the Internet is a “totally lame waste of time,” a successful website will give its users an easy way to defend their use of that waste of time to friends and family.
  • The iPhone is awesome because its animations replicate the laws of real physics.
  • A successful website will enable people to do something really cool really quickly. Minimize the learning curve for experiencing gratification.
  • There are no dumb answers. Encourage people in your organization to answer questions, and keep encouraging them if they don’t give the right ones. A culture of answers is a culture of support.
  • Jargon is valuable — it’s a rich language that passionate members of a community use to talk with one another efficiently and effectively. Don’t insist on not using jargon in order to make newbies feel more comfortable. Instead, create a space for newbies that is separate from the jargon users.

More brilliance…

  • Parents need to realize that “TV time” and “Internet time” are as different as “TV time” and “reading a book.” Don’t lump it all into “screen time.” (Henry Jenkins)
  • The best thing you can do for your health this year is see a therapist. Instead of forcing yourself to go to the dentist (or eat better, or exercise more, or meditate regularly), get some help on unpacking your unconscious avoidance of it. (Kathryn Myronuk)
  • True anonymity on the web is not a realistic goal. Whatever you do under a pseudonym, you should accept right now that someday it may be attached to your real name. (Sex and Privacy Panel)
  • Marketing is the price you pay for creating mediocre products. (via Tara Hunt)
  • “Social gestures beget social objects which beget social markers.” (Hugh McLeod)
  • You’re only going to execute on 10% of your ideas, so give the other 90% away for free. It shows people that you have them. (Jeremiah Owyang)
  • If you have a startup with a small user base, now is the best time to put energy into answering every question personally and convey that they matter to you. Don’t just put up an FAQ. (Deb Schultz)
  • Don’t treat users like they’re stupid. Explain what your service is going to do for them, not how it works. (Leslie Chicoine)

And epiphanies overheard by others…

  • Drupal is like getting a dump truck full of legos.
  • You can’t control the information that’s out there on the internet about you. But you can curate it.

I’m also honored (no wait, that’s not the right word…) to have witnessed the Zuckerberg-Lacy keynote trainwreck and ensuing analysis. I’ll let the other tech pundits give you their analysis on that one. (Or you can just watch it here.)

The panels were brilliant as usual (especially if you picked them by speakers rather than by titles). But the real focus for me this year was the partying. I was out until 3am every night (except for that last night when I was out until, um, 7am) laughing and dancing and feeling alive and revived among “my people.” This is, arguably, what makes SXSW so special. If all you want to do is talk about technology, there are plenty of opportunities to do so that don’t involve getting on an airplane. But for a whole bunch of geeks to show up in one place equally inconvenient to New York, LA, Chicago, and Silicon Valley and create meaningful experiences with people who do what they do… that’s juice of what matters.

And frankly, I’m pretty sure that when geeks party, the Internet becomes a better place.

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Just in time for SXSW, I am really excited to announce that Cerado (the firm I consult with) has launched a handy “Unofficial Pocket Guide” for SXSW. It’s a mobile-friendly widget based on the beta of Cerado Ventana, and it gives you quick access to:

- People (who are here)
- Agenda (of panels and parties)
- Books (that authors will be signing in the book lounge)
- FAQ (‘cuz we all get confused sometimes)

It looks killer on the iPhone, and other devices are reporting sexy UI as well.

For the People tab, we’ve built a self-reporting directory (instead of scraping the registration database for everybody’s information). Adding yourself is like adding a blog comment: enter info, click submit, see it immediately. No email addresses; just your name, photo, and URL.

If you’re here at SXSW and fancy yourself an Early Adopter, go ahead and add yourself to the People listing. Just click to the People tab, and hit the “+” button — that’s it. I’m a big fan of posting your blog or twitter stream URL, but you could also post your Facebook or LinkedIn or company website (or whatever) — however you want your SXSW peeps to keep tabs on you.

This is a clean and classy way to get some exposure and remind people that you’re worth checking out.

The homepage is here: http://sxsw.cerado.com

And you can jump directly to the “Add Yourself” form as well.

Takes two minutes. Tops.

Check it out. Here’s what it looks like:

SXSW Unofficial Pocket Guide - PeopleSXSW Unofficial Pocket Guide - AgendaSXSW Unofficial Pocket Guide - Shop

However, when building this, we also realized that the whole world isn’t mobile. (Yet.) So, it’s also available as a widget that you can put on your blog. You can get that here.

I’m really excited about this project, and it’s already been a lifesaver for me in getting oriented to my week at SXSW. So check it out, see if it’s what you need this week, and grab the free publicity opportunity. People wanna know who you are.

Oh, and if you want to see any features added, just send me your wishlist. :)

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Last night the newly-freewheeling Susan Mernit and I attended the SD Forums meeting on Using the Social Graph / Social Platforms to Enhance Search at the Yahoo campus. The panel included representatives from Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Chirp, and they grappled with questions about what the Internet is going to do with all of this information about who is connected with whom. Here are a few of my takeaway notes:

  • When we search, we find things we were looking for. When we participate in social networks, we find things we didn’t know we were looking for.
  • To subscribe to someone on Twitter is to use them as a media source.
  • Our public content and our public statements about our social graph are a kind of performance. (Dopp Juice is a kind of performance.) This stuff needs to be treated differently than private conversations (messages, emails, IMs), which are meant to be off-stage.
  • One-way connections (e.g., following someone on twitter) articulates what you’re interested in. Two-way connections (e.g., an email conversation) articulates who you’re interested in.
  • Direct search has been nicely monetizable (see Google’s Massive Empire) because it involves a direct interest, but social search is the new frontier for monetization.
  • Social networks SHOULD NOT ASK PEOPLE FOR THEIR GMAIL AND YAHOO MAIL LOGIN INFO. (i know, we’ve talked about this already, but it was nice to hear it on the panel from the Yahoo rep, too.) His reasons: our email address books include everyone we’ve ever emailed; not just the people we have valuable relationships with. The tactic is spam-producing and relationship-damaging.
  • Facebook’s style of social networking sometimes creates lightweight friendships that obfuscate the value of networks. Knowing who my 20 best friends are is often more valuable than knowing who my 500 best friends are.
  • There is an ongoing tension between privacy and portability. How do we keep our information safe, versus how do we carry our information with us?
  • True portability involves both the ability to extract your information in a way that can be used elsewhere and the ability to delete it from the system so that it’s no longer in the first network’s hands.
  • There can never ever be a privacy surprise. If the user sees you publicly displaying something that they thought was private, you just lost their trust in a very big way.
  • There’s user-generated content and then there’s information about the user’s social graph. These are separate things. To do cool things for fun and profit on this next frontier of social media, you’re gonna want access to both.

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So, you’re in a conversation with someone who’s clearly not noticing the confused look on your face. This person has gone off on a long-road tangent and is using words and acronyms that you’ve never heard before. What do you do?

Here are my suggestions (besides, you know, the obvious blank stare or “could you explain that?” responses):

1) The Brush-Off

Variations:

  • “Nah, I’m not really a Star Wars geek.”
  • “Sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.”

2) The Signal
spock2.jpgSome friends and I have been trying to introduce the convention of throwing “star trek fingers” as a non-verbal signal that you need a definition. It’s less interruptive and more respectful. It just happens to be lacking a bit in widespread adoption, but I figure we can get past that… Try it sometime!

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I got a ride home from the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) from a VP at a Fortune 500 company, and we talked about the complicated natures of our love lives. It felt a little bit like driving home after summer camp, especially since I was on Day 2 with my jeans and underwear. Fortunately, though, I was sporting a nice clean IIW schwag t-shirt, which was neatly ironed for me by the astrophysicist who let me crash on his fold-out hotel suite couch the night before. This, of course, happened after I sang and danced to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” with the conference organizer during karaoke.

The last session I attended at IIW was called “Newbies4Newbies.” Five of us conference first-timers sat around a table with one of the community’s longtime members and talked about our experience. We were all pretty much on the same page with observations:

  • The sparse conference website and jargon-heavy materials provided beforehand gave us the impression that this was a self-contained community. We felt like we were crashing someone else’s party.
  • We ended up in some conversations that were way over our heads, and felt a moment of panic that were very, very much in the wrong place.
  • We took some initiative to figure out what was going on, and started to notice how passionate and productive this community was.
  • We began to feel like we were being heartily welcomed by everyone we talked to, and saw people going out of their way to make sure we were able to engaged in the conversations.
  • We connected with great thinkers and leaders who made themselves available for our questions and ideas, and who took the time to explain complex ideas to us in language we could understand.
  • People recognized that we, as newcomers, had a valuable perspective to offer on what they were doing, and they asked us to share it.
  • We felt like we had become an integral part of the community, and we were sad to see the conference end.

“Workshop” is a fitting term for the event. It really was about getting stuff done. Before I realized what was happening, I found myself helping to spearhead two new working groups which now have clear missions for ongoing roles in the community. The first is called Inclusive Initiatives, and its plan is to coordinate events and identify research studies that will help bring to light a wide range of perspectives on what the public needs from identity solutions. Somehow, I became the Stewards Council Representative for this group (go figure).

The second group sprung out of the “Newbies4Newbies” conversation. We’re rallying together to help bridge the gap between this brilliant community and the people who could join it but don’t know how. Our hope is that by making the website more accessible, developing clear introduction materials, and identifying people who can serve as mentors within the community, Identity Commons will broaden its reach, its influence, and its pool of resources for being effective.

This community is pulling the Internet into an arena where our information is safe and manageable by us, the users. Its projects include things that will take our passwords out of the hands of people we don’t trust, and take our consumer experiences out of the hands of marketers. It’s “the good fight” for our rights on the web.

Listen to me. I’m on a soapbox already. These people got under my skin.

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