Over the last sixteen months, I’ve been working with a great group of people to build and nurture a new project: the Genderplayful Marketplace. This online marketplace celebrates diversity in gender presentation and body types. It rallies a community to work collectively on the question, “How can we build wardrobes we love that fit our bodies well?”, and it offers extra encouraging support for trans, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming folks (an identity set that we define very broadly). The project was inspired by what we’ve learned in our work at Genderfork.com.

The Process

The Genderplayful homepage, in private beta

It started with a fundraiser last year. I promised that we would build the marketplace if we raised $5,000, and we received such a strong show of support that our final total was $8,000. Since then, we’ve just been chugging along, step by step, trying to stay focused on the goal and not get discouraged by the sheer size of it (and all of those damned possibilities that would make it so much better except when they really just make it feel more daunting).

For the first six months, we focused on the tech foundation — WordPress Multi-Site, Buddypress, and Marketpress, coupled with Linode and Springloops — and we worked with designers to build our visual experience. Then we pulled in a bigger volunteer staff to jumpstart our social media presence (meet our Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook accounts — each building their own collage of creativity, curiosity, and community style). We also assigned volunteers to help get our forums going, set our first vendors up with storefronts, develop a community blog, curate some featured content, keep the tech development moving forward, and keep our newfound team happy and healthy.

On January 15th of this year — one year after we finished our fundraiser — we opened our creaky doors to community members who’d supported us along the way for a Private Beta. And now we’re cleaning up, tweaking settings, building missing features, helping vendors settle in, and populating the site with the kind of culture we believe in.

Slowly, but surely. But slowly. Sure.

The Laws of Volunteerism

Featured sellers, community blogging

Eight grand is enough money to deal with legal and financial requirements, to cover tech account costs, and to hire the few services that you can’t easily request from volunteers. (It also buys t-shirts, which were part of the deal for getting community funds in the first place.)

It is not, however, enough money to also hire a staff or fund a professional web development job. And that’s fine — we didn’t ask for that level of support to begin with — but it does mean that everything we do is subject to the Laws of Volunteerism.

These laws, as far as I can tell, are as follows:

Law #1: Our predicted involvement will be bigger than our actual involvement. The energy and excitement that we have at the beginning of a project is rarely sustainable at its peak levels, and the actual time we can invest in a project over the long-term needs to have a realistic bare minimum.

Law #2: We will mostly do things that are either urgent or methodical. Give us a fire to put out, and we’ll jump on it. Give us task to repeat every week, and we’ll turn it into a habit. But ask us to think about something new every day without attaching a major deadline to it?  Yeah, sorry, we’d love to, but maybe you can find someone else to jump in…

Law #3: We need to see that our work is helping others in order to keep doing it. I think the single biggest mistake we made in the first year of Genderplayful was not creating a smaller version of the marketplace that we could release much sooner. As volunteers, we are fueled by the positive impact we have on others, and we lose momentum when that’s harder to see.

Law #4: Real life will get in the way. Job stress, moving, breakups, illness, overwhelm, family issues, school, travel, projects, personal transitions, and other forms of Real Life don’t stop knocking. Ever. Volunteering is a commitment, but it’s a rather secondary commitment to, say, staying alive and healthy, and we have to remain flexible as our own availabilities change.

All of these things have happened to all of us on the project, and they hit our tech team and our organizing/leadership energy the hardest. Which leads me to…

SHAMELESS PLUG! If anyone would like to offer their reinforcements in these areas, please first consider the Laws listed above, and then fill out our “SEND IN THE REINFORCEMENTS!” form with how you’d like to help.

Dreaming vs. Doing

When it comes down to it, we’re still walking and still building, even if it’s messy, slow, and quiet in the darkness some nights.

Ideas are fun and cheap, and Great Ideas are worth doing. Doing, however, requires pushing through every form of resistance your brain can come up with, withstanding the stretch of real timelines, and ignoring all those new fun cheap ideas that show up every morning and tempt you to do something new. Doing a Great Idea (as opposed to just any old idea) helps with that last part, but it still takes force, conviction, and faith to get to the finish line.

And we’re getting there. Soon*, you’ll be able to see and experience all the wonders (or at least the highest priority ones) that we’ve been imagining all along the way.

* “Soon” implies no specific timeline. (We know better than that by now.)

Quick Backstory:
This is a finicky evaluation of online project management systems, taken slightly out of context. I originally published it a few weeks ago via “Dopp Brain“, my email newsletter, which I’m writing for more often than I’m blogging right now. If you miss hearing from me, go sign up for that. I’m working on some infant/sensitive projects right now, and am preferring to talk about everything just a little less publicly for a bit.

But somebody just asked me about this overview, so I’m making it public now.

~~~~~

When we last heard from our hero, she was neck deep in trial accounts for online project management software…

Man, that was not a fun game.  But it was absolutely worth the digging.  Here’s what I learned (besides the fact that I am the Donald Trump of Project Management System Evaluators):

FIRED

Basecamp: It’s everybody’s golden child, but damnit, I can’t stand it.  Something about how the information is laid out just doesn’t fit how my brain works.  The Writeboards, which should be a centerpiece, are so far out of the way and take extra time to load that they feel like a disconnected afterthought.  The dashboard and calendar views are unreadably cluttered, and the task lists are clunky.  Fired.

Wrike: Oh, this one had so much potential, it broke my heart.  Completely fresh layout — they organize everything by Folders and Subfolders rather than Projects and Clients, so you can decide how your own work needs to be structured.  They also allow you to record the same task in multiple folders, so it’s cross-referenced against what it needs to do.  The only downside? It’s all about tasks.  And it takes a few too many clicks to enter a task to warrant that single focus.  There is a space for notes and discussions, but those are hidden away and hard to find — which is bizarre and completely unecessary.  I thought i was going to strangle it for that, so… Fired.

DeskAway: This one and I almost got married.  I had loaded up all my projects and we were halfway to the chapel (my tux looked great) when I realized that its Dashboard view of the All Tasks Due Today doesn’t let me mark tasks as done.  SERIOUSLY!  It’s just a summary — you have to click through to each task in this weird convoluted way to mark a task as done — so there’s no homebase area that you can hang out in and just be productive.  The other thing that bugged me was that the list of “Overdue” tasks included Today’s tasks.  You don’t get to tell me that something due today is overdue. And by the way, I lied, I don’t really like Bob Dylan and I don’t want to live in your stupid house with the stupid white picket fence and look at your stupid face all day long and this engagement is OVER. Fired.

Pelotonics: By this point, I was jaded.  I knew my standards were too high, and I was a little too familiar with the ejection button.  There was no passion here.  Just a bland dinner, a glimmer of hope (integrating with Evernote? Sweet…), and a quick dismissal based on a flat excuse.  I can’t add a new task from the Dashboard view. There. I said it. None of the other systems would let me do that either, but it seemed as good enough an excuse as any to end that date before we got any further.  It’s not you, it’s me. Let’s just be friends.  Trust me. You don’t want to get involved with me anyway. I’m bad news. I kill systems.  Just ask the others. Go. Now. Before we do something we’ll regret. You’re fired.

After I drowned my system incompatibility sorrows in several regrettable rounds of Chat Roulette, I got back on the horse.  I’m a reasonably attractive, successful consultant — I have a good personality, damnit!  There are plenty of fish in the sea!  Maybe I’m just using the wrong pickup line. Should I change my soap?

To cut to the chase, I put on my best “fine, i’ll be more agreeable this time” face and put together a hybrid solution:

HIRED

Remember the Milk for task tracking.  But not all tasks.  Just the tasks that aren’t part of any scheduled projects and still need to get done by a certain day.  I added the widget to my Gmail sidebar and configured it to only display tasks that are due today or are overdue.  I can check things off as I go, and I can add new things super-quickly when they come up. It works fabulously.

PBWorks Business Edition for project notes and collaboration.  It’s a wiki built for project management, and it’s yummy. I can have a different wiki for each project, and pull in guest collaborators for specific spaces only.  Bonus features: it has task lists (though they’re not any better than all the other system tasks lists I fired), and I’m using those to keep track of project requirements.  It also has this really sexy conference call feature, where it will call as many people as I want to have a meeting with on their telephones and bring them into a zero-hassle conference call.  And the best part about a wiki is that it has all the content I need, and none of the content I don’t need.  Win.

Google Calendar for scheduling work sessions. I’m blocking out time on my schedule for working on different projects. Old school, I know, but it works.

Emma, aka “Girl Friday,” aka “Queen of the Wikis” for tying it all together. (*joyful choirs erupt in praise*)  Emma’s a kick-ass project organizing consultant who is keeping the wiki and calendar updated, and making sense of new projects as they come in. You might also know her from KinkOnTap, the weekly webcast about culture, sexuality, and politics that she co-hosts and organizes.  She’s an awesome one, she is.

And there we have it.  That, plus some Gmail and Freshbooks is the organizational ground I’m standing on.  So far so good.

Over dinner last Thursday night, maymay and I spent several hours discussing what makes a Good Web Development Team, based on our particular work styles.  Here’s what we came up with (refined from a crude notebook sketch):

collab-webdevteam

Particular things to note here…

  • All team members have direct access to one another, and are encouraged to work together in real-time.  Quality assurance, scope agreements, user experience development, and engineering development all depend on direct collaboration.
  • D@n has already pointed out that we left out Sys Admin.  That’s a good point, and it should probably be its own person, with direct lines to Front-End, Back-End, and Project Manager.
  • He also expressed concern about QA not being a specific person.  I stand by the current model for dev teams that don’t aspire to grow any bigger than the setup above — peer-checking is sufficient.  As maymay put it, “QA is a state of mind.”  It’s always happening, and it can be structured to happen systematically.
  • Job roles and personal skills don’t always perfectly align. In my case, I can play both Front-End Developer and Project Manager, each with a particular flavor.  And maymay can take on both Front-End and Back-End Developer roles if the expectations are right.  But for both of us, it seems the case that if we only have to take on one role per project, we’re able to do better work.

This is just an abstract exercise in theoretical structuring based on our experience — not meant as anything to be set in stone. Take it for what you will, and feel free to expand on it.

Enjoy!,
Sarah

I believe that some communities need managers (or facilitators or moderators — there are a few different flavors to this role).  I also believe there are ways to hold that space respectfully, in a way that takes care of everyone, while still being very strong.  As promised, I want to offer you some of the “moves” I’ve learned over the years in this role, with hopes that you can use them to help guide your own community spaces.

There’s just one problem.  Every time I try to write this blog post, it keeps growing to the size of a book.

So here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to let it be a series. Last week I gave you the prologue.  Now here’s Part 1: “Aikido Moves for Online Community Management: The Basics,” complete with even more intro material for context.  There will be a Part 2. I promise.

My Training

I’ve been building websites since ’97 and have held the reigns on a number of community-rallying projects.  There are two in particular, though, that I can attribute most of my lessons to.  They are:

The Writ – An online writing workshop and publication that had 2,000+ members and an ever-changing staff of volunteers. It started in 2003 and was just officially closed a few months ago, because it was time.

Genderfork – A community expression blog about gender variance that has 10,000+ readers a month.  It’s run by a staff of 10 volunteers who all have clear responsibilities for maintaining the site. The broader community contributes through submissions and response comments. It’s been around since 2007.

I built both of these spaces from scratch, with the help of friends and community members who wanted to see it succeed. And it’s important to note that in both of these communities, our goals were to:

  • make as many people as possible feel welcome and comfortable, especially newbies.
  • stay focused on a specific topic.
  • collaboratively create something bigger than we could build as individuals.
  • nurture and encourage quality storytelling and art.
  • inspire and guide community members to support and help each other.
  • represent ourselves in a positive way to the rest of the world.

So pretty much all of my advice comes from advocating for this culture.  There are lots of other community cultures that are just as relevant, but I can’t speak about them from experience.

What’s an online community and when does it need a manager?

I’m happy to report that I answered this question in detail last week.  If you’re not 100% clear on what I’m about to talk about, please go read it.  What follows is the beginning of an advanced discussion.  Last week’s post is the 101-level introduction.

Why Aikido?

Aikido is a martial art that involves a lot of rolling around on the floor.  I’ve taken a few classes, I’m not an expert, and if you’re interested in going deeper than the light metaphor I’m offering here, I encourage you to — there’s a lot to learn from it.  But for our purposes, let’s just look at a few basics.  When practicing Aikido, you…

  • blend with the motion of your attacker and redirect their force, rather than opposing it head-on.
  • protect your attacker from injury as you defend yourself.
  • stay in control with minimal effort.
  • remain balanced and focused.
  • roll with the punches.

I find this an incredibly useful metaphor for online community management.

And a few more disclaimers…

1. The thoughts below are limited in scope and context.  They are not comprehensive, and you should not assume they will all apply to your situation. They might not. Sorry.

2. I wish I could tell you I’m coming at this from a place of stability. I’m not. Even as I write this, a discussion is underway in the Genderfork community that might push to have my curation guidelines and original mission statement completely restructured.  This is actually okay.

3. I’m also aware that a lot of people will have plenty of reasons to disagree with me on some of my points.  Go for it — I’m always up for hearing how things can be done better.  (Just, you know, be nice about it please. Thanks.)

“The Basics”

Okay, ready? Here are what I consider to be important foundational moves.

1) Don’t punish people for stuff they haven’t done.

Be careful about comment and moderation policies, and make sure they’re addressing real needs rather than pre-emptively striking against imagined ones.

I anticipated that Genderfork would get a lot of hate mail, and I strongly considered turning on the “you have to be pre-approved to leave comments” setting to guard against it.  If you’ve ever left a comment only to see a “now waiting for moderation” message, you know what a slap in the face that setting feels like.  Fortunately, I decided to wait and see if I really needed it.  70,000+ total visitors later, we still don’t get a single shred of anti-queer hate in our comments.  ZERO. NADA. GOOSE EGG.  (Okay, well there was that one day, but it was super-isolated, and there was a miscommunication, so I say it doesn’t count.)  I now have it set up so that people can even comment anonymously — no name or email address required — because I know they appreciate the option, and they respect the privilege.  Still no hate.  Magic.

2) Set the tone, and the tone will maintain the tone.

Okay, so lack of hate isn’t really “magic” — it’s the tone we set from the beginning.

Have you ever shown up to a conversation that was already in progress?  What did you do?  You listened to what was going on, how people were interacting, and where they were in the discussion before you joined in.  You drew all sorts of conclusions about expectations and protocol just by taking a quick inventory of the situation, and then you went with the flow, adding your perspective in a way that seemed to fit.

That’s what people do when they show up to online communities, too. They take a brief scan around, they pull in whatever cues they can gather, they decide if they want to join in, and then they do so in a way that fits all the factors.  Think of the quality of comments on Flickr versus YouTube.  Flickr takes community management very seriously, and people have gotten the message over time (whether consciously or unconsciously) that being respectful in comments is important.  On YouTube, the expectation is more or less that people will be idiots.  So people are idiots.

Take note of what kind of conversation people are experiencing when they show up to your site. If you monitor it carefully enough in the beginning, it will begin to (mostly) monitor itself.

How do you set the tone? By contributing in the style that you’d like others to contribute. By offering some simple, clear guidelines on how people should treat each other and why. By suggesting to the people in your inner circle that they engage in a certain way. By showing up and being personally involved to positively redirect things when someone goes off course.

3) Stay detached from emotional conversations.

If your job is to keep the community healthy, then your “at ease” stance needs to be slightly above any emotional discussions.  You’re at your most helpful when you’re keeping a bird’s eye view on things and can understand everyone’s perspectives.

This might make you feel like the community’s not really yours.  That’s right. I’m sorry. It’s not. It’s theirs. You are the steward and caretaker, and when you’re hanging out there, you’re on duty.  Like a bartender at a good club, you get plenty of perks from being in the room, but you still need to stay behind the bar.  (And, preferably, sober.)

If you find yourself emotionally involved in a challenging situation, that’s your cue to go find someone else to advise you — someone who understands the community but isn’t involved in the drama. You can’t hold the Smite Buttons and be angry at the same time — that’s just not fair.

But even if you are angry, and you are getting advice from someone more balanced, you still probably need to keep your venting off the Internet. People need to trust you, and blame-heavy ranters are hard to trust.

So go off and kick trashcans, let a friend keep an eye on things while you’re gone, and come back when you’re ready to be sane again.  You just saved yourself from a mutiny.

~~~~

More soon.

Love,
Sarah

Just a few minutes ago on Twitter, I quoted a snippet of my phone conversation today with John T. Unger:

Me: “…so basically, I’m just going to get everybody to love everybody.”

John: “If anybody can do that, it’s you.”

Then, realizing how out of context that snippet was, I added some clarification:

By “everybody” I mean “queers, sex nerds, artists, deviants, geeks, and creative folks who dance to the beat of their own drum.”

Call me naive, but I really do believe that covers everybody, with lots of internal overlap.  But okay, yeah, I live in a bubble, and it’s worth defining what that bubble’s all about sometimes.  I also acknowledge that a whole lot of somebodies have stopped defining themselves in those ways, so I’m not gonna worry about them right now.

I want to tell you about the dreams in my head… about the things I’m most excited about, and the structures I’m looking at for how I can serve more people and make our lives more exciting.

One of them is a monthly discussion series I’m kicking off in December at the Center for Sex and Culture (San Francisco) called Deviants Online.  Here’s the press info for it:

Deviants Online
hosted by Sarah Dopp
with special guest Mollena Williams

Tuesday, December 8th, 6 – 8pm
Cost: $10-20 sliding scale, no one turned away for lack of funds

The CSC is proud to announce this new monthly discussion workshop!

Deviants Online will explore the ever-changing “best practices” for social media: facebook, twitter, myspace, flickr, blogging, email, websites, and everything else.  How can we shine spotlights on what we care about without annoying our friends? What are smart ways to strengthen our relationships and broaden our networks? And how exactly do we get our (many) personal sides to co-exist with our professional life on the same Internet?

As queers, creatives, sex nerds, and other rebels, our lives depend heavily on our friends and extended communities.  Whether we’re looking for work opportunities, an audience, or an army of allies, we can all benefit from having a broader network built on trust and appreciation.

In this discussion workshop, we’ll explore what works and what doesn’t when it comes to representing ourselves online. The material will include a balanced mix of “how to think about it” and “how to do it,” and we’ll have plenty of time for questions. Whether you’ve just signed up for facebook or have been blogging for years, you’ll leave this workshop full of ideas on what you want to try next.

Deviants Online is hosted by Sarah Dopp, social media educator and founder of http://Genderfork.com.  It will also have a special guest co-facilitator, Mollena Williams!

For more information, please contact Sarah at [info at sarahdopp dot com].

I’ll have a real website up for it soon. (Promise.)

I also want to tell you that I’m partnering with Sarah Sloane of Equilibrium Consulting to make magical things happen. She’s helping me manage my consulting work (omigod i have a schedule now) and scheming exciting plans with me about how we can do more for those everybodies I mentioned above.

What’s really going on? We’re building a self-sustaining community of smart, creative, interesting people who work together (as clients, consultants, and co-conspirators) to make awesome things happen. I’m already in it… we’re already doing it… we just need to iron out a few more edges.

“…so basically, I’m just going to get everybody to love everybody.”

I’ll tell you more soon.

Love,
Sarah

ETA: The Deviants Online site is available here:  http://www.deviantsonline.com (YAY!)

So… look.

I am part of a wonky industry. And by wonky I mean hugely imbalanced, superficial, bubblicious, and lined with unkeepable promises.

I’m a web presence consultant, and I’m good at it. I build nice websites that people can update themselves, and I train people on how to use the Internet better so that they can survive and grow on their own. I’ve been building websites for 12 years, and I’ve been completely self-employed in the industry for five. Despite having just ended a large contract that was my primary (and often only) source of income for the last two years, I (magically) have no lack of clients right now.

But I also have an identity crisis. (You’d think I’d be good at those by now, but no, they still get me every time.)

I present to you Exhibit A, courtesy of the Laughing Squid blog:

It’s parody, but it’s not a joke. This is my industry. Or at least, it’s one of them — the “Social Media Douchebag*” industry.  The other professions I pledge allegiance to seem to include:

– Sleazy Marketers
– Naive Self-Helpey Life Coaches
– Overpriced Web Designers
– Out-of-Touch-with-Reality Engineers

Apologies to all the peers I just offended, but come on, you know what I’m talking about.

Normally I don’t let this reputation game get to me, but I’m going through one of those Repositioning phases where I have to start telling people what I do for a living again. Unfortunately, this is quickly turning into a game of, “No, I’m a good witch. You want to drop your house over there, on my sister, the green one.”

You ever try to define yourself by explaining what you’re not (like how I’m doing in this blog post)?  It puts the focus in the wrong place.  DON’T THINK ABOUT THE GROSS STUFF!  I SAID DON’T THINK ABOUT IT! EWWW!  (Bear with me — I’m getting this out of my system.)

Now couple this industry reputation crisis with the fact that clients’ needs, on the whole, are changing dramatically.  Tools have gotten easier to use, and the people who hire us are so much more capable and Internet savvy than they used to be. We no longer just build a website, optimize it for search engines, and walk away until something breaks. “Success” on the Internet now requires frequent content updates, and clients are willing to take that work on themselves. The ones who want help want long-term partnerships with consultants who can advise them on their processes and fix little techie things when they get stuck.

It used to be all about building the website, and everyone left the maintenance as an underfunded afterthought (meaning that’s when consultants moved on). Now it’s all about the maintenance… the kind that says, “You’re doing great work. What do you need?”

But tell me honestly: who here is setting up sustainable businesses that support the “I just need a few hours of help a month” clients?

My hunch is that we may need to drop our Web Development Consulting models and go learn from accountants, therapists, attorneys, doctors, and professors.

How do we build a business on maintenance?  How many clients can one consultant handle?  Can we teach our peers to do this, too?  And can we do it all without being Sleazy Naive Out-of-Touch-with-Reality Overpriced Douchebags?

If you’re already doing this work, please come find me.

And I’ll keep the rest of ya’lls posted on what we figure out.

* Yes, I do know the term douchebag is offensive and tasteless, and represents a form of social oppression, and refers to something completely useless and bad for people. That’s partly why I accept its usage in this context.

I had a timeline all worked out, and it involved me being unemployed right now. I was going to take a few weeks off to sit down, reorganize how I want to approach my work, identify the kinds of contracts I’m looking for, redo my web presence, and then begin The Search for New Clients.

Instead, I’m not even done with my old contract yet, I haven’t asked anyone for new work, and I already have seven clients. Hi. Okay.

Here’s the thing.  The kinds of clients I’m interested in (and, magically, the ones that I’m attracting) are creative individuals and organizations who are doing cool and meaningful things in the world, and who need a stronger web presence to reflect that.  That may sound like “everyone,” but it’s not.  It’s a very specific type.  Clients of this sort tend to already have an interesting public personality, or an established “voice” that they want to make more public. They come equipped with the professional motivation to update their web content without my help.  They learn quickly. They need periodic guidance and technical assistance to setup, rejuvenate, and maintain certain things.  And as a general rule, they don’t have a lot of money to burn, but they can afford to spend some here and there because this help is very important to them.

The challenge, apparently, is not finding these clients.

The challenge, already, is keeping track of them all and coming up with the right agreements.  Let’s be honest: having a dozen small contracts is not the work equivalent of having one large contract, even if they add up to the same number of billable hours.  And when every hour is carefully budgeted, “what I think we should spend time on” is much less important than “what they need to move forward on.”

I’m waist-deep in reorganizing.

If you’re working with a similar client base, now’s a good time to get in touch with me. We have notes and resources to share…

genderfork-logo

Genderfork, a community art blog project I started a year and a half ago, has taken off. It’s running three posts a day, each one representing a different face or voice from the community, and has about 5,000 regular readers. From the outside, it seems like this would be an insane amount of work to maintain, but it’s turns out that it’s not, because I’m not doing the blogging — 10 passionate volunteers are. My job at this point is just to take care of them, and to continue making things better.

A bit about how we’ve set this up…

genderfork-blueeyes

  • Everybody who’s helping is doing so because they asked if they could. When I realized I needed help last December, I put out a post asking people to email me if they were interested. Since then, they’ve mostly just come knocking at my inbox without my asking.
  • Each volunteer has their own responsibilities, and their commitment can be met with less than two hours of work a week (this usually goes for me, too).
  • We separated the tasks of preparing blog posts from deciding when they should be published, so most of the volunteers can blog several weeks’ worth content in one sitting if they choose to.
  • Whenever one of us has a question or get stuck, we try to run our ideas past the rest of the volunteers to get feedback on it.  This has helped keep the vision for the site a collective agreement, and it creates a sense of shared responsibility — we’ve really become a team.  (We’ve also started accumulating a stack of silly inside jokes — the inevitable consequence of liking each other.)

genderfork-shineHere’s what’s on our technical toolbelt….

  • WordPress blogging software
  • A Google Groups mailing list so our volunteers can talk to each other
  • Several Google Docs set up for sharing submissions between volunteers and keeping them organized
  • Tweet Later for managing the content in our daily twitter feed

We’ve souped up our WordPress installation with the following uber-useful plugins:

  • Contact Form 7 for our submission forms
  • IntenseDebate for better conversations in the comments
  • Flickr Blog This to Draft to let photo curation volunteers blog directly from Flickr without it showing up on the site immediately
  • Role Manager to let me configure exactly what Contributor accounts have access to (i found this necessary for allowing volunteers to blog photos and videos)

And it’s going well. We know this because our community takes the time to tells us this over and over again, every single day.  Here’s a note we received anonymously last week:

“This blog is wonderful =). Who knows you could be saving peoples lives by doing this.

“I’ve read all the archives, and when i came to the photo of the person with long hair in a brown leather jacket, a strong serious face with a beard and quite obvious breasts, it finally occurred to me, ignore the fact that i am gender queer myself, “this isn’t an exemption to some rule, or people being different – it is people, we’re alive and living, this is who we are”. It is legitimate and beautiful, no different from anything else people do. Thank you because it has taken a long while to be able to feel like that.”

And here’s a handful of the direct messages people have sent us through our twitter account:

“YAY Genderfork! -this site has been one of several things that has enabled me to explore and affirm my gender. Thanks!”

“hi, i’m more than a little forked at the moment, so it’s good to see you around here”

“the tweets are great. Some of them were how I felt when I was 13 so it’s cool that peeps can now share that and not just bottle it up”

“i went clothes shopping yesterday and felt totally confident in both the men’s & women’s sections for the 1st time.”

“Such gorgeous people, such moving words.”

“thank you for existing.”

So that’s what we’re building right now. Neat, huh?

Stick around. There’s a lot more to come.

genderfork-sunlight

When I started Genderfork a year and a half ago, I made a deal with myself: I would only attempt to keep it alive if I could keep maintenance work down to an hour or two, once or twice a month.  Even that would be a lot for me, but I figured I could commit to it for a few months and see what happened.

WordPress has a nifty little feature that lets you determine in advance the date and time a blog post should go live.  Flickr has a nifty little feature that lets you blog photos directly from a photographer’s photostream to a WordPress blog (as long as that photographer has given strangers permission to blog their photos).  Some other brilliant creature in the world wrote a script that turns Flickr-to-Wordpress blog posts into drafts instead of live posts.  Between the three of these free gifts from the web, I was able to set up a photo-a-day website where I had legal permission to blog other people’s photos and could maintain it with, literally, 2-4 hours a month of work.  I could ignore the entire project for weeks on end, even though it was still blogging daily.

When I put it that way, it sounds a bit like I didn’t love the project, but the opposite is true.  This was the only possible way the project could have survived.  If it had required more than that from me, it would have gone the way of all my other unrequited time-consuming projects and ended up in a large long tupperware container under my bed.  I’ve learned that once something goes into that bin of lost loves, it never comes out.

The other day, as I was waddling back through San Francisco still carrying luggage from my impulsive trip to Portland, I ended up on a street car next to Emchy, the founder of Queer Open Mic.  I excitedly told her that just this week, I had enlisted some more organizing help for the event, and now the project was much more self-sustaining.  I buzzed about how our new venue, Modern Times Bookstore, has a widely-read email list and calendar, and that they’ve been doing most of our marketing for us without any effort on our part, and packing the show every time.

Still bouncing, I went on to tell her that Genderfork is now run by a team of ten volunteers, and that the team manages the blog content themselves.  All I need to do is some really high-level editing that only takes a few hours a month — I’m back to my original time commitment, only now the website now has four times as much content and an audience of thousands!  

She smiled and said, “You’re good at that.  Making things big and awesome.”

I chuckled.  “No, I’m good at making things that can live without me.  Whenever something needs me, it dies.”

There’s a yucky yucky trend going on in social media right now: Asking for Address Books. This is evil. Do you hear me? EVIL!

BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD!

KNOCK IT OFF! PLEASE! JUST QUIT IT!

Okay — step back. What am I talking about. I’m talking about when you go to LinkedIn or Facebook or MySpace (or pretty much ANY of them now), and the website smiles all cutesy at you and says, “Oh, hey, I’m really glad you like our website. You know, there are probably people on here that you’ve never thought to search for, and it’s a real shame that they’re not in your network yet. But if you just give us the username and password to your Gmail account, we can check all of your friends’ email addresses against our database and find all of them for you. It’s quick, it’s easy, and your friends will thank you!

Sounds harmless enough, right?

Don’t give it to them!

I don’t care how much you like them, or how safe they tell you they’ll keep it for you, or how much convenience they’re offering you. Your address book is your address book and it does NOT belong in the hands of a social networking website.

Why? Here’s why:

  • Spam. We know it, we hate it, we’re sick of it. When you give out your address book, you give out a list of email addresses that are connected to legitimate people who use the Internet regularly, and this is very valuable to email marketers. Your social networking site will promise you that your email addresses are “safe,” but sometimes “safe” means, “We promise we’ll ONLY share it with our partner companies — you know, our hundred closest friends. And by the way, when a larger company buys us out, those rules will probably change.
  • Impersonal Invites. I’ve received invitations to social networking websites from people I’ve barely ever spoken to — people I would need to reintroduce myself to if I ran into them at a party. Why did this happen? Because those people gave up their address book to a website, and that website went ahead and invited every email address that wasn’t already in the system. If you let this happen, it can make people feel uncomfortable, and it can make you look disrespectful. The worst part is that you might not even be aware that it’s happening.
  • Trust. You don’t give your friends’ phone numbers out to strangers. Please don’t give their email addresses out to a centralized database. That information is theirs to share; not yours.
  • Identity Fraud. They’re asking you to give out full access to your email account when they ask for your address book. Your email account is a critical link to your internet identity. Access to it is supposed to be a SECRET!

This plays into another yucky technique (which is as old as dirt, but far more powerful with the emergence of social media): Data Mining of Personal Information.

There’s a service called Rapleaf. It allows you to plug in your email address and find out what your reputation looks like on the web. The same people run a service called UpScoop, which lets you plug in all your address book data and social networking site information to scan the profiles of everyone you know — public and private — so you can “keep up with your friends.” The same people run a service called TrustFuse, which lets email marketing campaigns check boatloads of email addresses against the Rapleaf and Upscoop database to find out lots and lots of information about the people they’re trying to get money out of. (Edit: Here’s a good analysis of the RapLeaf/UpScoop/TrustFuse drama if you want more. )

Evil, I tell you. Evil.

Do you read the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service of every website you give a username and password to? I don’t either. We like to function on trust. And if someone I respect invites me to use a service, I will often take their word for it that it’s a good service. But now I can’t do that anymore, because I don’t know for sure if they’re actually inviting me, or if some robot monster manipulated them into giving them my email address before they even had a chance to create a profile.

Social networking is a good thing — it’s doing phenomenal things for communities at an international level, and it’s important that we represent and express ourselves on the web. But please pay attention to what people are asking you for out there.

And don’t underestimate the value of your friends’ information.

Tags: , , , , ,