Syndicated on BlogHer.com
I’ve been troubled this week by the events in Boston — two bombs exploded at the Marathon, one of the suspects was killed in a shootout (as was a cop), and the city shut down for a day while they hunted and captured the other suspect, his brother, a 19-year-old from Chechnya.

I’m from New Hampshire and I live in San Francisco. An attack on New England is scary and heartbreaking for me. There are people I love who were personally and closely affected by it. A college friend whose family owns a running shoe store at the site of the blast. A friend from childhood who was standing in the blast area with his wife and, mercifully, left 30 minutes before it happened. My sister’s boyfriend’s kids who were standing 200 feet away from the blast, and are in middle school. A colleague whose house was searched during the manhunt. There’s probably more.

Attacks on big events in American cities also shake me and strip me of my sense of safety more than any other kind of tragedy we see on the news. Because on any sunny day, when I’m full of pride and celebrating my community, it could happen to me. And let’s not forget that I live in one of the LGBTQ capitals of the country during a gay civil rights movement. We’re actually a completely realistic target.

So I’m scared. And sad. And angry. At no one in particular.

It’s interesting that earthquakes don’t scare me as much, even though they’re probably more likely to kill me. They don’t come paired with me losing my faith in humanity at the same time.

Humanity. Okay, this post isn’t actually about humanity. This is post is about Facebook. (I get those two confused sometimes.)

As I watched the anger pour out all week on my Facebook News Feed — at the bombers, at people who cheer for the torture of the bombers, at Muslims, at people who blame Muslims, at foreigners and immigrants, at people who blame foreigners and immigrants, at the government, at law enforcement, at terrorism, at the media, and at individuals who make statements in the heat of emotion that don’t hold up under scrutiny — my heart kept breaking further. People I love are in pain and blaming each other.

So now I’m doing the only reasonable thing I can think of to do. I’m directing my own personal anger this week at Facebook, and at recent shifts in Internet communication. I recognize that this is no more righteous or responsible than the other expressions of anger I’ve been frustrated with, but maybe I can make it just a little bit constructive.

Stay with me here.

We used to speak in essays.

We used to write each other two-page letters in mediocre penmanship, and hold long conversations over coffee. We focused on sharing a depth of view, we listened, and we connected. We had differences, but we found our similarities through them, and friendship was a collaborative effort of building bridges. The internet started closer to this, with small forums and chat rooms (like coffee dates), longer emails (because we weren’t overloaded in our inboxes), and long-form blogs and diaries that sparked discussion and empathy.

We also had more carefully selected audiences when we shared those essays. Instead of the very real possibility of something we write being circulated to our mothers, bosses, and members of the Tea Party, we had some trust that our voice would stay in the context of our community.

The audience has shifted. What we have on Facebook now is a giant Rolodex of everyone we’ve ever worked with, slept with, shared a blood line with, went to high school with, or thought was cool once. Custom audience filters exist, but they’re complicated to use and we don’t really trust them anyway. Our default mode is to share anything we post with everyone we know.

The medium has shifted, too. We no longer speak in essays, because essays don’t really belong on Facebook. We speak in photos, links, one-liners, and battle cries. (We’re also hanging out on Tumblr and Twitter, which are no different.) We distill our points down to the jab, to the wit, to the pointy tip, and then we fling it out into the Internet and see who catches it and what they make of it. We derive self-worth from getting “liked” and being told what we said is “SO TRUE.”

One of these alone would be rough. The two of them combined is a death sentence.

Here’s what this pile of changes means for us:

It means that if you have a network of people you mostly agree with, you are now living in a self-sustaining propaganda machine, able to share inflammatory emotional statements and feel like everyone around you agrees with you. (Even if they don’t, or have other friends who feel strongly in other directions. You’re never really sure how your words land with the people who feel too alienated to engage.)

It also means that if you have a mixed network of people with dramatically different viewpoints, you now see multiple propaganda machines. You see someone saying something offensive and someone being offended in the same scroll. You see anger and name-calling, and you can imagine the face of their target because that person is your friend, too. You…

Okay, sorry. I. Let’s be clear, this is about me. This is what I see. And it’s painful. And the only solutions I have at my fingertips are to

A) Unfriend and hide people until I have a network devoid of diversity and old friends who’ve found different paths, or

B) Stop looking at Facebook.

I don’t accept these options. This is my Internet, too, dammit, and I want something better for us.

I’m not upset that we are passionate people with opinions, criticism, pride, and voices. I’m upset that we’re communicating these values in a medium that reduces our points to lolcat-style images with IMPACT white text, and leaves off why we feel this way and how we got here.

I’m also upset that we’re using our “inside” voices with an unfiltered audience.  And that through the magic of a self-editing News Feed algorithm, we’re led to forget that half our contacts exist, and believe that our audience actually is just our friends.  Or worse, when we’re led to feel like this is Our Page for Expressing Ourselves, and that anyone who has an issue with that is way out of line. Because then we’re making people choose between listening to our heated rants and not being able to know us at all.

Broadcasting distilled, emotional battle cries without background context to our entire Rolodexes is further polarizing us as a community. And aren’t we polarized enough as it is?

I want us to speak in essays again, to connect compassionately over our differences, to listen, to be respectful, and to learn from each other. The fact that our audience has broadened to everyone we’ve ever met makes it that much more important to be real, human, and long-form about where we’re coming from and why we feel the way we do.

I’m writing this on a blog that I haven’t contributed to in a year, because Facebook was easier. Speaking in essays is hard work.

But what if we tried?

My longest romantic relationship is not the three-year partnership I just ended. (Though I prefer to say it’s been “rearranged”, because we’re grownups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.)

My longest romantic relationship is with the Internet.

(And I have written it so. many. love letters.)

Something about the way it swept me off my feet and carried me into adulthood, the way it told me I was beautiful and valuable when I’d always been a misfit, and the way it provided me with resources and answers whenever I felt sure that I was completely on my own… the Internet has always been more than just access to other people. It’s been my home, my nourishment, my partner… the thing that showed me understanding and gave me an identity when I was so far away from society’s standards that my own sanity was in question… the thing that gave me what I needed when what I needed didn’t seem to exist.

I realize I am now speaking for the next generation of Crazy Cat Ladies — we are the Crazy Internet People — who rely on non-human replacements for human relationships. I could justify it by saying that the Internet really is all about the People, but it’s not. They’re part of it, sure, but they were always there. The Internet added something to make them better.

The Internet is about the access.

It’s about being able to shout a question to the sky and actually get an answer. It’s about being able to shape our own secret stories so they can be heard and felt by that stranger on the other side of the world who desperately needs to know they’re not alone. It’s about being able to create complete crap and fling it out into a field knowing that no one will care, unless you happened to be wrong about it being crap. It’s about building a brilliant wall of mixed sensory input that feeds you exactly what you asked for, along with everything you didn’t know you needed but it thought you should have anyway.

It’s not perfect. Like any lover, it comes with more baggage than a cross-country flight on Christmas Eve. It has daddy issues, it has a temper, it has weird fetishes that you’re not interested in, and it wakes you up at 3am to say things like, “We need to talk.”

Maybe that’s what makes it okay for us to be messy humans right back at it.

I knew this year would have me nose-to-the-grindstone building and rebuilding my foundations. It was time to stop thinking about what I wanted to do, and to just push myself to get it done. A new full-time contract. A new startup. The closure of six years worth of freelance clients. A relationship breaking down. Mix in two speaking engagements at universities on the East Coast and a meeting in Canada, and yeah, that’s a full plate.

No one would fault me for shutting up, disengaging from Facebook and Twitter except for basic updates, and not blogging for awhile.

But I do.

Not just because its professionally important for me to keep building a community, an audience, a constituency, a position in the greater conversation, and (ugh) a personal brand. Yeah, I’m a social media kid, and those things are all my life blood. And when I’m not blogging, I’m not keeping it up. (Actually, I decided that none of that mattered this year. I’ve already got all the fuel I need to build what’s next, and what’s next is for my people, so it’ll all work out in the end.)

I’m kicking myself for being quiet because I am less happy when I’m not interacting with the Internet. I could go on a long anthropomorphizing rant about how you’d be unhappy, too, if you weren’t talking to your lover of 14 years. Or I could just quote gapingvoid and make it simple:

“Sharing makes us happy. Not sharing makes us unhappy. Like I said, [it’s] a fundamental human drive.” –Hugh MacLeod

Or, to expand: The Internet is about access, and access matters because it allows us to bear witness.

That’s it. That’s what we’re showing up for.

Tonight I’m listening to Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way, in which she sings her heart out, making direct eye contact with every young person who’s ever felt like they didn’t belong. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t like her style of dance mixes, or that I think her bridges are trite. She’s singing, and she’s connecting, and she’s telling people they’re not alone, and I love her madly for it. Tonight, she is my Internet. She’s standing up in that role that I treasure — the one that saved me, and the one I stand in whenever I can handle the weight of it because it matters so damn much. The one where we reach out to sad strangers and say, “It’s okay, I’ll hold your hand. Now walk.

I have no conclusion. I’m just hitting publish because that’s better than not. And because if we censor our impulses out of fear of what future opportunities might think, we’re as good as having forgotten our dreams.

(And also because I promised myself no sex until I started blogging again.)

So what do you say. Does this count as showing up for you, Internet?

Can I get a witness?

Sarah Dopp

Photo by Dreamfish

Hi Internet,

Wow. That was some year, huh? I’m still rubbing my eyes to wake up from it all.

Here’s a recap:

I organized some social media workshops, I started an industry blog about community management, and I launched a campaign to build a clothing marketplace (which hit it’s funding goal three weeks early, last Monday!).

I also spoke at Oberlin College, co-coordinated a camp weekend for transgender children, produced a public reading of content from Genderfork, started a personal newsletter, and was published in two books.

I kept hosting Queer Open Mic, I kept shaving my head, I kept on twittering, and I kept Genderfork running smoothly.

I built websites for some amazing clients like Gender Spectrum, Marc Davis, The Personal Data Ecosystem, and THE LINE Campaign. And I pushed my focus from “website development” to “online community development,” consulting on projects for Offbeat Bride, Cisco, and a few others.

It was an odd year. A creative year. A year that required a lot of long drives just to clear my head. It was filled with rebuilding, reorienting, and rethinking. It was jumpy and inconsistent. It ripped me open in all the right places, and it held my hand when that hurt like hell. I’m grateful for every moment of 2010, but let’s be honest: I’m glad it’s over.

It’s time to stop turning my brain upside down and shaking its pieces all over the place to figure out what matters. I know what matters. I know what’s next.

Now it’s time to build.

What about you?

I hope your Internal Annual Review today is just as clear, and that whatever’s next for you is stretching itself out in front of you with a welcoming smile. I hope you’ve seen it coming, and are ready to change gears and launch forward.

And speaking of which, while we’re here, do you mind if I make a few suggestions?

1) Send yourself a letter today using FutureMe.org. I do it every year at New Years (and a few other times during the year when I’m drunk or punchy, just for kicks).  The letter will arrive in your inbox at exactly the same time a year later. Use it to write out what you did last year and what you hope to achieve this year. And use it to remind yourself of what’s important to you.

2) Don’t make New Year’s resolutions that set you up for failure. Every time you break a promise to yourself, you trust yourself less, and that poison seeps into all aspects of your life. Don’t take the bait. Set intentions instead. Make predictions. Generate ideas. If you must play into the resolutions game, then set gentle, realistic goals and make a plan for how to meet them. But really, I think you should just go outside, take a deep breath, be quiet for an hour, and reflect on how far you’ve come already. You’re kind of amazing. Remember?

3) Whatever you focus on this year, make it special. Keep it small enough to stay special, and let it grow when it’s ready. Don’t litter on the Internet by posting things you don’t actually care about. Build up your character and integrity by only doing things that actually matter to you. Practice discardia. Be selective. Don’t just throw spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Pick your spaghetti off the shelf carefully. Go for the one that smells the best. Love that water as it boils. Make your sauce from scratch. Taste test. Get it right.

May your year be full of what you need, and may it challenge you to reconsider what that is.

(And thank you for being here. You make me happy.)

Love you,
Sarah

Update! The fundraiser is live and we’re over here now: http://genderplayful.tumblr.com

~ ~ ~

Update 12/4/10: I made a video for ya. (Well, it was originally for Genderfork, but it’s for you, too.)
Also: I’m naked in it.

This is the week of shaking trees. Two days ago, I put out a call for stable employment (for the first time in six years). My consulting work has gotten thin and bumpy, and it’s time for something to change.

There’s another idea that’s been on the table for awhile now, though, and I think it’s time I told you about it.

I want to build an online marketplace for gender-variant clothing solutions.

Not a store where I sell to you, but a service like Etsy and Ebay where we sell to each other, in a focused, supportive community. And while we’re at it, we also trade all sorts of tips and inspirations on how best to look the way we want, gender-be-damned.

You know what I’m talking about. Tuxes for hips and breasts. Size 16 extra-wide high heels. Custom alterations, custom orders, custom tailoring. Hot unisex indie designer labels. Hand-made t-shirts. That awesome skirt from your closet that doesn’t fit you anymore. A good chest binder. That amazing jacket you found at a thrift store for $5 that you want to resell. And while we’re at it, let’s bring in styles from every subculture that celebrates androgyny, which is pretty much all of them.

I’ve been thinking about this for a year.

I talked to the staff at Genderfork last winter, and we agreed it should be a separate-but-friendly project (Genderfork is run like activism; this would be run like a business).

I did a bunch of research on software options, and had to table the idea for awhile because a good multi-seller marketplace solution didn’t exist. But I’ve got one now. It came out in September. We can do this.

I have the web development, the project management, and the community organizing skills to make this happen. And I love the people this will serve. Relentlessly.

All I need is time and money.

You know. That stuff.

I’m in talks with a family member who can give me a loan, but they need to know that there’s enough support for the project to warrant the risk. Also? Loans are stressful. It would be awesome if we could offset it with some community support. So…

I would like to launch a Kickstarter campaign.

Kickstarter is a service that lets community members donate to projects (and receive thank-you gifts based on their donation amount), to meet funding goals. The goal and timeline are set in advance. If the goal is met, the donations go through and the project happens. If the goal isn’t met, the donations don’t happen, and we consider it closed.

This is a test.

If we can rally a ton of community support, I will go all in on this plan and make it happen as quickly as is humanly possible. If we get only moderate support, I will take a day job and build this project slowly, in my off-hours. If support seems slim, I’ll consider it closed.

**How You Can Help Without Giving Me Money**

Do you want this to happen? Help me convince the world that it matters, that we need these clothing solutions, and that the best way to get them is to come together and create them collaboratively.

Here’s how you can do that. I want you to make a video of yourself explaining why this is important to you. Use your phone, your webcam, or whatever you have nearby. Don’t make it fancy; just make it real. Tell us what matters to you, what you need, or what you have to give.

I will collect these videos and edit them together to make a promotional video for the kickstarter campaign. Or maybe multiple videos, if you send me lots of great stuff.

The more faces we can show, the better.

Your voice will help me convince others that this project deserves their support. That it needs to happen.

How to get your video to me…

Chances are your video will be bigger than the average reasonable email size. So here are some options (just pick one):

A) Use Google Docs to upload the file. Then share it with genderplayful@gmail.com

B) Get a Dropbox account, put it in the public folder, and email genderplayful@gmail.com the URL to that file.

C) Post it as a video reply to my YouTube video.

A Note on Privacy: I plan to use your face and your voice, but not your name, unless (maybe) you say it in the video.

Deadline: This Tuesday.  As Soon As You Can.  I’m going to start pushing things out to the world this week, so the faster the better, but I’ll continue to make use of material that comes in later, too. It all makes a difference.

This will matter.

Make a video. Do it for everyone who needs this marketplace, but isn’t ready to say so out loud. Do it this weekend. This is your art project. Go.

Love,
Sarah

Update: If making a video really isn’t your cup of tea, another thing you can do is write a paragraph explaining why this is important to you. You can leave that in a comment below or email me at genderplayful@gmail.com, and it will find the right audience. Thank you so much!

~ ~ ~

Update! The fundraiser is live and we’re over here now: http://genderplayful.tumblr.com

For the last few years, I’ve been neck-deep in conversations about non-normative gender. Those conversations just expanded today with the announcement that Diaspora‘s alpha launch collects gender as an open-ended text field (which was met with some backlash). For everyone just getting to this conversation, here is some context and backstory, based on what I’ve experienced so far. Note that this is limited to my own perspective and exposure, so please add links to other sources in the comments, in an effort to better flesh out the bigger picture.

The Preface, from Doppland

Two years ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, requesting that everyone think about how they are approaching Gender in their data collection forms. If you’re the least bit totally baffled by why we’re even talking about gender at all right now, PLEASE start by reading that letter. It’s gentle, it’s in plain English, and it explains a lot.

(I should also add: I organize Genderfork.com, a community expression blog about gender variance, which gets over 20,000 readers and a helluvalot of contributors and commenters per month. This is a large group of people who don’t don’t fit well in traditional gender categories, and their numbers are only scratching the surface of a bigger demographic. They exist. They vary. I know many of them personally. And I identify with them in many ways.)

Last year I attended the She’s Geeky unconference in Mountain View, where I led a discussion called “My Gender Broke Your Dropdown Menu.” I started by reading that letter, and then tasked the group with trying to solve the design problem of “what would be better than a two-option dropdown menu?” It turned into a conversation about all of the user experience, data management, and business issues that get pulled onto the table when Gender is in question, as well as a brainstorming session on how we might solve them. No surprise: we didn’t come up with a clear answer. But we did learn a lot more about the problem. Really, it comes down to the question of “why do you need the data?” Is it about encouraging self-expression, helping people find dates, making marketing decisions, or reporting user statistics to investors? Your primary goal impacts your choices for implementation.

I followed up on that workshop by writing another post called “Designing a Better Drop-Down Menu for Gender,” which listed all the ideas I thought could reasonably improve the data collection process, from a user experience standpoint (again: just go read it — this will all make more sense if you do).  This set of ideas was a work in progress, and the last idea in the post — a method for open-ended tagging — sparked a few follow-ups.  A designer proposed some early, stylized mockups; Kirrily Robert at Freebase created an alpha version, and Phil Darnowsky further riffed on the idea.  We were all just messing around with ideas at this point.

Then it got real.

Enter: Diaspora

Diaspora is an open-source, community-funded social networking platform that aims to have better privacy than Facebook and lets you own your own content. It’s in the very early stages (they just let in the first round of alpha testers last week), and is facing a lot of criticism on the quality of its code. But it’s still a great idea.

Sarah Mei, a contributor to the Diaspora project, was in that She’s Geeky workshop about gender and drop-down menus. That discussion, coupled with her own personal and professional experiences, led her to change the data collection method to an open-ended text field. She writes about the process she went through to get to this decision over here: Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora.

This has received support.

It has also perturbed some people.

…which has sparked further support for the change.

anil dash

Since Diaspora’s code quality still has a long way to go before it’s accepted as stable, I’m sure there will many more iterations to this field. So let’s keep an eye on the conversation and advocate for the best possible scenario.

vCard (and Microformats, and OpenSocial)

Guess what? Diaspora’s not the only project dealing with the Gender Data issue this week. As we speak, the vCard specs team is pinning the next iteration of how our address book data will be organized. Their original plan was to have a field called SEX that allowed for the following attributes (based on the ISO):

  • 0 = not known
  • 1 = male
  • 2 = female
  • 9 = not applicable

Tantek Çelik proposed a two-field solution: SEX (male, female, other, or none/not applicable) and GENDER IDENTITY (an open-ended text field), based on data and solutions he’d explored earlier at Microformats.org. This seems like a reasonable solution to me. (Note: this suggestion is strictly about organizing data behind the scenes. “What will profile forms look like?” is a different conversation.)

I chimed in with an explanation of about why the ISO system is inadequate and offensive, and expressed support for Tantek’s plan.

Kevin Marks pointed out that he and Cassie Doll had also worked out a reasonable data organizing solution, which was accepted in the early stages of OpenSocial and Portable Contacts:

gender:
The gender of this contact. Service Providers SHOULD return one of the following Canonical Values, if appropriate: male, female, or undisclosed, and MAY return a different value if it is not covered by one of these Canonical Values.

In other words: male, female, nuffin’, or fill-in-the-blank. Works for me.

Things are still being finalized, but it looks like vCard will settle on one of these solutions, or a close variant of it.

What Else?

That’s about the extent of my knowledge on the Gender Data Collection story as it’s playing out right now. Let’s pool any links that show where progress is happening, and bring solutions to this obscure but highly sensitive design dilemma to light. Comments offering more constructive views and info are encouraged here (and flaming won’t be tolerated).

Thanks so much,
~ Sarah

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It’s been a rollercoaster around here and I’ve kept my game face on, but there are things that need saying.  Things about what matters, and why, and how keeping a Pollyanna attitude is no more naïve and no less radical than a scowl.

I don’t presume to take goodness at face value, and no, I don’t believe that all we need is love, or that tragedy and injustice aren’t happening every minute in every town the world. I get that. I do. But I also believe in the power of slicing through that grim nightmare with a sharp and unflinching force of forgiveness, kindness, and grace.

I believe in putting all that noise on MUTE and working tirelessly to build haven after haven from the rain.

I believe in disrupting expectations by giving someone a second chance.

I believe in putting white-knuckle fists to the steering wheel and getting the hell out of dodge — even just for a night — when anything is stuck, or broken, or stagnant. And I believe in ending up the next morning with your feet hanging off a cliff, staring at the ocean, the grand canyon, a cityscape, a mountain range, a cornfield, a playground, or even an empty Walmart parking lot if you have to — just as long as the sun is rising and you’re paying attention and you feel free. I believe in bringing that feeling home with you and pouring it into your work, your home, your loves, and your willingness to fight for another person’s moment of relief.

And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I still believe in the Internet. Like I did in 1999, when my secret and hand-coded log/journal/diary thing that didn’t have a genre name yet was an oasis for people digging through Alta Vista and HotBot late at night for someone who was being honest and telling a story. It didn’t matter what story was being told as long as it sounded like secrets being whispered in the dark. Because that was the sound of not being alone.

I still believe in the Internet like I did before everything was archived and cross-referenced in the Wayback Machine and Google’s public caches.  Like I did when still I believed in anonymity.

And some days it’s harder to stay focused on what matters, but I do still believe in the Internet like I did before SEO was a competitive sport. Before businesses started dropping vowels in order to score a good domain name. Before plastic and aluminum grade disposable ads, widgets, and apps littered every square inch of the Internet’s surface like empty Coke bottles after a high school football game.

I believe that sincerity and excitement are critical ingredients for anything to matter, and that that is why the Internet is winning. I believe that everyone who tries to fake those ingredients will either fail or have a house dropped on their heads during a tornado as punishment for their lies and their laziness. But I also believe it’s now commonplace for people to see Internet marketing as a set of cold strategic formulas void of genuine connection, and that this is morally wrong.

It’s not the large companies and marketing agencies that bother me (this has been part of their game forever). It’s the individuals — the folks who are just trying to carve a reasonable space for themselves in the Digital Land of Opportunity — who’ve been taught that analyzing social media profiles and then contacting large groups of strangers with canned and solely self-promotional messages counts as “making connections.”  That it’s not spam. That this is how they’re supposed to do it. That this is what it means to contribute to a community. That’s the part that breaks my heart.

And yet.

And yet, on the same Internet, regular people collaborate with strangers to build free software that makes our lives better. Building a decent website without technical skills is possible.  Designers hand out attractive site designs for free, just to make the Internet a more beautiful place. Photographers give strangers permission to use their photos. Musicians offer their tunes up freely for remixing into podcasts and other creative projects. Artists can raise funds for new projects by getting friends excited about them. Anyone can start a community discussion space. Committed members are happy to volunteer.

While I sometimes miss the days when the Internet didn’t feel like a sensory and information overload bomb, I don’t think I’d go back to them. Our tools, creativity, and commitment to each other have come so far. We’re real people now; not anonymous screen-names looking for fantasy cybersex on AOL chatrooms. Our online and offline lives are so tightly woven together that we get to grapple with one another on questions like “How and when should I keep my social circles compartmentalized?”. My mom is on Facebook, and my she has the power to hide my feed because I talk too much. AND we’ve all stopped using <blink> tags. That’s progress.

Last week, the feature for Queer Open Mic (an event I co-organize) opened with a poem that stunned and rocked me back into place. It started with…

She said to me that most trailblazers
may never see the trail.
May never see the path they cut into the earth,
or the feet that come behind them.

Most days, she said, the act of walking
without a set route probably won’t feel like revolution.
There are too many goddamned branches in your face,
Too much to hack through, dulling the machete
and making your muscles scream for the kind of comfort
your mind can’t hope to welcome.

And it ended with…

She told me it was all impossible, and still
she said, “Go.”
She said, “Leave, and scare the shit out of yourself.
You’ll be glad you did.”

— excerpt from She said, “Go” by Tatyana Brown

We’re pushing paths into this Internet together. I believe the tools and opportunities we want to see are worth fighting for — that these branches are absolutely worth hacking through — but only with our feet firmly planted in the what we care about and love.

It’s cool. I understand. You got here through a different door. You haven’t been blogging since before blogs were invented, Facebook didn’t demand that you use a .edu email address when you signed up, and you weren’t on Twitter when the “@” convention was just something people added cuz it felt right. You’re newer than that. And that’s totally okay — there’s room here for you, too.

And I know you’re one of the good ones. You’re not a spammer. You’ve been doing your homework — watching how it works around here, learning a few tricks, testing them out, and realizing this internet community-building stuff is pretty freaking neat. You can get a big audience for free, just by being in the right place at the right time and sounding like you know what you’re talking about. You can connect with people you didn’t know how to reach before. You can get good free advice whenever you want, and pull in free contributions to your work from lots of people. You can be famous. You can sell things. You can work from anywhere. You can change the world.

It’s true. But let’s talk about a few things.

The way I see it, there are two major problems people can crash into with social media marketing:

Problem #1: Being really good at the strategy stuff, but missing the importance of sincere relationships.

Problem #2: Being really good at sincere relationships, but missing the importance of strategy.

Those of us who grew up around here are often prone to the second problem. We don’t like to admit it, but we honestly do believe that relationships will conquer all and strategy is just an outsider’s rationalization for magic. It’s okay. We know we’re delusional. We’re working through it together on Twitter.

You, my friend, are in a different boat. You’re not coming at this with ten years’ worth of internet strangers being your cheerleaders, so your Achilles’ heel is in Problem #1. You’ve figured out how to establish a reliable presence or get a spike of attention, but it’s from carefully calculated moves — not instinctive exploration. You’re the kind of person who stops to think about it.

Believe me, we have a lot to learn from you. Please keep explaining to us how this stuff we call “magic” actually works — it’s very useful for us. But let’s also let it stay magical. Please? We like the magic.

Here’s how we’d like you to do that… in as strategy-like terms as I can put it:

Be human.

Here’s an exercise: brainstorm a list of 20 words you want people to think of when they think of you. Funny? Interesting? Trustworthy? Go on… come up with a lot. Now do two things:

1) make sure that EVERY SINGLE THING you put out to the world supports that lovable, human image that you have of yourself.

2) make sure whatever you say is put into words that you would actually say out loud to another human being in person.

If it doesn’t pass those tests, don’t write it.

This also applies to system-generated messages, like letting Youtube tweet everytime you favorite something. That’s not human. Knock it off.

Don’t litter.

If you’re writing something that’s not meaningful or valuable to the people around you, you’re littering. If you’re promoting something that’s not awesome, you’re littering. If you’re reposting a press release without adding your own two cents for why this is worth paying attention to, you’re littering.

No one likes to wade through your trash, even if it does give you an attention bump for a minute. It’s not worth it.

Only ride the waves that are meant for you.

Sometimes you can see an opportunity — a thing that’s getting attention — and you’ll want to jump in on it. Before you do that, please make sure it’s your wave to ride. Does it fit what you’re into? Is it something you feel strongly about? Does it match your lovable, human image of yourself? Does it make sense in your life? Is it carrying you in the directions you want to go? If yes — ride it. If not, then step back, and be a good audience member. It’s time to let someone else rock the spotlight.

Give give give give give give give.

And don’t ask. Okay, you can ask a little, but keep it to stuff that people will be excited to help with. Cuz then it’s still giving. Give give give. And don’t complain, either. Celebrate. Look for the good stuff, applaud the success of others, offer your support, include people in neat things, and be there for people. And keep doing that. And don’t stop. And don’t expect anything in return. Make everything sincere and generous, and engage people in your stuff by making it about them. Really. Not in an underhanded “i’m gonna get something out of this way,” but in a “yes, i can really make your life better” way. Do that.

And I hesitate to say this, because I know it’s what your strategy mind is hoping for, but yes, that’s when it will really start to pay off.

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s immersed in academia.  She’s halfway through a 7-year Masters and PhD program and working as a teacher’s assistant in the midst of it. I admire her commitment, and ended up telling her a bit about my own experience with academia… and why I got out.

The Chronic Dropout with the 4.0

I don’t want to say I chose the easy classes — that’s not fair. I chose the classes that interested me. The ones that matched my skills. Linguistics, Mandarin Chinese, Logic, Religious Studies, any kind of Writing… these were things I had some connection to, and wanted to learn more about. But across the 6 schools I attended as I bounced around the country, I rarely found myself feeling more engaged than a teacher’s assistant would, sitting in the back of a classroom, grading papers (and that’s a pretty fair analogy, since it’s what I set myself up to be treated like most of the time, anyway). Whether it was in helping everyone else on their homework or providing the Example Paper that the professor could use as a model, I wasn’t there to be a student. I was there to be fulfill some obligation to the world that I couldn’t quite name.  And for the first few years, I did it cheerfully.

My brain’s a quirky creature. It’s exceptional in some areas, pathetic in others. I grasp new concepts quickly and I can memorize things well for tests. I seem to understand structures and logic better than most people. I listen attentively, and I write clearly. But here’s the catch: I’m terrible at reading. My mind wanders too much to stay on a page unless I’m focusing very, very hard.

It just happened to work out that the listening, logic, and writing parts of my brain are exceptional enough that throughout high school and college, nobody seemed to notice that, no really, I can’t read. I survived all my social studies and literature classes by scanning a few chapters, listening well in lectures, and choosing paper topics that only required me to analyze small portions of the text.  I got A’s every time, and was treated like one of the best students.  Every time.

This, coupled with sheer boredom, is probably why I stopped respecting academia.  How does someone end up getting straight A’s at a prestigious liberal arts school without being able to get through a single book?

I attended six schools, I’m about 4 classes short of a degree, and up until my last semester (which I didn’t complete), I had a 4.0 GPA. I am a chronic college dropout, and I have no desire to keep going. I’m done.

Will I Eventually Give In?

But that’s not what I tell my family. My official line is that I dropped out because it stopped mattering to me.  And I’ll go back if it starts to matter again.

It will matter again if I ever want to…
Read the rest of this entry »

A year ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, asking people to stop and think about how they’re handling gender (and race, for that matter) in their community websites.  The short version is that if you’re requiring users to select their gender from a drop-down menu that has two options in it, you’re alienating some people. I didn’t offer alternative solutions at the time — it was just a request for everyone to think about it.

(Note: if you’re not clear on why gender is a complicated issue in data collection, please stop right now and go read that other post before continuing. This will make a lot more sense after you do so.)

After grappling with this problem on a few other projects, and talking about it in a session last week at She’s Geeky (I called it “My gender broke your drop-down menu…”), I’d like to now offer my suggested alternatives.

Alternatives to asking for a user’s gender in a required two-option drop-down menu…

Option 1: Make it Optional

Baby steps.  If the idea of getting fancy with your data collection method gives you nightmares, just remove the red asterisk.  Stop making it required! Most people will still answer the question, and those who don’t want to will select not to.  Put a plan in place for how to treat and account for those who don’t want to declare their genders, and you’re done.  It’s not the most celebratory or inclusive measure, but it is a very clean way to resolve a lot of problems.

Option 2: Don’t Ask At All

Instead of asking for gender, ask for what you actually want to know.

Is it what honorific should precede the person’s name?  Well, then gender’s not going to tell you if they’re a doctor or a reverend, is it? Give them a comprehensive list of options, and allow them to select none, if they wish. (And really, why do we use these again?  My preference is to drop them entirely.)

Is it what marketing you think they’ll respond best to?  Newsflash: not every woman likes baking, and not every man likes cars.  Ask them about their interests and market to them on that basis, instead.

Is gender not actually relevant at all, except that you think it makes for an interesting statistic? Meh. I’d like to convince you that you really shouldn’t touch it, but if I’m not going to win that argument, please see Option 1.

Option 3: Have a Third Option

Your drop-down menus can have more than two options.  Some people are trying three.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s my current position:

  • “Other” is a poor choice for a third option.  Why? Because gender-nonconforming people are othered enough as it is.
  • A more useful choice would be “Decline to State” (or something similar) — then it’s not about non-conformity, it’s about privacy.
  • But taking this a bit further, I’d like to submit “It’s Complicated” for consideration as the new third option.  Most gender-nonconforming types will smile at you for it.  It tells them you understand.

I’ve seen some people try to implement a “lots of options” dropdown menu, but I don’t really recommend this route, for two reasons:

  1. What if someone looks at the list and doesn’t identify with any of the words?  You just alienated them much further than your male/female dropdown menu was doing before.
  2. What if someone identifies as more than one thing on the list?  Take, for example, a transsexual woman who is proud to identify as a woman.  Are you really going to make her choose between “trans” and “woman”?  Come on now.  That’s insulting.

If you change it from a drop-down menu (“pick only one”) to a checkbox menu (“select all that apply”), you solve issue #2, but you still have issue #1 to grapple with.  And let me tell you: if you think you can come up with a finite list of all the possible gender identities in the world, you’re wrong.

Option 4: Redesign the System

So you’re convinced that “male/female” is a deeply flawed data breakdown for the purpose of your website, but you want people to assert their identities, and you want them to get personal about it.  Okay, then!  Time to scrap the dropdowns and do something new.  Here are some ideas…

A “gender spectrum” slider bar. Take a look at how Blackbox Republic is structuring their sexual identity data:

blackbox

I could see a similar thing done with “masculine” and “feminine” at each end, and letting people self-identify.

Note: one huge problem with the spectrum model is that it’s too flat.  I believe there are people who have “a lot of gender” (i.e. dripping both masculinity and femininity all over the place) and “not a lot of gender” (i.e. minimizing signals of any gender whatsoever), and on the spectrum, they might look the same.  But that brings up my next idea, which is…

A second dropdown that asks how important gender is to them. Take a look at how OkCupid handles religion.  You get one dropdown menu for how you identify, and a second dropdown menu for how important it is to you.  For some people, their gender is a strongly identifying factor in their lives.  For others, it’s nearly irrelevant.  What if we just started asking that question?

okcupid-dropdown

You could also…

Get fancy and use Kreative Korp’s SGOSelect menu (or some variation on it), which basically says: if you have a traditional identity, you can use the simple form.  And if you want to get more specific, you can switch over to the Advanced form:

sgoselect… but it still runs into the “finite number of options” problem, even in the Advanced view.

And that brings me to my last suggestion, which so far seems to be my holy grail. I worked this out with my co-founder team at Boffery while we were strategizing the user interface… with some outside input from Kirrily Robert of Freebase:

An open-ended tagging field that suggests words as you type. I want to be able to define my gender as “female, androgynous, genderqueer.”  And I believe that if we were all encouraged to, we would come up with a great rich vocabulary that uniquely characterizes ourselves in all the ways a two-option gender set is trying to do, but failing at.  If the tagging system were set up to automatically suggest words as you typed, you could either loop in to what others are saying and be associated with that group, or create your own words and add them to the lexicon. The result would be a rich mix of groupable/categorizable labels (marketers: this is far more meaningful than what you’re currently working with), along with the ability for us to self-identify however we want.

I don’t have a picture for you ‘cuz it hasn’t been built yet.  But if anyone understands what I’m talking about and wants to test it out, let me know.

I want in.

Love,
Sarah

ETA: immediately after I posted this, a designer took a stab at the open-ended tagging field idea and sent me early concept mockups.  Check ’em out!

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