Category Archives: Weblogs

The Bikeshed Effect

Over at the Atlantic Wire they ask the question, "Why do we care about things that don't really matter?" Here's one reason:

The Bikeshed Effect, more formally known as Parkinson's Law of Triviality derived from the humor book Parkinson's Law, is "the principle that the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic," as explained in Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project. The most classic and titular example is that people care more about the color of a bike shed than the decision to build a nuclear plant because they know about colors and don't know about nuclear power.

As they go on to point out the effect influences what we talk about and thus what generates "discussion" in our modern world:

Since everyone needs to say something — especially on the Internet — these mundane things get talked about often and with vigor. Meanwhile, the more complex questions — like "How Will Yahoo Increase CPM's Given Current Trends in Digital Advertising?" — get much less attention because most people can't comment with any intelligence, as The Guardian's Oliver Burkman explained in his column "Why trivia is so important" back in 2010. "Each wants to demonstrate, to the boss or to themselves, that they are taking part, paying attention, making a difference, 'adding value,'" he wrote. "But with complex subjects about which they're ignorant, they can't: they risk humiliation."

The dumbest topics — the tilt of an exclamation point, for example — therefore, get the most attention. A related phenomenon happens a lot in the work-life balance debate, which relies a lot on personal anecdotes to talk about an important societal question. Without much knowledge or data on women in the workforce, writers and thinkers revert to their personal experiences to fuel the debate. Since these people are women and have worked and have also had children, they can speak to the issue with some intelligence. That leaves harder questions, like how most women can improve working while raising families, on the sidelines. 

People have always been trivial, ill-informed bloviators but now thanks to the online extensions of our society the effect is amplified. Rather than only being exposed only to the nimrods in your circle of friends, family, coworkers and neighbors your exposed to the hundreds of millions of nimrods you can find online. What a truly depressing thought.

On Publishing

Dana Blankenhorn has an excellent post on the demise of newspapers as we've known them and the future of publishing in general. Here's the money quote:

Your job, as a publisher, remains what it was in the 19th century. Define a market, aggregate both the buyers and sellers, and stimulate financial transactions between them. Publishing is a market-making proposition, and those who create the best marketplaces win. Every time.

These are still the early innings of the online publishing game. The collapse of newspapers is a gift from above, not a plague. It opens up vast new opportunities for people who have learned their business, publishers and editors both.

 

Push Button Publishing

Here's a very cool little piece at Wired showing how Blogger spawned a lot of the current "push button publishing" services we know today:

At the close of 1998, there were 23 known weblogs on the Internet. A year later there were tens of thousands. What changed? Pyra Labs launched Blogger, the online tool that gave push-button publishing to the people. It was a revolutionary web product made by a revolutionary web of people who went on to build much of the modern net. Here’s how Pyra propagated.

The "family tree" you find when you click through to Wired does a great job showing how the people behind blogger went on to create/influence Twitter, Square, Adobe Creative Cloud, etc.

The Blogfather

Ed Cone was blogging before "blogger" became a pejorative. The Greensboro dead tree product carries a story about his decision to quit the blogging scene.

From his office three floors above South Elm Street — where he has an action figure perched on his window and a framed handwritten response from gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson on his wall — Ed wrote about it on Word Up.

Will it return? Who knows? Ed doesn’t. But there is this story I heard once about Ed’s great-grandfather, about how he used to row out to the middle of a lake in Maine and sit.

I ask Ed about it. He tells me he understands it now. It’s that need for quiet, for some contemplation. That’s what Ed is doing. For now.

 

Blogageddon

In the span of 18 hours I learned that my RSS manager of choice, Google Reader, is going dark as of July 1, 2013 and that the Godfather of Blogging in the Triad is shutting down his blog for a while.  I understand Ed's motivation – I long ago morphed into a leisurely poster here because I just didn't have the time or energy to manage an ongoing dialogue like he has for 12 years – but I'm still really bummed to see him pull the plug. It will be interesting to see if anything fills the online void in Greensboro.

A serious hat tip to Ed for providing a valuable online forum for the Greensboro community. I hope he enjoys the peace and quiet.

So I Just Enrolled in a Course at Cal-Berkeley (Kind Of)

With two kids in college I'm offered many, many opportunities to recall my own years in school. One of my biggest regrets about how I approached my education is that I saw it as something I needed to do in order to not disappoint my parents, to set myself up for a decent job/career, and to have lots of fun partying in the process. I didn't approach it the way I would now – as an opportunity to learn about interesting topics from people who have spent their lives becoming experts on those topics. 

Luckily for me there's a relatively new development in the world of higher education – massive open online courses (MOOCs).  From a story in the Wall Street Journal:  

Professor Jeremy Adelman has taught a world-history class at Princeton University for several years, but as he led about 60 students through 700 years of history on the ivy-covered campus this past fall, one thing was different: Another 89,000 students tuned into his lectures free of charge via Coursera, an online platform.

Those kinds of numbers, and their potential for remaking higher education, have generated plenty of excitement about massive open online courses—dubbed MOOCs. They've also lured venture investors and universities, who have put millions of dollars into companies like Udacity, Coursera and edX, which partner with schools or instructors to offer these courses.

So here I am in my middle years, 25 years removed from my last fling with higher education, and I have the change to learn at the (digital) knees of some of the finest professors from the finest universities in the land. I'm sticking my toe in the water by taking the "Introduction to Statistics" course offered by University of California-Berkeley on edX. Why stats? It and Finance are the two courses I actively avoided taking in school because they were "hard" and I've regretted it on oh-so-many occassions during my career.  Later on I'm hoping to dabble in some courses in various other areas that strike my fancy, and to be honest I'm as excited about this as I've been about anything in a long time.

If you're interested here are the four MOOC resources listed in the Journal story:

Don’t Be a Grammar Goon

Tempted to make fun of someone on Facebook because he doesn't know the difference between lose and loose? Probably not a good idea, and it might actually mean you're a bit of a whank:

There was a time that it gave me a blush of pride to be referred to as “the Spelling Sergeant” or “the Punctuation Police”. I would gleefully tear a syntactic strip out of anybody who fell victim to the perils of poor parallelism or the menace of misplaced modifiers. I railed against atrostrophes and took a red pen to signs posted in staff rooms, bulletin boards and public washrooms. I was, to put it bluntly, really, really annoying…

So if I crap on Jonny’s spelling, I’m either reinforcing an oppressive status quo, or picking on a person with a disability, or both. And taking part in these kinds of insults, even when they’re directed at an Internet troll, encourages other people to participate in this kind of shaming. It’s frankly also pretty ineffective as a debate tactic. I’m not going to change Jonny’s mind, nor help him improve his writing abilities, by making fun of him. He may be a jerk because he’s never learned how to express himself in a healthy way, and I’m not doing much to help him. And reducing my arguments to the level of ad homonym attacks debases my own credibility – because if I have a valid point to make, I should be able to make it without resorting to pettiness. Furthermore, it is guaranteed that somewhere out there on the Interwebs, there is someone I agree with whose reasoned arguments are disparaged, dismissed or ignored because they come wrapped in a package of nonstandard language.

This is no trifling issue, either. I like to shock the new tutors I train by quoting statistics from theInternational Adult Literacy Survey. I ask them to estimate, in a developed country like Canada or the U.S., what percentage of the population has literacy skills below the very basic level needed to function well in our society. People usually guess ten percent, fifteen percent, maybe as much as twenty-five. Then I pull out the sad, stunning facts: nearly half of all North American adults cannot cope with complex written material of the sort that the other half of us take completely for granted. HALF, you guys. This should be considered anational crisis. Not fodder for sport.

The blog post that's the source of these opinions is titled Literacy Privilege: How I Learned to Check Mine Instead of Making Fun of People's Grammar on the Internet and it's well worth the read, if for no other reason than absorb the list of privileges we literate members of society enjoy. Here's a sample:

  • I can easily and safely navigate my way around the city I live in because I understand all of the posted signs, warnings and notifications.
  • I can make healthy and informed choices about the products I purchase because I can accurately read their labels and price tags.
  • I can safely use pharmaceuticals prescribed to me without having to remember the doctor’s or pharmacist’s instructions because I can accurately read their labels.
  • When required to visit doctors, hospitals, government agencies, banks, or legal offices, I do not have to invent excuses to bring paperwork home so that someone else can read it to me. If I live alone, I do not have to expose myself to judgement and ridicule by asking the doctor, nurse, agent, clerk, lawyer or other employee to read it to me.
  • I can independently make informed medical, legal, political and financial decisions about myself and my family because I can read and understand important documents.

The companion pieces to this post are also well worth the read. You can find them here and there.

LiFless

After an extended period of periodic posting Esbee is pulling the plug on Life in Forsyth. (That's an intentionally terrible sentence written specifically in honor of Esbee's impatience with sub-par writing).  I for one am grateful for the free entertainment and information she provided through the years and I'm also thankful she let us go gently over the last year or two.

She's moving on to far more important things and she's going to be fabulous at them all.

Finding Your Voice

Fred Wilson is definitely a top-shelf business blogger, if not the best. He started his blog AVC when he was 42, and he does a great job in this post in explaining how it helped him find his voice for the first time (and how his wife's blog did the same for her). An excerpt is provided below, but I think it's important to point out that you could replace "blog" with "newsletter", or "Facebook profile", "YouTube video",or "LinkedIn post", or any other form of communication and make the same point – the important thing is to find whatever it is that gives your voice an outlet:

Everyone has something to say, something to contribute, everyone can make a difference. And I believe the Internet is making it easier for all of us to find that voice, use it, and make that difference.

I am supporting evidence item number one in this case. I was 42 years old when I started blogging. I'd always had a lot to say. Just ask my mom about that. But I never really found the place and the way to get it all out. AVC became that thing and now I've got a platform to make a difference. I hope I'm using it well.

I have watched so many people find their voice on the Internet over the years and it warms my heart when they nail it. It happens all the time in the blog comments here at AVC. I'm not going to name names but you all know the stories and who they are.

Freewheeling Hippies vs. Button Down Managers

Some behavioral scientists studied the "top 155 political blogs" during the 2008 election year and compared the liberal and conservative blogs. From their abstract we learn:

Notably, the authors find evidence of an association between ideological affiliation and the technologies, institutions, and practices of participation. Blogs on the left adopt different, and more participatory, technical platforms, comprise significantly fewer sole-authored sites, include user blogs, maintain more fluid boundaries between secondary and primary content, include longer narrative and discussion posts, and (among the top half of the blogs in the sample) more often use blogs as platforms for mobilization…

The practices of the left are more consistent with the prediction that the networked public sphere offers new pathways for discursive participation by a wider array of individuals, whereas the practices of the right suggest that a small group of elites may retain more exclusive agenda-setting authority online. (Emphasis mine)

Gee, I'm just shocked that liberal blogs would be wordier and less centrally controlled than conservative blogs, or that conservatives would maintain a more hierarchical structure. I also like the term "more fluid boundaries between secondary and primary content"; I might use that in the future. As for the liberal blogs using the platform more for mobilization I think it's important that we remember this is a study of 2008's election in which it was pretty clear that Obama's team, and by extension the liberal online universe, cleaned everybody's clock. Since then the opposite side has played a great game of catchup as evidenced by the mid-term election in 2010 and I think this year's going to be much more of a horse race.