Location, Location, Object

Through one of my Twitter contacts, I ran across an interesting article by Jyri Engeström about why some social networks work and others don’t. It has to do with the presence — or lack — of an “object.” In this case, that means a reason to connect with others.

One example is Flickr, which has made photographs a reason to interact.

The fancy name for this is “object-centered sociality.” It provides a good way to think about what new social network applications might look like, and what might enable them.

For instance, Engeström says:

Take the notion of place, for example. Annotating places is a new practice for which there is clearly a need, but for which there is no successful service at the moment because the technology for capturing one’s location is not quite yet cheap enough, reliable enough, and easy enough to use. In other words, to get a ‘Flickr for maps‘ we first need a ‘digital camera for location.’ Approaching sociality as object-centered is to suggest that when it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, the online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too.

My new Blackberry Storm has GPS, and I would be very interested in a social networking service that uses location to identify nearby friends. But GPS is too much of a battery-suck and too few of my actual friends use it on a routine basis.

Notwithstanding that, I am definitely not alone in watching location as a possible Next Big Thing.

It is interesting to note that the article dates from 2005 — yet is still current.

The Civic Implications of Student-Centered Education

My friend John Creighton and I have been thinking together about what it might mean for education to become far more “student centered – a trend that has already begun. Education is one of those areas that so far has been sheltered from some of the more turbulent changes taking place in society. But we think that may soon change.

It will be important, in that context, for people who care about civic life to have an understanding of what these changes will mean for public life in general. What civic norms will be created? What expectations? How might public life benefit? How might it be made more difficult? What unforeseen side effects might there be?

Here is a brief piece we wrote (John did most of the writing) recently setting up this question:

The 25-year debate about the quality of public education in the United States has brought about marginal changes in how we deliver education in this country:

  • Families have a few more choices about where to send their children to school
  • We pay more attention to education standards than we have in the past
  • Most schools and school districts are working to maximize instruction quality and time

However, the way the nation’s schools are organized has remained largely the same for the last half century. This is true both for public and private schools. American schools continue to be mostly institution-centric, place-based hierarchies. Indeed, public education has been one of the few areas that has remained immune to the new realities emerging across the globe.

The lack of change is about to change and it is important to try to understand the civic consequences of it.

There are three forces at work that make a deep change in public education a distinct possibility:

First, demographic shifts have brought new expectations for all institutions. Post-GenXer’s (incoming parents of school age children) have very different expectations for how they relate to organizations, both public and private — they expect deeply personalized products, action-oriented or participatory experiences, and an explicit role in the relationship. They expect their experiences with organizations to focus on them, not on the needs of the institution. This is most clear in the private sphere but it is driving even more powerful change in the public sphere. Personal choice is becoming non-negotiable. Research suggests that there is a growing political consensus to support personalized education, too.

Second, the physical world is enabling and driving change. The infrastructure is taking shape and increasingly in use to support these new expectations – cheap mobile communications devices, individual citizens with easy and deep access to technology (across the economic spectrum) and growing networks of people and organizations that span time and geography. It is now possible for students and educators to be connected in ways previously unimagined.

Third, educational policy is already responding to the new reality. Curricula are housed online and delivered electronically. Educators are increasingly digitally fluent and have coalesced into robust social networks. Liberalization of charter school laws makes personalized instruction and “designer” schools feasible. State laws are already facilitating online public education (in Florida, in fact, the laws require it).

It is not hard to imagine that the future of public education will be dominated by personalized learning and student-centric (rather than institution-centric) schools that are neither entirely place-based nor time-fixed.

This is not a story about “the new economy” or “advanced technology.” It is a story about an already-changed world that is dragging all institutions along with it.

Of critical importance, in this landscape, is to develop an understanding of what effects this transformation of a central civic institution will have for civic, community and democratic life. Those interested in self-rule in communities will need to try to understand the types of questions and challenges communities (and the nation) will confront as public education adapts to a new generation of Americans.

You Know?

Ever since I was quoted as saying something along the lines of “there’s a lot of stuff out there” in an interview with the Toledo Blade, I have been aware of the usual policy of cleaning up quotations from interviews to best represent what the subject was saying. We all pepper our speech with ums and uhs, employ false starts at the beginnings of sentences, and speak in comma splices. (That’s a photo of me during the interview, I believe.)

Typically, journalists will clean up such things to make sentences coherent.One consequence is that you can usually tell when an editor or reporter does not like someone: their quotes are verbatim. While he does indeed use many malapropisms, I believe President Bush was on the receiving end of this. The glee with which people portrayed him as dumb seemed matched only by the enthusiasm newspapers had for printing verbatim remarks.

Another person who has recently been on the receiving end of this is Caroline Kennedy, who has unfairly been portrayed as the Queen Of You Know. While she may indeed use the phrase a bit often, her newspaper quotes are clearly unvarnished. Here is an interesting discussion of this, comparing Kennedy’s treatment with treatment of then-president-elect Obama.

Ends the piece:

Why the apparent double standard? During the interview, it seems, Kennedy annoyed the reporters by dismissing one of their questions: “Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?” Perhaps, like, the verbatim transcription was, you know, uh, payback.


Late Nights And Pacing Yourself

I’ve gone through a number of “work phases” in my life so far and reading about the new workstyle shift people are expecting to see in the Obama White House got me thinking about them.

The Obama White House is expected to be much different than the Bush White House:

Bush famously arrives at the Oval Office by dawn, leaves by 6 p.m. and goes to bed by 10 p.m. Dinners out are as rare as a lunar eclipse. Obama, by contrast, stays up late. He holds conference calls with senior staff as late as 11 p.m., and often reads and writes past midnight.

Get ready for late nights and weekends, in other words.

From Work Ethic To Static

Much earlier in my career, I viewed long hours and late nights as status symbols: they marked how committed you were to getting the job done. I would work late into the night, and nod approvingly to myself when I would receive a 1:00 am email from a subordinate. “Ah, he’s a good egg,” I’d think. “Good work ethic.”

But I changed my tune after a while. As I got better at working and managing my own time, I began to see late-night emails and Sunday night cram sessions as symptoms of something more negative: an inability to stay on track. In certain areas, there really is more work than there is time to do it, and immediate response is required. Political campaigns, some start-ups, daily journalism, medical care. But in most cases, even large workloads can be handled in a “normal” work week. The trick is to keep static and timewasters to a minimum.

This is especially true in the so-called “independent sector” (nonprofits). Everyone in the independent sector talks about being “too busy” — but they aren’t really. The nonprofit sector overall contains many of the more forgiving workplaces. (I do understand there are exceptions; I am talking in generalities here.)

And so, when a colleague would send me a 1:00 am email, I no longer nodded approvingly but instead would say to myself, “This is lame. Get some sleep so you can function.” The feeling would usually be intensified by the knowledge that the sender most likely was feeling proud of working so hard, unaware of the impression the late-night note caused.

New Rules About Time, Place And Manner

But now, having been in the truly independent sector for some years (that is, I do not work within an organization) I am changing my tune again. One of the benefits of working on my own is that the time constraints of the workday don’t matter. I can get my work done whenever — and that means I also have time in the day to have a life.

That also means I’m the guy sending late night emails!

But I am not sure this round-the-clock phenomenon is unique to the independent life. Workstyles are changing inside organizations too. The start and end times of the workday, for example, have long been much more permeable than they were a decade ago. It’s not weird for a colleague to come in at 6:00 am and leave at 3:00. Location is less restricted too. It’s not weird for someone to actually work at home most of the time. Most organizations are also much more tolerant of different approaches to work (some people work in bursts andd need slack time in between highly productive periods; otheers are more methodical).

So, while I fully understand that the workload in the White House is crushing no matter what, I also see the new Obama White House workstyle as symptomatic of the broader changes in work overall. Things really have changed when it comes to what we expect of that place called “the office.”

But closer to home, I am also much more charitable in my inward responses to people around me. Late night emails and middle-of-the-day silliness are no longer the negatives I thought they were.

Maybe I am growing up!

Gas Stations And Whalesongs

A couple days ago, I mentioned an essay of my old high school friend Charlie Burleigh. That got me to thinking and I dug around in my old files and I found the essay in question. I want to share it because I think it is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. He doesn’t know this, but in large part it inspired me to be an essayist.

Charlie and I were eighteen when he wrote this, back in 1983. It was intended to be a college entrance essay. The copy I have is from a student literary publication called “The Dubious Muse” that my school published occasionally.

The piece calls up E.B. White in some of his more reflective moods.

I have looked for but cannot reconnect with Charlie. If you find this, Charlie, I would love to get in touch.

Anyway, here is the essay:


The following item appeared in the New York Times Business Section on March 6. 1983:

“Gasoline stations have become something of an endangered species. Many were forced out of business as prices soared and gasoline supplies dried up. But lower prices and a glut of crude oil will not bring them back. Instead, their number is likely to shrink still further. Industry estimates place the current number of service stations at about 130,000 down from about 170.000 in the early 1970’s. Experts say the decline will probably not halt until there are fewer than 90,000. Among other reasons for the continuing shrinkage: new cars have lower repair and maintenance needs, and their gas mileage is far better than yesterday’s clunkers.”

Sitting in Birmingham Colonial Standard on a Saturday morning, it is hard to get the feeling that one is dealing with an endangered species. Looking at the Felix the Cat clock, the steaming coffee pot, the chairs, the dirty fake hammerhead shark on the wall, and the people standing around in conversation, one can feel very at home and not at all threatened by the outside world. One senses that the business here is more than gas sales and work orders.

This feeling is reinforced by the type of problems the regulars bring in. “You wanna check the drivers side front tire’s valve core. I think it lost a couple pounds this week.” “Do you think it’s time for an oil change and a lube?” “I wonder if my timing’s off and I need some door grease.” These regulars, men, executives and chemical engineers, appear nearly every Saturday morning to buy time along with their door grease. As one confessed, “I wish he wouldn’t work so fast. This is the only time all day I can get away from my wife and have a cigarette. She thinks I quit – hell – it’s time for spring cleaning.”

As a place for escape the gas station is nearly perfect. It provides its own excuses and its own rules. The car can always need to be filled up or fixed. “It’s not safe to let this kind of thing go on without attention.” There is also no doubt about who you are at the station. The customer is always right and the mechanic always knows best. As long as no one infringes on these simple rules (e.g. as when the customer watches the mechanic too closely) there is no reason for dispute.

Escape by Saturday morning errand could also be found at a shopping mall, except for one thing, conversation. The verbal give and take is what changes the gas station from merely a place to get away from the job and the wife to a place that feels truly comfortably.

This talk, which may begin with the weather, progresses to nearly anything. Discussion can be about the hangover or world events, about who got any last night or the new model cars, about recent sports or how slow business is going. The range of topics is as open as the range of common experiences.

While this communication lacks predictable subject matter or direction, it would be too hasty to say that it has no purpose. A study in the 1970’s by a group of marine biologists and linguists seems to provide the purpose. The object of the study was to look at humpback whale songs, separate out the elements used in sonar and see if in the clicks, cries and rumbles that were left there were any repeated linguistic elements. What they found was that while one song could be identified with one whale at a given time, every song was subject to change when the whales communicated. They found further that there was no predictable subject matter or direction and no one song had any special significance. Indeed the scientists concluded that these complex signals were only sent to convey one message during the vast undersea migrations of the whales:


The effect of this simple communication is to overcome isolation, to encourage the traveler. And even if all the general stores are now shopping malls and all the gas stations become self service, we will still need stations for this service.

By Charles Burleigh

A belated thanks, Charlie, for a great piece.

The Power Of Music

My friend Caryn Martinez has this interesting story about subliminal advertising. Seems that when hearing French music, more shoppers purchased French wine. During German oompah music, it’s all Piesporters and Rieslings.

The kicker: in post-purchase surveys, only a handful ever mentioned the music when saying why they bought what they did.

Such is the secret power of music.