The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

The glowing page
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Here’s an optical effect well-known to summertime readers—raise your hand if you recognize it:

You’re walking the streets with your nose in a book. Maybe you’re coming home from school, or maybe you’ve just been out wandering. It’s a beautiful sun-drenched day, but you experience it only at the margins—your eyes are focused on the bright white pages, and you’re reading steadily, flip flip flip, just as steadily as you’re walking. You are in the zone, somehow navigating busy sidewalks and complicated intersections using only your peripheral vision and, I don’t know, your medulla oblongata or something.

Then, you get home—you’re still reading—and you cross the threshold. Suddenly, the page under your nose is glowing. There’s a weird color-shift that happens, sort of a buzzing red/green effect. It’s almost as if the page has soaked up the sunlight and is now shooting it back at you here inside the house. It’s slightly painful; you squint and keep reading. It’s best not to look up, because if you do, you will realize that the whole house is color-shifted, too. Your eyes are confused and overloaded, because they’ve adjusted themselves to the white-hot square of the book.

Every time I experience this (which is often, and includes five minutes ago) it triggers a little burst of nostalgia. It makes me think of all the summers I’ve spent reading and all the places I’ve wandered back to: my childhood home in Michigan, my old dorm room, my first apartment in San Francisco. I can very distinctly remember being nine and eighteen and twenty-seven, always squinting and waiting for my eyes to re-calibrate, but never, of course, actually putting the book down. Never even considering it.

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Ai Weiwei and the Nightmare City
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Ai Weiwei on Beijing:

There are positives to Beijing. People still give birth to babies. There are a few nice parks. Last week I walked in one, and a few people came up to me and gave me a thumbs up or patted me on the shoulder. Why do they have to do that in such a secretive way? No one is willing to speak out. What are they waiting for? They always tell me, “Weiwei, leave the nation, please.” Or “Live longer and watch them die.” Either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.

Via Noteworthy and Not.

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What (Some) People Like On Twitter
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The other day on Twitter, I had a particularly silly/dorky Steve Jobs tweet become crazy popular, like a thousand retweets popular. So — being again, particularly silly and dorky myself — decided to pull some of my most popular tweets into a Storify to try to discern a pattern (if any).

BIG PATTERN: People love pop culture references. But my Twitter feed (and probably yours) regularly ABOUNDS in pop culture references. So that actually turns out not to have a ton of explanatory value on its own.

SMART PATTERN: What people really seem to love are oblique, unexpected pop culture references that hit a particular niche. They’re tweets that say: “this message was only for you; now share it with everyone you know.”

BIG PATTERN #2: People definitely respond in a big way to big news events. If something is going on that’s happening in real-time, the retweet button gets a workout.

SMART PATTERN #2: The problem with big events is that everybody’s tweeting and retweeting everything. Which is fine! It’s good! But at the same time, some sort of conceptual scoop that shines a light on something different about what’s happening adds more value.

BIG PATTERN #3: People love anything that reminds them of their childhood.
SMART PATTERN #3: I love anything that reminds me of my childhood. And that Proustian love is a propulsive force that drives me to write better sentences.

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Feliz Cumpleaños, El Hacedor
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He had never dwelled on memory’s delights. Impressions slid over him, vivid but ephemeral. A potter’s vermilion; the heavens laden with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen; the slick feel of marble beneath slow sensitive fingertips; the taste of wild boar meat, eagerly torn by his white teeth; a Phoenician word; the black shadow a lance casts on yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or of a woman; a heavy wine, its roughness cut by honey–these could fill his soul completely…

Gradually now the beautiful universe was slipping away from him. A stubborn mist erased the outline of his hand, the night was no longer peopled by stars, the earth beneath his feet was unsure. Everything was growing distant and blurred. When he knew he was going blind he cried out; stoic modesty had not yet been invented and Hector could flee with impunity. I will not see again, he felt, either the sky filled with mythical dread, or this face that the years will transform. Over this desperation of his flesh passed days and nights. But one morning he awoke; he looked, no longer alarmed, at the dim things that surrounded him; and inexplicably he sensed, as one recognizes a tune or a voice, that now it was over and he had faced it, with fear but also with joy, hope, and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory, which seemed to him endless, and up from that vertigo he succeeded in bringing forth a forgotten recollection that shone like a coin under the rain, perhaps because he had never looked at it, unless in a dream.

In grave amazement he understood. In this night too, in this night of his mortal eyes into this he was now descending, love and danger were again waiting. Ares and Aphrodite, for already he divined (already it encircled him) a murmur of glory and hexameters, a murmur of men defending a temple the gods will not save, and of black vessels searching the sea for a beloved isle, the murmur of the Odysseys and Iliads it was his destiny to sing and leave echoing concavely in the memory of man. These things we know, but not those that he felt when he descended into the last shade of all.

From “El Hacedor (The Maker),” a story about the blindness and insight of Homer — both of which Borges shared.

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Shel Silverstein was the coolest
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From a 1968 Stars and Stripes interview with Shel Silverstein:

HAL: I understand that you are going to do a movie or want to do a movie. Can you tell us about it?

SHEL: I will be doing one soon. It’s a movie I wrote and will be directing. It will be very far out. It will be the furtherest-out movie ever done in America, I know that. In any country, as far as I know.

HAL: Will it be impressionistic or realistic?

SHEL: Yeah, impressionistic and realistic. Yet, never obscure. Always very clear.

Now, please note that Shel Silverstein never directed a movie… and was probably never actually going to. Was he just messing with his interviewer? Possibly. And how fun is that?—seeding the world with news of made-up projects. Maybe that’s how you decide what to actually do: wait and see which made-up project generates the most excitement.

Also, can I just remind you that Shel Silverstein looked like this?

The coolest.

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Today I Learned
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David Weinberger has a thoughtful look at Reddit as journalism. He calls it “community journalism,” a distinct variant of “citizen journalism.”

Two gems to put in your shoe:

  1. What’s interesting to a community is not enough to make us well informed because our community’s interests tend to be parochial and self-reinforcing. This is not so much a limitation of community as a way that communities constitute themselves.
  2. One of the mistakes we’ve made in journalism and education is to insist that curiosity is a serious business. Perhaps not. Perhaps curiosity needs a sense of humor.

Via Jay Rosen.

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The art of working in public
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I have two exemplary pieces of 21st-century writing that I want to share with you. Neither is hot off the CMSes; they’ve both aged just a little in their tabbed casks. They have something deeply in common—though it might not be obvious at first. One is from BERG’s Matt Webb, the other from the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. This post is going to run a bit long, with a healthy blockquotient, but I think it will end up somewhere interesting.

First: over at the BERG blog, the studio’s director Matt Webb writes weeknote 315. Now, BERG’s weeknotes are always interesting, but this one is a stand-out. It’s long—very long—and transparently written in installments. You can plainly see the rings on the tree, the grain of the writing.

The post begins. Almost immediately there’s a pause, signaled by a section break. Another graf, another pause. Then a section begins like this:

A few hours later – still Saturday – I’m reading an article called A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600-2100 section by section, and interspersing this with reading the monthly Profit and Loss and Balance Sheets of the company from the past year.

And then Matt dives into the details of BERG’s P&L. More sections follow. He touches on sales strategy, supply chain management, even financial stock and flow. (That is, the real kind, not the Snarkmarket kind… but we’re winning the Googlefight, so watch out. Ours might be the real kind soon.)

Later, Matt writes…

I attempt to run the company perpetually at medium-risk, with occasional forays into high-risk to grow – trusting ourselves to surf this tightrope – don’t laugh at the mixed metaphor, that’s what it feels like – and sometimes it takes a while to get my sea legs at a new scale, to discover what a tolerance of “medium” feels like when the numbers themselves change. Your sensitivity and tolerance improve only with practice. I wish I’d been given toy businesses to play with at school, just as playing with crayons taught my body how to let me draw.

I’ve written in these weeknotes before how I manage three budgets: cash, attention, risk. This is my attempt to explain how I feel about risk, and to trace the pathways between risk and cash. Attention, and how it connects, can wait until another day.

…and then of course even later in the post he ends up talking about attention after all.

Got it? Okay.

Next: over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes up the New York Public Library’s pathbreaking digital projects. Now, on one level, Alexis’s piece is more straightforward than Matt’s. It’s, like, an article. I mean, it even has a nut graf:

With all this change — not to mention a possible $40 million budget cut looming — it would be no surprise if the library was floundering like the music industry, newspapers, or travel agents. (Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later.) But that’s the wild thing. The library isn’t floundering. Rather, it’s flourishing, putting out some of the most innovative online projects in the country. On the stuff you can measure — library visitors, website visitors, digital gallery images viewed — the numbers are up across the board compared with five years ago. On the stuff you can’t, like conceptual leadership, the NYPL is killing it.

But… look at that nut graf. Look at the voice Alexis is rocking here—the NYPL is killing it—and look at that personal parenthetical: Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later. Here in the nut, in the very keystone of a long piece ostensibly about the New York Public Library, Alexis is tipping us off: This is actually going to be about me and you and the Atlantic, too.

Then, just a little bit later on, we read this:

I visited the library to see who was behind the excellent work at the library to see how they thought about what they were doing. And maybe I was hoping to pinch some lessons for my own work on how to teach old animals new tricks. The Atlantic was founded in 1857, after all, 54 years older than Patience and Fortitude.

And later, Alexis crosses the streams again…

People love the texture of old stories and the odd solidity of old photos. If you let them use those things for their own purposes, they love them even more. Take the New York Public Library’s stereogram collection. Stereograms were actually publicized by a key member of The Atlantic’s staff at the end of the 19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

…again directly connecting the nominal subject of his piece (the NYPL) to the shadow subject (the Atlantic itself), which is, in fact, the shadow subject of most of his work, on most platforms.

And it’s glorious.

Okay, so now take a step back and consider these two pieces together.

They are written by two very different dudes, in different positions, with different objectives. But I want to argue that both are written in essentially the same style, with common characteristics both superficial—a smart but very informal voice that reads like a long email from your smartest coolest friend ever—and structural:

  • They both conjure a sense that the piece is almost being written as you read it. It feels like they’re just a graf or two ahead, and if you picked up the pace, you could catch them—overtake their blinking cursors. It feels slightly chaotic and totally thrilling.
  • They both let you inside their heads. With Matt you’re not just reading a list of, like, small-business tips. For the span of a few thousand words, you are riding shotgun as co-CEO of BERG. Likewise, with Alexis, you’re not just learning about the NYPL. You’re grabbing hold of the library’s old-made-new strategy and instantly spinning it around, asking yourself: How can I use this here at the Atlantic? It’s palpable, and it’s awesome.
  • But!—they don’t let you all the way inside. There’s plenty withheld here. In fact, here’s the genius of the style: they don’t tell you much at all. What’s BERG’s next big project? Uh, I don’t know. What’s Alexis’s strategy at the Atlantic? We’ll find out when he executes it. Even though their writing feels so revelatory, this isn’t radical transparency at all. It’s, what? Selective transparency? Choir screen transparency? I’m not leveling a criticism—this is a compliment.

I tend to zero in on this kind of writing because I aspire to do more of it myself, and to do it better. Working in public like this can be a lot of fun, for writer and reader alike, but more than that: it can be a powerful public good. The comments on Matt’s post all go something like this: Hey, thank you. I’m running a small studio myself, and this is really instructive. When you let people inside your head, they come away smarter. When you work in public, you create an emissary (media cyborg style) that then walks the earth, teaching others to do your kind of work as well. And that is transcendently cool.

At the same time: surprise is of the essence. And for me, it’s been increasingly difficult to communicate coherently about my day-to-day writing work without either a) being intolerably vague, or b) giving away the good stuff. I just can’t quite find the balance. I’m midway through George R. R. Martin’s latest—these are books famous for their ruthless surprises—and so I’m feeling this really keenly right now. We don’t want radical transparency from George R. R. Martin. We want radical opacity. We want maximum surprise!

But what I see in Matt’s and Alexis’s writing is a growing mastery of this balance. I think it’s an important new skill, maybe even a new liberal art. When you articulate it, it sounds almost like a koan, or part of some samurai code:

Work in public. Reveal nothing.

So what is this post, then? Me working on working in public, in public? Maybe. Actually, I think I might have a shadow subject of my own. As I’ve been writing here, I’ve been thinking (because come on, the scenario is inescapable): Can we get Webb and Madrigal to make something together? BERG and the Atlantic—what’s this going to take?

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Social networks, as told by Flight of the Conchords
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Joanne McNeil, quoting Farrah Bostic on July 3: 

“so far google+ friending seems to be more about a shared present/future than a shared past” – @farrahbostic (so true)less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

So if Facebook quickly became like this:

Google+ right now is more like this:

While Twitter, with its tendency towards zaniness, its frequently misunderstood and embarrassing messages, and inevitable blurring of casual and intimate relationships, feels a bit like this (in all its glory):

Meanwhile, we also have MySpace (“people who hold signs go on to hold many things”):

The original, Friendster (“How did Dave get a hottie like that to a party like this? Good one, Dave”):

And this one, I can’t tell if it’s LinkedIn or Chatroulette (maybe a bit of both):

Soliciting suggestions for Quora, Instagram, Foursquare, et al. (My partner-in-pop-culture-crime Sarah Pavis already nominated “Stay Cool” and “I Told You I Was Freaky” for Tumblr.)

PS: You can find me on Google+ here.

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Today’s Tweets, Lightly Annotated
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I had an eclectic but perhaps extra-fulfilling day using Twitter today. First, I wrote a lot of tweets: I hand-counted 165, including @-replies but excluding DMs. But it didn’t strike me as all that atypical a day, which might be all the more striking. It was Twitter at its best. I was reading and writing all day, just having a great time carrying on half-overheard conversations in public.

I wanted to hang on to just a few of those conversation nodes here, inspired partly by two tweets in particular:

@robinsloan @amichel @jayrosen_nyu I love how the Stock & Flow post is perennially always both. Like a geyser waiting for a chance to burst.less than a minute ago via YoruFukurou Favorite Retweet Reply

Robin’s “Stock and Flow” post was flowing again today, helped along by Jay Rosen’s plug via — you guessed it — Twitter.

Today was almost entirely a flow day for me. Call it navel-gazing if you want, but I want to hang onto it, mostly for the following reason:

When I was 7-10 years old, if you’d told me there’d be a machine that would let me read new things all day, I’d have fainted from happiness.less than a minute ago via YoruFukurou Favorite Retweet Reply

So here’s a little of what was flowing in my Twitter stream today.
Read more…

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‘The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me’
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Here’s an interesting dialogue between two characters: Teach and Cheat. One’s a philosophy professor; the other writes students’ term papers for a fee.

Teach: Yes, but it is a red flag to me that there is plagiarism elsewhere in the paper. The second one is grammatical. In those cases I was alerted to plagiarism by the sudden appearance, in a paper that is otherwise a morass of grammatical errors, of a series of flawless sentences with complicated structures. The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me. As is the use—and often misuse—of specialized jargon or technical language that I’ve not discussed with them in class. Then I type those sentences into Google, and they all wind up being smoking-gun cases of plagiarism. My favorite case this semester was plagiarism within plagiarism. When I informed this student that I suspected her paper was plagiarized, she said to me, “I got my paper from one of the students who was in your class last semester. How was I to know that she had plagiarized?” Which indicated to me, along with a number of the other email responses I got from students, that many of them don’t even know what plagiarism is.

Cheat: I don’t disagree. But not knowing what plagiarism is isn’t really the problem. It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days. When students plagiarize, there’s an implicit recognition that “I’m just doing this for the grade.” That’s why they do it. And that’s the way that the majority of students look at the university, and have been for some time now. At my college, the frats had rooms full of file cabinets full of plagiarized papers. Plagiarism is old news. It’s really not just that plagiarism is getting easier to do, with the Internet. The problem is now that the grade doesn’t even get you the job.

You understand where this is going: it’s not even about plagiarism and term papers… it’s about the framework and future of college itself.

But, P.S., thinking about plagiarizing a term paper—even now, so many years removed from college—makes me physically ill. Seriously: a sick little stir in my stomach. But it has more to do with self-conception than core values. The idea of putting my name above somebody else’s words is just… like… inconceivable. The whole point of having a brain (and maybe, having a life) is that my name goes above my words and my words aren’t like anyone else’s words. This was true even back in college, when I thought I was going to be a scientist or an economist, not a journalist or a writer. So for a person like me (and I suspect there are many of you among the Snarkmatrix) plagiarism is way more than just cheating. It’s self-abnegation.

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