not a guru

Coming in 2014: More Internet Opinions

In my last post, I mentioned that some good things have come from sharing my opinions on the internet: I've had the opportunity to meet and work with outstanding people, I've made hilarious friends, and have generally just had a great time.

This year, I've been presented with two incredible opportunities: to write a monthly post for The Pastry Box Project, and to join the lovely folks at A List Apart as blog editor.

In a somewhat serendipitous coincidence of timing, my first post for A List Apart was published yesterday, and my first thought for The Pastry Box appeared today. I hope you'll enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them, and I hope you'll add both sites to your reading lists, if they're not in heavy rotation already-"both are exceptional publications for anyone who works on, or cares about, the web.

My Orange Coat of Internet Opinions

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="225"]Marie's Orange Coat Waiting for the T in my orange coat[/caption]

A few years ago, I would probably rather have died than wear an orange coat.

Why?

Because people would see me.

This is, obviously, both hyperbolic and absurd.

Of course I wouldn't have turned down the orange coat if a big plate of death was sitting over in column B.

Still, I probably wouldn't have accepted a free, puffy orange coat from a friend moving to warmer climes if it had been proffered just a few years ago.

And of course, people can see me regardless of what I wear. So it's more than that.

In my orange coat, people can see me:

  • Being different
  • Being "loud"
  • Being a bit ridiculous
And also being pretty comfortable with all of that, because it's a great coat and I love it.

When I thought about the reasons I wouldn't have been comfortable in it a few years ago, I realized they were the same reasons I wasn't always comfortable writing and sharing my opinions online: because people would see me.

There are, to be sure, some good reasons to keep your opinions to yourself, but by and large, the repercussions of having opinions on the internet have been largely positive for me.

This may sound silly to those who have never been hesitant to speak up before, but if it resonates with you, I'd encourage you to find your own orange coat of Internet Opinions, embrace the opportunity to stand out from the crowd a bit, and get comfortable.

I hope good things will come.


On a somewhat related note, two things I've been meaning to share for a while:

  • A guest post I wrote for The Pastry Box Project earlier this year on @Horse_ebooks, the NSA, and the Internet we thought we knew
  • An HBR piece that describes the work we do at GHDonline and the Global Health Delivery Project

In Defense of Comments

You've heard it a million times: don't read the comments.

It's my least favorite of internet mantras (perhaps second only to if you build it, they will come, but more on that some other time) because it dismisses a huge swath of internet participation, and prevents us from realizing the potential of what comments can be - making it all that much easier to accept the status quo.

Don't get me wrong, I have few illusions about the downsides of many comments sections out there. They can be chaotic, terrifying messes that serve up the seeming worst of humanity - sometimes, not reading the comments can be an important act of self-care.

But I often hear this phrase combined with an implicit: what did you expect? and that's where I think we need to push back, because not every comment section is a cesspool - many of them are clean, well-lit spaces where good things are happening for people who come to the internet to learn, share, and connect with others.

In fact, at their best, comments are community. If you only skim the comments on YouTube, you might miss it, but on sites all around the web, connections and relationships have been built in the comment sections of journalists, bloggers, news sites, retailers and more.

I little while back, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to share their favorite comments sections - I wondered if there were sites people would be genuinely sad to see the comments disappear. It ended up being one of my most popular Facebook posts. Here's what people came back with:

There were a few other suggestions as well - a friend of mine was pleased that she'd never received an angry comment on her personal finance blog, another pointed out that without the help of commenters on ModCloth, she'd never find the right fit, and another recommended The Truth About Cars as having a particularly smart community of commenters.

Obviously, this isn't an exhaustive list, and it's biased towards the interests and reading habits of those I happen to be connected to, but seeing the range of these recommendations confirmed for me that a lot of people are reading the comments, and getting something from it besides higher blood pressure. For those who've loudly proclaimed that comments are beyond saving, I'd encourage you to check out some of those sites and see if you find anything that strikes your fancy.

Two things stood out to me in reviewing these sites:

  • Engagement (and moderation) counts - Maybe it's the observer effect, but many of these sites and individual writers are definitely reading their comments and aren't afraid to get into the mix. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Captain Awkward do a great job of publicly moderating discussions and letting commenters (and the rest of the community) know when something crosses the line, and news organizations like The Guardian have invested significantly in online editors and moderation staff.
  • Anonymity isn't the problem - This is most certainly a topic for a longer post, and perhaps I should say it isn't the primary problem. I think anonymity is a bit of a red herring, but it always seems to come up in discussions about comments. Many of these sites have robust comment sections without any kind of Real Name policy.
I've been thinking a lot about this issue for the past few months, and I definitely don't have all the answers, but since it's Monday morning and we've got a nice fresh start on the week, I'll invite you to join me in a little weekly goal: be a better commenter this week.

Maybe that just means reading the comments and responding to some of the positive ones, maybe it means commenting on a piece you found interesting or helpful, even if you don't have much more to add - be part of that virtuous cycle.

If you're ready to get started, feel free to share some of your thoughts on sites that should be added to the list above, or your ideas on what makes for a good comment section below!

Analyzing My Own Networks

If we've spent any time together recently, I've probably talked your ear off about Coursera, and this new class I'm taking on Social Network Analysis. (Sorry, not sorry.)

If you're not familiar with Coursera, check them out! They're part of the whole MOOC movement (Massive Open Online Courses) and they're doing some interesting things in terms of making college courses (mainly introductory-level) available to anyone with time and an internet connection.

A few weeks back, Hillary Boucher brought this course on Social Network Analysis to my attention and I decided it was time for me to sign up for my first MOOC and give the whole thing a try. (Thanks, Hillary!)

This past weekend I sat down and watched the first series of lectures. While it was mostly a broad overview, we covered some basics for social network analysis, the contexts in which it's used, and had some exercises to help us get familiar with the software we're using (Gephi and NetLogo, for the curious).

One of the most surprising things to me came up during the examples of different networks that the professor, Lada Adamic, has researched. Most of them were pretty straightforward: Facebook networks, groups in a company connected via their email communications, the sociological and epidemiological implications of networks. When she put up a slide of ingredients though, I was surprised. It had never occurred to me to think of recipes as networks.

The research they'd done showed which ingredients were most closely associated with one another by looking at how often they appeared in the same recipes. As you'd imagine, there was a "community" of savory ingredients, one of sweet, and a handful of ingredients that bridged the two. As a lover of sweet/salty things (oh hi, salted caramel bacon brownies), I was definitely intrigued, and it's gotten me thinking about all the other networks that exist out there in a much less literal sense than I'm used to thinking about them.

But, things got real when I started on the first homework assignment: download your social network from Facebook, and identify a few traits about it. Here's my Facebook network:

My Facebook graph

Being able to visualize my own social network so easily and quickly was a huge thrill. Of course, I immediately posted the picture above on Facebook. This is an anonymized version, but with the Gephi software, I was able to see each person's name attached to their "node", and see who else within my network they were connected to. I could also look at the data and see who was connected to the most people, how long we'd been friends, etc.

A few things stood out after playing with the data:

My network is much more connected than I'd thought. Perhaps this makes sense, given that the majority of my Facebook friends (in the purple) are people I know from high school (the bottom circle) and people I know from college (the top circle). Despite the fact that no one else from my high school class attended college with me, all roads seem to lead to Boston at some point, and now I have quite a few high school friends that are connected to people I met in college, and after.

My "most connected" friends were not who I thought. Typically, I think about "connectedness" in terms of how I know the people that I know. Who introduced me to them? Previously, I would've assumed those people would be the most connected friends in my social graph. What I realized from this visualization, however, was that the setting was much more important than the individual people who connected me - did we have classes together, act in the same plays, live in the same dorms, or study abroad at the same schools? The people who touched on a few categories, even though they were all people I have "weaker" ties to, were the most connected within my network. Thinking about it that way, I was much less surprised by that list of names. I'm still a bit surprised, however, that 9 of my top 10 most connected friends are men, despite the fact that my network on the whole is about 57% women.

This is an pretty poor representation of my actual social life. Certainly no one was claiming that a social network analysis of my Facebook network would mirror my day-to-day social interactions, but it was so different that it did cause me to pause and reflect on how easy it would be to make faulty assumptions from this kind of data.It also got me thinking about how our own use of various social networks evolves over time. I joined Facebook nearly a decade ago (hang on, trying to process that), at a time when I was still very close to people I'd graduated from high school with, and was surrounded by classmates at Boston College. How I've used Facebook has changed significantly since then, in no small part because my life has changed pretty significantly in that time as well.

Twitter, of course, plays a role in this too - as I began using Twitter and building a network there soon after graduating from college, I started spending less and less time on Facebook. For a whole host of reasons, I'm more likely to start following someone on Twitter now than friend them on Facebook. Actually, the pink group on the bottom-right of the graph represents the handful of Twitter friends that I met on that service, and have since befriended on Facebook.

Getting to play with this data for my Facebook network has made me excited to start digging in to other data-sets. What about the Facebook pages I manage, how are our followers connected there? What about my own Twitter accounts, what will it look like to explore directional networks where not everyone follows or friends people back? And of course, how can I apply this to the communities that I work with - what gems will this help us uncover?

If any of this was interesting to you, I strongly encourage you to sign up for the Coursera course and give it a shot. It's free, and after spending about an hour with the first set of lecture segments, you'll have no trouble downloading your own Facebook network and playing around with things. Let me know if you sign up, I'd love to have some folks to study with!