Walkable Cities for People

I recently read two books: one new, and one (and a half) classic, about the practices of making streets walkable and places friendly for people.

Growing up, I was lucky to take walkable streets and livable neighborhoods for granted. When I was 13, my family moved about a mile from a neighborhood of modest brick rowhouses within city limits to the first suburban neighborhood over the city boundary, with mostly single family homes.

The modest rowhouses had front steps next to a front porch which in the summer could be sheltered by a canvas awning. In the evening and on weekends, neighbors would stand out on front steps and chat. But when new neighbors moved next door with surly dispositions and noisy dogs, my parents moved a mile away to the suburbs.

The suburban neighborhood was an postwar suburb near a streetcar line with relatively narrow somewhat hilly streets. A library and convenience drugstore were a half mile away. My family belonged to a Jewish community where members lived within walking distance of a synagogue, and there were strong customs of walking social visits on the Sabbath and holidays. Walking was built into the culture.

The suburban neighborhood was greener and the houses were a little bigger. But I still missed the experience of people standing out on the front porch chitchatting on summer evening, and kids playing street hockey and stickball in the back alley.

So what is it that makes places walkable and livable?

Walkable City, a new book by designer and planner Jeff Speck describes the practices that can restore walkability in places that were designed or transformed to promote the elusive goal of the free flow of automobiles. Walkable City is an immensely quotable and highly readable summary of the benefits of walkability, and the ways to make places walkable.

The key insight of the book is that you don’t get walkability simply by adding features like wide sidewalks. Walkability isn’t just about the street, it’s about the place. To attract walkers, writes Speck, “A walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient.”

Useful. In order for people to walk, they need to be able to get to places they want to go – places like retail stores, schools, and parks. This means having useful destinations walking distance from each other. This requires fixing conventional mid-20th century zoning codes that create single use districts that make it impossible to walk from your house or work to a store or restaurant, because everyday activities are too far away from each other.

Interesting. In order for people to be willing to walk, the street needs to have interesting detail at eye level. How far people are willing to walk is not a factor of distance, but the appeal of the environment (see Steve Mouzon’s classic article on Walk Appeal. Blank walls and parking lots facing the street make for tedious and unsafe walking environments. The classic suburban-style design approach is to insulate the blank walls and parking lots with setbacks and landscaping, but it doesn’t work; the route is tedious, and people won’t walk far.

Safe and comfortable. Yes, streets also matter for walkability, and the book describes the elements of walkable street designs. Walkability is helped by short blocks and connections that let people get to where they’re going. Underutilized suburban areas can be retrofit to recut a street grid over time. (The book says more about block size than about connections that can open walking and biking shortcuts through cul de sacs and parking lots). Walkability also is helped by limiting excess curb cuts where incoming and outgoing cars conflict with pedestrians.

Safe walking is hindered by streets where cars go too fast because there are too many car lanes and the lanes are too wide. “Lane diets” can increase vehicle capacity by converting a 4-lane road to 2 vehicle lanes plus a center turn lane. Vehicle capacity goes up because the turn lane takes turning vehicles out of the way of through travellers; speeds go down, and crashes go down. Wide lane widths, intended to make driving safer, actually encourage speeding and reduces safety. Cities that converted one way streets back to 2-way have found that it slows cars down increases walking and economic vitality. The conversion to one-way streets in the 60s and 70s was intended to help the city by speeding car travel, but it turned out that surface freeways hurt downtowns and neighborhoods.

These changes can swing the balance back from prioritizing cars passing through, to better support for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers taking local trips. These changes can be contentious, since people have gotten used to treating local routes like freeways. But the impacts are severe, cutting neighborhoods from places to go, and making it unpleasant to shop or do ordinary activities outside of a car.

Streets are places, too.

One issue that Speck does not address robustly is the problem with the standard functional classification, which classifies streets based on their role in moving vehicles and local access, but does not take into account the land use around the street. Following standard street classifications, high-volume streets that run through areas with lots of houses, schools, or stores and serve many people taking short local trips, are designed as if the main goal was moving cars across town, regardless of the people who want to walk or bike for their local trips, or need to cross the street to get to their destination. The evolution of functional classification is a work in progress; there are some case studies and new work in the field, but not definitive new answers.

You can’t build your way out of congestion

Speck directs the harshest criticism in the book on traffic engineering practices that continue to encourage building more and more road capacity in an attempt to alleviate congestion. Research over time shows that building roads creates demand that fills the capacity; a 2004 meta-analysis shows that on average, a 10% increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4% increase in vehicle miles travelled, which climbs to 10% in a few years.

In addition to the “how” of creating walkable streets, the book provides a thorough but lively explanation of the reasons why: the economic benefits for walkable areas, the environmental and health benefits. The book also is a great primer for related practices that help create walkable communities; including effective transit and parking.

Where to start?

I agreed with most of the book, but had a few quibbles here and there. Speck rightly says that jurisdictions need to do “triage” and focus on improving walkability in some places before others. But his emphasis on “downtowns” I think misses some important dynamics.

The concept of a “downtown” implies a metropolitan region with a single center. The San Francisco Bay Area has multiple large and small cities arrayed around a large body of water. Many large metropolitan areas have multiple “centers.” Traditional pre-car big cities are composed of multiple neighborhoods that have local shopping and schools and businesses.

I am still learning and could change my mind about this, but I am not convinced that there is an ideal pattern of a central skyscraper metropolis surrounded by concentric circles decreasingly dense areas (following the new urbanist transect model). There are metropolitan areas in Europe in which multiple cities of various sizes are connected by superb transit service. The Washington DC metro area has created walkable towns along its transit corridors. Sprawling San Jose and the classically sprawled LA area are seeking to retrofit along boulevard corridors and neighborhood centers.

Triage by “focusing on success” leaves out substantial opportunities for retrofits in underutilized or failing areas. These places are promising not because they are successful, but because they are in such poor shape that jurisdictions are willing to change their practices to revitalize the area. Failed malls and other underutilized sprawl areas can add denser mixed use development and a street grid, with less argument from people who want to preserve things as they are.

The “focus on success” principle sounds disturbingly like helping the rich get richer. By contrast, some of the bus rapid transit proposals in the South Bay, similar to BRT programs worldwide, travel through low-income areas with a lot of people who don’t have cars, and who walk today on streets that are appallingly unsafe for pedestrians. Some of the pedestrian-friendly boulevards cited in Allan Jacobs’ classic boulevard book are not in wealthy areas. The advantages of walkability shouldn’t just be for the wealthy.

Finally, using a Complete Streets policy, cities can leverage their routine repaving projects to incorporate low-cost traffic calming improvements involving street restriping at low to no additional additional cost, and street crossing improvements that save lives at minimal additional cost. Many areas are low density now, and are going to remain so for the forseeable future, and serve people who prefer low density. Even there, modest incremental investments in street paint and arterial crossings can save lives over the next few decades.

Another critique is that the book could be somewhat be better on cycling. The section on cycling focuses too much on where to put bike lanes, and what sort of bike lanes, and not enough on how to overcome barriers to practical bike routes. Fundamentally, I think Speck underestimates the value of cycling in helping places recover from car-dependent development patterns. In moderately dense areas that have a lot of useful trip distances in the 1-5 mile range, cycling could easily account for a large share of trips for many people.

Today, Copenhagen with 37% mode share is an outlier; but with good infrastructure that could be much more common. In Palo Alto, 10% of residents use a bike as a primary commute mode *today*. If the ratio of commuters to regular bike users is similar to San Francisco (where 3.5% commute by bike and 17% take a bike trip weekly), this suggests that over 40% of Palo Altans regularly use a bike for transportation. Speck criticizes cycling advocacy as a “special interest” for a small minority, but the numbers are mainstream in some places in the US already.

“Walkable City” is a really solid book about how to create walkable, livable communities. If you want to get up to speed on the topic, read this book. If you know a lot, you’ll skim some, but still get something out of the book. And if you know people who *should* know this material, give this book as a gift.

Next up, a review of “Life Between Buildings” which sees walkability as only a small part of creating a thriving environment in streets and other public spaces.

A large, gasoline-powered wheelchair

I sprained my ankle last weekend, and this week I viscerally understand a perspective that I’ve heard in discussions about planning for the local downtown.

As soon as I was able walk to the driveway with crutches, I arranged to swap my stick-shift car for an automatic (since the clutch requires a working ankle). The car provides welcome mobility. I can get to Peets or Starbucks for coffee, a quarter-mile trip that I usually bike. I can’t move fast or go far, so I need a parking spot very close to I’m going. If I have two errands a few blocks away, I need to get back in the car and drive. A business is more appealing if it has immediate parking. I’m using a car as a large, gasoline-powered wheelchair, and it’s marvelous.

The thing is, I hear this perspective about the need for adjacent parking from people who do not have obvious mobility impairments. Perhaps some have nonvisible disabilities, and if so I hope they have medical placards or plates that allow them to park a car right in front of the places they are going. The ADA requires access for people with mobility impairments, and that access should be protected with vigilance and used by those who need it.

But there are clearly otherwise healthy individuals who use their automobile as a large, gasoline-powered wheelchair as a matter of course. Trips that are a half-mile, or a mile or two. If there are two or three errands a few blocks away, they prefer to get back in the car and drive. If car parking is a block away, that is intolerable, and it is better to drive 30 minutes to find free parking than to walk for a block or two.

Do people have a level of physical fitness so low that walking a block or two feels like running a marathon? Or is moving for a practical purpose horribly unwelcome, because it takes time away from time spend exercising indoors jogging on a treadmill or taking a spin class?

I have a lot of respect for people who use cars and parking for mobility assistance because of need. I have a lot less respect for people who use their car as a wheelchair by choice, and to protect that personal choice want to control land use in our cities for everyone, taking valuable space away from greenery, walking and bike, to provide enough car parking so healthy people don’t need to walk.

The women of “Srugim”

Recently I watched the first two seasons of “Srugim” the surprise hit Israeli tv drama that follows the lives of five thirty-something single men and women in the modern orthodox community of Katamon in Jerusalem. Sometimes referred to as the Israeli “Friends”, it’s been popular among secular folk in Israel and has a following in the states (it’s available on DVD with subtitles).

Although the creators of the show are men, the most interesting and compelling characters are the 3 female central characters; a woman whose high-powered financial services job scares off some men, the daughter of a rabbi who struggles with her religious identity, and a warm-hearted graphic artist who is stuck on a commitment-phobic surgeon. Though the plot in the first season centers on heterosexual relationships, the show passes the Bechdel test.

In Season 1, the female characters in Srugim face more conflict and character development than the men, who are rather passive and unadventurous; the sexism of religious society pushes the women to evolve. In Season 2, the gay male character also faces social pressure; the show has not yet shown whether and how the character will change.

But I get the impression that the the creators of the show are torn in portraying the tensions generated by female power. On the one hand, they are sympathetic to the struggles of women making their own way. On the other hand, images of bossy or neurotic women are played somewhat unflatteringly; and yet back on the other hand, the show handles narcissism and neurosis as equal-gender-opportunity character flaws.

The finance professional dumps a fiance when he proposes only after getting a raise that makes his salary closer to hers, and with persistence negotiates her way into getting lessons in reading torah for a women’s minyan. Her character has some traits in common with the weaselly Pete Campbell of Mad Men; she can scheme and manipulate to get what she wants; she has a yiddish sharp tongue and can be a bully. Does she choose the sweet yeshiva student over the fellow professional because she experiences the unfamiliar with him; or because she can boss him around, or both; does she eventually dump him because she was never serious or realizes she doesn’t love him or both?

Toward the end of the first season the character makes some choices that seem to show increasing honesty and tact; a bit of growing up? In Season 2, she shows more ethical compass by standing up for her gay sweetie; but is her attraction to a gay man a sign in the show creators’ minds of the inability to relate to more macho “normal” heterosexual men? I dislike the scheming but like her assertiveness, negotiation skills, motorcycle, torah-reading, and the sharp tongue that gets her into trouble, but does the filmmaker?

An even more exaggerated and unattractive picture of the manipulative bossy woman is the wealthy girlfriend of the narcissistic surgery intern. She schemes to have him invited to a party thrown by her father who is a major donor of the hospital, and arranges to have her beau offered a prestigious residency at Mount Sinai hospital in NYC. She can even get her boyfriend’s absentee landlord to fix a broken sink. When her boyfriend gets upset with her assertive ways, she fakes terror of cockroaches to make him feel confident in his manhood, but smashes bugs with her high-heeled shoes when he isn’t looking. Her boyfriend doesn’t appreciate her controlling ways, but he also doesn’t appreciate the loving companionship of his long-suffering female best buddy who’s in love with him; or for that matter neither does he show consideration for anybody else in Season 1.

The bible grad student, the daughter of a rabbi, doubts her religious identity, but keeps her dilemmas a secret in Season 1. She doesn’t tell the witty and solicitous archaeology professor that she is religious though they are falling in love with each other; she doesn’t tell her friends she’s dating a secular guy. At one point she fails to stop her elderly grandmother who has wandered away from the senior center because she will be seen wearing pants; then repents and goes looking for her through the streets of Jerusalem (the grandmother is found safe).

The show makes clear why the character would be so cagey; her friends talk openly about how they dump friends who become secular; one of the male characters discovers that people on the street don’t say hello to him when he accidentally loses his kippah. The community polices boundaries, and making a choice is (or seems) definitive. Once upon a time I was like that character; I was similarly confused and in the closet about religious struggles; and caused some similar havoc. Interestingly, the show parallels the closet experiences of characters struggling with religious identity and characters struggling with sexual identity. In both cases, characters who are outside the community norms feel the need to keep secrets, struggle with disclosing their identity, and face the risk of social ostracism.

Interestingly, with the struggling religious characters in Srugim the issue is explicitly and primarily about g-d and faith. Is this different from American Judaism, where Jews talk about holidays and halachah and concepts of good and evil, and less about g-d? Personally, I’ve been pretty humanist about religion since bat mitzvah age; for me the choices about religious afflliation were more about human authority and sociology that about belief or unbelief; but the social boundaries and identity dilemmas were very similar.

The warm-hearted and emotional graphic designer is the least conflicted of the three major female characters in Season 1. She is competent at her craft without being ambitious, she is a great cook, she is sincerely religious. At the beginning of the season she is something of a doormat, and develops more of a spine as she learns from experience. Her religiosity is portrayed as somewhat of a flaw when she focuses on rules over people, but her good heart overcomes her initial impulse to rigidity.

Hers is a kind of character that I tend to loathe on the printed page, but the script and the actress redeem the character for me in Season 1; she is shown as intelligently and actively empathetic, and grows by making her own decisions. Is her fundamental meekness and domesticity seen by the filmmakers as superior womanhood? Or is she, like the good-hearted, somewhat passive and geeky fellow she eventually connects with, something of a shlemiel. In Season 2, she turns to developing her career when she is disappointed by the inability to quickly get pregnant, her emotionality turns into volatility, and overrides her sense of compassion. Where are the film-makers with this evolution? Is assertiveness and professional development being cast once again as the opposite of femininity? Or do the show’s creators also see the rift between the character and her husband as a lack of courage and honesty on both their parts, where neither can communicate about the pain of infertility and the tensions between personal and day to day tradeoffs between professional and family priorities?

I know what I think – I always liked the adventurous women characters better, in works where a male author favored the good women. I’m not sure where the show’s creators come down. I suspect they are empathetic with the character and struggles of the female characters; and not quite comfortable with female power; and able to depict flaws of selfishness, dishonesty, and cowardice in both genders.

One thing that’s interesting to me is the way the show depicts the characters moral struggles about how to interact with other people, including making mistakes, repenting and forgiving each other. Every once in a while there is a parable; the surgeon reports the hospital’s cafe kiosk for having a forged kashrut certificate and then is chagrined when the kindly kiosk employee loses his job when the contractor is replaced; and it is a bit surprising that the self-involved surgeon shows a glimmer of moral awareness and compassion. Most of the time the choices are more subtle than that parable. Religious observance, belief, and sex are red herrings, the important thing is how to treat others and oneself. The show is sociologically interesting in the way it portrays the various segments of Israeli Jewish society; but this moral psychology may be the most Jewish aspect of the show.

What do you think? I would love to bounce ideas and questions off others who watched the show.

A feminist argument for open access publishing

In the context of the geek feminism community, Liz Henry shared a link to an intriguing journal article that provides a feminist rationale for open access academic publishing: What is Feminist About Open Access?: A Relational Approach to Copyright in the Academy by Carys Craig, Joseph Turcotte, Rosemary Coombe

The strong part of the paper’s argument is the critique of the idea of self that is embedded in modern conceptions of copyright. Enlightenment and romantic thinkers conceived of the self as an autonomous individual and viewed the value of content as its originality. Postmodern theorists questioned the enlightenment and romantic ideas of authorial originality, putting authors in the context of the materials they rework and the discourses a work participates in. The article extends this questioning, using feminist theory to reframe the idea of the self as always in relation, and to reframe cultural production as created in relationship with others.

These ideas draws on the work of scholars including co-author Rosemary Coombe, Shelly Wright, Johanna Gibson, and Jennifer Nedelsky; There is a very interesting-sounding book by Nedelsky in the queue for publication that promises to develop these ideas in depth, entitled Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy, and Law.

This feminist critique of the individualistic assumptions embedded in the concept of authorship is complementary and congenial to other aspects of the cultural critique of intellectual property. Critics including Larry Lessig, Siva Vaidhanathan, and Cory Doctorow write about “remix culture”, the idea that culture is and always has been created by reassembling and modifying existing materials. Proponents of ideas about peer production (Benkler, Bauwens, Shirky) talk about the cultural surplus that is generated from commons production. Free/Open Source software proponents (Linus Torvalds, Dan Wallach) critique the idea that quality is created by proprietary contributions, and argue that software has improved quality and security when the software creation process is transparent – with enough eyes all bugs are shallow. (The core of the Free Software argument is freedom itself, which I will get to in a bit).

However, there are a number of limitations in the feminist argument. The article attributes the idea of individual authority to a masculine conception of identity and cultural creation. But this is not inherently the case. The Rabbinic Jewish tradition conceives of cultural creation through canonical forms of re-interpretation. Rather than hailing individual creativity, this process subordinates new voices to the tradition, while using interpretive power to create new layers of tradition. The creative process was still patriarchal, though; the people with the power to create were almost all male until quite recently.

The article also advocates for the benefit of open access publishing in providing access to excluded and marginalized people. But the article is focusing on open access publishing of academic journal articles. A lay professional may be able to read the articles but almost surely isn’t going to have access to publish; let alone a working class person or nomadic woman who is a leader and arbiter for her group. The social structure and meritocracy of this particular form of publishing is the context of professional academia.

Richard Stallman and other free software proponents advocate free software with a completely open and meritocratic idea of freedom – the freedom to study a program, modify it, distribute it to help your neighbor, and give the community the benefits of your code changes. (This is meritocratic since not all changes will help a neighbor or the community at large; a developer is free to modify free software to make it unusable, buggy and insecure, also, and the community is free to review it and conclude it worse not better).

But even in contemporary peer cultures, there is still governance over who can contribute. Open source software projects have various processes for code review and determining who can commit. Licenses give coders the ability to fork, but forking is often less powerful than the ability to extend, and that is subject to governance. Wikipedia has editing standards and a tradition in a complex culture that is a challenge for outsiders to learn. Fan fiction communities define their own boundaries around canon and practice and style. The boundaries to collaborative cultural communities are created and enforced somehow, and these power and boundary structures need critique.

So, in advocating for open access academic publishing, the paper does not critique the boundary-creation process of collaborative cultural communities, accepts as a given the structure of academic authority and poses no radical alternatives. This is not a bad thing; the focus of the paper is good as it is, and this particular article has no obligation to be any more radical than it is. Advocating for open access academic publishing contributes to improving the world in an important way. But there is also room for other more radical critiques and alternative structures.

Also, by focusing on academic open access, the article refrains from grappling with other economic and legal issues relating to open access. In academia, open access reduces the economic power of traditional publishers that make large profits incommensurate with the value they add, since the peer review is contributed by fellow academics for free. But the scholars themselves are already paid a salary by the university system. In other areas of cultural production, such as nonacademic writing and free software, practitioners do not automatically have a salary paying for their cultural production. These types of collaborative production depend on different economic structures for support, and the article is silent on these challenges and changes.

As for legal analysis, the article suggests that this feminist concept of cultural production might help foster other changes in copyright law. There may well be opportunities to improve copyright law using these concepts, but this article does not explore what they might be.

That said, the article’s core argument – relating weaknesses in copyright law and practice to a critique of the notion of the individual, and reframing cultural creation in terms of relationship – is a strong and important contribution of the critique of copyright. When I saw the title and abstract, I wondered about the tactical politics of it. Having read through it, the article is primarily persuasive for fellow scholars who already understand and support feminist critique, but who may have other reasons to resist alternatives to proprietary academic publishing. And, in combination with other arguments, this argument strengthens the broader philosophical case for open access publishing and collaborative production.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg sits in the modernist tradition of turning villains and minor characters into antiheros; sympathy for the devil goes back to Milton. Our demon is Baba Yaga, the hag witch of Slavic folklore, who eats small children for lunch and gives gifts of wisdom to wandering young heroes after an ordeal or two.

The book’s first two sections are narratives focusing on old women. In the first section, the protagonist is a writer caring for her elderly mother who strives to maintain dignity with dementia. Where Baba Yaga is an infamous slob, the writer’s mother is obsessively neat; cleaning serves as or substitutes for affection. Where Baba Yaga is demonically clever, the writer’s mother is losing words to a slowly growing brain tumor, and even when she had her faculties was partial to aphorisms and cliches. While she shows the horrors of age in inverse fashion to Baba Yaga, she gives her daughter a gift; cranky and cold in her prime, she enables her daughter to show love, in a stilted and inarticulate fashion, in her decline.

In the second half of the first section, the writer travels to her hometown in Bulgaria accompanied by a younger woman, a scholar of folklore who is an obsequious fangirl bordering on stalker. The writer is taking the trip as a surrogate for her mom, hoping to recapture some feeling, but the post-iron curtain seaside town is grim and tawdry.

I’m not sure what to make of the anomie of this section; something about the anti-romance of the past in post-Soviet Central Europe. Maybe something about the disconnect of generations imposed by history and politics; the writer’s mom dealt with cataclysm by being relentlessly ordinary; the writer character is somewhat embittered by her dissidence and exile; the younger academic is left with a pale simulacrum of nationalism and alienation from biological and adopted families.

The anti-romance of the past takes a comic and ribald turn in the second section of the book, which migrates the Weird Sisters to a postwar resort in the Czech Republic. To the hotel clerk, the three elderly unmarried ladies look alike; as the story progresses, the characters reveal individual personality and individual history, each with her own tragedies, losses and secrets. Far from controlling fate, the three women’s lives have been shaped by history’s events and their own mistakes.

In the Baba Yaga legend, an old female character is isolated and alien; these three women take care of each other. Baba Yaga eats small children with her iron teeth; these old women take care of children after lifetimes of parenting failures and misadventures. The stereotype of old age is of stasis and decline, but the tale in this chapter shows older people continuing to change while they can.

Where the Baba Yaga legend mocks female old age, this chapter ridicules older men, portraying a series of pompous, egoistic schemers. Baba Yaga is old and hideous; but modern society is obsessed with trying to preserve female youth and beauty. Dubravka Ugresic sees the spa as an emblem of the vapidity of post-Soviet Central Europe. “In the absence of all ideologies, the only refuge that remains for the human imagination is the body.”

This chapter comes the closest to feminist antihero fan fictions about characters such as Lilith and Vashti, taking bit-character villains and turning them into main characters. But it doesn’t adopt the feminist cliche of turning the villain into a hero. Buba, the character whose consciousness the narrative follows, is ridiculous; she is not very bright or articulate, she has a good heart but is clumsy and insecure. Dubravka Ugresic inverts villains into characters that are ordinary and imperfect.

The third section of the book is in the voice of the fangirl academic who expatiates on Baba Yaga folklore at tedious length. This is postmodern conceptual art; it’s mocking the dry irrelevance of the academic cataloging species of premodern horrors and resisting the temptations of scholarly explication. At the same time, it is Ugresic’s sly chance to caption the photographs in case the reader missed the meanings; the hag as icon for female old age; as projection of mysogynist fears; as the degraded image of the Goddess defeated by Patriarchy (Here’s a writeup of a book group discussion focusing on these themes with Timmi Duchamp, editor of Aqueduct Press, a publishing house for feminist science fiction.

The thing is, while Ugresic pre-emptively incorporates and mocks her interpreter, she also invokes her own interpretation in the narrative sections, repeating and self-consciously questioning figures of eggs, birds, and flowers; beauty and tawdriness; eloquence and dumbness, magic and prose. She’s warning us off of interpretation but herself can’t stay away.

In the age of the internet, the traditional form of the book review is dead; but people still haven’t gotten the memo. In Goodreads, there are 28 “reviews” of the book, taking the form of a brief outline and summary, perhaps a quote, and then the author’s declaration of opinion. The form assumes that the reader hasn’t read the book, needs an introduction, but wants to avoid spoilers. The obsolete form is particularly annoying with this book which invites and resists its own explication.

Competing on moderation

In Google+, internet celebrities are again competing based on the size of their follower count. But I wonder whether there’s going to be a different criterion by which posters compete for attention on G+ as people get used to the service.

Recently, Anil Dash wrote an excellent post about the responsibility of site owners to moderate the comments on their sites – If your website’s full of assholes , it’s your fault. Anil takes to task publishers of online news sites who allow their comments sections to fill with hostility and abuse. A year ago, Robert Niles made a similar point – sites need to take responsibility for their comments, and those that don’t want to invest in their comments should turn them off. The Tummelvision crew have been evangelizing the need and value of “tummelling, a word adapted from a Yiddish word for someone hired to MC a party, applied to facilitating conversation and engagement online.

In Google+, like blogs and unlike Twitter, each post becomes the anchor for a comment stream. A poster’s followers can chime in and discuss. Currently, G+ posters have a few basic tools to moderate their stream – they can remove comments, and report users who are adding spam or abuse.

Some high-profile posters have the hang of facilitating a conversation. They participate, interact with others, respond to points in the discussion, and to the tone of contributions. The participants in some threads are good conversationalists – they respond to each other. When they disagree, they’re polite. In other posters’ discussions, participants race to state their own opinion, and don’t interact with each other. Comments aren’t a conversation but a serial monolog. In some posters’ discussions, hostile comments such as personal attacks and sexist remarks are met with disapproval and warning, in other discussions they go by unremarked and continue.

Many have observed that one of the distinctive aspects of Google+ compared to other social media is engagement – participants share, +1, and comment more actively than on other sites. Will the quality of moderation and community become one of the factors that distinguishes posters to Google+? Will posters with better discussions gather more and better engagement over time?

The quality of engagement certainly makes a difference to my online choices. I love Ta Nehisi Coates blog partly because of his fantastic writing and engagement with the topics he takes on, and in part because he’s attracted maybe the best comments section I’ve seen on the internet. As a moderator, he is not shy about using the ban hammer, and also holds high standards for posters on the site to respond to each other, not to straw man arguments, and to interact with respect. On Google+, I make choices about which threads to enter because of the style of the community I expect from the poster.

Will the quality of discussion become a more important factor for posters in Google+?

GAFFTA Summer of Smart – transportation and sustainability hacks

Bring together a bunch of hackers, open government data, some government pros and the desire to improve sustainability and transportation, and what do you get? Last weekend, the Summer of Smart program at GAFFTA (Gray Area Foundation for the Arts) in San Francisco yielded seven cool hack projects. At the end of the hackathon, each team presented about their projects:

Two of the hacks used building data to visualize the green-ness commercial and residential buildings.

*GoodBuildings.info:* Building tools that let prospective commercial tenants and brokers view the great features of the building to drive demand for eco-friendly buildings. Discover performance on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, walk/bike/transit, and occupant rating. They use data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, walkscore.com, publicopenspaces. Much of the data is not available, so they build an API to get data by address. They build a widget that could be used on 3rd party websites, such as LoopNet, a tool to discover commercial properties for rent. One of the challenges is getting enough rating data available. Currently the solar data is closed, so they will ask to make that available. They also give buildings a transparency score to encourage buildings to provide more information.

*PermitThis* takes data from building permits on data.gov to create a picture of green building retrofit history. Over 65% of San Francisco housing stock was build in 1959 or earlier, and areas of the city vary greatly in how close they are to current code. There are 15 years worth of data – they scraped the last month for the weekend project. A lot of data is released in messy excel spreadsheets.

Two of the hacks were about transportation:

*Improved trouble ticket handling for Muni* Operators don’t want to use the current system because they feel they will get reprimanded for dealing with the problem. Muni has a plan to upgrade the radio system in 3-5 years, which is 1.27 billion boardings. The app shows a troubled train on a map and makes the information available to decision-makers. The app has automatically generated trouble tickets (for example, a train has long dwell time) and user-generated trouble tickets. The app also shows a dashboard view of all trouble tickets. This would be integrated into the NextMuni line manager laptop.

*Transanka* Event ridesharing for EventBrite events – parties, conferences, concerts. Choose an event, indicate your location, and show if you’re riding, driving, or either. Then click to contact someone traveling to the event.

Just that weekend, I had been looking into ridesharing apps for a local environmental nonprofit that wanted to facilitate ridesharing for its events. I hope this app gets built out and gets traction – there’s a need for it.

Two of the hacks were games:

*TheNeighborhoodGame.com* is a game to promote resilient communities by encouraging neighbors to meet each other. People can win points by giving a neighbor a high five, meeting a farmer at a farmers market, spot a solar panel, make street art with chalk, give a gift, learn some local history, or get someone to dance with them. They got prizes from local merchants and played the game in the NOPA neighborhood. And everybody wins by making friends in their neighborhood. They played the game this weekend, and people did every activity, including impromptu dance parties. People wanted to take the cards with them – they want to meet neighborhoods but need an excuse to do it.

*Going Green* is a board game that educates people about financial benefits of going green including financial rebates. Each player character is a San Francisco neighborhood, each with its own strength. Players can choose to take actions like adding solar panels and ride sharing programs. The winner is the player that has the most environmental impact.

And there was one advocacy app.

*Speak.com* _The Call Wall_ is an app to call a representative and record an mp3 of the call that is placed on the site. They use Sunlight and VoteSmart databases for representative contact info. They are looking to use SoundCloud as the audio sharing backend.

The promise of Google+ for organizing

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on the trouble with Facebook for organizing.

As the dominant online social network, Facebook is the place where activists and organizers have flocked to help their movements spread. Given the role that Facebook and Twitter played in actual revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, this can’t be understated! Social media are powerful tools for organizing, proved. (Although social media didn’t cause the revolution, and techies can overstate the influence of technology in the organizing work that people do).

Yet there is still a key limitation in Facebook’s model that keeps it from being as powerful as it could be. It’s hard to get to know people on Facebook. The Facebook model, where a friend needs to approve a friend request, is designed for people who already know each other. It’s awkward for people who don’t know each other to to talk to each other, and it’s not very socially acceptable to “friend” someone you don’t know in real life.

Facebook groups overcome this limitation to some extent. In a topically focused group, it’s accepted to talk to others in the group you haven’t met yet; the invitation bridges the gap. But there is still a big barrier to getting to know new people.

Another problem with Facebook for organizers is that as an organizer, you don’t know who people are unless you friend them personally, which is uncool and impossible for large movements. With Google+, you can see people’s profiles. And as a participant, you can also choose what facets of your identity to share with whom. Powerful and ethical, the best of both worlds.

In Twitter, it is easy and socially acceptable to follow someone without following them back. You can become familiar with someone’s tweets, and use gestures like retweet and reply to get their attention and make their acquaintance. But it Twitter back-and-forth conversation is painful and next-to-impossible. So Twitter is better for broadcast than conversation and meeting people.

Google+ design choices, by contrast, make it easy, appealing, and fun to make the acquaintance of new people. Unlike Twitter, conversation is easy to see.

A post is read by the people following the poster, so a conversation will typically have people you don’t know, and new people are quickly chatting amongst each other. It’s easy to take a quick peek at someone’s profile, and see something about them, and what else they contribute. G+ has an asymmetrical model like Twitter, so there’s no social obligation imposed by following. If you choose not to follow someone, their posts still appear in a special “incoming” stream unless you block them, so you can make the decision later.

So Google+ is not just for spreading the world within existing social networks (a la Facebook) and not just for broadcasting, it’s for creating new connections.

Why new connections are important

Malcolm Gladwell was roundly criticized for his ill-informed critique of online organizing as mere “slacktivism”, lightweight action among people with weak ties. In his view, real organizing only takes place among people who know each other well in the physical world. So, the civil rights movement, where organizing traversed the social networks in the African-American church, was an example of real, powerful organizing.

Of course, Tahrir Square showed that was wrong, but why? The principle to learn from the civil rights movement isn’t that movements travel through churches, but that they travel through existing social networks. Facebook traces real social networks and strengthens those networks according to a recent study by Pew Research. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s sociological analysis seemed to show that contemporary folk were more isolated and less organized than in the past. If so, Pew’s finding is showing that online connections these days are strengthening our actual social ties.

There are several flaws in Gladwell’s argument. First, as a strong critique in the Nation points out, connections in Facebook and Twitter include real world strong ties, not just weak ties.

Not only that, weak ties are what allow ideas (and protests) to spread among small groups of close contacts. In the civil rights movement, networks among church leaders and progressive leaders allowed ideas and plans to spread among churches and communities, and media coverage fuled the fire The weak tie connections in social media allow this spread to happen quickly.

The Nation article also critique’s Gladwell’s point that online groups can only “swarm”, they can’t do more complex organizing. It uses the example of the Obama campaign that was hyper-disciplined about managing volunteers and giving them specific actions to do.

Gladwell’s argument is wrong even in his core argument about how classic organizing worked. A key part of organizing is building the social network, not just traversing the existing network. Union organizers created songs, social halls, and workers schools to increase the social connections among workers, to help workers, of course, and to solidify those social connections that would help them organize. Google+, if it takes off, can help people to extend ties, not just to work within existing ties.

What’s missing, and what could be next

“If it takes off” is a crucial caveat. What makes Facebook so powerful is critical mass. In many parts of the developed world, everyone is there. In Egypt, a relatively small number of poeple were online, but people online were able to share tactics with each other and spread them to people who were not online. Google+ needs a large following among nongeeks in order to become effective. The rapid growth is promising, but it’s early.

Google+ is missing two critical features to make organizing really powerful. Google+ doesn’t yet have shared groups. Currently it only has “circles” which are set up by individuals to control what they read and what they share. The good thing about this is that I can have a “Circle” of people that are interested in local transit issues, and I don’t need to bore people who are out of town or uninterested.

But the bad thing is there isn’t a way for a set of people to mutually share about a topic or for others to easy discover and join. In Friendfeed you can search for public groups; in Yahoo groups, you can also browse a directory and find groups you’re interested in. It would be great if you could search or browse for public groups, and if you could choose to have public groups appear on your profile, if you want to let others know.

Another gap in the Google+ model for sharing is the lack of hashtags or topic filtering. With Google+, you can only control posting and listening by person, not by topic. Adding tag/topic filtering will make it much easier for people to choose what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. It will make it easier to have advocacy without spam.

Another major opportunity is for decentralized but coordinated action. The Nation article gives examples of the Obama campaign and MoveOn campaigns that centrally coordinate large amounts of local action. But Obama volunteers and MoveOn house parties don’t have very much autonomy, and there aren’t good ways today for groups to work separately but together. That’s hugely promising, and Google’s circles and upcoming APIs could make this easier. This is a rich topic for its own blog post, so I’ll stop here and pick that up in another post.

I’m excited by the potential Google+, as a social network, and as it matures, a potentially powerful platform for organizing.

My Mom craves Google+

On Google+ the other day, I was reading a long discussion thread about what “normal” people would think about Google and Facebook and privacy and circles, and my mom called.

My mom sells houses in the Philadelphia area, and she asked me for a Google+ invitation, because her real estate colleagues were discussing it at work. Most real estate business comes from referrals, so agents use Facebook and LinkedIn to stay in touch with former clients.

When I asked her about why she’d be interested in Google+ compared to Facebook, she said: “”They were thinking that Google would be better than Facebook because it would be easier to categorize people.” In particular, she is concerned about what she shared with whom. “People don’t have to know politically where I’m coming from, you have to be very cautious about what you say.” She doesn’t want to talk about politics with her potential customers looking on.

This is a counterexample to Robert Scoble’s hypothesis that “Mom and Dad” don’t care about choosing who you share with and are perfectly fine with Facebook as it is. Yishan Wong, formerly of Facebook, posted a sophisticated variant of this opinion on Quora, saying that on Facebook people assume they are talking to their friends, and if someone is not included in the conversation, they should have the social graces to stay out of it. But that’s not how my mom saw it, she didn’t assume that if she talked about Barack Obama, that everybody who didn’t happen to be her political buddies would stay out of it. She assumed controversial topics would start arguments, and people who weren’t in the conversation would make judgements, and that wasn’t a good thing.

My Mom is not in the tech world, has never heard of TechCrunch, has no idea who Robert Scoble is. Using “women” in general as a proxy for nongeeks is a bad idea, by my mom in specific is a nongeek. The Facebook sharing dilemma is part of her life, and she’s looking forward to Google+ to help solve it. Facebook’s List UI to control sharing would be too complicated for her to use, and it will be very interesting to see if she finds circles easy to handle.

The techie stereotype that people don’t care and won’t bother is condescending – it will be interesting to see how my mom and other nontechies react when they get hold of Google+.

Eager for Google+ API – circles for social applications

Yesterday I was meeting with the founder of startup building a new volunteer organizing tool. The tool itself is trying to provide a simple way for volunteers to get things done together, to do more substantial work than simple “clicktivism.” But the tool had very limited functionality for setting up circles of volunteers to hand out tasks.

Then, I started playing around with turntable.fm. I wanted to start a channel and share with people who have some similar musical tastes.

The missing functionality, in both cases, wasn’t just finding and inviting individuals (which could be done by integrated with Facebook). It was the ability to share functionality and stuff with sets of people. For both of these very different tools, it would be a major drain to have to build this user and group management functionality. I think there is powerful potential for Google+ to provide an API that gives sharing and collaboration services access to Circles, and gives people the ability to share richer capabilities with people in their circles.

There are a few big risks to the realization of this vision. The first is – are large numbers of people going to understand it? Google Wave was a flop because nobody in their right mind understood conversations where you could easily go back and revise somebody else’s words in the past. It blended synchronous and async conversation in ways that nobody understood. It was a mindwarp.

Google Circles’ basic affordance is parceling people into groupings, which is straightforward. Those groupings can be used both for filtering a stream, and for targeted communication and sharing. Will this dual role make sense to people?

One key missing feature the lack of “symmetric” groups – groups that everyone can see who’s in. Google’s circles are currently only visible to their creator, which makes them helpful as filtering tools but awkward for sharing and collaboration where people want to know who they are talking to. But if Google had both asymmetric circles (where only the creator sees who’s in them) and symmetric circles (where everyone can see who’s in), would people understand the nuances or would it get too complicated?

Google definitely did the right thing by releasing the application before the platform. Another weakness of Wave is that it tried to be a platform before there were any working applications, and so there was no evolutionary pressure to create basic services that were known to be useful. By releasing G+ as an app, Google can evolve it based on participant feedback, and the resulting API services will be more useful.

In the first few hours of playing, I’m enjoying Google+. I think the social internet would benefit hugely from Circles as a service. And time will tell whether it gets the core traction it needs to get moving. If it does, a platform could really take off and be a major benefit for the social web.