Bay area identity

At the Backfence event, the Backfence people were setting up a Palo Alto focused site, but folks in attendence felt like their geographic identity spanned Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Which set me musing on Bay Area identity. I haven’t been here that long, so this observation could be either trivially obvious or wrong. But it seems to me that Bay Area folk have an interesting composite regional identity. There’s a part of one’s identity that’s affiliated with a town: Palo Alto, Half Moon Bay, Fremont, Berkeley. There’s part of the identity that is regional; identifying with regional transportation, regional landmarks, other issues that might be going on across the bay. And there’s part of the local identity that is social and/or professional — going to Barcamp in San Francisco or Blogher in San Jose. Is this right, dead obvious, or wrong?
It would be interesting to have a tagged and geocoded service that let you pick or zoom to the appropriate level of geographic and topical interest, and didn’t constrain you to one of them. Out of the various services I’ve seen, Yelp does a pretty good job of allowing you to find things by genre, and within an x mile radius of a particular place.

Blogher: business, party, or movement?

I went to Blogher on Friday and Saturday, and had a blast. The Hyatt San Jose on First Street has a weird blowzy appearance, but the snacks’n’drinks area sorrounding the large pool, with shady side gazebos, was just perfect for extended hanging out. I saw friends from out of town and across town, met some new folk, got a good lead on a contractor for a work project, went to a good panel billed on political blogging, where the best discussion was about hyperlocal blogging.
Blogher has clearly grown up, gone mainstream, and reaped the benefits of good old-fashioned commercialism. I heard there were over 750 people. Last year, I was somewhat surprised by the outpouring of interest in making money from one’s blog. The blogging I’ve done has been affiliated and complementary with various professional and avocational activities. I’ve thought about blogging as a way of connecting with people and getting the word out, but never about making money directly. The Blogher crew have tapped a vein of demand to make blogging an economically sustaining activity for bloggers by creating an ad network. And they’ve clearly tapped an interest among mainstream marketers for the niche that used to be filled by women’s magazines. This resulted in jarring yet archetypal combinations of conference schwag — the weight watchers propaganda next to the mineral water next to the condoms . Meanwhile, one of the keynote speakers talked about her daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder.
I’m glad to see that people who were seeking economic support for blogging are getting it. The reinvention of the magazine industry around ad networks for independent writers with two-way comments and linking is not a bad thing and a step forward. The commercializing and mainstreaming of Blogher was disapointing to some of my friends who looked back nostalgically to the previous year when Blogher felt less like a commercial venture and more like a movement. There were definitely some real deficits – the crowd looked more prosperous and paler than average, and didn’t have lots of younger folk — there are probably pricing, scholarship, and outreach choices that would make the event accessible to a greater diversity of people. I’m not going to go down the liberal guilt path and say that an event with middle class people is not worth doing, just that more accessibility is better.
There were birds of a feather sessions and networking opportunities, so folk who want to gather around minority interests could. I didn’t find the commercialism to be censoring of things that I might say, including criticism of the product pitches at the closing session (I counted four) and the Cadilac Escalade promotion in the age of global warming and peak oil.
So, Blogher this year was an expression of our culture, with connection, culture and consumerism intertwingled. The universe of peer media is combining with commerce; the various permutations will have differing combinations of integrity. Overall, I came to Blogher expecting to have fun and connect, and did. Overall, I felt that the conference had some of the ambiguities of our culture, but the sum was a good thing and a good time.

How community is community news?

I went to a strange community meeting a few weeks ago BackFence is a site that publishes citizen-generated community news. This is the company that acquired Dan Gillmor’s Bayophere venture. They are new in Palo Alto and want to get the word out. The CEO, community manager, and development manager stood up at the front of the room wearing jackets. They gave a polished series of frontal presentations about the value and importance of bottom-up, community-generated news.
As it turns out, the folks included leaders from Palo Alto’s active community groups and moms’ groups. Interestingly, their main problem wasn’t that they didn’t get enough news — there are apparently very active listservs for the various neighborhood associations. THeir needs were getting word out to a wider audience. Also, getting locally powerful groups, like city council and real estate developers to pay attention to citizen concerns.
The questions for the audience tended toward condescention, “do any of you have any hobbies”? (I was waiting for someone to say, “I’m on a nobel slection committee”, or I’m on the boards of two schools and a church,” “I’m precinct captain of a political party”, that sort of thing. At times, speech used the language of advertising demographics, “a lot of our users in Virginia are “soccer moms.” Right, and the soccer moms also run the pta and the local fundraising, or take their kids to soccer in a break from software coding.
The audience sat silently. Slowly, people in the audience started to speak up. Many of the comments were feature requests — one person wanted different sorts of ratings, another person wanted to be able to control how the boxes on the portal appeared, another person wanted to tone down the blinking advertisements.
The feature requests struck me as thoroughly beside the point. The value of Backfence, if it takes off, is the telling of stories that are undercovered in existing media. The role of the instigators, then, would logically be to kick off a conversation about what people wanted to write and read about. By putting a screenshot up and describing features, the Backfence team positioned themselves as software providers rather than community enablers.
Attendees also commented that the focus on Palo Alto created an unnatural separation of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. At least three of the people in the room lived in Menlo; one of the mom’s groups was Palo Alto/Menlo Park, the sports leagues cross the town boundaries, social groups and cultural activities flow smoothly across the towns. The areas are politically separate but culturally linked. The CEO asked us to post that to Backfence, so they could consider making the change. It wouldn’t be hard to have a system that used tagging or geocoding to allow users to define the boundaries of their own community; it was irksome that the vendor was trying to define the boundaries of our community for us.
The Backfence presentation was totally different from my previous experience with a community portal. grew out of get-togethers of local bloggers. We wanted to have a shared space to post about austin. So we gathered around tables at Mozarts, Brick Oven pizza, Spider House and chatted about the functionality and the rules. With Chip Rosenthal as tech lead and site host, and others including Adam Rice, David Nunez and me, we got started simply. We added features when it seemed like they were needed.
Austinbloggers is noncommercial, community governed, and the tools are released open source. Having a commercial community portal doesn’t bother me that much. It takes some money to keep a server running and keep spammers away. As long as I own my copyright and am free from spam — and those are their non-evil policies — I’m ok with a money-making site. There’s more of a problem making money off of someone else’s words. The BlogHer ad network, by contrast, shares the wealth, giving a majority share to the bloggers.
The governance issues are more troubling. To play a role in Austinbloggers, I showed up and tried to be useful. Probably the best way to a role in Backfence governance is to apply for a job — there was no obvious way to have a say other than market research. Backfence (and BlogHer) would benefit from going more of the DailyKos route, with additional front page editors chosen from among the community, with the power to make or promote posts to the front age.
In general, peer content is getting mixed with commerce in a variety of ways. In order to be accepted, the vendor needs to have the right level of respect for the community and contribution to the community. The niche that Backfence is attempting to occupy is an important and powerful one. If they don’t succeed at it, someone will. I’ll check in at Backfence to see if something interesting is going on, but will be seeking models of community media that provide more room for the community.

Why isn’t Saudi oil production decline headline news

More confirming reports are out that Saudi oil production has been down for a couple of months, while their orders of new drilling rigs have been going through the roof. A completely unscientific poll of my reasonably well-informed friends and acquaintances reveals that nobody has heard of this. This isn’t proof of peak production, but it seems rather ominous. This series seems at least as worthy of headline attention and anticipation as the federal reserve interest rates and George Bush’s poll numbers.

Great CEO blogging from John Mackey

Journalist Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey are having a wonderful public dialog about the organic supermarket chain living up to its values. The first Whole Foods response to the Omnivore’s Dilemma was good — it acknowledged Pollan’s critique, and provided substantive information about Whole Foods’ role in the growth of organic food, and some decent information about Whole Foods support for local agriculture. But it also read like it was written by 10 people in 30 drafts, with old-school marketing folk giving it a few good swipes with the marketing-speak polishing rag. It didn’t acknowldge room for improvement — it focused on defending Whole Foods history and policies. The bit about animal treatment standards sounded particularly phoney and substance-free.
Pollan wrote back with a respectful letter, re-asserting some of his criticisms about local suppliers and the treatment of animials in the name of shared values, and encouraging Whole Foods to use its power to lead. Mackey’s latest response to Pollan’s letter is much better in substance and in tone. Whole Foods is making substantive changes in response to Pollan’s critique. Mackey acknowledges that it has been hard for them to find suppliers who treat animals well. So Whole Foods hired someone to be in charge of sourcing meat from farms with better standards. They have also created a financing arm to supply low-cost credit to farmers who want to supply Whole Foods. Mackey also acknowledges that the move to regional distribution has lost some suppliers, and Whole Foods is increasing the charter for individual stores to buy locally.
Mackey’s letter also sounds more human, and more like a manager taking responsibility for his business. This is what Mackey says in response to the report that some Bay area farmers stopped selling to Whole Foods. “Whole Foods Market would like to try working again with any of the Bay Area farmers you know who are unhappy with Whole Foods Market and no longer sell to us. Please encourage them to contact our Northern California and Pacific Northwest Produce Director, Karen Christensen, at 415-307-5337 about selling directly into our stores again. You’ve also got my e-mail address. Please encourage those farmers to contact me directly via e-mail (but don’t give my e-mail address out to anyone else, please) if they don’t want to talk to Karen. I want to talk to them. Thanks.”
In the second letter, Mackey answers the question about sourcing food internationally in terms of values. The first letter described the long distance sourcing policy as simple response to customer demand. Customers want asparagus in December, so we need to supply them. The second letter explains that organic food production offers farmers in poor countries better income, healthier working conditions without toxic pesticides, and improves soil degraded by non-organic market agriculture. One might disagree with the result on balance — the costs of subsidized transport, vs. the benefits of organic agriculture around the world — but the answer has integrity.
Mackey still doesn’t answer Pollan’s question — what is the share of local food in dollars, not just in number of farms. You’d expect to see a larger number of local farms, but that doesn’t say anything about the proportion of food they offer.
Overall, though, this is a great example of blogs supporting meaningful public dialog, and, if Whole Foods does what they say, using the conversation to make the world a bit better.