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.

Organizing lessons

Over the last year I’ve been doing a bit of grass roots organizing. Although organizers these days have some nifty new tools, I suspect that the basics of organizing are fundamentally the same as they’ve been for ages. Lately, I’ve been reading some books on the history of the US civil rights movement, for remedial education, and insights into principles of organizing.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve taken:

*Organizing traverses existing groups and social networks.* Aldon Morris’ book describes how the civil rights movement spread within African-American churches, protests were organized in church networks, and practices were shared across geographical areas through networks of ministers. Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander School, observed how movements spread across a wider variety of groups, such as union committees, coops, and community organizations.

Some social media fans believe that the age of groups is over and done with; from now on, movements will spread only through personal social networks. I find this hard to believe; personal networks are great for spreading ideas and attracting new people, but groups are still important for people to affiliate, for sharing culture, and for organizing complex practices. Individuals will invite their friends to a bike ride or share a link to call legislators to protect bike lane funding. But a bicycle group is helpful for holding parties, for providing city cycling lessons, for coordinated advocacy over time.

* Organizing is work.* There is a myth that the civil rights movement represented a spontaneous overflowing of emotion. But the day after Rosa Parks was arrested, organizers had 35,000 mimeographed flyers with boycott instructions ready to go. The organizers had already created detailed plans for the protest, building on a previous bus boycott.

* Build local leadership, and a network of leaders* The philosophy of the Highlander School, and SNCC from Highlander, was to cultivate leadership among people, and train trainers. This helps the movement spread, and sets the stage for longer-lasting change.

The needs for capacity, leadership, and network building were notable in their short supply, in a set of events on Bay Area transit and land use planning that I’ve attended. The events, led by different organizations, provided professional-quality presentations, and gave attendees opportunity to discuss and express opinions. But there were no ways to attract interested, capable people into new organizing roles, nor were there good ways for people to initiate action based on the discussions. The events were top-down organized ways of soliciting public opinion, but did not catalyze new leaders and new action. When I asked someone who had reviewed the proposal for one of the events, she observed that “follow-up was not in the grant.”

* Methods depend on the situation.* This is a crucial lesson. Disciples of a movement or leader often seem to imitate the tactics of their heroes. But their heroes themselves chose tactics for the specific circumstances.

Writing about the influence of SNCC on SDS, the largely-white student radical group, Clayborne Carson says that in their idealization of civil rights protestors, the anti-war radicals didn’t realize that SNCC’s protest tactics were aimed specifically at sparking violent opposition from segregationists and triggering rescue intervention from the federal government.

Observing the success of the protest tactics of the civil rights movement, Aldon Morris concludes that direct action protests are more effective than NAACP’s efforts to work through legal channels. But even Stokely Carmichael favor of going through official channels when the petitioners have the power to do so. Once, in an region where black people had already gained influence, Carmichael was approached by a group wanting a road paved. He told them to go to the courthouse instead of holding a protest.

In order to teach African-American adults to pass the literacy tests required for voting, Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins didn’t hold a protest, and they didn’t petition the education system. Instead, they created their own “Citizenship Schools”, taught by literate adults, with curriculum materials designed for the interests of the students, who learned to fill out Sears Catalog order forms and job applications, and learned to read the state constitution.

A protest is warranted when when going through channels won’t work, when there are people in power who are in a position to grant the request, and when the demand is something that one needs to ask for and can’t create oneself.

Attention-getting media tactics work when the story is new and newsworthy, and when the mass media audience will be brought to sympathize with the protest. The 15th annual march for xyz cause isn’t news. And disruptive tactics that an audience will find repellent or annoying are unlikely to have desired results.

*Patience and impatience* The toughest issue to get a handle on is timing. When to be patient, and when to be impatient. In his autobiography, “The Long Haul”, Myles Horton wrote about pushing students at the Highlander school, but also not pushing people further than they could go. The decisions here are based on gut feeling and intuition, and only distant hindsight can say what was successful.

Two books on the US Civil Rights Movement

In Origin of the Civil Rights Movement, sociologist Aldon Morris methodically undermines theories that the US Civil Rights Movement was a spontaneous, unplanned outpouring of discontent, opened by changes in underlying social conditions, swept forward by charismatic leaders in the moment, and funded by privileged classes (Piven/Cloward; Weber; Oberschall).

You probably knew by now that Rosa Parks was no simple old lady yearning to rest her feet after a long day of work – she was a longtime civil rights activist. You may have known – I didn’t – that she had been the secretary of the local NAACP chapter for a dozen years and a founder of the Youth Council which brought direct action to the otherwise legally-focused and bureaucratic organization. The bus boycott was so “spontaneous” that organizers happened to have 35,000 mimeographed flyers with boycott instructions ready to go the day after Parks was arrested.

The famous Montgomery bus boycott was preceded by a similar boycott several years earlier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the black community organized a complete private carpool replacement ride system, free to riders so as not to violate taxi regulations, funded by donations from local churchgoers. In Montgomery, the replacement ride system was designed by letter carriers who knew every street in the city.

The Civil Rights Movement was powered, coordinated, and very largely funded by local networks of black churches. Practices and tactics were transferred by networks of ministers, and activists who connected at social justice retreat centers.

Charismatic leadership was an important aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, not because these leaders sprouted from the medium of chaos at a time of ferment, but because the Black church already had a cultural pattern of charismatic leadership, and these existing leaders already had the ability to engage and mobilize their communities.

Morris identifies exceptions to the “pattern” of charismatic leadership, including Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin; he observes the facts that women were kept out of the highest ranks and away from public visibility; and that Rustin operated behind the scenes because he was gay; but Morris doesn’t connect enough of the dots regarding leadership that actually happened but wasn’t visible because it didn’t fit the model of charismatic masculine leadership.

The forces that triggered the events of the 50s and early 60s weren’t unpredictable like earthquakes. The 50s racist terror campaigns were unleashed in response to the Brown case – the NAACP had been working for years taking school desegregation through the courts, and the repression was intended to punish the community and prevent more integration. The direct action of the 50s and 60s filled a void created by concerted government attacks against the NAACP, which was banned in Alabama for nine years and hamstrung in many other southern states.

Morris shows how the civil rights movement built upon existing social structures, and grew when people organized and took leadership. Yes, and… a belief that movements by “the masses” emerge “spontaneously” is reminiscent of ideas about the primitive and emotional nature of “lower orders”, that is to say, a reflection of the stereotypes held by the supposedly sophisticated and rational theorists. Morris doesn’t go there, but academics flocked there in the decade after “Origins” was published in 84. Perhaps feminist/postcolonial discourse was hampered by lots of big words and bad writing, but it had a point.

I really liked this book not because of the theoretical arguments but because of the history. Aldon Morris gets behind the hagiography to the stories of how African-Americans organized to take down segregation. My favorite story in the book was about Septima Clark and the citizenship schools. Literacy tests were a major barrier preventing black people from registering to vote. So the former schoolteacher, who lost her job because of her NAACP affiliation after teaching for 40 years, organized schools to teach adults to read, starting on Johns Island, South Carolina.

After discussing the opportunity at a Highlander School retreat, Clark, Esau Jenkins, and Myles Horton looked into why adult education efforts had not yet been successful. Turns out that the classes were held in elementary school classrooms, taught by elementary school teachers. Adults felt humiliated sitting at tiny desks, resented the approach of teachers used to dealing with children, and were uninterested in reading elementary school primers. The civil rights activists trained literate adults to teach, taught using material interesting to grownups, like the Sears catalog and the state constitution, and held classes in beauty shops, which were already community gathering places, and weren’t vulnerable to white economic reprisal since beauticians didn’t depend on whites for their business.

SCLC and SNCC, alternate ways of organizing

Aldon Morris’ book on SCLC references Stanford professor Clayborne Carson’s work on SNCC, telling the story of the two civil rights groups’ different approaches from a perspective closer to SCLC. Carson’s In Struggle traces the evolution of SNCC from its emergence in nonviolent organizing to help coordinate student lunch counter desegregation protests, to organizing freedom rides and voter registration drives in the south, through its evolution to a more ideological and pro-violent but less powerful faction.

The SCLC relied on charismatic leadership, with Martin Luther King at the head of the movement. By contrast, SNCC strongly distrusted this model of charismatic leadership. Born out of spontaneous student protests, SNCC maintained a distrust of hierarchy and insisted on freedom of individual thought and action. They provided training and resources for organizers who went out into the field; and considered themselves successful when the outcome of an organizing effort was an institution – school, economic development, political party, that took root on its own. However, SNCC also resisted central organization, to the point that disorganization made it less effective.

At times the organizations and different approaches worked in tandem, at other times in tension. Carson describes episodes where King’s charisma excited people in a region, and SNCC organizers followed up to register voters. Morris’ recounts an unsuccessful boycotts initiative in Albany, Georgia organized by SNCC. The Morris account contends that the SNCC organizers did not enough research about how much targeted businesses depended on black customers, so they underestimated their leverage in negotiations. Also, SNCC had not lined up financial support to bail protesters from jail. They called on SCLC and Martin Luther King for fundraising help, but were very leery that SCLC would get the credit. Tensions between the groups contributed to the civil rights groups negotiating a bad deal with the white leadership, who quickly reneged.

According to Carson, the strength of the SNCC approach was that by including ordinary people in decision-making, local leaders emerged to play longstanding roles in their communities. In one of the most moving stories told by the book, John Hullett and Charles Smith helped organize voting in the deeply racist Lowndes County in the face of violent opposition. In 1970 Hullett was elected sherriff, a year later Smith became county commissioners. In 1978 they ran a slate of 8 black candidates who swept their races, long after the early SNCC organizers lost patience and became radicalized with the slow pace of change.

SNCC’s philosophical individualism helped it resist the pernicious influence of mid-century US anti-communist paranoia. SNCC was notable among left organizations because it didn’t banish communists, despite the constant red-baiting and fears of communist infiltration in the media, government, and legal system.

The two books differ in their portrayal of the role of media strategy in the civil rights movement. Morris focuses on the ways that the SCLC’s organizing efforts achieved local goals with mass mobilization of local people and local resources. It debunks myths that most financial resources and substantial organizational resources for the civil rights movement came from outside help. It de-emphasizes the idea that triggering racist violence was a media strategy intended to shock and appeal to the sympathies of white voters. In particular, Morris contends that Birmingham was chosen as the location for major protests because of the strong local mobilization center led by Rev. Shuttlesworth, not because Bull Connor was liable to be vicious on camera.

By contrast, in describing SNCC’s activism, Carson emphasizes the role of media strategy and appeals to the federal government. Particularly in its voter registration work, SNCC chose places with a high risk of racist violence, banking that media coverage would bring national attention to the violence, and the Johnson and Kennedy administrations would feel compelled to bring federal law enforcement to the rescue.

Before reading Carson’s book, I didn’t know that the Freedom Ride left with 13 activists on board and 3 journalists. The Freedom Rides were were strongly focused on gaining public awareness, and shocking the broad American public with portrayals of racist violence. At the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, as the pictures are shown again, the civil rights organizers’ media strategy is successfully communicating to yet another generation.

Carson’s book illustrates the tensions with the strategy designed to trigger federal action, and the fitful and compromising actions of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. SNCC organizers lost patience with the liberal establishment, and turned to further radicalization. The voting rights acts and civil rights acts, which are taught as the culmination of civil rights struggle – were anti-climactic to SNCC.

Carson does a good job describing the debates and conflicts within SNCC, and the constant evolution as events happened and people’s ideas changed. Carson portrays the transition to the separatist, violent black power era as a decline for SNCC. “Black power” was a slogan that caught on, but it wasn’t accompanied by organized actions or coherent ideology. In Carson’s telling, SNCC turned to extreme rhetoric and ideological infighting after its organizing capability had diminished. Carson does a good job of showing that the excessive attention to the group’s violent rhetoric and thuggish behavior from media and law enforcement came when the “leaders” actually didn’t have many followers anymore.

Even in books that focuses more on method than hagiography, the work of the civil rights organizers is moving and inspiring. Or perhaps especially – I find it more inspiring to learn how change was brought about by people doing things, than by tales of saints being saintly. Plus it’s breathtaking to consider how much risk people took in challenging white supremacy; risk of physical violence, and risk to livelihood.

If you already have a strong background in the history of the US civil rights movement, you know the information and you may know these books. If your knowledge of the civil rights movement comes from headlines and hagiography, I recommend both books.

An Entirely Synthetic Fish

When I was a kid in the 70s, the family went car-camping to visit relatives across the country.  All across the country, there were signs by the highway for trout fishing and rainbow trout. Why were these trout found all over the country? Where did they come from? Why was recreational trout-fishing ubiquitous, like golden arches and HoJos?

Anders Halvorson tells the story in An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World. Starting in the 1870s, an effort began to spread “superior fish” around the country and around the world.  Populations of brook trout on the East Coast were declining as industrial pollution destroyed habitat and warmed streams. Rainbow trout could tolerate higher temperatures and dirtier environments. Advocates of fish stocking argued that spreading hardier fish would solve the problem, since surely it was not feasible to cut the industrial pollution that inevitably accompanied progress.

The spread of fish around the US in the latter 1800s was part of a worldwide movement among colonizing societies to “acclimatize” species  from colonial territories to the old world, and from the old world to the new. Starlings were imported to the US by an eccentric New York drugs manufacturer who believed that US culture would be elevated by exposure to all of the species mentioned in Shakespeare; starlings were among his greatest successes. Halvorson connects the confident dissemination of species around the globe with broader ideologies:

As a philosophy, acclimatization fit well with American ideas of progress and manifest destiny. The white man would rightfully and inevitably replace the native people of the continent, civilization would supplant wilderness, and new plants and animals would ultimately oust their native counterparts. “Our only object can be to improve our fishing, and make our stock of sporting fish, if possible, the best in the world,” wrote one avid promoter of the idea.” Let the best fish, like the best man, win.”

Rainbow trout were considered elite among fish; they were seen as a noble adversary for sport fishing since they were easily attracted to fishing lures and tended to struggle aggressively on the fishing line.  The spread of rainbow trout across the US helped support the rapid growth of fishing as a sport. Fin de siecle promoters were concerned about the decline of white Anglo-Saxon manhood as the upper classes enaged in white collar work while immigrants and African-Americans took over physical labor. Hiking, camping, fishing and other outdoor sports would bolster white masculinity.

Starting in the late 1900s parks started to make money by charging for fishing permits; the trend escalated in the mid-20th century with the federalization of fishing licence fees. The fees from recreational fishing fed a massive rainbow trout hachery and stocking enterprise. After World War II, an enterprising former military pilot experimented and found that fish would survive being dropped from airplanes, and demobilized pilots made their living “planting” fish in lakes and rivers on a grand scale around the country. Fish stocking was extremely popular; fishing hobbyists would beg game services to stock their favorite fishing spot.  By 2004, the US government disseminated over 40 million pounds of fish per year, over half of which consisted of rainbow trout.

But the system started to slowly unravel starting in 1962, when fishing management agencies botched an effort to poison all of the fish in the Green River watershed, covering most of southeastern Wyoming and a chunk of Northwestern Utah. The practice of poisoning existing “inferior” species and replacing them with trout had become routine in the 1950s. The agencies had planned to introduce an antidote to stop the poisoning north of Dinosaur National Monument, a newly minted national park that had recently been saved from development by the rising Sierra Club. But the antidote failed; the fish in the national park were killed, the story made the news, and the seemingly sensible policy of replacing species wholesale never seemed quite so benign again.

Gradually, research into river ecosystems cast increasing doubt on the benefits of stocking lakes and rivers with rainbow trout. In the 1960s, government scientists inventoried fish and realized that restocking waters where trout were already acclimatized actually had a negative return. When new fish were stocked, the newcomers, raised in the crowded hatcheries, aggressively competed with existing fish but didn’t survive long in the wild; the net result was fewer fish, not more fish. Some fisheries started cutting back on fishing in areas where “wild” fish were already doing fine.

In the 1990s, research into the ecosystems of Sierra Lakes, which had no fish until the stocking program, revealed that the introduced fish devastated the populations of frogs, birds and bats. When fish were removed, the other species bounced back.  In many districts today, the fish and wildlife agencies are attempting to gradually reversing the stocking of rainbow trout, and seeking to  restore the balance of earlier species. The restoration can be difficult since Rainbow Trout have interbred with native species. It is difficult to determine which populations have enough of the native species to be worth special efforts to preserve.

“An Entirely Synthetic Fish” joins the short list of my favorite books of environmental history, for the way that reveals strange and changing trends in American society, while unravelling the history of seemingly ordinary fishing spots around the country. Yet the story Halvorson tells reveals that seemingly rational efforts to understand and deal with the natural world were intertwined with human ideologies about ethnicity, gender, and the relation between people and the rest of the natural world. Even contemporary focus on restoring native habitats reflects human-centerered attitude toward nature; in this case the pre-stocking native ecosystem is seen as better, although the continent has seen numerous turnovers of species resulting from introductions and extinctions not caused by people. Activities conducted under the auspices of science, government authority, and popular demand are vulnerable to the follies of their time, which is cause for humility and skepticism about conventional wisdom.