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 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.

The claustrophobia of personalization

This past weekend I watched a couple of movies based on Netflix recommendations which dredged up films that I’d wanted to watch for ages. I liked the movies – Netflix had it right. But the process of trolling through Netflix recs leaves me with a feeling of claustrophobia. I page through screen after screen, recognizing the same attributes I find pleasing. One of the things that I like best is finding new esthetic experiences through the tastes of other people. There needs to be some commonality – I’m not going to like super-violent movies or really schmaltzy ones. But I can expand what I like by experiencing what someone else enjoys. Browsing the Netflix recs created a strange sense of ennui – being bored with my own esthetic.

John Battelle made a related point last fall, when he wrote about the limits of the spread of dependent identity on the web (you can call it “facebookification”). If your identity follows you around to different social contexts, this constrains your ability to approach new social contexts and engage yourself quietly and gradually. He gives the example of listening to a group of cyclists discuss bikes, and having his favorite model immediately shared, rather than disclosing the information gradually. The availability of immediate identity has the potential to make the online world less like an urban area, where there are new social contexts to engage with, and more like a small town, where everyone remembers what you did a decade or two ago.

Battelle suggests that social software patterns should add nuance – the ability to choose when to disclose one’s identity in a new site – to mitigate the chilling effect of premature disclosure The claustrophobia of personalization might be mitigated with different patterns, ways of adding in social influences.

In the early days of the internet, Nicholas Negroponte talked about the promise and the threat of the “daily me” – news services that support the interests and the prejudices of the viewer. Considering total and immediate personalization as the extreme of a continuum, there are interesting opportunities to add back flexibility and diversity to the experience.

When will open ebooks cross the chasm?

Over the weekend, Cory Doctorow wrote and then updated a blog post referring to new and simpler ways of removing DRM from Kindle ebooks.

Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing readers are no strangers to digital rights. In the comments section, many readers explained why they were thankful for the new tools. They want to be able to read ebooks they buy on any device that they own. They want to be able to protect their investment in case they want to buy a different ereader in the future. They understand that the policies of publishers and device makers are hostile to customers, trying to lock customers into a single device platform, and force customers to buy new media when they switch devices.

Doctorow’s readers also are more tech-savvy than the average ereader user. They are able to use command-line scripts and geeky tools, and follow detailed-instructions for multi-step processes. BoingBoing readers are technology early adopters. They understand the limitations of ereaders, and are willing to go through substantial hassle in order turning ebook files into assets they can use in the future.

Twenty years ago, Geoffrey Moore wrote “Crossing the Chasm” the technology marketing classic which described gulf between technology early adopters and mainstream buyers. It can take a long time to bridge that gap. Most buyers of e-readers probably don’t yet know that if they want to buy a different brand, their investment in the ebooks they purchased will be worthless.

It took seven years between Apple’s launch of iTunes and iPod, the first massively popular tools for digital music, and Amazon’s sale of un-encumbered digital music. Only one year later, Apple started offering DRM-free music as a standard offer. In the ebook market, Amazon and Apple are the market leaders, and they have mutually incompatible DRM’s book formats.

How long will it take for the knowledge about the limitations of ereader technology reach the majority of buyers of ebooks? What story will finally break into mainstream media and result in mass awareness that ereader lock-in is bad for buyers? What surge in customer demand, and what competitive trend will cause ebook providers to finally stop inconveniencing customers in the vain hope of longterm lockin?

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a story that adapts childrens’ fantasy novels for grownups, is two stories together.

The inner story in the fantasy frame structure is a thought experiment exploring what happens when you run a children’s fantasy plot with adult characters. Fantasy classics the Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan – create enchanted worlds that are accessible to children – when a character reaches adolescence the magical world is out of reach; or the characters can stay in the enchanted land only if they resist growing up.

In the Magicians, Grossman has characters in their 20s travel to a magical world as adults. This is an opportunity for irony and dark humor. Cute things become dodgy or sinister – there is an alcoholic talking bear and lethal stuffed bunny. Characters can ask some of the logical questions – if character has a time machine, why do they not go back in time to fix problems; if a character is a god, why do they need others to help solve problems and allow suffering in the universe; and what’s the motivation of adults who write childrens fantasy novels anyway?

The adult characters and ironic tone facilitate the political questions implicit in the genre – when humans travel to an strange land and become heroes through combat and leaders by apparent local acclaim, isn’t there an element of colonialism? When there are sides in a conflict, how can you tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys”, or maybe there’s just a civil war, and the humans are being manipulated by the locals.

The inner story, the Narnia takeoff, has flaws as a story. It tries to combine irony and straight up plot, with setup, conflict, combat, and denouement, and does so unevenly. There are time travel mechanics and political machinations, where each development creates different understanding until the whole thing is unravelled at the end. I think the puzzle creation and resolution works well. The story and drama, not so much. But even though the half-parody of the Narnia genre has its flaws, I enjoyed the playing out of the thought experiment.

Where the inner story plays on Narnia and its cousins, the outer frame story plays off of Harry Potter; the characters are students at a college for magicians. But the main references, the way it reads to me, are Yale/Harvard (the author studied at both schools), and novels of GenX anti-coming-of-age.

The campus buildings at Brakebill are retro architecture with details full of stories, the school’s customs are thick with ritual and tradition, the schoolwork itself has appealing substance and rigor, the students are expected to master the discipline and also to grow into adult sexuality, alcohol, and connoisseurship. The elite selection and socialization inculcates participants from a variety of class backgrounds into a ethnicity-free international upper-middle-class, where participants from Europe and South America are known for their accents and locally styled skills, but not any substantive differences.

But when students graduate and are forced to leave this idyll, there is nowhere to go but an empty world where choices are high-paying management consulting, finance, and law; genteel academia; public service taking little bites out of unsolveable problems. Graduates defer vapid adulthood with alcohol and drug-fueled chronic hipsterism. The Brakebills network insulates graduates from the economic consequences of slackerdom, as long as their misadventures are short of fatal.

When students make it through the rigorous selection process to study magic at Brakebills, they leave behind the vapidity of modern life and enter a world where gestures and sounds take on meaning and power, where the mix of diligently acquired craft and self-discovered spirit can transform reality. Magic, yeah sure, Grossman is talking about art in general and literature in particular.

There is an odd exchange in the book, where one of the characters observes that Quentin, the main character “believes in magic”, unlike most of his peers. This is strange, given that magic at Brakebills is indubitably real – characters cast spells that change physical reality. There is no doubt that magic happens in the world of the story. What characters believe in, or don’t, is the meaning of magic, it’s power to rise above the purposeless, emptiness, and misery of life.

The strongest characteristic of Quentin, the main character, is his chronic unhappiness and self-hatred, which he takes out on himself and those around him, an observation that his too-good girlfriend makes explicitly, a weakness in the “show-not-tell” esthetic of fiction, and a handy moral summary for the perhaps-dense reader. This is the allegory of the frame narrative – young artist learns his craft and struggles with the hope that it will redeem life, and the apparent reality that it doesn’t; that life is one thing after another; that misery comes from within, and that being a jerk has consequences.

The Magician explores the tensions between the esthetics of the modern novel (write what you know, often a world without given meaning or morality) and fantasy literature (explore a world of the imagination, where good and evil are explicit). The book is an interesting exploration of the contrasts between those expectations. As in the GenX coming-of-age novels that the frame story resembles, the world of adulthood that the young magicians grow into has sex and drugs and alcohol, but no consequences or responsibilities. That’s a valid fictional world, and a somewhat claustrophobic reading experience.

The High Cost of Free Parking

Why did the US landscape become covered in sprawl in the second half of the 20th century? Why were retail stores located in strip malls and shopping centers where it was impossible to walk, while downtown districts languished? One key reason is that it wasn’t legal to build compact shopping areas, because postwar legal codes quickly added mandatory parking requirements for new buildings. And it wasn’t legal to rehab older buildings and convert them to new uses unless they could retroactively add as much parking as a suburban shopping center. Parking requirements institutionalized the designs we recognize as sprawl.

But, isn’t all that parking needed? In The High Cost of Free Parking UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup explains that the parking requirements used across the US are based on bad data and poor logic. The “bible” used by local planners to set parking requirements, the Parking Generation manual published by the Institute for Transportation Engineers, includes information about parking requirements for hundreds of uses, from fast food restaurants to funeral parlors. Many of the data points in the manual are based on one to four observations – not enough data to mean anything. The classic planners’ rule of thumb for the allocation of parking spaces is based on the square footage of the type of building. But studies show that there is no statistical correlation between the square footage and parking use.

And the logic behind the parking requirements is specious. For each new building, developers are required to build out the amount of parking needed for drivers to easily get a spot at close to the highest use of the year — assuming that parking is provided free to drivers. The prediction for the amount of parking consumed is based on a universal assumption that it is a good that should be free, and always available.

Now, if you ask drivers or merchants if they want free parking, the answer is going to be yes. Same as if you offer free chocolate or free beer. But society doesn’t provide free beer. The cost of “free” parking is built into housing, commercial building, and all other products and services. The High Cost of Free Parking totals up the cumulative value of the free off-street parking subsidy for drivers- it adds up to between 1.2 and 3.6 percent of GDP, larger than Medicare, and near to the amount spent on the US military.

A major contributing factor to sprawl is the assumption of free parking, and the mandatory requirement for developers to provide as much free parking to meet the maximum desire for free parking. This state of affairs isn’t the result of a national policy debate, like debates about whether society should provide health care or education. It just gradually accreted based on an assumption that parking ought to be free for drivers.

The consequence is a landscape covered in parking that is unused 99% of the time and development patterns that make alternatives to driving impractical and unsafe. And, as road planners eventually learned, it is impossible to build one’s way out of traffic. At busy times and places, most drivers aren’t going someplace, they are circling looking for free parking spots, even if there is offstreet parking not that far away.

After laying out the case for the cost and damage caused by ubiquitous free parking, Shoup presents a number of insightful and practical ways to gradually get us out of this jam. To reduce the number of parking spots, employers can offer employees transit passes, and options to take cash instead of a parking spot. Studies of initiatives in Silicon Valley found that transit passes reduced parking by about 20%, and allowing employees to “cash out” their parking allowance reduced parking by another 13%. These results occurred even though alternatives to driving in Silicon Valley are limited – people will use alternatives when it makes sense. Similar initiatives allow businesses and apartment buildings to replace some of their parking requirement by allocating space for car-sharing services, instead of a larger number of private cars.

Instead of requiring developers to build parking spots, some cities are allowing developers to pay cash instead – the money is used to build shared parking that can be more space-efficient than parking for each building, and allows businesses with different time needs for parking, like a bank and a nightclub, to share parking. There are further innovations in parking technology that make it easier to set prices. Digital meters can monitor the use of parking and be used to set a price that will maintain about 15 percent vacancy – a rate that ensure easy entry and exit, without traffic james caused by cruising for parking. San Francisco is experimenting with networked parking meters that charge based on availability. Similar systems have been in place in Aspen since 1995, and such systems are common in Europe.

But how to get around people’s preference and habit for free stuff? Shoup makes a case in favor of creating parking districts that sending the revenue from metered parking to the local neighborhood. This approach has been effective in Pasadena, where downtown renewal in the 80s and 90s was fostered by paid parking, with revenue used to pay for lighting, street furniture, trees, and other other improvements to the local business district.

My motivation to read this book was sparked by a controversy around a downtown redevelopment project in Menlo Park where I live. The proposals call for shorter time limits in the central district, and longer-term paid parking in lots that are a few minutes away, and for eventually replacing some street level parking lots behind the downtown main street with parking structures allowing longer-term paid parking. Local businesses protested vehemently, fearing that charging for parking, and encouraging drivers to park in lots for long visits would chase drivers to other areas. I wondered about the underlying assumptions behind the design, and wondered whether the fears of local merchants were justified.

It turns out that the dire outcomes feared by local businesses didn’t materialize in Pasadena – charging for parking didn’t chase visitors away, and the more attractive, walkable, and less congested downtown generated more business. According to Shoup’s argument, the Menlo Park plan does not go far enough. Instead of restricting parking time at popular locations on the main street, it would be better to charge for parking. For a quick stop the fee would be minimal, and the price would encourage employees and others staying for hours to park in the garage.

Defenders of suburban sprawl often contend that the American landscape has been created by “the free market.” This view ignores the web of policies and subsidies that created the current system. Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier describes the policies that favored highways and new construction over transit and refurbishing older buildings. Shoup’s book explains another important piece of the puzzle – parking requirements that result in overbuilding of parking and major subsidies favoring driving instead of alternatives. Shoup argues that if prices were used to allocate the provision of parking, there would be less oversupply of parking, and more parking available when people need it.

One of my favorite quotes is from biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, “everything is the way it is because it got that way.” There’s a historical trajectory and structural reasons that resulted in things being the way they are. But just because there’s an explainable cause doesn’t mean that the system is easy to change. One of the strengths of the book is that it describes mechanisms to introduce change that could garner support, and brings evidence for many of these mechanisms working in practice.

The High Cost of Free Parking joins a short list of my favorite books that uncover the origins and mechanisms behind aspects of daily life we often take for granted. The book long, and makes its points exhaustively, sometimes repetitively. I’ve summarized the books argument in this post for readers who may not have the attention to get through 700 pages of data and evidence about parking policy. For those who are interested in urban design and environmental issues, the book is enlightening and highly recommended.