Category: Obama

Interviewed for WFMU’s The Dusty Show

I was selling t-shirts in Union Square a few days after “Snowmageddon” and Clay Pigeon of The Dusty Show approached me and asked if I’d like to be interviewed. We covered New Year’s resolutions, Iowa, and Obama in addition to sharing stories about the blizzard that ate Brooklyn. I’m posting an excerpt of the show on Greymatters, but you can listen to the entire 12-30-10 show at WFMU’s website.

General Assembly on The Dusty Show (4.3MB MP3 file)

What’s Good About Social Media?

(An Unintentional Treatise)

I’ve been working on a few new projects this month which have brought me back into the web world. From time to time I get burnt out on web design, but lately I’ve been enjoying being a code monkey.

In both cases, I’m completely redesigning websites that have suffered from benign neglect. In some ways, it’s like cleaning a dirty house – there is a certain amount of satisfaction one gets from seeing everything put in its place. The text gets dusted off and freshened up, the broken links get swept away like cobwebs.

What’s changed from when I first started designing websites is that now there is such an increased emphasis on integrating social media and distribution channels. Not that Facebook or YouTube even existed when I first started coding HTML, but back in the day, adding links to IMDB for films was a perk, an extra. Today it seems almost mandatory, and I’m thinking that it is not so much that the technology has changed, but rather that the public’s expectations have.

Social media is one of the ways in which users can make sense of the internet’s vast overwhelmingness. Years ago, Wired magazine put out a poster which mapped out most of the websites that existed on the internet. It was about the size of a movie poster when unfolded, and there were actually spaces in between all the listings.

Today, if an editor proposed mapping the web, it would lead to uncontrollable laughter or hysterical tears. There is just too much information out there, which is why search engines have become such an important battleground for tech companies.

Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and widget-based platforms allow users to tag, categorize and customize information and have it delivered to them in a method of their choosing. E-mail alerts, news feeds, and sharing links are not new, but they way that they have been integrated into web-based platforms have increased their prominence.

I used to work in a movie theater, and we had regulars, like most places. With certain people, I knew what they were going to order before they had finished buying their ticket. If they arrived late, I could have a cup of coffee with cream and a small popcorn ready by the time they got inside the lobby. I might be able to tell them about an upcoming film because I had a sense of what kind of movies they liked to see.

Social media at its best can operate in the same way, by anticipating our needs or alerting us to new things that we may want to know about based on our past preferences. It’s not only a time saver, but it gives us a sense of familiarity, of home on the web.

Of course, sometimes social media is poorly understood by its creators, too heavy handed in its execution, and ends up seeming Big Brotherish to the end user. It’s basically the difference between offering the user a bite to eat and force feeding them a sandwich.

So far, I’ve written about ways in which technology allows us to customize what is essentially a passive experience. However, I’m much more interested in the ways in which blogs, news feeds and technologies like Twitter have added an active dimension to web surfing.

When I was in grad school, I was very interested in the dynamics of media distribution. (I know, I’m a hopeless geek.) TV and radio, I learned, were a one-to-many model, with viewers getting their information from a centralized source.  According to theorists at the time, the internet was supposed to be a game changer, allowing consumers to “talk back” to their media in a whole new way.

This was hardly my idea of a utopian media environment. I didn’t want the ability to tell the TV networks their programming sucked, I wanted to create my own network and distribute my own content. Unfortunately, having a web page in a sea of web pages is like trying to give a speech in a crowded room where everyone is talking. Only people with bullhorns or microphones get heard, and on the internet, large corporations and media conglomerates were the ones with all the bullhorns.

Blogs have become the technological equivalent of a battering ram, able to break through the artificial barriers that separate the amateur from the professional. It is most apparent in the political sphere, where upstarts from Talking Points Memo or Daily Kos are now given entry to White House briefings along with well-marinated reporters like Helen Thomas.

Recently the New York Times had a hilarious article highlighting the tension between old and new media in the fashion industry. The reporter profiled bloggers -mere kids, for that matter – who had such a following that they were outshining fashion industry luminaries from Vogue and Elle. One blogger from the Philippines (gasp!) was even seated a few seats away from Anna Wintour at a D & G fashion show in Milan. I’m afraid the barbarians are at your velvet-trimmed, Swarovski-encrusted gates, my dear!

What we’re witnessing is the beginning of  a media upheaval, a re-balancing of power in which information is not a closely held commodity to be doled out to the masses in pre-digested chunks, and the conversation is not limited by viewpoints favorable to corporate interests.

The technological upstart Twitter was initially derided by old media (“Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity” said the UK’s Times Online). It was, however, one of the primary ways that dissidents within totalitarian Iran could quickly communicate and coordinate in the days following what many viewed as a deeply flawed election.

Citizen journalists have been some of the harshest critics not only of the banking mismanagement which led to last year’s economic crisis, but also some of the most dogged investigators of the TARP program which was meant to speed economic recovery, but seems to have primarily ensured that many banking executives got their bonuses on time.

Social media has been maligined by the mainstream media as a forum for trivialities and ego-driven babble. And although it can be that as well, the technologies that are all lumped together under the social media umbrella can be powerful tools for activism, journalism and civic participation.

It is about more than sharing pictures of Hannah Montana, or any other artificially manufactured pop tart, it can be about telling truth to power. Ultimately, it depends on what you do with it.

Things that are pissing me off:

1 ) Joe Lieberman
2 ) The right wing’s disingenuousness and prideful ignorance. Beck is only the tip of the stupid iceberg
3 ) 30 Democrats voted against prescription drug reimportation recently that would have resulted in cheaper medicines for Americans.
4 ) Banking lobbyists are launching a campaign to crush financial reform, probably with our tax dollars
5 ) The wall-to-wall media coverage of Tiger Woods’ affairs, at the expense of any other serious story on the planet
6 ) Bernanke is Time Mag’s Person of the Year
7 ) Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill gets support from the US evangelical movement and conservative politicians
8 ) Insurance industry recission means if you miss a payment, your policy can be cancelled
9 ) That the media actually takes the US Chamber of Commerce seriously after stunts like this, rather than lumping them together with the LaRouchites and Tea Baggers
10 ) Bigots who, for all intents and purposes, should be too moronic to breathe without external assistance

Pres. Obama’s address to schoolkids

I’m mortified that the school district where I grew up has opted not to show the President’s speech (transcript). So I wrote an angry letter to the Superintendent and our local paper:

Dr. Theron J. Schutte,

As a graduate of BHS, a student School Board representative (’85), and News Editor of the Growl (’86), I was shocked to hear that the Bettendorf Community School District would not be showing the President’s speech during class time.

It is deeply embarrassing to me that BCSD would buy into the idea that somehow President Obama’s speech is controversial. The outcry is rooted solely in right-wing paranoia and the ravings of TV pundits/lunatics. BCSD, by limiting Obama’s address, gives credence to outlandish partisan fears that the speech will “indoctrinate” our youth. This would be comically laughable, except that it shows what little faith the district has in Bettendorf’s students, teachers, and the quality of education that you provide.

Regardless of what the actual content of the President’s speech is, it provides teachers with a rare opportunity to engage students in a lesson in civics. Did BCSD refuse to show former President Bush’s address to school children in 1991?

In my opinion, restricting ANY Presidential address seems anathema to providing a quality education. If the District is kowtowing to “concerned” parents with regressive (read: racist) political views, then you have stewarded BCSD onto a slippery slope. Will the District in the future stop teaching that the world is round based on parental pressure? Will you move the District away from teaching about evolution? Is future BCSD curricula to be decided by mob rule?

BCSD, like any school district, is charged with educating students by encouraging the free exchange of ideas and information. If you and the rest of the District’s decision makers are unable to stand up to base political pressure from a vocal and cynical minority, then I would strongly encourage you to consider retirement.

Superintendent Schutte emailed me this reply today:

A couple things played into my decision to leave the viewing and/or use of the President’s message up to the discretion of the Buildings and/or teachers. One was that for some reason, we received very late notice, in comparison to other schools, that this event was taking place. The first we heard of it was this Thursday though other Districts received email notification 3-4 weeks ago. I did not feel it was appropriate to direct a mandatory viewing and have each building and/or classroom adjust their schedules, on such short notice, for this purpose. I felt comfortable with that position, given the nature of the presentation, that it could be used at any time, especially in the near future, and would have its desired impact. I also felt that with one message geared to Kindegarten thru College Prep students that it may be deemed more appropriate to use certain portions of the message with particular age groups and/or classes vs. showing the whole message. I appreciate your input.

Noted Without Comment

Steven Pearlstein, Republicans Propagating Falsehoods in Attacks on Health-Care Reform,  in today’s Washington Post:

“The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they’ve given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They’ve become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.”

Angry Mob Inc.

This angry mob brought to you by the GOP, Conservatives for Patients Rights and health insurance lobbyists. Any similarity to an actual grassroots movement is purely coincidental. Agitate only as directed. May cause high blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, boils, angry face, loss of democracy and numbness of the brain. If outrage lasts more than four hours, contact your representative immediately and ask for a public option.

Update: If you try calling the RNC number listed in the ad, the automated voice asks you to press “1” if you’re calling about the Town Halls. According to Americablog and the Huffington Post, this will lead to your being disconnected, as apparently, the RNC doesn’t want to hear from anyone upset at their thuggishness. Instead, press “2” and give ’em hell.

Lobbying from the Dark Side

Talking Points Memo is following a breaking story out today about Bonner and Associates, a lobbying organization who have admitted that a temp employee of theirs sent out letters opposing climate change legislation to Congresspeople with forged letterheads which made it seem like they were coming from grassroots groups like the NAACP and Creciendo Juntos.

Part of an Ongoing Effort?
In 2002, in response to complaints that Bonner and Associates was sending out misleading faxes to minority non-profits, founder Jack Bonner said “It’s a great exercise in the First Amendment.” Bonner’s lobbying firm was working for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) at the time to kill legislation aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs for Medicaid recipients.

In 2006, Bonner and Associates assisted an astroturf organization, 60 Plus Association, which fought legislation in New Mexico, Minnesota and Maine which would lower prescription drug costs. The 60 Plus Association, as well as Senior Coalition and United Seniors Association, were later revealed in this AARP newsletter article to be front groups for the pharmaceutical industry (including Pfizer, Merck and Wyeth-Ayerst).

Congress is set to probe the forged letters, so I expect we will be hearing more about deceitful lobbying industry practices in the future. Something to be aware of during the month of August as lobbyists come out in force to kill health care reform and the public option.

See related front groups: Health Benefits Coalition, DCI Group’s Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights,