NewsTools 2008: I have always depended on the kindness of friends

I’m not exactly Blanche DuBois, but…

I’m at the NewsTools2008 unconference at Yahoo HQ in Sunnyvale, CA — where 150 news/media people, academics, and technologists are gathered to figure out better tools to support journalism that matters. (Follow my live coverage on my amylive Twitter account.)

…And I have apparently come down with a cold. It hit me at the opening reception last night, and it’s continuing today. My friend Maurreen Skowran kindly gave me some Sudafed, so I’m functional — but just feeling slightly spacey. So anyone meeting me here, if I seem a little weirder than normal, that’s why.

Like many Mac users, I had a LOT of trouble getting onto the wifi here at Yahoo HQ — something that galled me. I’ve had this laptop on a lot of wifi networks. Why should I have problems with access at Yahoo HQ , of all places?

Anyway, my Poynter colleague Ellyn Angelotti showed me how to get online here. (Thanks, Ellyn!) Mac (Leopard) users who are guests at Yahoo, here’s how you do it:

  1. Click on the Airport icon to bring up the Airport menu.
  2. Select "join other network"
  3. Select "show networks"
  4. Selecting the network you’ve been told to usehere today, and enter the password you were given.

Don’t ask me why, but that makes it work for me and Ellyn. Spread the word.

Just before Ellyn solved my immediate access problem, Scott Karp of Publish2 solved my long-term problem. He talked me into finally buying a wireless modem card for my laptop as "internet insurance" — I might need it rarely, but when I need it I tend to really need it. I’m finally sold, dude. I realize why it’s worth the money. Thanks.

It all reinforces to me the value of having a posse. Right now, so many people in my personal and professional posse are available to me online, via Twitter, instant messaging, e-mail. It’s nice, at least for a few days, to have my posse so close at hand. It’s nice to see their real faces and hear their real voices. I never want to take my posse for granted. Thanks.

Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

OpenDemocracy, via Flickr (CC license)
What might this Malian girl and I have in common, and what might we learn from each other? How could we know if we can’t really connect?

This morning I listened to an excellent Radio Open Source interview. Host Christopher Lydon was talking to Global Voices Online founder Ethan Zuckerman and GVO managing editor Solana Larsen. I’m a huge fan of GVO and read it regularly — mainly since I enjoy hearing from people in parts of the world I generally don’t hear much about (or from) otherwise.

One of the most interesting parts of the discussion concerned how homophily shapes our individual and collective view of the world. Homophily is a fancy word for the human equivalent of “birds of a feather flock together.” That is, our tendency to associate and bond with people we have stuff in common with — language, culture, race, class, work, interests, life circumstances, etc.

Zuckerman made a profound point: Homophily makes you stupid. Which is another way of saying something my dad told me a long, long time ago:

“You’ll never learn anything if you only talk to people who already think just like you.”

Here’s what Zuckerman actually told Lydon about how homophily makes it hard for people from around the world to relate constructively…
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Where’s Your “Personal Brand,” and Why?

There are lots of different ways to brand yourself.

Yesterday my colleague Jim Kukral wrote about why he’s decided to focus on centralizing his personal brand. He wrote:

“My biggest mistake from the past 7-years or so was not building my personal brand on my own blog hard enough, earlier enough. Some may wonder why someone like me who’s been around for a long time blogging (since 2001), only has about 600 rss subscribers. I’ll tell you why… because I never focused blogging and building my brand here on JimKukral.com until recently.”

That got me thinking about Contentious.com and my own “personal brand.” Although I have an innate dislike to the term “personal brand,” I’ll admit it’s a useful and important concept for people in media-related work and many other fields these days.

The simple reason for that, I think, is that these days it’s unwise to rely on any company, organization, or institution to stick by you. The only leverage most professionals have these days depends on their ability to find or make their own opportunities — which means they need to be known as individuals. not just as faceless functionaries.

Jim seems to gauge the success on his personal brand by traffic to his site and feed. For a lot of people and purposes, that’s perfectly valid and appropriate.

But personally, I see a lot of value in the hybrid home base/distributed presence approach to personal branding…

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Twitter actually can be useful

Some of my Twitter friends who helped me this weekend. Thanks!

Lately I’ve gotten back into Twitter — the service that is strangely addictive, yet people often can’t clearly articulate why they use it. It seems to have struck the online community at a subconscious level, and is seeking a conscious purpose or rationalization.

I’m agahran on Twitter, if you want to follow me there.

Twitter — or any “microblogging” service that focuses on very short posts — is an odd medium. It takes some time and practice to get a sense of what works here. When you first start, it helps to just choose a bunch of people you know or are interested in to follow and get a sense of the different styles of posting.

Over the weekend, I found Twitter useful when I learned that my blog was hacked by a spammer. As I rushed to understand what happened and what I needed to do to fix the problem, I posted to Twitter about it. I quickly received several Tweets, private messages, and e-mails in response to what I was Twittering about — mostly from people offering helpful advice or context, or helping me diagnose the problem.

Yes, the comments posted to my blog were very helpful. But Twitter was also helpful.

In my feed reader, I’ve subscribed to a feed for all tweets from the people I follow on Twitter. I scan that usually every couple of hours, as I’m checking other things in my feed reader. (For me, that’s more efficient than jumping to the Twitter site.) There I’ve found some timely leads for items I’ve ended up covering in Contentious, E-Media Tidbits, and elsewhere. Also, I’ve been able to offer fast assistance to friends in need — just like they did for me.

That’s the thing about having a social network: It’s most useful if you’re available to each other. Twitter can create that availability, but in a manageable way.

I’ll write more about this later. But in the meantime, how have you found Twitter (or other microblogging tools, like Jaiku or Tumblr) useful? Please comment below.

(Oh, and I just enabled the Twitterfeed tool, which should post a tweet announcing each new Contentious post. We’ll see if it works… UPDATE: Yep, it works!)