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Don’t incite violence; Build urban cycling infrastructure and culture

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I read a column on cycling and cyclists in DC in today’s Washington Post Metro that left me more than a little angry. Although I allowed myself time to cool off, I still sent off a series of tweets a few minutes earlier than I should. Here’s the edited version.

Dear Mr. Milloy & the WashingtonPost editors who signed off on his column: yes, DC cyclists should obey traffic laws. Yes, resources for bicycle paths and other infrastructure should be distributed in all wards. That said, op-eds supporting neighbors hurting us will never, ever be OK. 6 years ago today, a 22 year-old woman was killed cycling in DC. She was in or near a bike lane. Was she at fault?

In Milloy’s column, he calls DC cyclists “bike terrorists” and writes that “some drivers” may think it’s worth paying $500 to hit them. (AKA me and my neighbors.) Hopefully, that doesn’t include moms & kids riding in lanes, although dads like me better take care. In the column, Milloy wrote that DC cyclists that ride on sidewalks are “lucky that someone hasn’t put a broomstick through the spokes of their wheels.” (I’ve had sticks go in there by accident; I was lucky to escape with only abrasions.)

As a cyclist in DC & Boston, I’ve been “doored,” hit by cars, run off the road by trucks, told to “get off my road” and had stones and bottles thrown at me. I wonder if Mr. Molloy believes that was all justified, simply because I dared to share the road with him and others who dislike cyclists so much. I sure hope not, but the tone and content of his column gives me little to think otherwise.

Adding bikes to roads that weren’t expressly designed with multiple uses in mind is a real challenge for urban policy makers. DC has seen a huge influx of people since July 2012 — more than 90,000, according to the U.S. Census — a larger proportion of whom want to cycle than the existing population. That’s going to cause some conflicts, including the racial and class contrasts Milloy calls out.

Fear, biases and anger around urban cycling can and do threaten lives and lead to life-changing injuries. If he and others want safer roads in DC, however, I suggest motorists and cyclists respect one another and the traffic laws, work to improve infrastructure and culture, and don’t spread hatred and implicit validations of violence.

[I illustrated this post with a picture of me on a bike-boat a couple of years ago, a vehicle that would be more at home on the Potomac than Pennsylvania Avenue]

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What responsibilities does Facebook have to share great journalism?

This past week, I wrote about Mile Hudack’s frustrated Facebook update about Vox and the general state of the media  on Facebook, along with many others, and then posted an edited version on Tumblr, which then hit Mediagazer, the Pew Research Center’s daily briefing and the Nieman Lab’s weekly digest of the week in news. It all felt a bit meta and unexpected for a short piece of quick analysis. What follows is an edited version of that initial update.

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Before reacting to Hudack’s update, I’d found and shared a great feature on the passage of The DATA Act over on Facebook, after reading Matt Yglesias’s reply to Hudack, an advertising product manager at Facebook. That’s not uncommon: I discover great posts, analysis, research and even new data on Facebook frequently in 2014, both shared by friends and family and on various lists I’ve built. I’ve found that a lot of important news will find me, but not all of it, so I intentionally use other methods to discover it, from Twitter to RSS to Google News to reading print magazines and newspapers, listening to NPR and watching the PBS Newshour. I think about social media and the news differently than the average, though, and I use Facebook and Twitter differently than other folks, too, sharing public updates across multiple platforms much more frequently than the average user. That means you should take the following with a grain of salt or two.

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Hudack took the newly launched Vox Media to task for not producing more stories like the one about The DATA Act, a historic open government bill that’s now law, as opposed to a story about jeans.

I’m sympathetic to his frustration: I’ve followed and written about the DATA Act for three years, during which time I saw negligible mainstream coverage of it, much like the current lack of coverage regarding the bipartisan FOIA Reform Act, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously this spring, despite the miserable state of Freedom of Information Act compliance in the federal government.

Vox’s jeans story, Yglesias points out, has been shared four times as much on Facebook as the one about how a bill became law in 2014, which suggests that what’s popular on the world’s biggest social network is a result of decisions its users are making, not the media site that originated them. Reasonable people may differ on this point.

I’m on the media producer side of this equation, given my work, which makes me much more sympathetic to Vox’s side of the debate, along with the situation that faces many other media outlets. To Hudack’s point: yes, there’s a lot of dreck in the vast number of media outlets publishing today, from cable to broadcast to online. There’s also fantastic work from a number of outlets that Hudack didn’t list, many of which can be found attached to Pulitzer prizes and nominated for data journalism awards:

Here’s what Atlantic Media senior editor Alexis Madrigal said about it:

“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”

Like Google, Facebook can send vast amounts of traffic and readers to content producers, which creates a natural incentive to learn how to get the attention of those readers, create incentives for them to click and share, and how to game those systems as well, from search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO). (On the latter count, the reasons people *share* stories can differ from the reasons they *read* them, and the rate at which they share may diverge as a result.)

In both cases, however, a powerful and inscrutable, closely held algorithm is showing stories to people when they visit the platforms. On Google.com, the algorithm shows you links in response to a directed search. If you’re not anonymized, Google will personalize those results.

On Facebook’s newsfeed, the default environment that users spend time browsing every day, they’re likely to now see a mix of ads, lists, updates from brands and pages you’ve liked, and updates from close friends.

Unless Facebook users take specific steps to create a list of them, they won’t find the clean line of chronological updates from friends and family *to* friends and family that they enjoyed back in 2007.

Today, even if we enjoy and benefit from interaction on the platforms, we’re very much living in Facebook’s world, on its terms.

If a director of advertising products for Facebook wants there to be better journalism online, in general, here’s a suggestion: as Facebook builds more mobile products like Paper and develops its online product more, it could also consider partnerships with news organizations on content and revenue. That might make some publishers uncomfortable or balk, but others would experiment. (It sounds like Liz Heron might already be exploring some of those possibilities.)

My colleague at the Tow Center, Andy Carvin, commenting on my initial Facebook post, suggested that Hudack’s career and perspective shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of Facebook:

Andy Carvin: Mike isn’t director of product at fb. He actually works on ad products for fb. And I know where his frustration is coming from – he founded blip.tv, which became just another content site after he sold it, but prior to that was one of the Net’s first bastions of citizen journalism. He’s also been posting for months about the sorry state of online reporting about Ukraine and other international crises. So I totally get where he’s coming from. Even if fb is driving a lot of content providers to lowest common denominator content, it seems unfair to put this on his shoulders. And ultimately, it’s still the content providers who choose to publish stuff they think will get the most eyeballs, whether via fb or any other vector.

That’s a fair point, and I’m glad he added that context. There’s research from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for those who want to dig more.

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That said, if Facebook and its leaders wanted to do more to support investigative journalism that isn’t driven by advertising considerations and shareability on social media, the company and/or newly wealthy senior staff might consider investing a portion of the billions in revenue that Facebook is making annually in improving the supply of it.

Specifically, they might support whatever comes after the newspapers that have traditionally housed the investigative journalists that create it. For instance, they could donate revenue to the foundations that have already been investing in news startups, platforms and education (The Knight Foundation News Challenge comes to mind, but there are others, from Sloan to Ford to Gates to Bloomberg to CIMA, which has published a global strategy to support investigative journalism) or establish Facebook scholarships and build out charitable arm focused on the media, akin to Google.org. The total doesn’t have to be much, relative to the annual revenues, but even tens of millions of dollars annually would make a difference to a lot of outlets and startups.

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“High elf” arrested in Oregon, battling Morgoth

A sword-wielding elf spotted in Portland, Oregon by a local smartphone-wielding human, told police that he was “battling Morgoth,” who apparently had made his way back through the Door of Night and returned to Middle Earth in the form of a red BMW.

Morgoth is the evil higher being whose fall from grace as Melkor  in J. R. R. Tolkein’s mythical universe parallels that of Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”  Sauron, who the general public knows from “The Lord of the Rings” movie epics, was one of Morgoth’s chief lieutenants.

Fingolfin_and_Morgoth

The fact that the young man in Oregon was wearing chain mail is a sign that he might just know what he was talking about: high elves in Tolkein’s universe wore mail, unlike the lightly armored wood elves in the Dungeons and Dragons universe and subsequent worlds.

In this case, however, it appears that he was a different sort of “high elf” — the man admitted to officers that he’d taken LSD before his epic battle with the Beamer — and that he wielding a machete, not an ancient elven blade forged in Gondolin.

According to KPTV, after treatment and release from a local hospital, the young human has been charged with criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and menacing as a result of the elfscapade.

[IMAGE CREDIT: "The duel of Fingolfin and Morgoth," by Silentwitness97 at the LOTR Wiki]

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Will social search on Facebook be Google’s toughest challenge yet?

On further reflection Facebook’s announcement regarding upgraded search could be the biggest tech news today.

Why? Well, Facebook graph search for posts and updates will make the network MUCH easier to discover fresh content relevant to a given person, place or thing, both for journalists and regular users.

Right now, search just turns up profiles and pages, not posts.

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Combined with a “business graph,” locations and secure payment systems, such a search engine could become useful to a billion Facebook users quickly.

Over time, searches will generate a huge amount of interest data and potentially a new source of revenue, if Facebook adapts Google’s model of selling ads next to results.

Search for Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and other mobile social networks to come could well evolve similarly, if not at the same massive scale.

Agree? Disagree? Thoughts? Have links to better and/or relevant analysis? Please share in the comments.

Update: Commenting on Google+, open standards advocate Chris Messina agreed that this is notable news, although how big “depends on coverage for normal searches (which would determine search quality perception) and the relative impact of the corpus being mostly ACL’d content.”

Still, wrote Messina, “it’s a big deal, especially if Facebook can annotate that data with intent/verb-based apps. For example, query: “restaurants in New York City that my friends like and I haven’t been too”. I’d expect to see apps I use in the results, like OpenTable or Foursquare.”

He also raised a wrinkle I hadn’t considered: “That’s another aspect of this that becomes big for developers (at some point) — search as a personalized app platform.”

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Al Jazeera America bets on an American audience for serious journalism

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I’m watching the launch of Al Jazeera America here in DC, on Channel 107*. (No HD in this media market, from what I can tell.) It’s the biggest launch in broadcast media since Fox News, in 1996, and in media since Politico, in 2007.

Goodbye Current TV, hello Al Jazeera America.

It remains to be seen whether Americans will tune into to a 24-hour news channel that is, like Brian Stelter notes in his piece on Al Jazeera America’s approach to the news, something akin to a journalism professor’s dream, with 14 hours of news daily, documentaries and an aspiration to cover all of the U.S.A. Andrew Beaujon wrote a good primer on the Al Jazeera America launch over at Poynter, from its hiring to its talent to the big question about whether people want straight news.

At launch, I’m optimistic about Al Jazeera America’s programming, at least based upon my experience appearing on Al Jazeera English this winter. From data mining the U.S. election to covering the debates online, I met bright, professional journalists who demonstrated humor, integrity, a commitment to high standards, both technically and editorially, and a willingness to experiment with the incredible new tools that now exist for newsgathering and publishing.

I’ve long since accepted, however, that I may be an outlier in some ways. There are no shortage of Americans who watch and criticize media in 2013. Given 8 hours/day of television and the ease of a tweet or a Facebook update about what we’re watching, we’re all amateur media critics now. The fraction of that viewership who will shift their habits and tune into another channel for this kind of serious journalism isn’t something we know yet.

The modern information diet includes a huge amount of infotainment, advertorial, sports, reality TV and partisan opinion shows. When the ratings come in for Al Jazeera America, six months from now, we’ll have more of a sense of whether there is an audience for this kind of approach and programming, and what that says about us as a people.

I’ll be watching.

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White House goes direct on Instagram in advance of “Zillow Town Hall”

Tomorrow, President Barack Obama will be answering questions about housing during a live event with Zillow. Today, President Obama went directly to Instagram to ask the American people for questions about housing.

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In some ways, this is old hat. The source for the questions, after all, is the same as it has been many times over the past five years: social media. As I commented on Tumblr, five years into this administration, it would be easy to let these sorts of new media milestones at the White House go unremarked. That would be a mistake.

The novelty in the event tomorrow lies in two factors:

1) The White House is encouraging people to ask the president questions using the #AskObamaHousing hashtag on Twitter, Zillow’s Facebook page or with their own “instavideo” on Instagram.

2) It’s being hosted by Yahoo! and Zillow, a online real estate market place that has been a prominent supporter of the administration’s open data efforts.

As for Tuesday at 5:50 PM ET, there were only around a dozen videos tagged with #AskObamaHousing on Instagram, so if you have a good one, the odds are (relatively) decent for it to be posed. (Twitter, by contrast, is much livelier.)

Such informal, atomized mobile videos are now a growing part of the landscape for government and technology, particularly in an age when the people formerly known as the audience have more options to tune in or tune out of broadcast programming. If the White House is looking to engage younger Americans in a conversation about, Instagram is an obvious place to turn.

Today, politicians and government officials need to go where the People are. Delivering effective answers to their questions regarding affordable housing in a tough economy will be harder, however, than filming a 15 second short.

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Under pressure, Twitter prepares to extend reporting abuse to all users

Under increased scrutiny, Twitter will be extending the ability to report tweets to all of its hundreds of millions of active users around the world.

A statement from Twitter, emailed to the BBC and GigaOm, urged users to report abusive behavior and violations of the relevant policy and Twitter Rules using an online form and shared plans to “bring the functionality to other platforms, including Android and the web.” Twitter hasn’t shared timelines for that extension yet, but aggrieved users in Britain and beyond should gain the ability to flag tweets with a couple of taps eventually.

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Twitter users have been able to report violations and abuse for years, with decisions by the service’s Safety team as tickets or law enforcement interest comes in. Twitter’s Safety team, headed by Del (@delbius) Harvey, has been quietly, professionally handling the ugly side for many years.

Adding reporting to individual tweets, however, is a relatively new change that was not announced on the Twitter blog or through the @Safety or @Support accounts.

Here are the relevant details from Twitter’s FAQ:

You can report Tweets that are in violation of the Twitter Rules or our Terms of Service. This includes spam, harassment, impersonation, copyright, or trademark violations. You can report any Tweet on Twitter, including Tweets in your home timeline, the Connect or Discover tabs, or in Twitter Search.

To report a Tweet:

  • Navigate to the Tweet you’d like to report.
  • Tap the ••• icon to bring up the off-screen menu.
  • Select Report Tweet and then one of the options below.
  • Select Submit (or Next if reporting abuse; see below for details) or Cancel to complete the report or block the user.

Reporting options:

Spam: this is the best option for reporting users who are using spam tactics. Please reference the Twitter Rules for information about some common spam techniques, which include mass creation of accounts for abusive purposes, following a large number of users in a short time, and sending large numbers of unsolicited @replies.
Compromised: if you think the user’s account has been compromised, and they are no longer in control of their account, select this option, and we will follow up with them to reset their password and/or take other appropriate actions.
Abusive: for other types of violations, including harassment, copyright or trademark violations, and impersonation, select this option. When you select “Next’”, you’ll be taken to a form where you can complete and submit your report to Twitter.
Block account: instead of reporting a user, you can select this option to block the user. If you block a user, they will not be allowed to follow you or add you to lists, and you won’t see any interactions with the user in your Connect tab.

Icebergs ahead

Twitter has successfully scaled the ability to flag media to all of its users. They’ve kept the Fail Whale from surfacing by vastly increasing the capacity of the service to handle billions of tweets and surges in use during major events. They’ve already rolled out tweet reporting to Twitter to iPhone users. Now, they’ll simplify reporting of abuse tweets for everyone.

There may be hidden tradeoffs in adding this function, as Staci Kramer pointed out on Twitter: previously available options, like “tweet link,” “mail link” and “read later” aren’t in the new version of Twitter’s iOS app.

What may prove more difficult than adding this function to other official apps and the Web, however, will be adding the human capacity to adjudicate decisions to suspend or restore accounts.

Twitter will be doing it under increasing scrutiny and a fresh wave of critics who are taking the company to task for being slow to respond to threats and abuse. More than 18,000 people have signed a petition at Change.org demanding that Twitter provide a an abuse reporting button. The petition was filed after a stream of rape threats were directed at Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter for 48 hours.

Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist and self-described feminist campaigner, was in the public eye because of her successful efforts to keep pictures of women on paper money. She began receiving abusive tweets on the day that the Bank of England announced that author Jane Austen would appear on its newly designed £10 note.

The signatories on the petition were asking for a function that already exists for the millions of Twitter users that access the service on an iPhone, as the head of the social networking service’s United Kingdom office tweeted earlier today, responding to heated criticism in the British press.

To mollify critics and offer a users a better experience, Twitter staff will need to proactively detect waves of abuse, aided by algorithms and adjudication systems, and make judgements about whether tweets break its stated policies or represent threats that must be reported to law enforcement.

“I don’t know what proportion of posts are abusive, nor do I know the volume of complaints handled by Twitter staff and their response time, which are obvious factors in how and when abuse reports are handled,” commented veteran journalist Saleem Khan. “If there’s a problem with complaint-handling, Twitter needs to examine its processes and staffing. That said, if abuse and/or non-responsiveness by staff are perceived to be a problem, then it is a problem.”

To state the obvious, this will be an ongoing headache for Twitter.

Like other social media companies, Twitter has been navigating deep, troubled currents of censorship, privacy and suspensions in recent years.

Creating systems that offer fair, efficient moderation and adjudication of reports is a conundrum that code alone may not be able to solve. That challenge is extended by the presence of organized campaigns of humans and bots that game governance systems by flagging users en masse as spammers, leading to suspensions.

That may well mean that Twitter, like other social networks with millions of users, will need to expand its safety team and train the rest of its public-facing employees to act as ad hoc ombudsmen and women, as aggrieved users inevitably turn their ire upon staff using the network. They’re well positioned to do so, perhaps better than any other social network, but the service is inevitably going to face tough decisions as it operates in countries do not have legal protections for freedom of expression or the press.

As Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman and others have highlighted, what we think of as the new public square online is owned and operated by private companies that are setting the terms and conditions for expression and behavior on them. Giving users the capacity to report abuse, fraud or copyright infringement is a natural feature for any major website or service but it comes with new headaches. If Twitter is to go public, however, it will need to develop more matures to handle being a platform for the public.

“The question remains,” commented Khan: “What rights and powers do we delegate to private, for-profit, unregulated platforms that increasingly mediate the majority of our discourse, and where is the line that we draw in that deal?”


Editor’s Note: I sent Twitter a series of questions regarding the new reporting function on Sunday morning. On Sunday night, Twitter declined to comment further than the statement they have released. On Monday afternoon, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded to tweeted queries. Following are the questions I posed over email. If you have answers, feel free to comment or contact me.

When was this added? Was there an official blog post or tweets from staff, @safety and @support about it?

What’s the timeline for it rolling out to all users? Will Twitter for Windows and BlackBerry and get it?

Will it be added to the API, so that TweetBot and TweetDeck users, along with other clients, can use it after updates?

Will Twitter increase staffing at Safety and Support to handle an increase in reports? To what levels?

Will there be designated ombudsmen or women?

Will there be any transparency into the number of tickets received regarding abuse or someone’s status in the queue?

Will Twitter release aggregate data of abuse (or spam) flagging? How will Twitter deal with false positives or organized/automated campaigns to flag users or tweets?

Will there be any consequences for users that repeatedly abuse the ability to flag people or tweets for abuse?


Postscript

On August 3, Twitter responded with an update to its rules to help address abusive behavior, including extra staff to handle abuse reports.

“It comes down to this: people deserve to feel safe on Twitter,” said Twitter’s UK lead Tony Wang and Del Harvey, senior director for trust and safety, in a blog post.

We want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter Rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behaviour was, or could ever be, acceptable.”

The updated rules apply globally. “As described in the blog post, this was a clarification of existing rules — we discussed harassment in our help center in connection with abuse, but this makes it explicit in the rules as well,” said Twitter communication lead Jim Prosser, reached by email.

Wang also tweeted an apology to the women who have been targeted by abuse on Twitter.

“I personally apologize to the women who have experienced abuse on Twitter and for what they have gone through,” he said. “The abuse they’ve received is simply not acceptable. It’s not acceptable in the real world, and it’s not acceptable on Twitter.”

So yes, there are limits to free speech on Twitter.

What are they? Well, that’s the sticky wicket. The updated rules now include a section that Harvey said already existed. Twitter “actually always had that as a note on our abusive behavior policy page; we just added it directly to the rules,” she tweeted.

Targeted Abuse: You may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be targeted abuse or harassment are:
*if you are sending messages to a user from multiple accounts;
*if the sole purpose of your account is to send abusive messages to others;
*if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats

This was “no real addition, just [a] clarification,” tweeted Harvey. “Twitter “just added the explicit callout to our preexisting policy under the abuse & spam section.”

There is no functional difference in how Twitter’s Safety team will now assess abuse reports, she further clarified.

“We’ve been working on making the reporting process easier for users & clarifying our policies.”

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Frager’s Hardware fire leaves burn scar in the heart of Capitol Hill

Frager’s Hardware, a Capitol Hill landmark beloved by generations of Washingtonians, was ravaged by a fire last night. Across my neighborhood, people are waking up to the reality of a devastated community hub. Mike Debonis captured the intensity of last night’s events on a liveblog at the Washington Post.

The Capitol Hill institution has been part of the fabric of residential life for generations of Washingtonians. For many residents, Frager’s was part of home. Thankfully, no one was killed in the blaze, although two of the dozens of DC firefighters to responded to the 4-alarm fire were slightly injured bringing it under control.

As the fire burned last night, people already began calling for Frager’s to be rebuilt, just as Eastern Market and the Tune Inn were after fires swept through them. Frager’s general manager Nick Kapalanis vowed to rebuild Fragers and DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray said the city would support him in the effort.

What was inside of the scorched walls of those buildings is gone forever. While the owners, city and community of Fragers’s can — and many hope, will — build a beautiful new hardware store to serve the community between the U.S. Capitol and the Anacostia River, the contents and character of the 93-year old institutions are reduced to smoldering rubble. Something irreplaceable lies in ruins.

Walking around those crowded, claustrophobic aisles and basement felt like shopping in an unfamiliar city center preserved from a previous century, similar to the medieval city centers of Europe or Boston’s North End. I loved it. I spent years in renovating old houses in greater Boston and instantly appreciated how special this neighborhood hardware store was.

Over years, you might learn what was where and how to navigate to it, but you were always better off asking one of Frager’s employees, who always knew where anything a given need for a given weekend project or months-long remodeling effort might be. In many ways, Frager’s staff acted much like London cab drivers, using “the knowledge” to help residents get from Point A to Point B in their journey.

Frager’s was one of the best examples of an iconic American institution that in many ways exemplifies our national character: the neighborhood hardware store. We’re a nation of tinkerers and fixers, backyard hobbyists and garage mechanics. Our basements, barns and workshops hold multitudes of weekend projects, finished and unfinished, with boxes and cans of the extra parts and fasteners that we might need in the future.

Tom Bridge, writing for “We Love DC,” captured this sentiment well this morning:

I can only think of one thing to do today: appreciate your neighborhood and city institutions. By fire or by tragedy, they may leave before we’re ready. This city is full of many beautiful, incredible places like Frager’s, places that can’t easily be replaced or rebuilt, that are unique to our place and our time, special threads that hold together neighborhoods and communities. Our communities need places like Frager’s the same way they need schools and fire stations and hospitals. They’re just not the same without them.

Help Frager’s rebuild if you can, or help make sure your own institutions stay healthy in your community, it’s doing DC a good deed, and that truly matters.

In recent years, Home Depot and Lowes have offered a bigger, brighter options to consumers, standardizing and automating the sale of building supplies. As any long-time customer has learned, however, it’s a rare “big box” retailer that achieves the service, function, feeling and forum of a local hardware store like Frager’s, embedded within a community.

Fragers, down on Pennsylvania Avenue, has provided all of those bits, bolts and much more to thousands upon thousands of DC residents for nearly a century.

This morning, Frager’s is closed. It may be rebuilt, bigger, brighter and more beautiful, but it’s going to be many months before this burn scar in the heart of Capitol Hill heals. Our mental maps are left to trace the contours of a landscape that now only persists in our collective memory.

Postscript: a reader emailed and shared a link to donate to the Frager’s Fund. To make a contribution, just click the “Donate” button and write “Frager’s” in the dedication section. The fund is administered by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF), a registered 501(c)(3) that helped rebuild Eastern Market after it burned in 2007. CHCF will also use the funds to support the 65 Fragers employees displaced by the fire. Contributions are tax-deductible.

For more on the morning after, read “Fire at landmark hardware store prompts DC to remember Fragers.”

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In defense of Twitter’s role as a social media watchdog

Mike Rosenwald is concerned that overzealous critics will make Twitter boring.

twitter is ruining

Rosenwald, who has distinguished himself in articles and excellent enterprise reporting at the Washington Post, appears to have strayed into a well-trodden cul de sac of social media criticism.

Writing in the Post, he quotes from series of sources and highlights a couple of Twitter users to arrive at a grand thesis: online mobs taking tweets out of context could chill speech. Rosenwald’s point was amplified by Politico chief economic correspondent Ben White, whose tweet is embedded below:

When I went to grab the embed code for the tweet above, however, I found something curious: I couldn’t generate it. Why? After I strongly but politely challenged White’s point twice on Twitter, he’d blocked me.

Here’s what I said: I am disappointed that the democratization of publishing and speech continues to be resented by the press. Celebrities, media and politicians will be criticized online by the public for inaccuracy and bias. It’s not 1950 anymore. And for that, a journalist blocked me.

Irony aside, I wish White hadn’t taken the nuclear option. I’m no absolutist: when George Packer slammed Twitter 3 years ago, I suggested that he take another look at what was happening there:

Twitter, like so many other things, is what you make of it. Some might go to a cocktail party and talk about fashion, who kissed whom, where the next hot bar is or any number of other superficial topics. Others might hone in on politics, news, technology, media, art, philosophy or any of the other subjects that the New Yorker covers. If you search and listen, it’s not hard to find others sharing news and opinion that’s relevant to your own interests.

Using intelligent filters for information, it’s quite easy to subscribe and digest them at leisure. And it’s as easy as unfollowing someone to winnow out “babble” or a steady stream of mundanity. The impression that one is forced to listen to pabulum, as if obligated to sit through a dreary dinner party or interminable plane ride next to a boring boor, is far from the reality of the actual experience of Twitter or elsewhere.

Packer clearly read my post but didn’t link or reply to it.

Given his public persona, I suspect Rosenwald will be much more open to criticism than Packer or White have proven to be, although I see he hasn’t waded into the vitriolic comments on his story at the Washington Post, which slam Twitter or the article — or both. Here’s what I’ve seen other journalists and Twitter users tweet about the piece:

For my part, I tend to lean towards more speech, not less. Twitter has given millions of people a voice around the world, including the capacity to scrutinize the tweets of members of the media for inaccuracy, bias or ignorance.

That’s not to say that a networked public can’t turn to an online mob and engage in online vigilantism, but the causality that Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen trumpeted regarding Twitter use in yesterday’s Playbook was painful to read on Saturday morning.

Twitter makes people online vigilantes? Come on. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and other social media platforms have taken nearly all of the friction out of commenting on public affairs but it’s up to people to decide what to do with them.

As we’ve seen during natural disasters and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, including protests in Turkey this weekend, an increasingly networked public is now acting as reporters and sensors wherever and whenever they are connected, creating an ad hoc system of accountability for governments and filling the gaps where mainstream media outlets are censored or fear to tread.

That emergence still strikes me as positive, on balance, and while I acknowledge the point that White and the sources that Rosenwald quotes make about the potential for self-censorship, I vastly prefer the communications systems of today to the one-to-many broadcasts from last century. If you feel differently, comments — and Twitter — are open.

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