Monthly Archives: June 2013

Checking into Foursquare’s Time Machine

This data visualization below traces the data contrails that I’ve left around the District of Columbia over the past four years.

foursquare-the-next-big-thing

Foursquare’s Time Machine is a lovely reminder that the stories we can tell with data.

The infographic above, generated by Foursquare crunching 887 of my checkins, represents a life of work, travel and recreation. It’s one, however, that’s wholly created by my intention, as opposed to constant logging of my movements, intentions or experiences.

The map above isn’t even close to a complete snapshot of who I am, or even all of my Foursquare checkins. (I’ve checked in from Europe, Africa, South America and all around the USA.)

I’m quite happy about that, to be honest. There’s so much that exists in the spaces between these shared vignettes that I prefer to keep to myself, friends, family, colleagues or sources.

That said, thank you for the trip back through time, Foursquare.

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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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