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June 7th, 2010

I’m aware of the low value of  discussing things which could or should be done. Shutting up and doing what you’ve been thinking about doing is far better than merely talking about it. You may have come up with the greatest sci-fi story of all time, but if you never write it down and share it with another human, that story is worth nothing.

But I’m going to do it anyway.

Over the next several days I’ll be posting a series of articles on ideas I’ve been having about what we all should be doing right now. What kinds of ideas? Well there’s some economics, some art and culture, maybe more (though that’s almost the extent of what I can competently talk about). They may be wrong at times and it may turn out I’ve had my head up my ass the whole time. But if they spur someone, anyone into action, it’ll be worth it. That action could even be a troll-worthy, point-by-point dissection of why I’m full of shit.

More importantly, I’m also writing these for myself. By sharing these ideas with others, they become more real.

In fact, the point of this post is to make it harder for me to renege on the writing.



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Fake distortion, real humanity

April 23rd, 2010


Photo by bananacasts

My first thought was, oh come on. Over the last month my internet friends – and it feels like most everyone else with an iPhone – have become big fans of Hipstamatic, an app that adds a bunch of effects to make an iPhone image look like it was taken by a poorly-built camera. You know, hip.

About as hip as an advertisement from the Nineties.


Photo by lindstifa

The colors are washed out. Cute little over-exposed areas are added to an otherwise all-digital image. Each picture is lovingly framed with negative-film border, tape marks, or stylish matting.

At some point I even made a quip on Twitter that after Hipstamatic, the next trendy camera app will take pictures that look a crappy camera phone. This gratuitous degradation of image for a stylish and trendy effect comes in the age of affordable digital cameras that can often beat the detail of a traditional negative film camera; the age of relatively easy to use software (and powerful enough computers) to aid in processing images so they look as natural as reality.


Photo by sniffyjenkins*

Reality. For the people who can afford smartphones, powerful computers, and high-powered cameras, reality often consists of the real world sandwiched between time on the computer, looking at text or photos of things that exist in the real world. Photos are so abundant, easily accessible, and ubiquitous that for many people photos are preferable to the real thing. Not that this is a new phenomenon. A photo can be cropped and modified so that the subject has a greater impact on the viewer than when physically viewing the subject. It’s the high-speed internet, fast computers, and vast storage that magnifies this to a degree that someone with a subscription to Life magazine in the 1960s could never comprehend. I can go through thousands of pictures of Monument Valley, so many in fact that I’ll tire of the place without ever having visited.

With all of this power, this abundance, this opportunity for exactness – why take pictures of your kids with an program that distorts a perfectly fine image into something you might find in between the seats of a ’74 Lincoln Continental?


Photo by sniffyjenkins

The Hipstamatic app was inspired by a namesake physical camera made by two brothers in the 1980s. The pictures are similar style to ‘Lomography‘ – a well-marketed trend from the 1990s (remember my comment about ads from that decade) where the photographer would take near random images of objects and revel in their ‘found photo’ style. Nowadays ‘lomographic’ pictures are taken on powerful digital cameras, with distortions added in Photoshop. Hipstamatic takes advantage of the iPhone’s processing power and makes the effect instantaneous – and only reinforces the lomographic style, as evidenced by most pictures found online.

It takes a few pictures of families and friends taken with the Hipstamatic to see any motivation beyond the retro faddishness.


Photo by monkeyfrog**

The pictures…well, they look real. They look like memories; a little washed out, a little dramatic, and all heart. The brain is powerful enough to make up for the loss of clarity, and in so doing the image has an inescapable honesty. All because of errors and destructions added by a computer capable of fixing them. The messiness of a Hipstamatic photo mirrors the messiness of life, and by adding it the truth in the image comes out.

I’m not saying that clear images are bad. The best photojournalism combines the the sharpest possible copy of a sight that’s anything but sharp. A burning child running from her burning Vietnamese village, several Marines hoisting the American flag on a tiny speck of an island in the Pacific – these pictures are messy in different ways than one of your kids eating ice cream at their favorite restaurant or your teenage daughter trying mightily to distinguish her individuality at Disney World.


Photo by monkeyfrog

What’s happening is we’re reaching for inauthentic tools to make something authentic again. We distort the pictures of our lives to reclaim them from an inhuman sterility of the perfect picture.


Photo by bananacasts


Thanks to bananacasts, lindstifa, sniffyjenkins, and monkeyfrog for letting me use their images.

* sniffyjenkins’ first novel, Advice for Strays, has just been published in the UK. I’ve read it and it’s wonderful.

** monkeyfrog provides excellent health advice on both her personal site and on EmpoweHER.



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R-E-S-P-E-C-T

March 4th, 2010

Black History Month is a fucking joke.

I’m writing this four days after February, the month designated in America for recognition of the history of blacks. And it is not enough. Good lord is it not enough.

The history of blacks in America, their enslavement, freedom, oppression, freedom again, and the final hurdle of unconscious discrimination is the single most important part of the history of the United States and American culture, and what makes it unique and broadly misunderstood by people raised in other cultures.

It’s so important that we don’t need a single month remember this complex and sorrowful part of our collective past: it should be deeply investigated by grade level students. I’m not talking about merely watching Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and recounting the tale of Rosa Parks and making face masks of famous blacks. I’m talking about reading the speeches of Frederick Douglass (especially his Independence Day speech, which today sounds like something that one would hear on The Daily Show); I’m talking about seeing a living history example of real life as a slave, and getting, if only a glimpse, of the deep, lifelong horror of being treated as property, oftentimes lower than that of a horse; I’m talking about lessons in discrimination, close to what Jane Elliott did with her class; I’m talking about music appreciation classes with an emphasis on the the black subculture’s* influence on American music; etc. The biggest hurdle is getting people to understand slavery and how it shaped everything that came afterward; I suspect modeling education on that used to teach about the Jewish Holocaust.

Why is this so important?

Take a look at your musical preferences – even if you aren’t directly persuaded by American culture. Chances are good that you can trace the influences of your favorite artists to the experiments of several black musicians from the early Twentieth Century. But this is superficial.

The history of blacks in America is deeply intertwined in what makes an American, and why people from other cultures look upon us with perplexion. Our ancestors talked of freedom and liberty – which kind of sounded like they were meant for everybody but really only meant white, landowning males. These same men who orated at length about the ‘American spirit’ themselves (or let their brethren) to treat other fellow humans as property. For two hundred years these downtrodden – ultimately only considered inferior because of the pigmentation of their skin – survived under brutal, soul-crushing conditions. A few paragraphs back I mentioned the Jewish Holocaust, another blight point in human history – but comparisons are deceitful: the Jews sent to their deaths once knew something like freedom in their lifetimes; blacks often (and especially after 1800, when importation of slaves was made illegal) were several generations into enslavement and torture. Imagine if the Holocaust were still running today, and you might be able to imagine the extensive suffering.

And yet! And yet, through brutal torture beyond justification, humanity endured. Slaves fought to keep their families together and kept alive through songs and even jokes. Here’s a firsthand account† about that peculiar attempt at joy:

They say that slaves are happy, because they laugh, and are merry. I myself and three or four others, have received two hundred lashes in the day, and had our feet in fetters; yet, at night, we would sing and dance, and make others laugh at the rattling of our chains. Happy men we must have been! We did it to keep down trouble, and to keep our hearts from being completely broken: that is as true as the gospel! Just look at it, – must not we have been very happy? Yet I have done it myself – I have cut capers in chains.‡

There are very few alive today – and especially in the United States – who has experience of being so consistently crushed in spirit from birth that they entertain themselves to keep from being overtaken by the hopelessness of their situation. But the experience of both sides, slave and master, remain a key to understanding the mindset of an American today.

We americans struggle with subtle racism even when when aren’t consciously aware of judging others by superficial traits. Here’s the rub about those superficial traits: sometimes they have more to do with the superficial traits of our ancestors. By being an oppressed minority they were afforded fewer opportunities which trickled down to current generations.

For those of you who haven’t spent much time in America, the racism espoused by blacks may be perplexing. For other Americans, you may have only unconsciously noticed the racism of minorities. It’s a strange concept to grasp. There has been a separation between white and black social groups for so long that they have progressed along parallel lines yet are intimately connected. This has fostered a subtle hostility between the two groups – note that this has to do with culture and upbringing and not race††.

This is our heritage. We can’t escape the racism of our ancestors because it has tinged the little things that contribute to our identities. Just as language can change how we think, the popular entertainments we enjoy carry on the prejudices of past. It sounds ludicrous today, but the direct ancestor of most of popular American entertainment comes from blackface minstrelsy, where a white actor puts on makeup and mimics the stereotype of the lazy, ignorant black of the nineteenth century. Minstrels were lowbrow variety shows which contributed to modern concepts of celebrity, shameless promotion, and American humor. As the shows became more popular, even black performers would put on “blackface” – dark makeup with exaggerated lip color and size – and perform.

Take Bert Williams. Bert was a successful, wealthy Broadway performer. He put on blackface and performed for white audiences. He was also black…think about that: to fit in as an entertainer he had to look like white performers trying to look like him. He would use the pidgin english of the black stereotype (think of how black actors in movies from the thirties sound), bumble around stage – and sing songs with lyrics like this:

When life seems full of clouds and rain,
And I am filled with naught but pain,
Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain?

Nobody.§§

The pathos a black performer must have felt to be both popular in blackface and daily treated as second-class is the heart of why it is important to study black history.

Or consider Birth Of A Nation. The racism in this silent epic movie is deeply offensive: the Klu Klux Klan comes off as knights of decency. But just about every element of modern film storytelling was invented for this movie. Roger Ebert needed two articles‡‡ to address this dissonance for his Great Films series.

Finally, you must listen to the song “Strange Fruit,” sung by Billie Holiday:

The intersection of suffering and beauty is where high art meets the human experience.

My point

Nearly four hundred years ago Europeans began settling along the coast of an undiscovered continent. In addition to destroying the lives and cultures of peoples who already lived there§, they also imported slaves by the thousands for a cheap source of energy. The generations of suffering, degradation, and shameful acts that went into making a country that’s so rich today that the poor can afford to pay a monthly fee for hundreds of television channels. It is by the miracle of the will of the enslaved that their ancestors are alive today. And though the law now protects the rights of all races equally, every little thing that makes someone an American carries the baggage of slavery. And when that brutal form of submission was made illegal our ancestors still treated the newly-free as inferiors – simultaneously exploiting them for entertainment and still-cheap-but-less-so labor. And very few thought this was entirely wrong.

We can say we’re better then they were, and we are. We have finally relegated our racism to shame. Deep down every human has an unconscious aversion to strangers and people not like us, a holdover from the days of constantly fighting for survival on the African savannah. It’s easy to judge someone as different by their skin color or other physical attributes – but we can consciously change this urge and that is how one deals with racism.

However we may try we cannot escape our past. There are remnants of our horrible past everywhere we look and hear. The things we do to entertain ourselves have traces of past amusements that owe to the prolonged enslavement of Africans and their ancestors. Our laws have been modified and changed from blatant discrimination to inclusiveness of all with American citizenship. Our slang, our dialectal quirks, and the names we give ourselves have origins in the arbitrary division of whites and blacks.

I don’t see blacks as a minority, I don’t see them as a specific group of people. There are subcultures in America that more or less fall along a person’s race, but that is a holdover of our past. Their – our – black ancestors have stories that aren’t being told, stories that can help us know who we are and where we are going. Black history is a pattern language that is unique to American culture, and it is the duty of everyone who considers themselves a part of that collection of customs and ideas to be well-versed in the whole story of our people, not just that of the oppressive white males of the past.


* Hard to call this a subculture, because of its unique position: it exerts a powerful influence on mainstream culture shared by all races and creeds.
† This comes from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a survey of American history through the eyes of the downtrodden and persecuted.
‡ From John Little, a former slave.
†† The post-slavery cultural clashes between whites and blacks in America have nothing to do with biology – the truth is members of each group have been raised differently only because their ancestors where treated differently because of race. It is now almost entirely because humans are more perceptive to social differences. For example, I consider you inferior because you don’t think like an American, and vice versa.
**  I was a pushover and could not hold my ground when bullied. Luckily my coworkers were all good people and once they saw me standing up for myself regardless of the confrontation, they accepted me, weird white guy from the midwest that I was. They pushed me through taunts and insults.
‡‡ Well, at one time he had two articles about the movie. I can only find one now. I will update this if I receive a clarification.
§§ From the song “Nobody“.
§ The story of Native Americans is another neglected history, but not in the scope of this article.



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Behind every account is a human being

December 4th, 2009

vitruvian-man-1When I wrote about culture engines, the Favrd Crowd was a different group. It was smaller, sure, but more importantly it was transitioning from one way of thinking about the group to something different. Mere days after posting, two large meetings of people within the group occurred which caused such a significant change in how people interacted with each other that a month later the Favrd Crowd was a different group.

This article is my attempt to make sense of the community that developed around Favrd, Twitter, and Tumblr four months after I first took a deeper look.

An informal structure of the community

Internet-based communities are inherently different than physical communities in ways that are still poorly understood. We know the tools and we can see the consequences of how members interact, but the structure and dynamic of what is still a biological desire to be social but through technology originally built for tabulation and content creation is a mystery.

The Favrd Crowd exists in three spheres of interaction: public, private, and in person. With few exceptions[1] everyone joins the community through the public sphere. This consists of Twitter and Tumblr. Members sign up with either one or both and learn the rules of competition for Favrd, Favstar, and Tumblr’s Tumblarity. How one comes to terms with the group depends on their disposition. Some get stuck on the competition of getting a high number of stars for their tweets or a high Tumblarity, others ignore as best they can and concentrate on developing relationships with other members. Most end up with a mixture of both.

Recently there has been open discussion regarding members who are obsessed with the competition. What’s interesting is that those who are most successful with getting high rankings are well versed in the tricks that can be employed to getting a high score, but they concentrate on the original intention of the ‘game’ – to create something witty enough, clever enough, funny enough, or original enough that many will see its true value. This is the safeguard against an encroachment of marketers and consultants that suck out any originality of a new tool for the sake of being more effective and thus creating a hollow core, not unlike a parasite. What the discussion of the competition misses is that the people gaming the system for high scores are people just like their critics – they may reform and turn out to be as funny or clever as the best. But because this game requires more wit and intelligence than other games (like first-person shooters, Facebook games like Farmville, etc.), members will either have to reform or leave.

But the game isn’t everything. Long-term members, used to the rules and competition and more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, typically begin to realize that there are real people in the group who have similar interests, senses of humor, and life experiences. This can result in creative outputs that make up the culture engine; but I’ve realized that this happens infrequently, when two or more creative people with similar dispositions serendipitously work together on something new. Most of the time what happens is a friendship – one that wouldn’t have occurred because both are physically in different locations.

The friendships are fascinating. The Favrd Crowd is very far-flung, with strong presences in every English-speaking country, and a smattering of other places by people who have a firm enough grasp of English as well as Anglo, American, and Australian cultures to understand the jokes and to make their own. Throw in the difference in tastes and social norms of the cultures of each country (and each region of the United States), and there’s a lot that group members must know and understand to successfully fit in. This creates a situation of self-selection where the members are a homogenous group of a sort – there are many interests, tastes, and so on – but there’s an undercurrent of similarly-ordered mental lives that brings everyone together. We accept members because they think like us, not because they like the exact same things we do (though we like a lot of the same things). That means that by joining the community one is getting access to people who are compatible with their interests and tastes, now no longer limited by geography. Some people are gaining friends where, without the Favrd Crowd, they’d be without.

But friendships only start in the public sphere. They flourish on the private sphere. This level started with Twitter’s direct messages, which can only be seen by the the sender and the recipient – essentially a text messaging system. From there dialogues expand to instant messages, then text messages, phone calls, video chat, and eventually the ‘in person’ sphere (more on that later). This is where most of the communication for the culture engine occurs, and where members of the Favrd Crowd learn just how similar they are to others.

There’s an impressive amount of highly personal, potentially offensive, and deeply-felt content published to the public sphere, but not everyone is comfortable sharing those things to everyone, and there are many things best left to private messages anyway (that’s why there’s a taboo against making public anything discussed in private messages without both parties consent).

I admit I love thinking about all the things said in private messages that one never sees influence public posts. All the hidden friendships, petty fighting, relationships, projects born in private, and connections made. There are jokes and comments that show up on Twitter and Tumblr that while amusing on their own, have a whole other context for the two or more that know the source.

Being humans, eventually good online friends will want to meet in person. Even if they may be different in the flesh, physical interaction is a desire for even those in the group who struggle with social anxiety (and there are many). Tweetups have existed for as long as people have used Twitter to find new people, but with one exception[2], get-togethers of only Favrd Crowd people are a recent phenomenon. In fact the first big meetups of the Favrd Crowd were days after I published my article on culture engines, one in New York City and the other in Boston. Both were unprecedented and both changed the dynamic of the group.

One reason was that one meetup was a private party of friends, and the other was open to anyone who wanted to come. The former party generated friction because it just so happened to include several of the most popular and envied members of the Favrd Crowd. The debate the erupted (and quickly subsided) almost tore the online community apart – but a curious thing happened: instead of splitting up into factions the group developed a deeper interconnectedness. The biggest change was the people felt compelled to share their feelings, express their love for members of the group, and open up in ways that was previously more guarded. This was brought on equally by the peacemakers in the group, but also because members realized they could get lots of stars and raise their Tumblarity by doing so – that’s why people who routinely post pictures of themselves and write about their daily lives on Tumblr have a higher Tumblarity score.

Before I continue, I want to point out that I think this development has severely retarded the Favrd Crowd’s ability to create new and interesting things and to develop further as a culture engine. So many people are wasting their public sphere efforts on trying to appear more human and emotive instead of creating the podcasts, comics, videos, music, literature, and other forms of expression that the group has great potential to generate. Some of the content related to this outpouring is genuine and heartfelt – and is a healthy part of the group dynamic – it’s the oversharing-for-the-sake-of-more-points content that is the real problem. Everyone struggles in life, and getting to share it with like-minded people who honestly care is one of the Favrd Crowd’s most amazing attributes (among these: marriages and relationships, new babies, health scares, cancer, caring for children who are sick and suffering, dealing with abusive or unhealthy relationships, and so on). But some people feed on the group sentiment only to play the game.

In about a month and a half another primarily-Favrd Crowd meetup will happen in San Francisco. By all accounts this will be the biggest one yet, combining people who went to either parties in August with new group members and on the further reaches of the social web of the group. So many online friends will get to meet for the first time, others will get another chance at face-to-face time, and in general the Favrd Crowd will get a glimpse of what might happen if everyone moved from all over the world to one place. That’s an implausible outcome – but an outcome which would be glorious and extremely beneficial to everyone in the group.[3]

In addition, people are meeting up all the time. Some are visiting online friends in the same region, others make a point of spending time with Favrd Crowd people in whatever city they’re visiting. Still others are even changing their vacation and travel plans to go out of their way to visit people only roughly nearby. These are people who come from vastly different backgrounds and with unique personal histories, but who have found a connection strong enough to compel them to spend time together. Meeting people online has a reputation for being a letdown, because the variables and unknowns of who a person is offline is so vast that sometimes people are nothing like their online personas. But the challenges of succeeding socially in the Favrd Crowd, and the similarities needed to fit in, mean that most people are pleasantly surprised upon first meeting another member (this is based on anecdotal evidence, but I’m guessing the number of times that a physical meeting of Favrd Crowd members was negative is so small to be inconsequential. People naturally chose those they feel comfortable with online, and that translates almost perfectly offline). Making offline connections is the most important next step after finding new interesting people in the Favrd Crowd.

The group dynamic

What drives the Favrd Crowd is friction. By friction, I mean the agitation of people with different ideas and different ways of expressing them. But then, every community is driven by friction – especially creative communities. There is a quote from The Third Man that sums this up in a way that Favrd Crowd members would appreciate:

…In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

It should be no surprise that the creator of Favrd, Dean Cameron Allen alludes to this on his personal site.

The frictions come from the core reason of the group’s existence: to make something that others appreciate. Here are a few of the sources:

  • Those more concerned with crafting great things vs. those who want a high score
  • Those more concerned with making things vs. those who are in it for the people
  • Highbrow vs. lowbrow vs. hilobrow[4]
  • Those who feel left out vs. those who don’t

These frictions are in reality imaginary. People perceive these as boundaries and try to play along because it’s simpler to adhere to a black-and-white understanding of things. But just as in the rest of existence, it’s mostly a gray area. For example, people work hard to make great things partly because they enjoy it but also because they want to make things that others enjoy.

It’s not hard to appreciate both a studied critique of a modern absurdity, and a well-crafted poop joke.

The us-versus-them mentality is common everywhere (it’s a source of wars, bigotry, racism, prejudice, etc.), and it works to drive the Favrd Crowd apart while simultaneously inspiring members to create great things.

However, the people involved in these frictions take on certain roles. The most egregious instigators are forced out of the group, shunned by being blocked or ignored or belittled. But there are active and accepted members of the group who regularly play up the frictions – they play a special role because they force others who are more timid to confront the realities of all of our bad traits. While this role usually makes the group (or any social group) stronger, in the case of the Favrd Crowd it also created a plague of feel-good posts that inhibits some members from realizing their full creative potential.

The human element

Sure, most content on the internet was made by real people. And most of what isn’t made by real people isn’t worth consuming anyway. Yet there is a distance between the creator and the consumer for most instances. An author will write an article – people will read it, but most of the time the author gets no feedback, response, or even knows how much of their work was read and how much was skimmed or skipped.

That dynamic is different within the Favrd Crowd. If a person likes what someone created, they can star or ‘like it’. If they really like it, a person could retweet, reblog, or (my personal favorite) contact the creator privately to commend the person. That feedback is invaluable to an author’s development and well-being. As much as we may try to downplay the importance of stars and hearts (likes on Tumblr look like hearts), it feels good to know that one’s peers appreciated their work. At the same time, finding that no one could be bothered to acknowledge a tweet or recording or anything else with something as easy to do as click an icon, that can hurt. We can feel bad, work harder on the next thing, or rationalize the disappointment to minimize the hurt – but it affects people in real ways. At the same time, one can feel slighted for petty things that may in reality have no meaning. For example, I once was convinced that a person in the group hated me simply because they never responded to my Twitter @ replies in any way. It turned out they simply didn’t read replies from people they didn’t follow (the only way to see @ replies from people a user doesn’t follow is to go to a separate page on the Twitter site).

The ease of finding like people online helps many people who are lonely and have the time and energy to convince themselves that every interaction in an online community has an equivalent to in-person interactions. Frictions often start because of this, and there is a steep learning curve involved to understanding that another person’s online life is only part of their existence. There are offline friends, family, work, play, and we are all doing other things in addition to being online, even if being online happens most of the time nowadays.

With the Favrd Crowd’s increasing use of the ‘in person’ sphere, this distinction blurs and it becomes harder to come to terms with the limitations of online interaction.

At the same time, this sphere is bringing people closer together. Despite being a generally cohesive group, there are sub-groups that exist. These are people brought even closer because of similarities: a love of comic books; a shared sense of humor; being gay, lesbian, or transgendered; a love of the same music, and so on. The old ways of finding these connections offline are very inefficient. Meeting though organizations like school (especially college), work, bar, clubs, etc. can help but all are limited by geography. Even other online communities are limited because they typically concentrate on a particular interest. The Favrd Crowd gelled because of humor, and humor doesn’t require direct experience by everyone for something to be funny. But a group that bonds by humor need to find the same things funny. As I discussed in my article about culture engines, this brings together people of similar mentality regardless of experience or interests, and creates workable melting pot. But the metaphor of a melting pot is a paradox: people who are really different don’t really get along (there’s evidence that neighborhoods with people of different ethnicities and beliefs are fractured and people stick to their own group).

The Favrd Crowd is becoming less a group of people trying to be funny, and more a group trying to live together. Despite my earlier mention of the implausibility of everyone moving to one place, there are already large clumps of people, and some are even moving to those areas partly because other members of the group already live there. The main locations are San Francisco, Chicago, and New York; smaller clumps exist in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Boston, and Pittsburgh (and many more I can’t think of). The willingness to move is hindered greatly by issues of family, making a living, and liking the location. For example, not everyone wants to live in the San Francisco Bay area, and some people think Chicago is full of very angry people and has awful weather. The problem is that once people meet in person, they realize how much more fun spending time in person is and would rather have it that way, but have too much else invested in where they live now. I’m not sure what will happen with the issue of geographical distance. There will always be people in an online community that are far flung. There is one instance of a couple meeting through the group and one is trying to emigrate to the US, but that kind of situation will likely remain a rarity.

Additional thoughts

The Favrd Crowd is an exciting community. That several very different technologies could bring like-minded people together and make something new that has no offline equivalent points to an exciting future in human social organization. Its unique blend of creativity, competition, and togetherness makes for a warm environment for a certain type of person who normally has to work hard to find others like them. I don’t think the group is for everyone. Some members may be no more than outsiders appreciating the groups artistic output. Others may try to fit in when they would be better suited for other online communities. I have a partiality to the Favrd Crowd because these are the kinds of people I actively seek out in offline life. They are technologically savvy, find similar things amusing, are well-read enough to get obscure references (and curious enough to search for what they don’t get), honest enough to point out faults and wrongdoings but compassionate enough to accept others for who they are, liberal where it counts and conservative where it counts – I could go on and on. But in addition to being the people that I like, they are also the class of people who propel culture and society forward. The intelligent outcasts who both enjoy and suffer through life, who know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth challenging. It’s those people who are worth studying.

As much as I want to study every aspect of the group, I have my limitations. I am not an archivist and have no interest in cataloguing all the output of the group – oftentimes what I see is deleted or changed. Also being a member of the group I have a greater interest in participating than analyzing and will limit my exposure so that I can still enjoy the fruits of my friends and favorite producers. I can’t possibly follow everyone in the group – or even everyone who has a large influence – and I will ignore people I find offensive or not funny or those who just rub me the wrong way. And I am partial to those who I feel a real connection with, and will give them a much larger piece of my attention. Which means this article has real biases and that my view isn’t the whole view, just as no journalist or historian is ever completely objective. By disposition I like many different kinds of people and I hope that allows me to make a more nuanced and general set of observations.

There is little physical evidence of the existence of the Favrd Crowd, save for some postcards, some drawings, and the occasional household or apartment where everyone is involved. Yet the group plays a large role in the lives of hundreds of people, oftentimes expanding into real friendships, even jobs. The Favrd Crowd has a bright future, and its past, though short, is fascinating.


[1] Some people enter through a connection, most often because of a spouse or partner. Friends who join may have an advantage in knowing a member of the group offline, but they still have to work from the public sphere back for most connections.
[2] There may be others, but the only one I know of is quarterly meetup of Chicago Twitter users that is dominated by people in the Favrd Crowd.
[3] If only a third of my favorite people in the group were to move to one place, I’d drop everything and move without question.
[4] This is a modified explanation taken from my attempt to explain to a few people the reasoning behind my Twitter lists:

Highbrow and lowbrow should be easy to figure out. It doesn’t mean that high = good and low = bad. They’re both good – it’s just that some people write tweets that are based on high-level thinking (art, technology, high standards) and some are based on everyday functioning (the things we all do – e.g. bodily functions, sex, daily struggles).

Hilobrow is different.

If middlebrow even exists, I don’t even want to associate with it. It’s not like the Middle Way – it’s the schmaltzy appeal-to-everyone crap like Twilight books or fucking American Idol. Think of the stereotypical music that parents in the fifties and sixties listened to and you get the idea.

Back to hilobrow. Hilobrow embraces both the intellectual thinking and the daily reality that we all must struggle through constantly. Take Charles Bukowski – his writing is very specific and in the vein of Chaucer and Bocaccio but is mostly about drinking and fucking and going to the racetracks.

I learned about the hilobrow concept from hilobrow.com, which celebrates hilobrow artists. I found them when they came up with a much more accurate breakdown of the generations of the twentieth century (for example, that the generation that had the biggest influence on my taste are the Anti-Anti-Utopians).

Hilobrow isn’t better than highbrow or lowbrow, all have their place. Everyone has a preference. I just happen to like the whole spectrum.

I mean, everyone poops but we also struggle with our identity and place in the universe.



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The price of my content

August 26th, 2009

Budaeli used to have ads. There was a Google Adwords strip and a selection of products from Amazon.com along the side of every page. Then I read a rant by someone (who I doubt even knows I exist, let along been to this site) about personal blogs having ads. His argument was along the lines of “if you’re maintaining the site for your own enjoyment, and not for some business, don’t insult your visitors by showing them ads.” I don’t agree with the argument entirely: sometimes you need ads to help pay for maintaining the site (never mind that there are plenty of free hosting services available now that offer advanced features). But that was when I decided to pull ads off my site, without thinking about it much. I wasn’t making anywhere near enough from the ads to even warrant a payment from either Google or Amazon.com, so the loss in revenue wasn’t equal to the increase in aesthetics gained by their absence.

This means I’m giving away my content. For free. On top of that, I’m not too concerned about being compensated for what I’ve published. The copyright to my words is still mine, but I won’t be too alarmed if someone copies my work (with attribution, of course) or creates any derivative works (say they take my Culture Engines idea and make it into something else). Part of it is because I don’t want to spend the time enforcing a restrictive copyright, and part of it is because my thoughts are mostly derivative.

The reason I’m publishing my work online for free is because it would cost me too much to make readers pay.

What I mean by that is my audience would shrink to a statistical zero if I made people pay to read this site. Unless I reblog the content elsewhere, the cost to read is only visiting this site or reading the RSS feed.

I would love to be able to charge more for my content, because it would give me a greater incentive to write. As it stands now, I only write when I feel like it, and just accept that the value of my work is nothing more than the pieces of my thoughts that end up stuck in my reader’s thoughts. It’s an inefficiency that I hope someone solves soon. The current methods of incentives for writers have been made outdated by the web’s method of publishing, and there’s no guarantee that they will survive long enough for a replacement.

So, thanks for reading, whoever you may be.

(Inspired by “Please Excuse Our Inefficiently High-Quality Blogging”)



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The fetishism of books

August 25th, 2009

We’re entering a period of information upheaval. The methods of storing, retrieving, and managing information are finally catching up to the available technology. With our collective knowledge and literature available to anyone with an internet connection, there is bound to be a flowering of scientific and artistic thought.

But we’re collectively stumbling with transitioning the technology and user interface of books.

This is important because books have grown up with our civilization to become the foundation of our complex society and advanced technology. We are all trained from an early age to harness the power of the knowledge locked up in those bundles of paper. Books define the concept of information management to such an extant that it’s unconsciously shaped the semiotics of our modern web-based system of knowledge storage.

We’ve been able to ignore the outdated book-based management system until very recently. The Amazon Kindle became the first ebook reader that married the long-form book format to the advantages of the internet and cheap storage. Now you can download a book directly to your Kindle, and store a full library in about the same space as a typical topical nonfiction.

The adoption of ebook readers has been slowed by people who feel they prefer old fashioned books to their new digital brethren. Despite the arguments, I don’t think this has anything to do with the comparative advantages of a dead tree book (no need to recharge, self-referential interface, leafability) – rather it has to do with our primal urge to hoard and the symbol of the book for knowledge. We feel safer with a physical representation of the printed word than one which disappears when the electricity stops.

This fetishism may be a good thing.

The length of the content inside books is determined by the technology itself. Authors are driven to flesh out a work to fit a standard size rather than match the minimal length that the subject matter really requires. The best example of this are business and self-help books: most of these could be cut down to have or even a quarter of the length and still get the message across – but the economics of publishing encourages writers of these works to expand their writing to book length, thus diluting the knowledge. This is why websites covering the same topics are so popular: they aren’t restricted to expanding the verbiage for reasons not related to the content.

By delaying the movement to a stable economic model for publishing knowledge online because some people still prefer paper books, we could hasten a change to short-form knowledge that better suits the technology with the added incentive of being easier to understand. A stable economic model is important because content creators need an incentive other than personal fulfillment. Right now most content online is supported by ads, while paid content is shunned. Until we come up with a method to financially support content, the evolution of information technology will stall. To see how hard of a problem this is, check out the Xanadu project*.

The process of evolving fiction to a non-book format is harder because fiction elicits a deeper emotional feeling in the reader.  The novel, for example, developed because it was the perfect fit for the age of the printing press: works were book-length, and authors were keen to make their stories longer, deeper, and richer. Currently the interfaces for reading anything longer than, say, 12,000 words induce eye-strain or lead the reader to distraction. We still need the book metaphor for an enjoyable experience. Short stories are different because of their length.

Right now we’re collectively working out how to order our written knowledge to take advantage of the new forms of transmission and storage. The web and ebooks may not be the future; however the system of web metaphors has been successfully used and improved upon for the last 20 years, so this may be it. The great thing about this process is that it’s done unconsciously by readers and writers, in the same way that language evolves and works itself out (which is changing because of the new information technology too).

What I’m getting at is that how we store and retrieve our collective knowledge is changing, and the outcome depends on the technology, how we structure the information, and how we incentivize its creation and distribution. To put this in perspective of the last revolution in information technology: Gutenberg hasn’t invented the printing press yet**.

*The most fascinating part of the Xanadu story is that it partly inspired Tim Berners-Lee in creating the World Wide Web, but he wanted information to be free…and was pragmatic enough to create a technology that’s ‘good enough’ to use within months.

**Eurocentric, I know, but Western Civilization was better at harnessing the power of the printing press than the Chinese.



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Play marketing

August 18th, 2009

The barrier of entry to making and sharing creative projects is so low today that there is an explosion of people entertaining themselves and their friends with things they’ve made. For some people it replaces most of the time they used to spend watching television, movies, or reading books. They still consume those things, if only because those are considered something akin to ‘high art’ and serves to define the things they make. Sometimes they’ll even borrow bits and pieces from, say, a TV show and add it to whatever they’re making.

This creator culture making serious ripples that may break out into the mainstream and become a dominant form of entertainment. I’ve already talked about the Favrd Crowd, a group of very funny and creative people busy entertaining themselves instead of letting others in mass media do it for them. Often times they will take a little piece of something else and add it to something new, or morph a phrase or meme into countless variations*, usually to hilarious effect.

We (for I consider myself a part of the Favrd Crowd) aren’t the only ones building a community out of making and sharing things online. Other groups have been started or will start that only serve to entertain its members. Some are based around books or movies (Harry Potter fans), fantasy sports, videos, or simply who can make the most offensive thing possible (4chan which, like it or not, exerts a major influence on the creativity of others online).

These online communities will only grow and spread over the next few years, and they will become more important to the daily entertainment of millions of people. People who are smart, creative, and who very likely have disposable income (or strive for disposable income).

See where I’m going with this?

As long as companies respect the intelligence of these people, it is possible to market your product and use the structure of the community to spread your message to others who are mere spectators.

For lack of a better term, I call this play marketing. Create advertising that encourages people to riff and evolve the idea into a meme that is fun for the consumer, but spreadable and effective. The big caveat is respect: respect the audience and respect the product. Any lack of authenticity will be quickly found and the campaign will be in the audience’s hands, and they won’t be very nice.

*The memes of the Favrd Crowd are very ephemeral and die out after a few days, save for a few particularly clever phrases or concepts. This makes it hard to archive and find link to examples. I’ll try to collect some examples from Twiter and Tumblr that demonstrate the creativity of this group. For examples of funny tweets that aren’t necessarily memes, check out Twitter Wit, which compiles some of the funniest tweets of the Favrd Crowd and others.



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How to market to the largest group of people with disposable income, 2009 edition

August 10th, 2009

Okay, listen up. This is now how to get the attention of people that have the money to spend on whatever they’re selling. Technically this is a very shitty economy, but not everyone is hurting, and those who have cut back still want cool things. In fact, for the kind of people you wan to sell your products to, the amount of their income they spend on necessities is obscenely low by historical standards.

That’s a good thing. So how do you get them to spend their disposable income on your product or service?

Here’s what you do. Keep in mind this is ‘big picture’ stuff:

  1. Create a product that is useful or ingenious. That’s the easy part.
  2. Make it either easy to use or intuitive. Pay very close attention to the user experience, because everyone has more to do and needs their tools efficient and friendly.
  3. The branding abstracts the product into an easy-to-comprehend symbol. People need visual symbols to help identify complex concepts.If you can’t do this with your product, either go back to step one or sell the product to non-consumers (businesses, government, etc.).
  4. Focus all of your attention on internet marketing. Now this is a little tricky. Here are some guidelines for marketing online:
    1. Be honest about what your product does.
    2. Make the juiciest pieces of marketing open-ended to encourage play. Let your potential market play with your ads: let them make fun of your product, incorporate your advertising into whatever their working on. Trust me, the people most receptive to your product (and the ones most likely to spread the word for you) are smart and creative and will mess with your messaging anyway. By giving them permission you increase your chances of reception. (More on this part later).
    3. You can forget about viral marketing. Ideas will spread if you have a great product. So spend money on that and not on making sure your marketing will spread fast. Besides, most viral marketing putters out after a few days, and everyone knows when viral ad is manufactured and not something genuinely compelling.
  5. Design the best customer service program you can afford, and implement something better. Your product will fail, and your customers deserve the best treatment you can give. No amount of skimping is allowed. Plus, people will talk about your customer service, even if it’s good but especially if it’s bad.

Yeah yeah, I know all about this. You don’t have to tell me,” you might say. Or that Seth Godin covers these points over and over on his blog and in his books.

That’s true. This is basic stuff. But modern corporations aren’t designed to take care of the basic stuff, and human nature makes us want to look further, to the problems and worries those bigger and more successful than us should worry about.

Consider these points where you can start. There are lots of details that you’ll need to figure out, such as how to make your internet marketing as efficient as possible to be shared, or the hard work required to pull off a successful customer service program. But there’s no hope for you if you can’t figure out the basics.

[Note: slightly edited to remove the most blatantly douchey passages.]



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There is no time

August 7th, 2009

We all have a specific amount of time while alive to do all the things we want to do and be all the things we want to be. The time we’re given isn’t short, though it may end abruptly. However, no matter how long you may have to live, the uncertainty of it ending should be enough of an incentive to make the most of the time we’re given.

Therefore, do not waste time by not pursuing the things you want to do and be. If you have even the slightest inkling of something you could be doing, go out and do it. Even the act of working on the things to reach that goal are better than merely dwelling on what may happen. So, go ask that girl out*, build that website, see that city, ski down that mountain, write that book, record that album, accomplish those goals you promised you’d do before you die.

If you need a more eloquent way of explaining this point about living, read Seneca’s letter “On The Shortness of Life” (Here’s a nicely-highlighted version by Timothy Ferriss).

If there is something you’ve been putting off doing for whatever reason, try doing it right now. Regret comes from what wasn’t attempted, not what was tried.

(I’m writing this post not because I’m an expert on the topic or that I’m following the advice at all, but because I’m trying to understand its implications myself.)

*Trust me, it sounds better this way than trying to be gender-inclusive.



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Projectrd

August 3rd, 2009

I made a little site to make it easy to find side projects of those in the so-called Favrd Crowd. Things like podcasts, web applications, real applications, themed blogs, etc.

I call it Projectrd. It’s nothing more than a single html page that lists every side project of all the Favrd and Tumblr users I could find in about an hour.

If you want to add your project to the site, send an email to projectrd@budaeli.com with the name, a link to the site, and the Twitter or Tumblr accounts of the people involved and I’ll update the page. Use the same email if you want your project removed.

Projectrd is only a proof of concept. I’m probably not going to maintain it for very long. If you want to make a directory of your own let me know and I’ll link to it on the site. Hell, use the same name if you want (there’s a sleazy website using that domain though).

Also, I’m aware of the awfulness of the name. It’s worse if you pronounce ‘projectrd’ like Merlin Mann pronounces ‘Favrd.’

(reposted from…somewhere else)

Update: Projectrd has closed. All the links have been changed to an archive of the site and projectrd@budaeli.com no longer works.



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