Friday, December 31, 2010

How We Perceive Games and Toys (Redux)

Two years ago I wrote an entry (Welcome to Gameland) bemoaning the way society is portrayed in the marketing of toys and games. My complaint (if you want to call it that) was that in marketing, the target audience for toys and games are portrayed -- to an overwhelming extent -- as children playing by themselves, almost never with adults.

Well, the next holiday season came and went. So I thought it might be interesting to see if the previous year's advertising was an anomaly or not. So I took five catalogs we received over the last Christmas holiday (2009)  and repeated the experiment. Four of the catalogs were dedicated solely to toys for children and one, Sears, had a significant toy section. I counted the number of images of people using the advertised products, determining how many were:

  • Children pictured alone
  • Children in a group of two or more
  • Groups of children and adults together
The catalogs I analyzed were ImagineToys, Met Kids, Sears Wishbook, Target Toys, and Toys R Us. I was surprised -- pleasantly so -- to see a significant change. The number of  pictures depicting children playing together increased from 12% to 21%. The number of pictures of children playing with adults went from zero to 4%.

Not only are there more images of children playing together and with parents, the increase applies almost across the board. Of the catalogs I surveyed, only MetKids predominantly depicted children playing by themselves.

Obviously, showing children by themselves does not necessarily mean you don't think they play with others. Hiring two models is more expensive than hiring one. But it is interesting that there seems to be a shift to re-emphasizing the utility of toys for group interaction.

Of particular note, (although I didn't capture the numbers to prove it, it is just an interesting side note) many of the pictures of groups of children with adults involved outdoor play structures such as swing sets, sand boxes, and outdoor sports equipment.

Where is the etree for Poetry?

Where is the etree, trader's den, or dimeadozen for poetry? Where is the poetry channel for YouTube or the Internet Archive?

The latter question is a bit facetious. There are poetry videos on YouTube and there is a poetry channel in the Internet Archive. And the groups that have contributed to them (in particular, UCal Berkeley on YouTube and the Naropa University in the Internet Archive) deserve a lot of credit for their efforts.

However, finding the actual poetry readings on YouTube requires sifting through pages and pages of "experimental" video interpretations and def jam promos. The Naropa Institute has done much more to bring at least one branch of America poetry to the Internet. However, the Internet Archive's poetry channel is starting to fill up not with readings by authors but ordinary citizens providing their interpretation of famous poems.

I'm not talking about poetry "slams" and def jam -- poetry as a competitive sport -- or my next door neighbor reading poetry. There is plenty of that to go around. I am talking about a more comprehensive view of the growing history and record of modern poetry (both American poetry and poetry from other countries and cultures).

When I was in school (granted, too many years ago to count), the discussion often turned to how poetry is an oral tradition, both in its composition and its presentation. Poetry readings were special events -- giving us the opportunity to hear familiar poems the way they were intended by the poet or to experience new work and new forms.

Now, granted, not all poets are good readers. But the poetry reading does provide a unique bond between author and reader that is not possible through the printed word alone. There are hundreds of poetry readings a year in colleges, libraries, and book stores around the country. Some of these readings are being recorded either as audio or video. But access to almost all of these recordings is currently closed or hidden.

Organizations such as the Lannan Foundation, University of Pennsylvania, and Naropa School of Poetics have done an amazing job to bring at least some of this material to the public. And there may be others I haven't discovered yet. But with these notable exceptions, much of the oral history of American poetry since the latter half of the 20th century has been lost.

For example, when I was growing up, there was an extraordinary series on public television called Poetry USA, including interviews and readings from Frank O'Hara, Anne Sexton, and Robert Creeley among others. Try as I might, I haven't been able to find any of these either online or as videos or DVDs. I know they were made available, because I saw them again when I was in college. But this piece of history seems to have been lost from neglect.

The organizations I mention above are doing what they can and should be commended for their efforts. But what about the other groups who sponsor readings? There is a reading at a college campus, a library, or a bookstore at least once a week across America. (Probably much more. Once a day? Or more?) Are any of these being recorded and if so, what happens to those recordings?

It is not just the responsibility of large organizations. We as audience and participants can just as easily take the initiative. In music, there is a very strong community of aficionados who are sharing live recordings through sites such as etree and dimeadozen. It would be nice to think the same could be established for poetry.

So what am I suggesting? Three things:

Start Sharing

Poets and poetry readers tend to think of themselves as a small community. Which is true, within one's own limited geographic area. But cumulatively, the poetry community in America and around the world is huge. Rather than concentrating on how unique we are, perhaps we should start realizing the breadth and scope of the world of poetry as a whole.

Those who have recordings of poetry readings, either as audio or video recordings, should start sharing them openly. The monetary cost of publishing media on the web is approaching zero. Sites such as and YouTube provide free storage -- as well as the necessary search and browse interface to make the content findable -- for free. The only remaining cost for college English departments, libraries, and individuals who may have existing recordings is the time needed to digitize them.

Make Sharing Easier

Although free storage is available, it is not always the easiest to find information in. The Internet Archive provides a basic structure based on media type and categories. But you often spend a fair amount of time sifting through miss-sorted lists of recordings. YouTube is perhaps worse because of its sheer volume. (YouTube is excellent for serendipitous discovery. Not so good at finding specific types of content.)

On the other hand, sites such as Pennsound provide a well-moderated, easily searched collection of recordings. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any way for others to contribute to the existing archive.

What would be ideal is if there were commonly recognized tools and processes for sharing live poetry recordings.

In the world of music, sites such as etree and dimeadozen provide both a service for user contributions (through bittorrent) and a set of best practices and guidelines for sharing live recordings. These sites, although operating in a gray area of copyright law, do a remarkable job of self-regulation concerning what is allowed, what is required, and how to distribute live recordings that are both findable and usable.

Many of the specific rules (such as the use of lossless audio formats) used by music sites are not necessary for spoken word recordings. But the overall process, approach, and philosophy of sharing would be a good model for the poetry community to follow.

One alternative, since there will inevitably be both sponsored sites (such as Lannan and Pennsound) as well as community sites (such as YouTube and is to develop tools and sites to solve the finding problem separate from the storage problem. A live poetry specific search engine or directory (similar to Captain Crawl, livesoccertv, or other community-specific sites) could help tie together the multiple technologies in use.

Encourage Sharing

Finally, since the current lack of sharing is not really a question of either technology or capacity, the most important goal would be to encourage everyone involved in recording live poetry to start sharing, both from the recorder and the performer's perspective. What is needed is a common agreement that the poet agrees to the recording and the recorder agrees to distribute the recording for free.

Often when readings are recorded, if there is any agreement with the poet, it is simply a verbal request to record the reading. There is either agreement or refusal, with little discussion of either the intent or planned use of the recording. This is problematic both for the poet and the recorder; the poet has little or no control on what is done with the recording and the recorder has no explicit agreement that they can distribute what they record. The recording becomes a legal "displaced person".

To both encourage non-commercial sharing of recordings and protect the people involved, it would be very helpful to have a commonly accepted legal document setting out the limits and accepted uses of the recording.

What I am thinking of is something simple, similar to the GNU Public license or the Creative Commons license, stating that the poet agrees to be recorded and the recorder agrees to make the recording available for non-commercial use. It would both explicitly exclude commercial release (for which the performer ought to be compensated if that is the goal) and require sharing rather than simply recording and storing. (Of course, this in no way precludes the poet from making deals for commercial recordings if they wish. The agreement would only be for personal-use or non-commercial recordings.)

Going a step further, it would be good to have the agreement specify exactly what license the recording will be distributed under (such as Creative Commons), to ensure that those who later receive the recording also understand their rights and responsibilities concerning use and redistribution of the recording.


Is what I describe possible? Absolutely. Likely to happen? I'm not sure. There are very few technical hurdles, but it would require some minor effort (such as developing the recording agreement) and significant promotion by interested individuals. I would love to be involved, but I am a little too far outside the mainstream of the poetry community to promulgate such a scheme myself. But I do hope something like this comes to pass before we lose any more of a very precious resource.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Can Fish See Colors?

It never occurred to me to ask the question, until last night. We have a fish in an aquarium in the corner of our dining room. I think he is a char — we caught him in a pond as a minnow so I have never been sure.

He doesn't get upset easily; I can move around the room without disturbing him and we went all the way through Thanksgiving — setting up the table, eating and cleaning up — without his showing any sign of stress.

He can clearly see what is going on. When I come down in the morning, he swims to the corner (closest to the kitchen) and wags his tail, waiting for me to feed him as is the daily ritual.

But last night, after clearing the table, I figured we would switch directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but as I moved towards the table to put on the new tablecloth, our fish (Sam) suddenly started splashing and darting back and forth in alarm. Something had set him off.

What was it? I occasionally take him by surprise and he splashes and hides behind his rock. But this time he was more alarmed than usual. And I wasn't even that close to his aquarium. But there was one difference: I was carrying a bright red tablecloth.

The bright color red had triggered something in him. He was very agitated until I had the tablecloth on the table. Once it stopped moving, he calmed down. I hadn't seen behavior like this since he was a very young fish (and not accustomed to his environment).

So, do fish react to the color red like the proverbial bull? Or would it be anything bright and moving that triggers a defensive response? He hasn't reacted to colored shirts or other materials that I noticed. Whatever the cause, the result was dramatic.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thinking About Tabs

OK. I am back to designing interfaces. Well, interaction design more than UI design since I am concentrating on the larger scale sets of content and interaction rather than the detailed UI artifacts on the page.

One thing I am learning this time around is that I have a proclivity for tabs. But tabs are dangerous. Let me explain.

Tabs are an easy way out. They let you create multiple "views" or "panels" at an equal level and tie them together with the tabs. For example, Facebook (with Home / Profile / Find Friends), Yahoo Shopping, or — most famously — Amazon. Of course, Amazon has dropped their tabs. But the intent is still present in their lefthand pull-right menus.

The key to a tabbed interface is that it lets the user decide between multiple functions or views. The advantage is that the tabs stay present so the user can navigate easily between functions. The disadvantage is that it is up to the user to decide; the interface does not promote a specific priority or process.

Which is what makes tabs dangerous. It is too easy for the designer to accede responsibility for guiding the user and say disingenuously "the user gets to decide".

Tabs make sense when dealing with a large inventory of heterogeneous objects. In this situation the tabs act as a classification mechanism. But what if the content is not evenly distributed or readily partitioned? Then the tabs are simply a way to "chunk" a large set of functions with little regard for their natural affinities (c.f. the facebook tabs).

While working on my current design project, I discovered that I often fall back on tabs as a default technique for organizing disparate information and controls. The consequence is that I tend to get lazy and not think through the other possible options.

Even if done well, tabs tend to reinforce ingrained ways of viewing the content, without thinking too deeply about the alternatives. Using tabs feels safe, but it can unnecessarily fragment the workspace, separating functions the user may want to compare or contrast. (Jakob Nielsen has an excellent essay on this topic.)

So, if tabs are not the answer, what are the alternatives? Perhaps it might serve us well to think about why tabs so readily come to mind. I suspect it is historical. The web started as a hypertext delivery system, where the text was largely static. There were forms, but little other interactivity. Much of the "early days" of the web were focused on determining best how to:

  • Structure the content
  • Represent the structure as navigation
Menu bars, navigation menus, and ultimately tabs became essential components of the web experience and designer's toolkit. However, as we move into Web 2.0 and the predominance of scripting languages, flash, and HTML v5, the web is not only interactive, it becomes an application of it own.

Although there is still a lot of text and pictures where navigation plays a role, there is a lot more interaction involved and the design must help direct users through processes, not just content. It is unclear that what has been learned from years of application interface design has yet to be effectively integrated in web interface design.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Work of Technical Documentation

Contrary to the assumptions of many, the job of technical writing doesn't involve that much writing. The actual act of writing is at most 30% of the work.

In fact, the more writing you do, often the worse the end product becomes. Writing is a test of understanding. As you write, you come to realize what it is you understand and what you don't.

But if your job is to write, you not only need to write to understand, you need to write to be understood. Two distinct and at times opposite goals.

The danger is that, when writing instructions for something you don't completely understand, you write more. You try to write around the parts you don't understand; you describe it two or three times in the hope one of the descriptions sparks understanding in the reader; or you simply transliterate what you are told, because you can't figure out what parts are important and what parts aren't.

The result is lengthy documentation that does more to obfuscate that elucidate.

So if technical writers don't write, what what is it that they do? Well, primarily we investigate. We learn so we can explain. This is particularly true of new products where often the developers themselves don't know exactly how the features will be used by the customers.

I lay no claim to scientific accuracy, but my estimate is that more than half of the time technical writers spend is used in investigating. Of the remaining time, about half is used for actually writing. The remainder is used for testing (to see that what we wrote is true) and "production" (proofreading, editing, and the tedious and finicky work of tweaking the content into the appropriate output).

Are there exceptions to this "rule"? Yes.

  • New Projects: When you are starting a new project from scratch, excessive amounts of time are dedicated to production, since you need to get your processes and tools right. Then the split is more like 40% investigation, 20% writing, 10% testing, and 30% production.
  • Wrong Tools: If you aren't using structured tools (for example. using Word instead of xml or other structured tagging system), you spend far more time on production but don't know it because it is indistinguishable from the writing. At least 30% is production and/or rework spread out across the project at all times.
  • Updating Existing Documentation: If you are doing an "update", less time is spent on investigation but it is usually made up for by more time in testing as you need to make sure existing descriptions are still accurate. Something like 40% investigation, 25% writing, 25% testing, 10% production.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Moderation (or Lack Thereof)

For the past month or so I have been struggling with an ethical dilemma. My original intent in writing this blog was as a vehicle for me to think through some of the issues and ideas that concern me most. A second goal is to share those ideas with people -- friends and the occasional stranger -- who find their way here. A happy coincidence of the blog is the opportunity to converse with people who share my interests and concerns.

Since my blog is open to the world, I feel it only fair that if I get to have my say, the favor should be returned and others should be able to comment on what I post. I really enjoy seeing what others have to say, even if they don't agree with me.

Given the limited audience I expect, I figured spam would not be to much of an issue. But I chose to require registration before you could comment as a deterrent, just in case. And that worked... until recently.

Over the past few months I have been getting more and more spam -- particularly in Chinese -- posted as comments. I just put it down to the inevitable random internet annoyance, but made sure to delete them as soon as I could. I figured I could live with this downside of a public site, even at one or two spam comments a week.

But the volume has increased to a bogus comment every day or two and although I don't mind the work, I am annoyed that they are there even for the few hours before I get a chance to delete them. I don't want to create more barriers than necessary, but I finally broke down and added moderation to comments on this blog. This means I have to "approve" comments before they become visible on the blog.

To those of you who do come here to read or comment on my blog, I apologize. I am distressed that I have to add this extra layer of indirection. But the use of moderated comments is not intended in any way to limit or censor your responses.

And, of course, thanks for reading... and responding!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Twitterfish Revisited (the Language of Tweets)

Last year I built Twitterfish to translate Twitter messages as a demonstration related to consulting I was doing. I haven't done much with the prototype since, until recently.

It turns out that the new company I work for is stirring up interest in both the US and overseas -- particularly in Japan. But it is tedious to translate the Japanese tweets one at a time.

When I wrote Twitterfish, I thought of handling search results... But it was a prototype and I didn't have a lot of incentive to finish it off. Suddenly I had both the interest and the need.

So Twitterfish now supports search. (See the tabs below the banner.) It also paginates the search results.

Next on my list is displaying the date/time of each tweet, because I may need to count the number of tweets per week...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lurking or Lost?

Stan Garfield made an interesting comment in response to my post on lurking. Stan said:

I assume that most people who stay subscribed to a community discussion board are usually paying attention to what is being discussed. They can benefit from doing so, even if they post infrequently (or never).

Part of what Stan is positing is true. People who are not actively participating can -- and often do -- benefit from the discussions within the community. That is the aspect of lurking that makes it a constructive activity.

But it is dangerous to generalize this belief, particularly if you are managing communities. Which I suspect is why Stan qualified his statement with "most". The distinction is whether people are actually lurking or have turned off completely.

Membership, or subscriptions, are often used to measure the size of a community, using the premise that, if they are still members, they are at least "actively lurking".

However, going back to my own experience, I currently belong to at least ten online communities where I receive email:

  • Two I actively follow, reading each email as it comes in and -- occasionally -- responding.
  • One I read thoroughly but never respond to. I consider it "keeping up" with a specific technology area.
  • One I read if I have time, but at least half the time I skip.
  • Two I browse the subjects lines but almost never actually open the email before deleting.
  • Of the remaining four, at least two I delete without even considering the subject line. One I delete angrily after seeing that their infrequent messages are wasting my time, and the last falls somewhere in between those last two categories.

So which communities am I actively "lurking" in? If you asked me, I'd claim to be a "member" of three of the ten. Four at most. Less than 50%.

In truth the situation is much worse than what I describe, since I am a registered user of 10 or 20 more communities which I do not receive email subscription notices from. Of these I actively visit the forums of, perhaps, 5; occasionally visit another 2; and probably can't remember my password for at least half of what remains.

If that's the case, why don't I unsubscribe? Laziness, probably. About once a year I go through and remove myself from the most egregiously bad lists. But over the next 12 months I probably sign up for more new ones than I jettison. Some communities I signed up with for a specific purpose, which has since been satisfied. Some I joined as an experiment. And for many, there is a sense of not wanting to miss something that I might otherwise not hear about. (Although time proves that supposition wrong.)

Whatever the cause, I am technically a member of far more communities than I am actually "involved" with, whether active or lurking. Which brings us back to the dilemma for community leaders: how do you measure the size of an online community?

You can say for certain that people actively participating (posting, responding, or otherwise contributing) are members. But as has been said time and again, this is usually a very small percentage of the actual community size.

On the high end (assuming your community supports or requires some form of registration) you can count all registered users. However, as I have just explained, that number is unlikely to have any true meaning. So reality falls somewhere in between.

Second Life was roundly criticized four years ago for not being clear how they counted their "residents". (To be fair, the company improved both their methods of counting and reporting membership in response to the complaints.) But part of the confusion is not just how they were counting, but disagreements about what methods are appropriate.

The situation is no better for internal communities within corporations. Ultimately, there is no true answer. The interest level of individual members of the community will ebb and flow constantly, often with no external indications. So there is no way to provide an precise measurement of "engagement", even as a snapshot.

If you have subscriptions, you can report a combination of senders (unique posters) and receivers (subscribers) to give a range of possible activity. However, this leaves out anyone who reads the message online or (as is increasingly common) through an RSS feed. If you have access to web logs, you can report the number of unique visitors to the site/forum. But merging this data with email subscriptions can be difficult.

But no matter how you count, there are a variety of actions community facilitators can take to "take the pulse" of the community, beyond just numbers.

  • Talk to your members. Contact people directly to ask if the community is meeting their needs or not. and if not, how it could be improved. Ask them how its going.
  • When questions are asked, forward the question to people you know are knowledgeable on the subject and suggest they post an answer. This not only keeps the conversation going, it helps gets more experienced members involved and can spur interaction between members who do not know each other yet.
  • If there aren't any questions, ask some. Not trivial questions, but questions that will get the community thinking -- and talking.
  • Thank people, either publicly or privately through email, when they contribute significantly to the community. Make them feel appreciated for their efforts.

If this sounds more like hosting a high society soiree than facilitating a community, there's a good reason for that. They are very similar tasks. It is not enough to schedule a party, hire a caterer, and send out invitations. Once the event begins, you must play host: introduce people so no one feels left out, make sure they circulate, suggest activities... even plan party games! The exact same sort of activities that are needed to keep a community going once it has begun. What's more, being actively involved yourself gives you an intimate and immediate sense of the health and well-being of the community.

Measurements are fine and often necessary to convince management that positive momentum is occurring. But more important is knowing for yourself, as community leader, that your members are involved and benefiting from their participation. And this is not a number, it is a state of being you can contribute to yourself.

P.S. Stan himself has articulated many of these and other good ideas for how to actively facilitate communities in his own writing. Most recently, in his community manifesto. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the topic.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"You are being redeployed...."

The English language is a funny thing; words have meanings. They may have multiple meanings and -- despite the fact that people publish dictionaries claiming to be the authoritative definition of words -- those meanings are fluid and can change over time. But it takes time. Words have meaning because people collectively agree to them.

Another funny thing about the English language is that people are always trying to change the meanings of words. And if they can't change the meaning, they change the words. These are called "euphemisms" and we are all party to it. When an event or subject is painful, we use alternate words to lessen the blow. People don't die, they "pass on" or "go to a better place" (not that we know that for sure, but it sounds better). The goal is to soften the blow.

Problems occur when rather than softening the words, the euphemism is so extreme it twists the original intent and tries to actually deny the reality of the situation.

Two years ago I was laid off. That itself is a euphemism. I was fired. The original intent of the term layoff (which is defined as "a period of inactivity or idleness") was to imply that -- once things got better -- you would be rehired. Now it has become a blanket term for any time you are summarily fired for reasons unrelated to your performance.

But layoff has a negative connotation and so had to be softened even more. (Just as downsizing was replaced by rightsizing -- right for what?) And so I was not laid off or even WFRed (work force reduced), I was "redeployed".

Excuse me? I was not redeployed, I was undeployed. Yes, they pretended that there was a period of time where I could look for work elsewhere in the company before I was terminated. But I was not redeployed; I was not "transferred from one area or activity to another" as the definition implies. (Unless you consider looking for a job a business activity.)

At least, once my "redeployment" ended, they did stay true to the language and "terminated" me.

I can laugh about it now. The bitterness of being laid off is temporal and easily erased by the adventure of doing new (and far more interesting) things. However, the distaste for how it was done and loss of respect for my former employer's business practices when they misuse language that way lingers. It is only a word, a symbol. But the symbols we use define how we see -- or want to be seen -- by society. And the more we mask our intentions with euphemistic phrases, although no one will outwardly call your bluff, trust and respect ultimately pay the toll.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Month of Poems (part 4)

[This is part 4 of a sporadic series of a month of poems as described in the preface]

"I Remember the Room Was Filled with Light" by Judith Hemschemeyer
from I Remember the Room Was Filled with Light, Wesleyan University Press 1973
[Saturday, May. 1st]

I originally encountered Judith Hemschemeyer when I was just starting to read modern poetry. I read her first book, Very Close and Very Slow, and I didn't get it. A little while later, I went back and read it again. The second time I loved it. It made me wonder: what had I missed the first time around?

But what really got me thinking was when I went back to read it again about a year later, and didn't like it again. What was going on here?

It turns out the title of that first book is more than just a catchy phrase. It is an apt description of how you need to read her poems; very close and very slow. The first and third time I read them, I was reading too quickly and the images didn't "catch".

Her poems are actually quite flat, almost like a monotone, and her imagery is sparse. This was the first time I had encountered a poetry that required me to read them a certain way. Unless you slow down and read very deliberately, the language seems dull and the metaphors forced.

She was making supper. I stood on the rim
Of a wound just healing; so when he looked up
And asked me when we were going to eat
I ran to her, though she could hear. She smiled
And said 'Tell him...' Then 'Tell her...' On winged feet
I danced between them, forgiveness in my cup,
Wise messenger of the gods, their child.

Writing poems this way is hard, because if you miss the mark, even by a little, the failure is total. And reading poems this way can be equally hard. But in Hemschemeyer's case, it is usually worth the effort.

This poem is one of the rare cases where the poem neither succeeds or fails. It is on the edge. And whether you believe the child as messenger may depend more on the poem you read next than anything this poem can convince you of. Because you have to believe in the narrator... and the poet... to believe in the poem.

"Lumberjack" by Zbigniew Herbert
from Collected Poems 1956-1998, Ecco Press 2007
(trans. by Alissa Valles et. al.)
[Sunday, May. 2nd]

"In the morning the lumberjack goes into the forest and slams the great oak door behind him." The opening sentence of this poem is so like Herbert's poems: filled with images that take us by surprise, stopping us in our tracks. (Is the oak door the door to the house he is leaving or, as it seems, the door to the forest he is entering?)

What separates Herbert from surrealists and other overtly "sensational" poets is that, although his poems are full of surprising turns, by the time you reach the image at the end of the sentence, it is both a surprise and totally inevitable. Required by the story the poet is telling.

That sense of authority and control (or at least awareness) of the psychological landscape is a trait common to the best Eastern European writers. Herbert has it in spades. His poems seem like parables of a life we are only just escaping by chance.

Two notes:

  • I first encountered Herbert's poems thanks to the Penguin Modern European Poets series in the Seventies. Those original translations, not surprisingly due to their origin, made Herbert sound very "British"; somewhat stiff and self-satisfied to American ears. Despite that disconcerting overtone, it was still possible to feel the power of his poems, if not fully appreciate them. This new edition of his work alleviates much of that problem. The translations are more direct and the sheer volume of work gives you a better sense of Herbert's overarching themes. (Note that many of the earlier translations are also included in the Collected Poems.)
  • The Collected Poems is a beautiful book. The production quality, the printing, the cover, and most importantly the content are beautiful and do justice to a truly great poet.

"Headlights" by Conrad Hilberry
from Man in the Attic, Bits Press 1980
[Monday, May. 3rd]

Conrad Hilberry is very talented. As you encounter his poems line by line, you can't help but be impressed by the finely honed and striking imagery.

[The headlights] are antennae, quivering ahead
of her, naming whatever is to come...

[she] walks a few yards into the spongy woods,
where dark clings like cobwebs..."

He is a master of figurative description, of landscapes. The problem comes when you get to the end of the poem and realize that it just doesn't add up to much. What did all this imposing imagery get us? The protagonist is compared to the car she just stepped out of with some unspoken urge and the trees "sing themselves into fact."

The conclusions of Hilberry's poems tend to be less than the sum of their parts. Which is terrible to say, because he is so much better than many poets in setting the scene. But as impressive as his writing is, it is easy to read one of his books in its entirety and not be able to recall any single poem clearly.

Which presents two problems for me as a reader.

  • Is it me? Am I not giving him the benefit of the doubt? Am I missing some deeper meaning?
  • Or perhaps I am expecting too much. Is description enough? Not every poem has to have some deeper meaning every time, does it?

No, it doesn't. But it has to have something. That ineffable that makes poetry worth living -- and dying -- for. Too much to ask? Perhaps. But why else read poetry?

"Recycling Center" by Brenda Hillman
from Bright Existence,Wesleyan University Press 1993
[Tuesday, May. 4th]

Brenda Hillman is also very talented, but in a very different mold than Hilberry. Her poems are also full of well-crafted images, but for a different reason. Her descriptions are bursting with meaning -- explicit or not -- often overwhelming the physical description itself.

Bye, bottle! She shouts,
tossing it in; and the bottle lies there
in the two o'clock position, temporarily itself,
before being swept into the destiny of mixture...

Hillman is not a poet of the physical landscape, although her descriptions are beautiful in and of themselves. She is instead a poet of the psychological lives that inhabit a place.

In her earlier books, it was almost as if the psyche and the real were in combat. Each struggling for primacy of place, neither giving in. In her later books there is more harmony, more acceptance of physical items as a stage, if not actors themselves, in the narrator's emotional life.

"May All Earth Be Clothed in Light" by George Hitchcock
from One-Man Boat, Story Line Press 2003
[Wednesday, May. 5th]

It's impossible to say anything negative about George Hitchcock. He's not a very good poet, really. But his single-handed contributions to modern poetry over the years make him almost immune to criticism.

Morning spreads over
the beaches like lava;
the waves lie still, they
glitter with pieces of light.

For years Hitchcock was the editor of Kayak magazine, being the first to publish many of the best poets of the time (Charles Simic, James Tate, etc) and offering encouragement to many, many others. A rejection note from Kayak (always with a personal signature from George, and occasionally a word or two of comment) was almost like a badge of membership in the secret society of aspiring poets.

Does that excuse his writing? No. But it doesn't have to. Because even as amateurish his own writing was, Hitchcock was trying -- and trying something new -- in each poem. Different typography, different approaches to the image, different images, different approaches to writing (found poems, etc.). These do not necessarily make the poems better. But they make them all serious efforts at creating poetry.

And every once in awhile, despite the odds, he succeeds. The following is one of my favorite poems from the book:


has returned
in orbit.

Today I sat
while a
folded its
and rested
on my knee.

"A Color of the Sky" by Tony Hoagland
from What Narcissism Means to Me,Graywolf Press 2003
[Thursday, May. 6th]

Tony Hoagland's poems make me cringe. Not the poems themselves, but the topics he chooses.

Some poets write as if every moment is some crucial defining moment in one's life. (No insult intended, because she writes great poems, but Brenda Hillman for one fits into this category.)
In reality, our lives are filled with thousands of lesser moments that we often choose to ignore but that define us, cumulatively, as much as any single event.

And it is these smaller moments that Hoagland chooses to write about. The problem is that these are dangerous poems to write. It is easy to fall back on pastiche or stereotypes, making the narrator appear either self-righteous or condescending. Which is why I cringe when I see a poem attempting such a topic. But it is exactly this tightrope that Hoagland's poems walk, even dance, across.

Make no mistake about it, Hoagland writes beautiful poems; inspiring poems carved out of the minutia of everyday life. And once you get involved in one of his books, rather than cringing, you start to look forward to experiencing these moments from the inside.

And that is how Hoagland makes it work where so many other poets fail. He takes these lesser moments completely seriously (even though his narrator may joke) and describes the reaction, the internal dialog, in beautiful detail.

To the point where, when he describes a blossoming dogwood as "losing its mind.. like a bride ripping off her clothes," you're right there with him celebrating a life composed of a thousand trivial moments viewed in bright relief.

"Manifest Destiny" by John Hodgen
from Grace, University of Pittsburgh Press 2006
[Friday, May. 7th]

There's a tendency for many poets, once they've established their voice (usually in their second or third book) to turn to their own personal history as subject matter. All poems are driven by the poet's experience to a greater or lesser degree. But poets seem to have a particular urge to take on their past -- and particularly their childhood -- head on.

Len Roberts did it in Sweet Ones. Other poets have gone that route as well. And John Hodgen follows suit in Grace, as in this excerpt from the poem about his mother:

never knowing for over thirty years her sweet secret,
that it was because she was out of food for the week,
that it was all she had left to give us.

And certainly not now, not when I hold the slim reed
of your arm, your withered, feathery hand,
and you shudder telling me you will not live to see your daughters
graduate, get married, have children of their own.

There are a lot of adjectives here, like sponges that bear far more meaning than can fit on the page. And rather than dealing with this extra meaning, it is left like a ominous curtain of portent over the entire scene.

For the poet, these poems are very meaningful, because they are real. However, for the reader, fairly or unfairly, they are just a story like any other. And all the unexplained foreboding acts more like a blurry cloud of unexplained intent than like the clarifying lens the poet sees.

Which is a shame because, as I've said before, Hodgen is a very good, understated poet. The good news is most poets do seem to exorcise this need to explore the past and return in later books to the clarity and precision they showed to start.

from The Collect Call of the Wild, Henry Holt 1995
[Saturday, May. 8th]

I want to like this book. I really do. But it is so hard.

First, Holman is into poetry as a performance art. (He is the co-author of Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.) But I am reading the poems on the page. Even if I read them aloud, I doubt I am doing them justice. They seem like they would benefit from a smoke filled room, flashing lights, a loud P.A. system, and several drinks.

But even then, it is hard to see anything but a thin veneer of surrealism with the hipster volume set to eleven:

got the heavy-duty political intent
got the worm farm free-form diamond noodle content
I got breezy ways & boppin' rays
when the word explodes the mother lode is where I'm at

I want to like these poems for the sheer passion and energy they give off. But when the smoke clears there is nothing there but noise and the poems end up being little more than the cheap joke the title of the book implies.

"Two Morning Poems" by Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Translated by Anselm Hollo
from Red Cats, City Lights Books 1962
[Sunday, May. 9th]

This little book of translations by Anselm Hollo is not "original" work as usually defined. But the poems are as much a result of Hollo's efforts as that of the three Russian poets he interprets. It is the product of its age (the 1960's), from its bold red and white cover, to its Cold War title (Red Cats) and its hip colloquial language:

They accuse me
of many things.
There are many around
who don't love me at all.


I tell you,
I get a big charge out of this --
their raging just goes to show
that they
can't make it!

Despite bearing the marks of its generation (or perhaps even because of it) the poems end up being far more successful than any other translations I seen of Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and Kirsanov. Hollo's "Beat" interpretation seems to be a perfect match for the brash, assertive personality of the Russian originals. In other translations, Yevtushenko comes off as pompous, self-righteous, and thoroughly unpleasant. Hollo manages to bring out a lively, self-confident, and emotionally alert narrator far more recognizable and interesting to modern audiences.

"Dinner" by Miroslav Holub
Trans. by Jarmila & Ian Milner
from Notes of a Clay Pigeon, Secker & Warburg 1977
[Monday, May. 10th]

Miroslav Holub isn't the best Eastern European poet of the past fifty years. But that's kind of like saying Rimsky-Kosakov isn't the best Russian composer. We in the west have been blessed with a slim but constant flow of translations of Eastern European poets over the past 40 years, starting with the Penguin series back in the 60's. Holub is one of those poets, with clear roots in the semi-surrealist, parable-like style that makes poetry from that region stand out.

I accuse the small towns of not becoming cities
All the worse for them.
I accuse the small nations of not becoming powerful.
All the worse for them.

And Holub is very good at it. His poems inspire reflection, surprise, and private smiles of recognition. But they never quite reach the sort of revelation or emotional climax you find in Herbert, Popa, or Szymborska. But then, Rimsky-Kosakov didn't write the 1812 Overture either. He's still worth listening to...

"Just Plain Beauty" by Paul Hoover
from Somebody Talks Alot, Yellow Press (undated)
[Tuesday, May. 11th]

Paul Hoover is a surrealist poet, in the tradition of the French surrealists. Which is unusual for an American poet.

French surrealism has had a strong influence on American poetry, but mainly in its imagery. Modern American poetry is still tightly bound to recognizable human situations as the basic theme and plot. (Think American neo-surrealists like James Tate, Edson, etc.). The Americans are interested in adopting the wildness of the vision but not willing to give up control of the poem itself as the French encouraged with their automatism and devotion to the subconscious.

Hoover holds closer to his French predecessors than his American peers. Even when the poem starts with a fairly ordinary topic ("a model in a painting class") he is willing to let the poem lead him rather than vice versa:

The students are studious.
He says, "On the fourth floor in a broom closet
a bulb has been burning for several days.
Find the man responsible."
Sir, we have found his green uniform,
for the ideal does exist, like grammar,
and the possible happens every minute.

It is refreshing to see surrealism used with an American idiom. However, because of the nature of the writing, there are no "great" poems here (too much jumping from idea to idea). But still plenty to enjoy.

[Tuesday, June.29th]

It was probably a mistake to attempt a month of poems while the company I work for was launching V1 of the product. But then it would have been equally problematic while I was looking for job, starting a new job, on vacation, etc. etc... I apologize of the lapse in entries. I kept up with the reading, but couldn't find the time to write the entries.

But there never is a good time. So rather than spend another year waiting for the right opportunity, I'll just pick up where I left off, continue into the next month, and accept the gaps when they occur. I appreciate your patience and hope my ramblings are of interest.

"In the Valley of the Elwy" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
from The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oxford University Press 1967
[Saturday, July 3rd]

It would be silly of me to talk about Hopkins. Not that I don't like him, I do! But I have a hard time explaining why.

I don't like rhymed verse. And Hopkins is, if anything, excessively rhymy. He rhymes at the end of the line; in the middle of the line; he stuffs rhyme and alliteration throughout his poems. It's as if he is trying to overwhelm you with sound.

And that is perhaps the sensation I like about his work. Hopkins is, aurally, a very sensual poet. Ascetic in his personal life, his poems can barely contain the ecstatic abundance of language, in a way no other poet is willing to do.

"Late Disturbance" by Joan Houlihan
from Hand-Held Executions, Del Sol Press 2004
[Sunday, September 5th]

I know nothing about Joan Houlihan except what is in this book. I confess that I bought it, at least partially, because of the blurbs on the back. (If poets you like have nice things to say about a book, there is at least a chance of there being something worthwhile inside.)

And indeed there is. There is an urgency about these poems that is very attractive. Not a hurried stream of consciousness, but a frankness where the poem is stripped of its literary "skin" and left to fend for itself.

Quite frankly I find many of the images in Houlihan's poems to be tantalizingly beyond the reach comprehension. They slip out of my grasp at the last minute leaving me with the sense of empathy, but nothing I could clearly articulate:

Treated with chalk and medical salt,
feigning misgiving, tears -- is this complaint

or welcome? I am not easily taught.
What bound us now deforms.

This sort of cat-and-mouse with comprehension is a dangerous game for a poet to play. If it works, the poem has a depth like the water in a quarry: deep, dark and mysterious. But let the image run a little too far into the ungraspable, and the poem is exposed (at least to the frustrated reader) as a shallow con game: tricking the reader into believing there is depth where there is simply confusion.

But Houlihan manages to play the game to perfection. Each image has sufficient visual lucidity and emotional weight to keep me thinking, keep me wondering, keep me reading.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Collaboration at the Edges

Last month there was a discussion going on in a KM group I participate in regarding rewards. The question being asked was "what incentives are in place for knowledge sharing within your organization?"

Now, those involved in KM will recognize this discussion. It is a recurring theme, sort of like abortion, with no clear answer but lots of heated debate on both sides.

To summarize quickly, there are those who feel that incentives (ranging from simple acknowledgments to actual physical or financial awards) applied strategically can encourage participation and knowledge sharing. While others feel any form of reward system distorts normal behavior, resulting in "false positives" as individuals game the system to collect the rewards, without any real engagement in KM practices per se.

There seem to be valid arguments on both sides, and I have no expectations that I can sort out the issue where so many others have failed. But I do have a different perspective that may have some value. You see, over the past year I went from working for a large corporation (over 50,000 employees) to working for a company barely in the double digits (10 employees, to be exact).

Now you might not think that the activities of ten people working together have much bearing on a large geographically distributed corporation. And, at first blush, you would be right.

We have no trouble with knowledge sharing. We work in close proximity. Conversations break out throughout the day and anyone can and does join in. Questions are asked, frustrations expressed, solutions proposed, and problems solved with almost no conscious effort whatsoever.

It seems almost ludicrous to ask "why don't we have issues with KM?" Isn't it obvious? We all know each other. We are working closely together on a common project.

But we aren't all the same. I'm a writer. Most of the team are engineers. There's a manager. And regardless of our roles, we all have quite distinct personalities, which might or might not be compatible in other situations. But none of that gets in the way.

So is it the distance, the lack of knowing each other, or the loss of a common goal that stand in the way of sharing in larger environments? The answer is probably "yes" to all three -- plus a few other characteristics of working in distributed corporations.

But I have another experience that influences my view of this problem. Years ago (many years ago) I worked for another large corporation. However, at that time, there didn't seem to be any of the difficulties with knowledge sharing I have seen since. The company was large, distributed, and working on many different, often unrelated, products at one time. In other words, no obvious common goal.

In many ways, the employees (particularly the engineers) of that earlier company operated as if they were a team of ten rather than an organization of 100,000. People I had never met responded to my questions openly, offered suggestions, even took time out to assist if necessary.

Most importantly, there were no explicit incentives to encourage this behavior. It just kind of "happened".

Of course, that's not true. It didn't just "happen". The ethos of the company, the culture of the organizations within it, and the personal dedication of the individuals the company chose to hire conspired to create that environment.* But, three things stand out about these examples in my mind:

  • If size and distance are detrimental to knowledge sharing -- as they clearly are -- what is it about incentives that would counteract that?
  • More importantly, what is it about size and distance that causes the problem?
  • And why is it the earlier company was able to overcome those obstacles without incentives?

As I said earlier, I have no expectation that I can actually solve this dilemma. But I have a suspicion. And my suspicion is this:

People share openly when they feel they are part of a community

Not a member of the community, a part of the community. They share because they are assisting the community, even if the sharing is one-to-one with another member.

Clearly in the case of small groups, it is easy for everyone to understand the common goal. The individuals cannot succeed unless the group (i.e. community) succeeds. As a consequence, they are eager to contribute where they can. Even, paradoxically, when those contributions are quite tangential to the shared goal (such as recommending good restaurants or which GPS system is best).

Note that lurking -- a behavior specific to members of a community rather than participants -- is difficult in small physical groups. Since the group is so small, people see when you hold back and may even challenge you to open up. Such interaction is much harder in large, distributed groups.

So getting back to the initial question: what can incentives do to counteract the negative impact of size and distance? Incentives can encourage lurkers to speak up (thereby improving whatever quantitative metrics are in place). However, incentives cannot alter the psychological affinity an individual feels towards to community. At best, the incentive may spur an initial (and temporary) jump from lurker to participant, which the individual then finds satisfying. This success may spur them to try again, and over time start to develop a sense of ownership in the group. (In other words, become part of the community.)

This, I believe, is what advocates of incentives are aiming for.

* For a more complete assessment of this earlier company, see Patti Anklam's excellent article The Camelot of Collaboration.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lurking, a Personal Story

I belong to several professional communities, mostly online email discussion lists. I sometimes participate in the conversations. But mostly, I lurk.

It is not that I am a novice (I've been at my profession -- or professions -- for a number of years). It's not that I don't have anything to say. In fact, quite the opposite.

I was reminded of this recently when a discussion came up about communities and incentives. I've worked in KM for ten years or more. I've also witnessed a number of incentive programs, both successful and not so. So I have no lack of opinions and experiential knowledge I could share.

But I haven't said much. Why? Because these topics, communities and incentives, are areas of contention in the field of KM. What are they? How are they best employed? Do incentives help or hurt? There has already been plenty of space and time spent arguing both sides.

So I try to pick my words carefully. I even started a blog post on the topic to try and organize my thoughts. However, while I picked and edited, others chimed in with their opinions, advice, and war stories and the conversation quickly moved on, diverging into several related threads.

Each time someone else adds to the discussion, there is something new I feel I need to refute, promote, analyze or otherwise respond to.

In the end I don't respond at all.

That, in and of itself, is not interesting. But what may be interesting is what was going on in the background.

I am not just lurking, I am also implicitly deferring to the others who are responding. Note, I don't agree with them all. And there is a certain level of angst at not responding to the comments I disagree with. Because I am emotionally involved in the topic of the conversation. But either because of the number of interrelated concepts being bandied about or the speed of the conversation, I do not feel comfortable joining in.

As a consequence, at least to some small degree, I feel distanced from the community as a whole. And therefore lurk some more.

This is a cyclic event. I've noticed myself do this time and again in more than one environment. I lurk, I sometimes feel better about the community, sometimes worse. Then something will spur me to respond. I'll actively participate for awhile, then go back to lurking.

There are a number of different reasons I don't chime in:

  • I agree with what's being said and don't feel like piling on (or distracting from the points already made)
  • I disagree with what is being said but don't want to get into a pissing contest about it.
  • I disagree with what is being said but can't get my thoughts in order enough to make a cogent argument before the conversation moves on.
  • I disagree with what is being said, but it is such a minor aspect of the overall conversation that I feel arguing it would be an unnecessary quibble.

There are probably others, but those are just some that come to mind. But more importantly, there are times I do chime in. And those times seem to fall into three categories:

  • Someone is asking for assistance and -- before anyone else responds -- I feel I have something unique or clear to offer.
  • Someone is asking for assistance and -- although I may not feel uniquely qualified -- no one else responds in a reasonable time frame (anywhere from a few hours to a day or so), so I feel my response will be of use.
  • Something is said I disgree with so much, my eagerness to correct it overcomes any of my inhibitions about going off-topic or raising an argument.

What really struck me was the last cause. It really goes against the common beliefs about communities.

We (KM consultants and practitioners) tend to discuss lurking as a static state. We talk about communities being made up of 10% core contributors and 90% lurkers, as if these are permanent labels you can apply to individuals. And one of the key goals of incentives is to convince members to "cross over", stop lurking and become active contributors.

To be fair, incentives can help. Just as taking new arrivals at a party around and introducing them to those already there can help get them to join in. Incentives done properly can help new members "break the ice".

However, this concept of lurking as a static state is so widespread, community members themselves often adopt it and feel compelled to confess their status. At least once a month I read a post starting something like "Hi. I'm normally a lurker in this forum, but..."

The fact is, lurking is not a static state, it is highly dynamic. The cast of active participants changes over time as people flip between lurking and leading. At the same time, lurkers are often paying close attention to what is going on, are emotionally responding to events and -- moment to moment -- adjusting their attitude towards the community based on what is said. They agree, they disagree, they get angry, insulted, surprised, or even flattered (when they feel they or their subgroup have been mentioned positively) all without breaking out of their silence.

And, in opposition to common belief, it is not an improved attitude toward the community that is needed to get them to join in. Often it can be displeasure or disagreement that instigates a need to speak. Of course, how their contributions are received (they don't have to be agreed with, but at least considered and respected) impacts their likelihood to contribute again.

The real difficulty for community facilitators is that this dynamic, changeable, but silent lurking makes it hard to measure the actual "health" of the community as a whole. The volume of discourse may remain high. But as with any voluntary endeavour, people can "vote with their feet". But for online communities, you can't "see" lurkers who choose to tune out. And it isn't until the conversation starts to dwindle (because there are no lurkers left to chime in or pinch hit when an active participant drops out) that you realize there is a problem.

I can't say I have much to offer in terms of positive techniques for counteracting this situation. But I believe that having a more realistic understanding of the dynamics of lurking may help us address the needs of communities we watch over in a less back and white fashion.

To start with, it is important not to stigmatize lurking. Everyone does it sometimes and lurking doesn't mean you aren't emotionally involved. Accepting lurking as a normal stage in a cycle may help make the distinction between active and passive particition less daunting to new members.

And, of course, finding a way to gauge the involvement or commitment of lurkers could go a long way to understanding the actual health of the community as a whole. How to do this is still a challenge that has no clear answer...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Twenty-Five Years of Poetry

It is hard to believe, but I've been writing poetry for over thirty years now. During that time, I have been fortunate enough to have a number of poems published in magazines (for which I am very grateful).

I have also assembled several book-length manuscripts. Unfortunately, my efforts to get a book published have not met with success... Until recently.

My most recent manuscript has been accepted and will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in the Spring of 2016.  I want to thank the staff at the Press and Billy Collins — the series editor who selected the book — for their faith and interest in my manuscript.

In the meantime, I've decided to make some of my earlier work available online:

  • A collaboration with friend and fellow poet, Bill Evans: Rilke's Elegies (1985)
  • A short chapbook of poems:  Catalog (2007) 

There is no definition that can encompass all that poetry is or can be. But if my work can instill in you, as reader, even a fraction of what poetry has meant to me over the years, I will feel that I have succeeded.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

What Happened to Postcards?

I spent much of yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a singularly exhausting experience -- as most museum visits are. (Being a combination of exhilaration and stultification at the same time.)

But what particularly struck me was when we visited the gift store before leaving (I can't resist tacky souvenirs) and there were no postcards for sale.

Yes, they had one small rack of postcards of Egyptian paraphernalia, capitalizing on their current special exhibit of an Egyptian tomb and children's fascination with mummies. (Egypt is to art museums what dinosaurs are to science museums.) There was also a book of postcards depicting paintings by Monet. But there were no small mementos for sale of the individual works that may have struck a chord during your visit.

At first I was confused. But then it occurred to me that there may be a very practical reason why postcards are missing: no one sends physical mail anymore.

Now, this is just supposition. There are a number of different reasons why they may no longer sell postcards: too expensive to produce, take up too much space, need to constantly change stock to keep up with what is on display at any given time... But these conditions are either identical to what they were 20 years ago or easily offset by inflating prices (as they do with the trivets, posters, T-shirts, and other items that are on display).

So I can only assume the market for postcards has itself diminished because people do not send physical mail anymore. Statistics from the US postal service verify this, indicating that personal correspondence via USPS decreased 14% between 2002 and 2008. And the drop off is expected to continue.

The unfortunate part of this situation is that postcards play a role beyond just souvenirs and something to write "wish you were here" on. Postcards, especially postcards from places like museums and zoos that have many different exhibits, serve as mnemonic devices. These mnemonics remind us of the strong emotional experience of seeing the painting, sculpture or whatever. They also act as a surrogate of that experience that we share with those we send the postcards to.

People do not send as much mail because email and other electronic media have replaced the need for physical letters and cards. (As well as being easier, cheaper, and more convenient.) In place of postcards, I could have taken pictures of the paintings I wanted to remember -- which I did in a few instances. But the lighting in museums is hardly conducive to photography. (In some cases, it doesn't even seem very conducive to viewing!)

So what should be done? As much as I enjoy postcards, I recognize it is not practical to argue a return to a form of gifting that never was very practical and is now downright archaic. But it would be a loss to the patrons -- and to the museum -- if there were no form of mnemonic to help visitors retain and relive the pleasure of seeing the art in first person.

If it is not financially viable to stock physical postcards, perhaps they can make it possible to send electronic postcards or custom "picture books" of one's favorite works, whether to yourself or to your friends?

But, surprise surprise. They almost do...

The museum has an searchable online catalog of many of its holdings. The catalog has an expansive advanced search capability. It even lets you send e-cards once you find a specific item. (Yes!)

However, the catalog is only available if you are on the internet, not in the museum itself. (No!) Add to that, the catalog is really designed for those who understand how the catalog works, not the casual user. (For example, the search interface has 12 fields. Enter "Egypt" under culture and search for items on display and nothing shows up. Search for "Egypt" as a keyword and 58 pages of results are returned.)

What would be great would be if there were monitors in each room that let you browse the items available in that room. (No painful searching.) You could select an item and send an e-card in seconds when it strikes you, rather than spending minutes (or more) searching for it later.

Better still, for those with smart phones you could provide a simplified interface that only asks for the asset or accession number. (The accession number appears on the bottom of the placard describing each work of art.)

(Example placard with the accession # 72.2617)

The visitor could quickly call up an item they liked and send e-cards to others or a reminder to themselves on the spot. They could even create an e-book of their favorite works as they proceed through the collection.

In an ideal world, the MFA could put 2D barcodes on the placards so the information could be scanned and retrieved automatically by cellphone. This would be the easiest method technically. However, it would require changes to museum itself (the placards) and a common interface on cell phones -- something available in Japan but still not standard in the US yet.

So sticking with the first two suggestions -- and especially the suggestion for a simplified search available on smart phones -- it would be possible for the MFA to provide a thoroughly innovative and satisfying way for visitors to remember and share their experience with very little change to the existing infrastructure.

Why should the MFA bother? Although this sort of addition would have a cost associated with it, much of the technology already exists in the electronic catalog. Simply by creating a targeted interface -- and promoting the new capability - the museum can deepen the experience for the patron as well as advertise its best qualities through the messages the patrons send.

The word "souvenir" comes from the French for the act of remembering. Postcards are both a souvenir in the sense of a mnemonic device and a vehicle of communication. Their loss may seem minor from a commercial perspective, but they served as a valuable thread connecting the museum experience (quiet, austere, contemplative) with the visitor's regular life (loud, jumbled, exciting and excitable). A thread by which we carry the experience of art from previous generations back into our lives.

Without it, the day at the museum is just that: a day at the museum. But museums have the opportunity to create an even stronger link, electronically. It will be interesting to see if they pick up the challenge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The World's Smallest Instruction Manual

3.5 X 4.25 inches
Single sheet of paper, printed on one side.
(Instructions for a pocket calculator.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Work We Do

I recently changed jobs. As a consequence I am no longer "doing" Knowledge Management. I am reminded of this fact by friends who ask me how much KM is involved in my new job. The simple answer is none. But to be honest, that's not entirely true.

My new role brings me back to my roots in Technical Writing, Information Architecture, and what is currently known as "Content Strategy". (Although "Content Strategy" appears to be having the same sort of identity crisis KM and IA go through on a regular basis.)

Which may also explain why my new role doesn't feel so different. In my previous profession, people would ask me how Information Architecture relates to Knowledge Management. My pat answer was that KM is the architectural design of potential -- rather than existing -- information.

My response was flippant, but also quite accurate. Whether you are defining the structure of a website for well-understood content or designing an interface for some as-yet-undefined content that will be chosen by people in the future... the tools, the methods, and the experience you use are much the same.

Ditto technical writing, which is very much like information architecture except on a much smaller scale. (What goes in this document vs. another? Where do we put the introductory information so the user can't help tripping over it? etc.)

Now, I know there are technical writers that do nothing but write and are affronted if you suggest they "design" things. Just as there are Information Architects that design taxonomies and not much else. But the fields themselves are much bigger than that. Which is where the confusion and bickering comes in.

I seem to be constantly in the middle of one battle or another no matter which of my various "professions" I am practicing. The reason for that is because the boundaries are very fuzzy. And ambiguity makes people uncomfortable.

So they try to delineate their roles. On the one hand, practitioners try to define the field by how they currently practice it: the tools they use or the methodology they have adopted. While others with a more philosophical bent try to expand the scope, often treading on the toes of their neighboring professions.

Currently, information architects are arguing whether IA even exists or if it (and several other forms of design) are all just different flavors of a new profession, user experience design. Or is it interaction design? Or is it...

Similarly, KM practitioners (and pundits from other fields) are trying to decide if there is a battle going on between KM and social media. Excuse me? There is no battle unless you assume KM as a field of study has to be practiced in a specific way or within a predefined, limited field of vision.

I feel like channeling a famous ex-wrestler and shouting "It doesn't matter what your profession is!"

The names we make up for our jobs help avoid conflicts when working with others by divvying up the territory. They also give us a ready answer to social situations when someone asks "what is it you do?"

Unfortunately, these names also create unnecessary barriers to getting work done. If you define your role by specific tools or tasks, you are also defining the boundaries for the solutions you can provide. You doom yourself to repeating the same work over and over... even when the environment around you changes, as it inevitably will.

The fact is that all of my professions are variations on addressing the traditional dilemma of communications theory. Whether it is communication between management and employees, among the employees themselves, between the company and customers, or among the current and potential customers the company seeks, the professions I travel with are all trying to resolve the problem of getting information into the right hands at the right time.

In knowledge management it is creating channels for the ambient knowledge within whatever community you support. In this case, your audience is often both content providers and consumers at different times. You don't control the content, you try to maximize the channel.

In information architecture it is sorting, defining, and providing a clear logical structure to at least that part of the information space you have control over (whether that be a web site, marketing, promotion, community facilitation, or whatever). You manage the content, somewhat like an orchestra conductor. But you are not the composer.

In user experience and usability design it is tuning the communication channel to be as effective as possible. You don't control the content or the structure, but you control how the audience interacts with it. (Of course, this is untrue in actuality because the interface becomes part of the message. Wasn't it McLuhan who said the medium is the message? But this is just another example of how the professions overlap...)

And in technical writing it is creating the perfect communication, including content and structure, but within the limited scope of the channel you have available to you (whether that be books, online help, training modules, or a web site). You have complete control over the content, but less over the channel and still less over the audience.

They all address the issue of communication from different angles. And taken together, provide an endless array of solutions and approaches when faced with any problem related to information.

That's why I like it.

And that's what I do.