We have a date and location for the potluck. The esteemed Lou Klepner has offered his spacious loft, with a deck for barbecuing. Be sure to RSVP at meetup.com

It’s located at 111 North 7th, Apt. 2. Get off the L at the Bedford stop, head a block and a half west on North 7th St., between Berri and Whyth. If you’re lost, call Matt at 774 487 8152.

We’re going to work out some foundational food, but please contribute some food and drink if you can. Add a comment to tell us what you plan to bring.

Filed May 30th, 2008 under Event

Recently this group has grown, and has had some lively events. After talking with Leon and some of the founding members, we see that it’s time to revisit the core purpose of the group.

We came up with the idea of having a more casual event on a Saturday, where we can all get together to share food and ideas. We’d probably do a potluck format, and open the doors some time in the afternoon or early evening. Or maybe lunch.

The greatest need is a space. We’d want to be able to have in the neighborhood of 25-30 people. Perhaps someone could volunteer an apartment? Any ideas are welcome.

I created a new doodle date-picker poll to help us arrive at a good date and time for this:

http://www.doodle.ch/6vce9gnhczbm82r3″ target=”_blank”>


What do you think?

Filed May 15th, 2008 under Random Thought

The next meeting of the NYC Web4Roots Grassroots Tech Activism Community Organizing Barnraising Committee is now scheduled for Wednesday, April 30 from 7-9pm. After some initial housekeeping (like finally settling on a name) we’re going to try our hand at building out a nonprofit. Jen Carnig of the NYCLU has volunteered to be our guinea pig.

This, of course, has ultimately all been decided by me. Except for a couple of straw polls (including the wonderful Doodle poll) that informed my decision, the members of the group didn’t have too much of a say.

I think that’s ok. In the early going of a group, even one with a focus on cooperative practice, you need to bootstrap some things. And that’s what I’ll continue to do until someone tells me otherwise. Hopefully they will. I’m enjoying driving this bus, but I wouldn’t mind handing off the steering wheel at some point.

So, if you want to have a say in the future of the group, make sure to come on time to the next meeting. We’ll be spending the first part on group planning and governance, and voting on a name.

Here’s some of the candidates for the name (with “nyc” sprinkled in of course):


grassroots tech

grassroots web

tech activism

Bring your ideas too, or post them in the comments here.

Filed April 10th, 2008 under Governance

Addressing the topic of the meeting, “specific ways to use web technology to move your cause forward,” I discussed with others a specific application of a web technology which I think was not ulilized through no fault of its own. I talked about (for those not at the meeting, here is my video shown at the meeting: The CNN political team chooses the videos, not you ) how CNN was unwilling to allow for a democratic selection of YouTube questions even though it not only could be achieved but the application to do so was already created: 10questions.com You can read about how it worked out at their blog: “10Questions.com Complete and a Success!

I mentioned how it had a good number of big name sponsors and yet it still was marginalized. I mean, MSNBC, the New York Times and AOL and it still was marginalized? Here you have a great web application with BIG name sponsors yet I think the thing that kept it down was that the powers that be are resistant to giving the public so much say in the public forum. Think about it, there could have been a debate on MSNBC with all the questions taken from those voted on at the website. If MSNBC, the New York Times and AOL wanted it to be, they could have used their enormous power to publicize to make it happen.

Here we are thinking about helping grassroots projects and we have major power players sitting on there hands letting a web solution sit underutilized. I think this emphasizes some basic points, like you need publicity for something to be successfully utilized to its potential and that even if something is clearly better for the public, it doesn’t mean people with power will be willing to give it the publicity it needs to have a fair chance. Look at the mentality we face: “For all the talk about online voter empowerment, the web is still too immature a medium to set an agenda for a national debate”, says CNN senior vice president David Bohrman.

Marty Kaplan points out, “the notion that the CNN-YouTube debate represents a grass-roots triumph of the internet age is laughable.” I think Kaplan hits the nail on the head when he writes that 10questions.com is apparently too much democracy for CNN.

Click Here for Poll

I make these points not to discourage anyone of course, but to help us keep in mind the real world obstacles we face. I do think we can think of creative ways to try to overcome these obstacles.

Filed March 7th, 2008 under Random Thought

Last night, we talked about encouraging participation on the internet — bringing internet to the people and bringing people to the internet.  This comes down to three things:

  •  accessibility
  • usability
  • the ability to represent your ideas electronically

One’s first internet experience is often a hairy one.  There is nothing explaining what you are doing, what you can do, and why you want to be there.  Its like being thrown on to a busy city street without a map or any sense of directions or why you might want to be in the city.  This puts many people off, particularly those that are already intimidated by the degree of vastness of the technology. One thing that could make this a better experience is having a portal to the internet:


Welcome to the internet!

  • what is this all about?
  • how the internet works
  • places to go, things you can do
  • build your own website in five minutes

All of this is easily doable and except for the website builder is mainly about documenting the web in a way that is nurturing to new members.

People really want to be involved and the web gives the a way of doing so that is more democratizing than traditional media.  I can be myself.  I can express my views in a way where I am judged more by the content of what I have to say than by my social standing, geographic location, or other prejudicing factors.  The internet gives the opportunity for anyone that can send and receive packets to participate.  Encouragement from peers online not only gives meaning to participation there, it also encourages one to expands one off-the-web activities that are reinforced by online communities.

There are factors that discourage participation, however.  The commercialization of the web has given rise to an unfriendly experience.  myspace fell apart because it went commercial, prostituting itself to the likes of Rupert Murdoch.  Facebook is getting there as the struggle to turn a successful and well-thought out webspace into a money-making device.  Part of the problem is funding.  If I have an awesome idea for a website, as a technologist it is fairly easy to write it and put it on the web from my home.  If all of the sudden I have many users and want to make my home-brew application world-class, it is doubtful many people will give me money just because it is cool.  While the internet is largely public property, it is heavily dependent on private funders, most of which want to make a buck at the end of the day.

 Another barrier to web participation is the intimidation of technology.  Computers and the internet are complicated.  Few understand the whole process from the fabrication of chips to how data is transmitted via TCP and picked up by one’s browser and turned into pretty web pages.  But this is a psychological barrier, as this understanding isn’t necessary.  Few understand magnetrons, but people use microwaves without thinking about them.  Because the computer world was the exclusive domain of nerds and geeks (myself included) for so long, there is this intimidation of being web-savvy enough.  Many people would rather not try instead of facing the fear that one isn’t as web-savvy as one’s neighbor.  But look at books.  There are utter book snobs, but this doesn’t stop millions of people from reading for pleasure.  The same should be true of the internet.  As a technologist serving the public, it is my responsibility to give people the tools they need to interact in a meaningful way.  When you ask people “do you have a website?”, many of them look at you like “wow, I can’t build a website”.  But they can.  And its easy.  And people should know this. 

Computers have become this phenomenon where polish is more important than content.  I blame microsoft for this, like so many things.  Make things glitzy and people won’t notice or mind that the underlying implementation is buggy or that the underlying idea is simple.  But people do notice. And care.  Maybe they can’t put their fingers on why.  Glitzy-net is bad for bandwidth and makes the web exclusive to broadband consumers.  There should be options for people of lower bandwidth.  With mobile devices, the revolution has begun.

 The education system has also worked against teaching technological literacy.  When I was in school, I was not allowed to turn in typed papers. Using computers was cheating.  Only recently did it become respectable to reference URLs in papers.  Traditional media was key…better, even, than electronic media.  CNN still says so with the presidential debates so it must be true.  This idea needs to be broken down, just like it was with film, radio, and whenever a new form of communication has risen to popularity.  Media should be integrated.  You read Huck Finn and then go online to find out about what was going on on the contemporary Mississippi.  There is also the fear that exposing children to the internet is dangerous.  I’ll be the first to admit that searching for about anything can turn up porn.  But this just means children should be cared for when on the internet, and it also means that we as a society need to reassess what is okay for children to be exposed to.  In my experience, trying to shelter children too much just leads to zealous overexposure when they go off into the real world.  There are things on this planet both wonderous and terrible and children should be prepared for them.

None of this is say that everyone should (or could) participate on the internet in the  same way.  On person might have a great idea for a website and want to make it happen.  Other people might just want to consume web.  They should feel empowered to build websites if they should want or need to do so. What I’m advocating here is web literacy. 

People may also want or need their information in a particular way.  I might want to (or need to, for bandwidth constraints) participate in a community via email.  Another person might want to go to a site with a bunch of AJAX and fancy graphics but participate in the same forum.  In many developing countries, cell phones are the only internet access available, and participation through these should be encouraged by distilling the information down to what is need and can be meaningfully interacted with via a mobile device, and not just by citizens of their countries but the world at large.  Information is information.  Interacting with it should be flexible.

Participation comes from the meaningful meshing of infrastructure and social structure.

Filed March 6th, 2008 under Random Thought



Update: This meetup date is now set for March 5th.  Mark your calendars!


We’re in the early stages of planning the next meetup, but I think the theme and format are more or less nailed down. The last meetup was oriented towards broad community platforms and meta-solutions. This time, we’ll focus on specific ways to use web technology to move your cause forward.

So, bring your favorite technique, best success story, or most informative failure to share with the group. The emphasis is on generating discussion, sharing knowledge, and answering questions.

On top of that, we’ll ensure that our discoveries live beyond the meetup by collaboratively documenting them in real time. Attendees are encouraged to bring their laptops so that they can edit the Playbook page on our group wiki. We’ll project the page on the big screen and periodically refresh it to see how our knowledge base is accumulating.

No presentations or exact structure. Just a lively discussion and a commitment to document our discoveries. Also, we’ll be settling on a name for the group, so come with ideas. You can vote on a date for the event at http://www.doodle.ch/94sucmdz69ei9gmr.

To sign up for the event, go to: http://web.meetup.com/27/calendar/7304410/

Filed February 10th, 2008 under Random Thought

Last night was the first meeting of 2008 for this group, and we had a great crowd. I’d guess that we had more than 30 people in the room. We had four excellent presenters, and I know a lot of connections were made around the room and at the pub afterwards. Going forward, we plan to have more meetings like this that are focused on sharing ideas and making connections. Hopefully we’ll have another one in about a month.

At the same time, we’re hoping to move forward with our project of actively improving our ability to apply web technologies to grassroots causes, with NYC itself as our overarching use case.

Adopting open plans as our platform is the beginning. I’m already loving its elegance and simplicity, and TOPP’s presenters last night demonstrated its flexibility and potential. Let’s migrate here from the pbwiki. Post your project info to the Related Projects page. Hopefully we can be a helpful use case for the TOPP team as they strive to improve their software.

I’ll end this post with a proposition: a regular planning meeting for members who want to be a part of this group’s core project. The core group could take on the following responsibilities:

1. Building and clarifying a shared vision for the group

2. Planning and executing monthly meetups

3. Recruiting new NYC members and groups

4. Identifying key projects and needs, and rallying the larger group to them

This is self-selecting of course, and we want to make sure that people can attend the group casually without feeling any pressure to contribute further. But I saw enough passion and ambition last night to think that at least handful of members would like to contribute some time to build some momentum here.

See you all in rootspace!

Filed January 23rd, 2008 under Random Thought