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John Klossner's Ink Tank

Talking ourselves to death

As part of my research for editorial cartoons, I like to read feedback forums. Getting opinions from nonprofessional voices often gives me an interesting point or unique take on a subject. Also, many letters are short and make quick, singular points – this translates well to cartoons.

In the print world this used to mean perusing the letters-to-the-editor sections of newspapers and magazines. These sections now seem quaint with their three to four entries on a topic that, by the time you read the letter, is at least several days old and often written by a professional in that particular topic who is essentially writing a responding op-ed piece. No, if you want the gut reactions in this world, you head to the online "comments" sections.

When they first appeared on the electronic scene, the comments sections were a rich source for information and ideas. There were fewer filters for a reader to get through with their thoughts, and electronic space allowed for more entries. But there has been a slow devolution in the comments sections. I can look through hundreds and hundreds of entries without finding any point other than a partisan brain spasm. In the words of Stuart McLean, the host of the CBC radio show Vinyl Cafe puts it, "That's the wonderful thing about e-mail; you can write without thinking." Or, as one of my friends put it, "even the people I agree with sound stupid."

I blame the Web 2.0 world. So many outlets have been created via social networks, wikis, etc. that all of the folks capable of making well-reasoned insights have their own blogs or sites, leaving them unavailable, or uninterested, in participating in comments sections. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, in the future, everyone will have a blog. That future is here, and the comments sections of the world are left in the hands of the two dozen people who haven't been able to wrangle a blog gig yet.

In the traditional, physical social gathering places – the diners, the gyms, the barber shops, the sports bars, the coffee shops, the salons, the book clubs, et. al., – discussions often included knee jerk, quick statements that didn't involve a lot of thought. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - people need a place to express their emotions, and we can't all be think tank eloquent. The beauty of the physical space discussions, though, was that in order to participate in them you had to have something either worthwhile to say or entertaining to listen to. A couple "leaders" often emerged in these forums and steered the discussion by making the majority of comments or by discouraging those comments that weren't enlightening or entertaining. Online forums don't allow for these editors to do their thing, resulting in knee-jerk comment after knee-jerk comment, with accompanying responses, to proliferate. It makes one think that a NYAAH NYAAH! button on the keyboard isn't too far off.

My small Maine town created a Web site/chat room featuring local news and events. In the first several months of the site's existence, the discussion quickly devolved into a series of name calling and partisan accusations, with only a handful of people involved. The moderator of the site instituted one rule – all comments had to have a name with them, no more anonymous or alias postings. Since that change, the comments section has thrived and the volume of postings hasn't decreased. I don't know if this would work on a stage larger than the 7,500 population of my community, but it is worth noting.

Was the Open Government Dialogue a success? It depends on the definition of success, doesn't it? I imagine the creators of the OGD assumed there would be a learning curve, so they must have been anticipating some reactions and alterations being necessary. I have to admit being impressed by the effort – there must be so many people with expertise in these areas that issuing an open invitation to the world at large probably wasn't enthusiastically greeted in all corners. (How'd you like to be the lucky intern whose job it is to read all the OGD entries? You'd be re-thinking your decision not to join the Peace Corps.) I would also think they probably expected that there would be at a point where they would have to eliminate a high percentage of the suggestions. Would the Open Government Dialogue be considered a success if, after months of process, they only found one useful suggestion?

Open Government Dialogue

Posted by John Klossner on Jul 24, 2009 at 12:18 PM0 comments

Klossner: 'Camp Don't'

Recently I accompanied my 7-year-old son to Cub Scout camp. The parents all looked at each other when, during the orientation, the Scouts were told that one of the first rules in this camp in the middle of the Maine woods was "don't run." Later that day my son and his friend were admonished for climbing on a rock. If I were to tell you how each child was leashed to a beach chair and had to be accompanied by three adults in order to enter the six-inch deep swimming area, it would be an exaggeration. But not by much.

My fellow parents and I ended up referring to the place as "Camp Don't." The kids still had fun -- they are 7-10 year-olds, after all -- but those of us who had grown up during the wildly unregulated camping years of our youth felt that something had changed. We even tried to instill some subversiveness in our sons: We would all start running when no one was looking. (I wonder if we're raising a generation that will never know stitches, leaving them open to all kinds of ridicule when their children and grandchildren re-discover the medical need to re-attach your skin after a laceration. I envision a world where these subsequent offspring will also have, in a generational revolt, learned the joy of running in the woods, socializing with friends without it being scheduled, and playing a team sport without several hundred adults/coaches in attendance. But I digress.)

I understand the Boy Scouts' need to protect themselves, liability-wise. They are covered within their fenced-in boundaries, and a Scout camp, with its waterfront, exposed rocks and roots, and BB gun and archery ranges, offers many excellent injury opportunities. But are these regulations really for the children’s sake? Or more for the organization's?

I'm reminded of the Chinese proverb, 'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.' In this case it would be, 'Tell a child not to run and you keep him safe in your sight; teach him when to run, and you keep him safe out of sight.' Or perhaps, 'Tell a child not to run and you keep him safe in camp; teach him to run and he can go to the store for you.' How about: 'Tell a child not to run and you keep him from falling down; teach him how to put on a band-aid and he can run anywhere he wants.'

This brings to mind the DOD's recent creation of a Cyber Command unit. Cyberspace now joins land, sea and air as a defensible domain. DOD is concerned with threats posed to military networks. The magnitude of those threats is best captured by three numbers bandied about by DOD leaders in the recent past: 15,000 networks and 7 million computers to protect, with 50,000 attacks occurring every day.

This sounds simple in principle -- observe and protect the cyberspace of military networks. But the cyber world, unlike the fenced-in Boy Scout camp in Maine, doesn't have such clearly defined borders. As stated in the above article, "NSA and DOD officials have said that although the new command would assume responsibility for defending the .mil domain, NSA would continue offering its expertise and assistance to defend the .gov and .com domains." This sounds like slippery slope material to me. Where does their jurisdiction end and begin? And, if regulations are passed, are they applicable in all domains? If there's no running allowed in .mil, can you run in .gov and .com?

One concern is that the DOD (and NSA) implement "don't run" regulations -- not designed to keep users and networks safe as much as shield those overlooking security from blame.

Better run.

Posted by John Klossner on Jul 20, 2009 at 12:18 PM0 comments

Klossner: Is "smart mob" an oxymoron?

" I believe that there is a historic opportunity to enhance public participation, but if we lose the public audience by deploying applications that do not achieve results and that recreate smart mob behavior, simply on the Web, then the public trust will be lost and we will be back at a new starting point. The public cynicism will be reinforced, not lessened."
- Kim Patrick Kobza, president and CEO of Neighborhood America

"That's the wonderful thing about e-mail; you can write without thinking."
- Stuart McLean, host of the Vinyl Cafe

Since I last checked in on the Open Government Dialogue, the Web site has been hijacked by some single-issue groups — in particular a group that, inspired by radio talk show hosts, are claiming that President Obama is not a legitimate U.S. citizen and are clamoring for him to produce a birth certificate proving that he is. I went back to view some of their missives. I can accurately describe my jaw as being on the ground. I guess one of the byproducts of a bad economy is that folks have more time to write Web site entries and comments.

This leaves me in a professional quandary. The sheer volume of entries and comments shows that there is a large contingent (or a small, very active contingent) of birth certificate theorists. If I were to engage these viewers — by, say, making a negative reference to their genetics and / or intelligence — it would bring more viewers to FCW.com, making it more valuable to advertisers. This would make me more valuable to FCW. So you can understand the urge to insult the birth-certificate crowd and create a downward spiral of communication.

But I hold out hope that there is a better way. I can appeal to the greater humanity of these contributors and find the good in their efforts. I can, for example:

* Look for the positive. There were very few spelling mistakes in the birthers' entries.

* Find the common ground. President Obama and the birthers both share an interest in constitutional law.

* Offer them choices. Would the birthers like to obsess over a made up problem like the birth certificate or contribute to a real problem like how to have civil discourse on Web sites?

* Find more positives. It's impressive how the Open Government Dialogue site designers made it so easily accessible.

* Mirror their behavior. What are the birthers trying to hide?

* Try the therapy angle. How does parroting radio talk show hosts' words make you feel?

* Find more positives. It's not easy to get so many people to write the exact same message. This shows excellent organizational skills.

* Look for commercial opportunities. If we charged these groups per entry, we could make a dent in the federal deficit.

* Look at the big picture. It's heartwarming that so many citizens have banded together to urge the president to be better organized with his personal records.

And by the way, I've been having trouble locating my birth certificate lately, if anyone wants to start a request to see it.

Klossner censorship

Posted by John Klossner on Jul 08, 2009 at 12:18 PM5 comments

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