27 January 2009

Is there room for all of us on Twitter?

So no one is really asking about social media in my circles, even though I'm ready to talk about it. Because I haven't gotten to talking about it with many folks, I haven't been able to bounce a lot of my ideas about it off others. And to be honest, I am not finding Twitter as helpful for this kind of conversation as I had imagined it would be back when I started out with a couple of followers a couple of months ago.

Like so many things, I fell wholly into my discovery of Twitter and couldn't go back to the way I'd seen the world before, seemingly in an instant. Where once I had seen only grass and trees, shrubs and dirt, now I felt I could see everything beneath the surface as well: tendrils and roots of all kinds, animals' warrens and dens, great clumps of aspen roots and enormous mushrooms reaching underneath all. Rocks and gravel and clay and water and air and heat.

So I thought when I posted tweets, the 140-character (maximum) posts on Twitter, I would have more chats with people I didn't know. I simply presumed lots of people would respond to lots of the same things I am interested in, and many conversations, many threads would result.

But this has not quite been the reality.

First I see how, like in any new community, it takes a while to find one's tribe, and I feel closer to this but don't feel I have quite found many of mine yet. I started with a couple of people I know, and then reached out and followed some folks in journalism, film, art, and music. I followed some news feed sites (some were appalling -- I thought the BBC would be great and then all this perversely awful news kept crossing my screen, so I unfollowed them. I looked around my neighborhood to see which local people looked intriguing to follow. Lastly I discovered the social media kings and queens (some self-anointed, others well deserving the titles). I started encouraging friends to sign up on Twitter. Some of them did. Some of them understood it, and others remain mystified about what the fuss is about. There is still a fairly low signal-to-noise ratio in the tweets that cross my screen, but I have been directed to many more interesting blogs this way and now am starting to get a clue about other social media tools out there.

Now I have various constellations of favorite people I follow, and I've started winnowing my "Following" list. I weeded out the banal ones, the gross ones, and the mean ones. When people add me to their list, I check them out, and often follow them, although I've gotten far more selective than I was when I first signed up. I follow a lot of folks who follow me, although lately I've gotten far more discriminating, and will look at recent tweets. If everything is banal and the person is posting about going to the post office or what they eat and drink all the time, I probably won't follow them back. Or if it's just a spam channel for some business and only tries to sell, sell, sell me on their product or service, I am no more willing to follow that "person" than I am willing to have a TV blaring at me in my living room.

I loved the blog post (http://blogs.zappos.com/blogs/ceo-and-coo-blog/2009/01/25/how-twitter-can-make-you-a-better-and-happier-person) about how Twitter can make you a better, happier person, by the Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh (@zappos on Twitter), who's a social media favorite because of the way he and his company use Twitter and social media (specifically, just about everyone in the company uses it, a lot, and it makes them amazingly accessible and accountable as a result). I responded to him on Twitter after reading it that I'd been contemplating writing a similar post, about how Twitter's brevity and atmosphere has encouraged me to think of punchy, upbeat things to write about, and now I feel like I don't have to because he did such a great job on his post. (Here's a great example of a tweet from Tony, posted a few minutes ago: "24 hours in NY, back in SF. Flight attendant said she saw Zappos CEO on TV. I said "Me?" She said "No, saw CEO. He was much more eloquent")

To me it's fascinating that Twitter has influenced me and my writing and outlook so strongly and quickly. I tend to tackle big, thorny subjects and see dark sides of things, and I'm sure some of my posts have reflected this. But mostly I've joined the chorus of cheerleaders, of people trying to shine beams of light on little pet topics. Some of my cheeriest posts have been about the following:

  • Films I've watched

  • Film festivals/film series I work with

  • Friends' projects (films, etc.)

  • Music (what I'm listening to most, favorite podcasts, new releases)

  • My writing

Here's a graphical representation, a word cloud of my most-used words in all my posts on Twitter (derived using http://tweetstats.com and then http://worldle.com):

Sometimes I feel like I've just joined a chorus of cheerleaders, and I wonder if that's a good thing, or if I'm one of those people just adding to the noise of the universe. But I don't think so, because everyone who posts wants to shine a light on something, even if it's their bad mood or where they decided to go for lunch today.

And because I can't resist an investigation of the underside, not just the bright and shiny surface, I do still question whether there's room for introverts on Twitter. Or do most introverts avoid Twitter altogether because they can't imagine other people wanting to follow the thoughts that tumble around in their own heads? I follow one novelist (@mcory) who writes about depression because he experiences it, which I find a brave thing to do online, out loud (but I haven't told him that yet). Given my own tendencies toward mild mania, I have also warned people that Twitter can be a scary place in the way it attracts you to a whole new set of rabbit holes, many of which seem to lead somewhere compelling.

Yet I do believe there is room for all of us on Twitter, each us with all our quirks. It's a little like having cable TV and choosing just a few high-quality channels to watch, where you have to resolve that instead of channel surfing all the time with the hope you'll run into something good, you'll just watch a few consistently excellent channels, or tune in only when you know something interesting is on. (Clearly, I need to investigate some of the many Twitter-related tools available for helping organize datastreams and for allowing me to pay more attention to the most interesting/useful tweet streams). I am also positive Twitter is and will continue to be an important tool in community building, and has more to teach us about how we relate to one another and how what we say affects others.

22 January 2009

Beautiful but flawed

I didn't like the film The Wrestler very much when I left the theater. The brutality of the wrestling scenes is so sick there are parts I wish I hadn't spent an hour and a half etching upon my visual memory centers.

Today I saw the Oscar nominations (I know -- I don't know why I still care about them, but I absolutely, unstintingly do) and I muttered my agreement that Darren Aronofsky didn't get a Best Director nomination. Ever since, I've been thinking about that film, though, and about how it stuck in my head long after the last reel had unspooled. I think about Mickey Rourke all pumped up like a human erection, with his blond locks pouring out of the top of his head, and I think that Aronofsky's achievement in creating that vivid, if sometimes turgid, impression of a human being is a powerful achievement, one that the Academy in all its conservative wisdom has overlooked this year. What I'm trying to figure out is how much of that is the actor and how much is the director. Isn't that always in question?

Although adhering strongly to biopic conventions -- not as experimental as Van Sant's more edge-seeking work -- I'm still rooting for Milk because of Sean Penn's lit-from-within portrayal of Harvey Milk. I guess I'll have to see The Case of Benjamin Button, although I'm not otherwise drawn to that one so far. And I think The Dark Knight got just the right number of nominations. But there's a lot I haven't seen yet, as always.

20 January 2009

Happy inauguration day

Highlights of a wonder-filled day:

Getting lots of compliments on the blingy Obama tshirt my BFF gave me.

Thinking back to 29 years ago today, when my sweetie and I went out on our first date (and there's always a good chuckle about our movie choice: Kramer vs. Kramer).

Dashing up to my daughter's school so I could be with her for Obama's swearing-in.

Hearing the kids watching the ceremonies in the school library lead the applause during Obama's inaugural address.

Watching one of the kids practice her presidential wave after seeing Obama wave. Some of the kids waved back to Obama at the same time, as if he was waving at them.

Having some volunteer work to do today. Made me feel like I am where I am supposed to be.

Hearing Obama urge fifth-graders "to dream big dreams and not to sell yourselves short." (We all need to be reminded of that.)

The man who saw my tshirt when we walked by him on the way home from school and barked, simply, "Obama!"

Feeling the power and potential energy of all the people who gathered in DC for this momentous occasion and who represented the millions more of us who could not be there today.

13 January 2009

OMG! The print media are collapsing!

I can hardly stand it -- honestly, I think about this hours every day these days. Partly because I feel I am a journalist by nature (more on that later), and partly because I know lots of journalists and it makes me sad that this is so soon-to-be an extinct avenue for us writers to ply our trades. I'll have to work a newspaper's crash into this novel I'm writing because it's almost nauseatingly fascinating, in the exact way that a train wreck or building demolition fascinates.

Now it's all about blogging. (But how suddenly the focus shifts! And the game is your content but your marketing, how you are "driving traffic to your web site," and your SEO, and which I had to look up because I didn't know what that was. SEO seems to comes down to writing these shell documents that purport to be about a topic but really sound like collections of up to 500 sentences that include key words. It seems to be all about including in these web articles enough popular search terms to get search engines to find you.)

So now we can go off and earn money with this not exactly writing but more word-gathering, like woolgathering, I suppose. We can hawk a company's wares. But we can't write editorials for our local paper much longer, not the paper as we know it.

And so I grieve. It makes me sad to read Michael Hirschorn's article in the Atlantic, in which he asks what if The New York Times disappears from newsstands "like, this May?" I'm even sadder in a way to have already seen the article's publication Tweeted and have followed the link to read it online days before the hard copy arrived in my mailbox. An era is ending, and coming down hard around us, along with everything else that's imploding right now, right before our very eyes.

We still need to write it all down, I feel more acutely than ever. We need to report the truth about what we know. The newspapers of record are important because they try to get the truth about the matters at hand. The need for this work is critical to an open and democratic society, and we haven't yet figured out how we're going to replace this work. As have the reporters so far who have risked life and limb and peace of mind to go after the stories, we must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, each and every day. If each of us is holed up with our laptop writing nonsense "articles" for not much fun and a little more profit and we have all taken jobs doing PR for one version of The Man or another, who will be left to write the letters when the potholes get out of hand?

It's going to as important as ever before that we each one of us take some responsibility for getting the news out, by writing letters to congress critters, blogging, or doing what we can do to report on the issues before each of us, before the city councils and our governments, all the way up the chains of our companies and our governments.

My blogs could be seen as word collections, I suppose, in which I randomly opine about various topics. But they are my reports of the truth, and no one else's. They capture what I am thinking at a particular moment, and I have found it useful to to see what themes have grabbed my attention over time. I sometimes wish each one of us could do this so we could see "tag clouds" of what everyone in Boulder is blogging about, or what city council members are writing about, or what local artists are saying (oh, wait -- that's Twitter! Well, not really, given the self-selected, early-adopter nature of the Twitter population).

At present I have a large interest in public health and that is what my novel is about, but I also think mass transit and alternative energy are tremendous avenues that can help provide economic and social solutions. So I write in hopes of helping spread the word about how that can be facilitated. I am grateful for the new social media tools, but I can't help starting to grieve the losses of our newsgathering institutions already. I didn't realize how quickly Web 2.0 would mean the demolitions of all these institutions that have been the foundations of my world.

It's as if suddenly someone announced that there will be no more college professors, and all professors will have to compete for jobs that pay $8 to $15 an hour now; that industry is gone. I like so many of us also didn't realize we were plunging into an economic quagmire whose dust and muddy waters are a long way from subsiding, and that is likely to accelerate the decline of the news agencies even further. And I'm not even sure most people realize this is happening yet (I blame my reliance on Twitter for my current angst level). I grieve selfishly, in part: until recently, I thought writing for a newspaper or magazine would always be a career possibility, and now I don't.

What will replace this? I'm having a hard time believing it's e-books, or the computer, and not just because of my old screen and older eyes. And who will send out and pay the newsgatherers? I haven't optimized my site much for search engines (I have a little by adding the metadata in the form of what blogger.com calls "labels" but most people call "tags," metadata being another fave topic of mine), but I know there's value in my perspective here in my little corner of the blogosphere (which I think of as the bloggersphere). I'm convinced there's value in my voice and others' saying, out loud, "I can't believe they still sell Lariam! If you go on a trip to a tropical land, be sure to do your research on it before you take one of those pills. Lariam can be gnarly."

Or, "Gay people are people too, and so are bisexual people."

Or, "We have to love each other."

Or, "We have to look out for each other in traffic."

You get the picture.

Write on. Tweet on, blog on, write to your representative. But keep on reporting on the truth. The media may be vanishing, but the need never will.

12 January 2009

A Bay Area Bat Mitzvah arrives; plus extra bonus: The two Freds

Things I loved: How the Bat Mitzvah took on her role and did her ceremony on her terms. How her parents' pride and love and joy in their daughter's accomplishments glowed on them like the brilliant threads woven through the tallits wrapped around their shoulders. I loved getting all teary and telling my Jewish goddaughter I was so "verklemt" and meaning every bit. I loved how the kids and how the boys and maybe girls too had Shirley Temples the bartender had mixed in a pitcher and thought they wouldn't like because they were so sweet, and I loved how the girls all took their shoes off and danced and the boys kept their shoes on and then they danced too. I loved seeing which songs they danced to and which songs they didn't. I loved how no one got out of control or anything although you could tell there was total drama in the room when a couple of people paired off, and then a few more, but not everyone -- it was all just like her mom said it would be: like a middle-school dance. I loved at the end (10:45) how there was this whooshing out and suddenly the kids were gone, and how a handful of them said thanks to the parents (and a few more called the next day) but all of them said thanks to the Bat Mitzvah girl herself and were really nice (and I later heard, thought the parents and their family and friends were really cool for dancing). I loved dancing with my daughter, and with my sweetie, and with my dear Deadhead friends. I loved the way some people took pictures and other people did not, I liked how my goddaughter stood up and all the people around her stood up for her, without just the right amount more circumstance than the ceremony at the temple itself at the party that night. I loved my godfamily's willingness to quit arguing and get done what needed to get done, and my own, for that matter. I love my godfamily's beliefs, and I love my godfamily's bellies. I loved the nonverbal conversation I had with an L.A. lawyer's wife next to the dance floor, after having both danced quite a bit. I loved being cool and uncool. I loved the picture I took of two guests, and of my older goddaughter with my daughter. I loved that I got video of my dear friend on camera dancing again! I loved giving my goddaughter something she really wanted, that she can use for a long time and that will allow her to express her true creativity. Of course, I loved it that she named her new camera "Fred" right away.* I loved feeling like our presence, each and every one of us, meant something to every other one there. I loved the connectedness I felt, even when I felt awkward at the end when everyone was saying their goodbyes. I loved the recognition of family being whom you are born to and the ones you choose to keep around you, the ones you want to watch your back, to be your best for, besides your family of origin.

What I didn't love, my only regret, was not standing up and saying something in a toast that night. I guess I wanted to speak to her more directly through the gifts I chose for her; I had a message that I thought might embarrass her or make her feel pressured to reveal her proverbial hand to too many, too soon. And sometimes toast-talk feels like showing off, total self-aggrandizement: "Look how smart I am, how much more I know than a 13-year-old." I didn't want to do that for her sake or mine. So here, now, are a few things I would have wanted to hear at 13:

  • Heed your instincts.

  • Listen to your parents. They know a few things.

  • If you need to find other parental figures, or friends you rely on, that's okay, too. You are allowed to lean on and love more than just your parents. (Which I'm sure this whole Bat Mitzvah-becoming process clues you into as well.)

  • Dare yourself to do something new, often. (Because sooner or later you will fail, but you'll always learn from failure, at least as much as you do from success.)

  • This was my parents' advice to me (and I've always been grateful for it because they were right): Don't go anywhere alone with anyone you don't feel 100 percent great about. You ought to be willing to tell anyone about them and go anywhere with them if you like them that much.

  • It sounds like a cliche, but that's because it's true: You can do anything.

*Someone expressed their surprise at the name Fred for the new camera, and my goddaughter, who was happily bonding with her new toy/tool, said, "Yeah, Fred's gay. He came out of the box." (Funnier still: at about the same time, I was back in my hotel room was writing notes about my novel character's, story arc. Did I mention his name is Fred, too? They have so much in common! I'll have to introduce them. You know how it is: they'll either love each other or hate each other!) ;-)

07 January 2009

Closer to clean

I saw a ten-minute film at the Boulder International Film Fest a couple of winters ago called "My Name is Ahmed Ahmed (and I Can't Fly Anywhere)." Ahmed Ahmed in his short film spoke of the ups and downs of being a Muslim-American comedian after 9/11, and had some really funny bits, as the film's title infers. I was delighted to see his name recently when we saw Iron Man. But what stuck with me long after I had seen his short film wasn't his gags or cheerful-if-a-bit-resigned attitude (see his sporty traveling outfit -- jeans, Nike sneakers, American football jersey, baseball cap -- he does everything short of carry an American flag and do the wave to ease the running of the TSA gauntlet): it was the prayer. There was something about seeing him wash himself when entering a mosque, and I have been thinking about that detail ever since.

I once heard someone demand how Middle Easterners who wear so much white cloth keep it clean all day, and I think of all those prayers they make -- all five. (Incidentally, an IFS film coming up this spring, Times and Winds, is organized around the five prayers.) In this post-9/11 world, I wonder whether the people who have heretofore interpreted "swarthy" as "sinister," "dark," or "suspect," as the Nancy Drew books once suggested, could first think of Muslims' devout cleanliness, instead of those rare extremists who long to be united in paradise with their 72 virgins (or golden raisins, depending on the translation). I am not religious, but I do have spiritual yearnings, so I understand the impulse to let nothing, not even a thin layer of grime, get between the individual and the object of his or her spiritual devotion. Me, when I think of Muslims, I think of a nice, funny, and really clean guy who is trying to make his living like the rest of us.

04 January 2009

The best of times, the worst of times; and how being a Gomez fan is the opposite of television

What a strange and terrible year it was, 2008. Like making a top-films list, I couldn't face the depth of it immediately, either on or before the first day of the new year, when people traditionally enter in their yearly ledgers these laments or celebrations of the time gone by, which also can feel like a clearing of the decks. "Let's sum up all we can about this year, for posterity, and because for the less lucky of these suckers this will be their fifteen seconds of fame, never to be heard from again."

But today I saw the film Milk, which I knew I needed to see, perhaps not least because like Harvey, I have always wanted to extend a message of love, hope, and acceptance to the kids and adults for that matter who despair of ever being around people who don't think they are bent or fruity or outright sick-in-the-head. And Milk was all that and more: a love letter from director Gus Van Sant to the gay-rights movement, a showcase of marvelous acting from not only Sean Penn but also James Franco and a slew of people, and a faceful of spot-on details and set-dressing decisions. (Pies in the face became a San Francisco activists' tradition at board meetings for some time after, I remember from our time living in the Bay Area in the 1980s.)

I felt I was seeing the actors and director bloom before my very eyes. This is Van Sant's newest of his series of meditations on violence (see also Elephant, My Own Private Idaho, and Last Days, among others, for examples of violence in response to societal pressures--both externalized, with gays as targets, or internalized, by suicidal rock stars who can't make their inner world match up to the outer one for example. Or here, where one man, the once-closeted Harvey Milk, takes personal responsibility for the well-being of an entire movement, not just himself or his closest circle.

It was such a gift to be able to appreciate the verve and joyfulness of Harvey Milk--and the gaping void that opened in Harvey's absence. Van Sant not only showed us why we need to have hope for our futures but also what is at stake if we don't fight for the rights of "all the Us-es" as Milk says in the film--the gays, the disabled, the elderly, the blacks, the women, the Jews, all of us. For if one of us isn't truly free, then we all feel those shackles sooner or later.

I know everyone's lining up to say the likes of this right now, but If Sean Penn doesn't get the acting Oscar this year, I will eat this post. But what I'd love to see even more is a directing prize for Gus. That would be super! (Incidentally, the mimeographs and typographical accuracy of the campaign posters were among the pleasures of this movie, esp the "Harvey Milk for Supervisor!" posters with the "Super" underlined--so hip!)

It's gotten quite late but in reviewing photos some of my top moments of the year were spent with family and friends of course, but also writing, taking photos, seeing and trying my amateurish hand at making films, and going to Chicago to see Gomez & friends. One of the magical things about that latter experience was getting to witness first-hand what happens when a bunch of people decide to put themselves in the story of their favorite band for a moment. It was like the polar opposite of watching television. Some people seized hold of the opportunity to see and be seen while others needed to maintain some distance, some anonymity, for the whole thing not to tumble like some proverbial house of cards. And most of us fell somewhere in between those extremes. I was delighted to have the opportunity to see that happening up close, and to be able to join in the fun in my own peculiar ways. I have not a regret.

About any of it. Happy out-with-the-old and happy new year. I wish us unity, compassion, strength, health, hope, and happiness. Who says we can't have it all? Or is love all we need, like the wise men said?