By Douglas Moran
Why is Palo Alto politics so stubbornly pre-Internet? Part 2Uploaded: Jan 18, 2015
Recap: The Internet Revolution is a change in attitudes about how information can be provided and used?that there is immense benefit in sharing much more information much more widely, both by pushing it out, for example email, and by simplifying access (pull), for example Web search.(foot#1)
In Part 1 I focused on failures to make use of the Internet to make individual meetings more effective by the timely availability of better information. In this part, the primary focus shifts to failures to make information more accessible, how that interacts with availability and collaboration. Information pull (versus being pushed out) is crucial for people trying to educate themselves on the issues and various perspectives, get up-to-speed on the debate?
In doing research for these blog posting, my Town Square comments and various other presentations, I continue to amazed at how hard it is to find information that I expect to be trivially revealed by Web search (Aside: "Web search": my training is to honor trademarks and I can't quite bring myself to use "Google®'ing"). But if you look at the local discussion groups, such as TSF, you will see the cause?lack of links. Don't know what "TSF" is? An illustration of my point?plug it into Google or Wikipedia® and you won't get the desired result. By the way, "TSF" is the Town Square forum on this site.
As you read comments, you will see passages providing perspectives and alleged facts that have come up time and again in these forums over the years. But suppose you want more details? Or to check if the commenter's recollections were accurate? Or to find critiques and other perspectives? You are unlikely to find anything to help you with this. If there is any reference to other discussions, it is often very vague (for example, "on another topic here at TSF").
Before you criticize the software package used here for not allowing links to individual comments, first look at how few commenters avail themselves of linking when it is readily available (such as to articles and other topic/discussion threads). Then look for commenters trying work-arounds, such as citing the name and timestamp on the comment (allowing trivial search on that Web page). My experience is that I can scan long stretches of comments without finding a single instance of this.
This creates a vicious cycle. Why expend the considerable effort to write up a useful briefing on an issue?the facts, the various analyses, tradeoffs and perspectives?if you expect that there won't be enough links to that article to get a large enough audience to justify that effort?(foot#2) And if people don't create Web pages that one would want to link to, you don't enable people to serve as good examples of the value of providing links in their comments and other presentations.
I made several highly unsuccessful attempts to bootstrap this. One idea was to create a Wiki of the acronyms and terminology commonly used in discussions of Palo Alto issues. Then, instead of people in meetings being faced with the choice of interrupting to get an explanation or suffering in silence, they could use a smart phone to get the explanation. I was unable to get any interest in doing this. Why not just do it myself? To be successful, there needed to be enough contributors to get it critical mass of entries and then keep it growing, and there also needed to be a critical mass of people recommending such a Wiki. There was neither.
The Internet enabled close collaboration of people working apart, both in distance and time (different schedules). Most people eased into this way of working starting from frequent face-to-face interactions, to infrequent ones while still working in the same location, to ? Yet many of the people I encounter in local politics are not comfortable with what I am accustomed to as the absolute basics, for example in Microsoft Word, using the Track-Changes and Commenting features. Even worse, many of them are highly resistant to this style of collaboration. I have learned that there are many local activists with whom collaboration is a waste of time: Face-to-face is essential for convergence, but scheduling that before the deadline is improbable.
To be fair, there are many tech-savvy residents with whom it is equally impossible to collaborate: They are inflexible about collaboration style (their's is "the one true way"), and are oblivious to the costs that their's imposes on others (learning curve and expense of special software), and consequently to the cost-benefit ratio.
Being able to collaborate separated by time and distance tends to work best with a collegial style. Coming from a professional background (tech R&D, consulting) where this was common, if not required, I was surprised at the high proportion of Palo Altans involved in politics who couldn't operate in such a framework. There were more "individual contributors" than I would have expected, but the big surprise was the number of people whose mode of operation presumes the typical office hierarchy. While you might think of people who demand to be the boss and then micromanage, the much bigger problem is with people who require close, physically-present management to keep them focused and responsive.
This collaboration problem can be a huge impediment to getting better information more widely available. For example, for people interested in becoming more involved on an issue, one good way to get them up-to-speed can be to have them collaborate with those with more expertise and to be responsible for the actual writing. Too often it has the opposite effect, driving people away in frustration. They battle through trying to get clean answers from the experts, and then miss the publication deadline because days turn into weeks trying to get the experts to approve the article, that is, simply read a few paragraphs to ensure that there aren't glaring errors.
One of the reasons many people don't put more effort into making more information available on the Internet is that the feedback is so very different from personal information sharing. Some Internet community have developed cultures that do provide positive feedback and throttle the trolls, haters and other miscreants. One of the basic ways of providing positive feedback is through links and other online acknowledgements, but as I noted above, there is very little of that in Palo Alto's political discussions.(foot#3) (foot#4)
The act of writing for Web pages that are meant to be linked to?as opposed to for comments on forums/blogs or emails?encourages better quality presentations. It encourages fact-checking and better structuring of the argument. It discourages the "What I meant to say?" and contradictions. I have seen too many discussions?both physical and virtual?go badly off-track because of the former: The audience becomes frustrated and then comes to suspect deception, while the speaker regards clarifying questions as hostile. My experience has been that trying to resolve contradictory/conflicting criteria in a meeting is extremely difficult.(foot#5) I, and many others, have argued that staff reports should provide the basis for an effective discussion, that is, provide the background material, explain the various perspectives and tradeoffs, and provide a structure for the discussions. However, staff reports are instead advocacy documents that contain many of above problems. Mayor Holman has said that reforming staff reports is one of her priorities, and we will see if the new Council is able to muster the power to accomplish this.
Town Square Forums (TSF):
Many commenters on TSF have expressed dismay/outrage/? that various (past) Council members don't read the comments. While I agree that that illustrates a level of arrogance and contempt, commenters need to understand that TSF has a low signal-to-noise ratio, and the commenters do very little to try to overcome this. This category of forum is cluttered with commenters who have opinions unencumbered by facts, truthiness (pseudo-facts derived from what the commenter wants to believe is true), ad hominem attacks,? One long-established practice is for a key participant to produce a summary, and the absence of such summaries is an indicator that the participants in the forum aren't interested in the larger audience.
TSF, and similar forums, suffer from the deliberate choice to allow anonymity to encourage participation at the sacrifice of the credibility that comes from people putting their names to their comments. On TSF, there not only are very few commenters who use their real names, and very few who use a unique (registered) alias. Since many people can be posting under the same unregistered alias, previous comments under that alias do not constitute a track record, and thus provide no credibility for that alias.
It isn't just whether information is available, it also needs to be accessible, and having credibility doesn't hurt.
Pre-Internet Announcements, Publicity?
Pre-Internet: To be effective, a press release should not be well-written.
One measure of how/whether an organization has adapted is how far its publicity has moved from the form and format of the press release. As its name indicates, a press release is not intended for the public, but rather to be reworked by a reporter for distribution to the public. Newspapers don't like to be seen as simply regurgitating press releases, so an effective press release gives the reporter enough room to easily improve the writing and organization of the material without making too many errors and omissions.(foot#6)
I find it amusing to receive a press release by email and see that most of it (in bytes) is the letterhead and footer. Note for the younger readers: Letterhead was important when FAXing or posting hardcopy on a (physical) wall both to help people ID it, and to provide a (modest) level of authentication.(foot#7)
I also continue to receive announcements that are purely images (for example, JPEGs). Although these images have lots of text in them, the graphics designer (person or program) didn't provide that info in a searchable format, thus rendering that textual information invisible when you do a search on your mailbox.(foot#8)
Guest Opinions in newspapers have long been used as free publicity. (Aside: In major newspapers, a large number of these are little more than the authors promoting their books) Most of the issue-oriented ones are essentially executive summaries, because of space limitations inherited from the hardcopy format, but they rarely help the reader interested in learning more, either by providing links or descriptions of enough specificity for successful Web search. For links, shortened URLs (bit.ly, goo.gl?) don't take much space. If you look at the Guest Opinions here at PA Weekly/Online, you will many examples of this deficiency.
---- Footnotes ----
1. Links in Web pages are an interesting example of being both information push and pull: They encourage (push) the reader of the Web page to look at the additional information referenced, but they are also crucial data for the Web search (pull) algorithms that find and prioritize the information returned to you.
2. How many links to my blog postings? Answering an anticipated question: I don't know, because it is complicated. Although various Web search engines allow you to find links to specified Web pages, you often don't get a comprehensive listing. For example, Google states that normal search provides a sample of the Web pages linking to the specified one?the comprehensive listing is restricted to the owner of the site. So, like you, I only see the sample.
In determining where to rank a Web page, the algorithms behind search engines use much more than the links to that page. It is widely presume that the primary reason that Google made Gmail? free was to gain access to the links being passed around in email messages (it had long been observed that links mentioned in emails were among the best indicators of the quality of a Web page).
3. Value of information: There are two basic views of how information is to be valued, and the "right" answer is usually a tradeoff that varies with the situation. One basic view is "scarcity": That the fewer people who have access to the information, the more valuable it is, or that information must be restricted to maintain its value. The other basic view is "a rising tide lifts all boats" / "pay it forward": That promiscuous sharing of information provides leverage for others to make advancements that will come back to benefit you. The latter view has a correlate in Economics of the "velocity of money".
4. Closed door politics: There is substantial portion of Palo Alto's political establishment (City Hall and the "movers-and-shakers") that prefers to operate in private. For example, the now infamous Palo Alto slammed for lack of transparency on Arrillaga proposals: Grand Jury criticizes city ? (PA Weekly, 2014-06-20).
Another example: 2003 State of the City speech by then-Mayor Dena Mossar: "Neighborhood associations have banded together to create large and small e-mail communication networks that have changed the lobbying landscape significantly from the days?but six years ago?when a neighborhood typically fought its battles in solo mode. The business community, in an attempt to level the playing field, is trying to find an effective way to respond." It is my favorite because I was a major contributor in helping the rabble get more of a voice in decisions. But in several ways, we seem to have gone backwards since then. There are other passages in the speech that make it an interesting "time capsule" on the rising influence of the Internet.
5. Contradictions/Conflicts: Example: Some years ago I became involved in an issue that already had substantial history, and it seemed that one of the major stakeholder groups was demanding conflicting measures. I arranged a private meeting with the leaders of that group to try to understand what they were asking me to support. As we stepped through the choices and priorities, I carefully wrote them down on a whiteboard. Just as I thought we had a clear picture and agreement, the leader of that group declared that an additional criteria was essential. I pointed to the whiteboard to show that he had agreed that it conflicted with what he had agreed was a higher priority. Didn't matter?he was very insistent that both were necessary. Oh, he was a manager in a high-tech company, as were several other leading members of that stakeholder group.
Aside: At that point, I realized that cooperation was futile.
6. Churnalism: There have been a series of studies that have found that the large majority of news articles in well-regarded newspapers are not journalism, but the lightly modified republication of packages of information provided to them (churn: to turn over and over). Of particular concern is the very large number of news articles derived from press releases with little/no scrutiny or skepticism. This pre-dates the decline of newspapers (and the rise of the Internet): My recollection of this first being publicly discussed was in the late 1980s or early 1990s occasioned by a study that looked at a sample of news articles in the Business section of newspapers and found that the substantial majority of them (80% is my recollection) were essentially rehashes of press releases.
I personally discovered this situation earlier with articles on science and technology: Universities and other research groups would post their press releases to the precursor to the Internet, making it easy to compare them to what appeared in newspaper stories. That provided a valuable tutorial for me and my colleagues on what made for an effective press release. Today, if you want to see the extensive "commonalities" between multiple articles derived from the same press release, simply go to the Science section of a news aggregator that groups multiple articles on the same topic. For example, on Google News simply clicking on the down-arrow next to a headline opens the expanded view that routinely contains similar articles from different publications.
7. Letterhead: Although most email systems do a reasonable job suppressing the unnecessary clutter of the logo image, graphic designers love to use fonts that aren't available on the typical system, especially mobile devices, causing rendering problems that we all are so familiar with (the typical algorithm is that when the computer doesn't have the specified font, it should use the next closest, and that one may not have a complete set of font-sizes and thus the characters are rendered absurdly large or small).
8. Unsearchable images: Years ago when I would receive one of these message for redistribution to my neighborhood email list, I would extract the essential information and add it to the message as plain text, and advise the sender of the importance of having searchable emails (especially for announcements where people would be trying to find it on the day of the event). My observation was that people who were clueless about the importance of being able to search emails were impervious to suggestions that it was important to others.
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.