Government Web Managers Conference

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the Government Web Managers Conference held in Arlington, VA.  This two-day conference brought together federal, local and state web folks from around the country to listen to expert speakers, hear about the latest web tools and discuss how to improve government websites.  

A major focus of this year’s conference was Web 2.0, meaning the new set of participatory web sites like Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and blogs.  Web 1.0 was the static publishing of information; Web 2.0 is everyone publishing and commenting on everything.  There is broad agreement among government web folks that government sites should use these tools because that’s what the public expects.  There are two major barriers to government adopting Web 2.0:

1.  Lawyers.  Regulations for government web sites were designed for a pre-Web 2.0 age and have not been consistently applied across the federal government.  For example, on NOAA Ocean Explorer, we’re allowed to post our videos to YouTube but other agencies are not.  In some agencies, you can’t even view YouTube.

2.  IT Departments.  The principles of Web 2.0 are openness and sharing, which are a security administrator’s worst nightmare.  IT departments these days are often about locking things while we want to open up and share our information with the rest of the world.

It was interesting to hear that other government folks have the same challenges we do.  The organizers of the conference are getting together teams of people to try to develop a unified approach to these problems.  This cross-governmental cooperation will hopefully help agencies adopt these tools.  There’s value in having a critical mass of government web folks pushing to use Web 2.0.  The creation of this community of interest may be the best outcome of the conference. 

Friday's Links

Here’s what interested me this week:

Washington City Paper: Building the Great DC Novel
Surprisingly, no one has written a Bonfire of the Vanities for DC.  The article is correct that most novels of DC are just about a niche of this city (Edward P. Jones) or treat things with a very broad brush (Christopher Buckley).  

The Environmental Protection Agency is blogging!  Hopefully, this will spur the rest of government (including the part I’m in) to blog as well.

The New Influencers
I’m working my through this fascinating book.  The world of corporate PR and the mainstream media is over. Blogs and communities of people connecting online are the future.

DCist Overheard
The “nice balls” comment is one I submitted, LOL. 

The Three Things Writers Need

I spent a beautiful spring afternoon at the Conversations and Connections conference held April 5 in Washington, DC.  This was a writer’s conference featuring “experts in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing for children, making connections, using the web, marketing, and everything in between.”  

But the highlight for me was the keynote by Mary Gaitskill, author of Two Girls, Fat and Thin and the short story which was the basis of the movie Secretary.  In her inspiring talk, she recounted her long and painful struggle for literary success.  Here are the three things she believes writers need:

  1. Comfort with Solitude.  You can go to conferences, join groups, talk to people online.  But, in the end, being a writer means spending time alone in front of a screen.  A lot of time.  When other people are enjoying group pursuits in the sunny outdoors, you’ll be pounding away on a keyboard.  You better like your own company.
  2. Persistence.  Success came late for Gaitskill.  She kept at it over the years, in the face of anonymous rejection letters from literary journals.  Family and friends pitied her and told her that she should pick a different career.  But she didn’t give up because being a writer was the only thing she wanted to do with her life.
  3. Courage.  Gaitskill’s fiction is unique and disturbing, exploring ideas and situations that can really bother people.  In addition to dealing with rejection letters, Gaitskill had to cope with venomous reactions from agents and others who took a visceral dislike to her work.  What’s great about Gaitskill is that she didn’t change her voice, that she kept her singular perspective despite the occasionally hostile reaction it engendered.

Library of Congress Lecture on Digital Natives


rose takes a picture
Our future digital overlords.

I went to the Library of Congress recently to hear distinguished scholar and child-development expert Edith Ackerman discuss “The Anthropology of Digital Natives”.

Digital natives are defined as people who grew up with the Internet – basically K-12 students.  Interestingly, one point Ackerman made was that what we consider “technology” are the things we didn’t grow up with.  For digital natives, the Internet is not complicated technology but is just a normal tool.

While I’m a “digital immigrant” instead of a native, I did somehow manage to take notes on my iPhone during the talk, which I’ve expanded upon here.

With every new wave of technology, kids readily adopt it while older people hold back.  They grab hold of what’s new and make it their own.

K – 12 is the first digital generation, and spends hours each week gaming and using computers  The educational system they’re in was designed for a print generation, not a digital one.

Literacy must be redefined as encompassing all media, not just reading – beyond print.  Digital natives Google instead of going to the library, make a video instead of writing a paper – these are new, hybrid ways of being an author.  Rather than starting from scratch, they capture, collect and share.  This is done in ways that are often considered plagiarism, like the author who borrows text from Wikipedia or copyrighted content from YouTube.

Kids must learn new relationship skills and a sense of self in a world of multiple identities (MySpace vs real life).  Kids love navigation games and the return to home – these are archetypal myths.

Four traits of digital natives:

  1. Shareism – co-creation rather than individual authorship
  2. Border Crossing – private is public (like Facebook), kids belong to multiple tribes, have multiple identities
  3. Media Literate – borrow from others with copy and paste, read/write combining (like a wiki), everyone is an author
  4. Expect Tools to Be Easy – everything has an undo button

This lecture was part of a series at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.  Here’s upcoming lectures and more information.

Monday, May 12: “Internet, the Private Mind?” by Steven Berlin Johnson, author of “Everything Bad is Good for You.”

Monday, June 23: “The Anthropology of YouTube” by Michael Wesch, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University.

Monday, June 30: “Open Source Reality” by Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Screenagers: Lessons in Chaos from Digital Kids.”

For further information on the Kluge Center, visit


David Pogue's Three Megatrends

I attended FOSE (a government technology expo in DC) last week and saw David Pogue’s keynote.  He’s the technology columnist for the New York Times.  Here are my notes from the session with the three big “megatrends” Pogue sees with technology plus some interesting links to check out:

1. Phone and Internet will Merge

In the future, you’ll use voice over IP at home with a portable number, $20 month.   “Voice over IP” is using the internet to call people rather than Ma Bell. You might use Grandcentral, which provides a single phone number for all the phones in your life.  One number to rule them all…

Next time you’re looking for a phone number, check out Google 411 instead of dialing information.

Have lots of voice mail?  Try a voice to text service, like Jott, which converts your voicemail to text and emails it to you.

2. A La Carte Video

All TV shows will be available on demand, anytime you want, through iTunes, Hulu or similar services. Even Comcast is creating an on demand video service.

The DVD format war is over.  Blu-ray is the victor.

Movie downloads won’t kill DVD business, not enough people have broadband.  And there are still too many restrictions on downloads.  Why do I only have 24 hours to watch a movie?

People in college and younger do not understand nor recognize copyright.

3. Web 2.0

According to Pogue, we’re still early in this cycle of innovation.  He provided a nice definition of web 2.0, which I’m paraphrasing as, “We the people, providing the content, and connecting with others.”

Blogs are a new channel of communication for government agencies.  After all, Microsoft used blogs to put a face on a faceless org, getting beyond their fear of openness.  It’s not PR, it’s authentic.

Cool examples of web 2.0:

  • TripAdvisor (reviews of hotels and more)
  • Kiva  (microlending)
  • e-petitions  (petition the Prime Minister)
  • whoissick (find out what virus is floating around your neighborhood)

And, at the end of his talk, Pogue amused the audience with a song about the lawsuit-happy RIAA, to the tune of the Village People’s “YMCA”.  Guess you had to be there.

Downing Street Does Twitter

In my earlier post on Election 2008 and citizen expectations, I speculated that candidates, once they were elected, would continue to use web 2.0 tools to communicate with their supporters.

The Brits are one step ahead of us. Number 10 Downing Street, home to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has its own Twitter feed. Even better, it has its own page on Flickr, complete with photos of the lovely Madame Sarkozy.

10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment

Here are some more notes from SXSW Interactive.

I attended a session called, “10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment.”  Bryan Mason and Sarah Nelson of Adaptive Path interviewed stage managers and conductors on how you keep a group creative and productive.  I think both roles are very similar to what web producers and site managers do.  We often have to work with prickly creative types, with specialized skills, who we need to be inspired and working in the same direction.  Web sites, like orchestras or stage plays, are, by their very nature, collaborative environments.

Several web people I know actually work in the theater or film (like me) or music, as if they’re drawn to creative group activities even when they’re outside of the office.  There’s a psychological lesson in there somewhere…

At the SXSW Interactive session, Bryan and Sarah (a former musician) introduced us to ten techniques used by creative management professionals to get great work from a wide range of employees.

1. Cross-train entire team – teaches empathy, possibility.  In the avante-garde theater they studied, everyone got to write and act.
2. Rotate creative leadership – provides ownership.
3. Actively turn the corner – there will come a time when you must put the bad ideas away and start on production.  The theater did this by taking a smoke break between the brainstormin session and the actual planning of the play.
4. Know your roles – stay in your lane.
5. Practice as a group.  This is why it’s vital that orchestras practice together.
6. Make your mission explicit to the whole team.
7. Kill your darlings (the ideas that are good but don’t fit).  Avenue Q, the Broadway musical, had lots of songs that didn’t serve the story.  They were ditched.
8. Leadership is service.
9. Do projects around group’s ideas.
10. Remember your audience.  Avenue Q was written in coffee shops, around the type of people who would be the audience for the musical.

Bonus Tip 11. Celebrate failure… with an afterparty!

Eurabia is ASA Screenplay Contest Quarterfinalist

I just learned that my screenplay Eurabia is a Quarterfinalist in the American Screenwriters Association (ASA) 11th Annual International Screenplay Competition. This script, which I wrote last year, also made it to the second round of the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition.

For the ASA competition, 130 Quarterfinalists were selected from the 1,400 screenplays submitted. Their entries will be judged again and the top scores will advance to the semi-final round. Semi-Finalists and Finalists will be announced in late May 2008.

Eurabia is a disturbing look at a possible future. The year is 2028. America has lost the war on terror. Europe is now “Eurabia”, a continent under the grip of radical Islam. But the CIA has a secret plan to use a biogenetic weapon to change the course of history.

From the abandoned streets of New York to a Paris ruled by imams, this political thriller follows an unwilling hero as he’s forced into a plot to change the world. Like most Americans, Roland wants peace after a devastating war with radical Islam. However, with an upcoming cultural exchange program with Eurabia, Roland is in a unique position, one that the CIA wants to take advantage of to introduce their new biogenetic weapon. This weapon changes the brains of radical Islamists, to make them tolerant and open-minded.

Roland is blackmailed into carrying this weapon to Eurabia. He doesn’t intend to use it – he expects to find common ground with a traditional Islamic society. Instead, he finds an oppressed people, ruled by a corrupt and violent elite cloaking themselves in the Koran. He develops a love interest, Gillian, and watches helplessly as she and her daughter are abused. Amal, a wise mentor, guides him toward a final confrontation with the rulers of Eurabia.

One has to just look at today’s headlines to see the timeliness of my story. I wrote this controversial script to explore the ideas and conflicts of our time – freedom, security, paranoia, individual rights, globalization and progress.

Read an excerpt from Eurabia.

Election 2008 and Citizen Expectations

One of the more interesting panels I attended at SXSW Interactive was “Friend Me! Vote for Me! Donate Now!”  It was about how the presidential candidates are using tools like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to mobilize and communicate with their supporters.  The panel (including my old friend Colin Delany from e.politics) talked about what worked and what didn’t work in this Internet age.  The underlying assumption, however, was that of course candidates are going to use these tools because it’s what the public expects.  For a candidate not to have a Facebook page in 2008 would be really weird and out of touch.

Listening to this panel, I got to wondering about what will happen after the election, when one of these candidates takes office.  The public has an expectation that they will be able to communicate with the candidate (and each other) using web 2.0 tools.  That’s not going to change just because a candidate is now an elected part of government.  The public will expect to use MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to learn about what the president and his or her government is doing, just like they did during the campaign.  For government not to use these tools in 2008 would seem really weird and out of touch.

And yet, most government agencies do not use these tools.  In fact, in some government agencies, employees are not even allowed to access sites like MySpace and Facebook.  The free flow of information from the government to the public is thwarted by legal and IT security concerns.

I’m throwing this idea out there not as a rant, but as a potential argument that government web managers (like me) can use to speed the adoption of web 2.0 tools.  By using these tools, we’re responding to the expectations of tax-paying citizens who deserve to get government information in the manner they desire.  Whoever the President is next year, I hope they will encourage government agencies to use the tools the public uses.

Stuff We've Learned at 37signals

Without a doubt, the best session I attended at SXSW Interactive was, “Stuff We’ve Learned at 37signals.”

It was a talk presented by Jason Fried of 37signals.

I’m a fan of 37signals, as are a lot of web people – Jason’s session was held in the biggest ballroom available at the Austin Convention Center. 37 Signals creates web-based project management tools that are the opposite of Microsoft Project. Simplicity is their mantra. Here’s what 37signals has learned about project management – I think these ideas could be applied to life in general.

1. Don’t worry about unknown. Instead, concentrate your efforts on the most important day – today. Optimize for today…
2. Watch out for red flags words: need, can’t, easy, only, fast. (“Easy” always applies to someone else’s job, never yours.)
3. Make money by helping others make money. Users are happy to pay for Basecamp (their project management tool) because it helps them manage their work and make money.
4. Target nonconsumers. MS Project was too complex and people didn’t use it. Basecamp targets this group.
5. Question your work regularly. Why are we doing this?
6. Read your web site. Bad copy is biggest problem on Internet, read your site and rewrite.
7. Err on the side of simple. Doing the easy things means you get more things done. The longer a project takes, the less likely it will be done
8. Invest in your core strengths – not the latest and greatest. For example, Google invests in search.
9. Build by sharing, give away your cookbook. That’s what top chefs do.
10. Interruption is biggest enemy of productivity. He recommended one afternoon a week where no one could talk to anyone else.
11. Road maps send you in wrong direction, lock you into past decisions.
12. Be clear in crisis, builds goodwill
13. Make tiny decisions, knock little things off and launch/celebrate. Morale feeds off incremental progress; tiny steps means tiny errors
14. Do work that matters.