Park Ranger Photo Kerfuffle

With this photo, I have inadvertently started a kerfuffle (love that word).

ranger on bike

It was part of a series of photos I took of the Washington Monument inspection for earthquake damage.

I took the above photo because I thought it was kind of funny – a park ranger in his big hat on a bike. I submitted it to The Wash Cycle, a local blog on bike advocacy. They ran it with the cheeky title, Only You Can Prevent Bicycle Crashes.

Commenters on the site identified the ranger as Bill Line, spokesperson for the National Park Service. He’s infamous among local bike advocates for opposing the expansion of DC’s bikesharing service to the National Mall. And here he is riding a bike.

Not only that, he’s not wearing a helmet and talking on a cellphone. A bag swings from his handlebars, unsafely. Commenters on the site also critiqued his ancient flip-phone and ratty handlebar tape.

Without meaning to, I made news. This simple photo tells a story. Several of them actually, if you want to interpret the image that way. It reveals the hypocrisy of bike opponents riding bikes, as well as a cavalier attitude toward bike safety.

This blog kerfuffle also highlights the fact that public servants are public. What they do is out in the open and possibly recorded by accidental citizen journalists, like myself.

I was on a job interview recently and was asked to define “open government,” the movement to make government transparent and accountable to citizens. This photo is a perfect (though minor) illustration of open government in action, showing what happens when citizens get an unvarnished look at public servants at work.

update: this story was republished on e.politics, a blog that covers digital advocacy. And the photo appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

We Are All Content Marketers Now

Content marketing is defined as:

the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumer bases.

We’re all in the marketing biz now, defined by the content that’s available about us online. Whether it’s a post about World of Warcraft in a gaming forum, a Facebook complaint about teenagers at the mall, or a well-sourced article in a scholarly journal, our identities are a function of the web. We may be very different people in real life, but for potential employers, customers, friends or romantic partners, first impressions are formed by what pops up during a Google search.

Unless you’re living off the grid in some Nevada desert, this information, this shadow-version of your self exists in cyberspace. Details about your life are posted online (like that you finished in 122nd place in the local fun run), without you probably even being aware of it.

You could rage against this loss of identity or you could do something about it. Content marketing is doing something about it. Instead of just being a viewer of content, start actively creating it. Register a site in your own name. Create a blog. Tweet, comment on stories and contribute to online forums.

But do so consciously. Be aware that you’re shaping your personal brand online. Think about the searches that people will be doing in the future and how you want to appear in them. Don’t let other people define you – use content marketing to shape your image online.

The Software is Wrong, Not the People

It was a small moment at the WordPress DC Meetup. One of the creators of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, was in town. He had come to this monthly meeting at Fathom Creative to learn what the local community wanted in the next version of his web publishing software.

The media library in WordPress was discussed. Mullenweg admitted that it is confusing and gets difficult to manage once you have lots of images in the library. A man in the audience brought up a technical issue he had with the library. Mullenweg explained that you could actually do what the man wanted to in WordPress but stated:

The software is wrong, not the people.

This is a revolutionary statement. Mullenweg could have just told the man that “you’re doing it wrong” before telling him the “right” way to work with WordPress. Instead, the fact that users had problems with the media library told him that the software needed to be improved.

It’s a contrary notion. We all adapt to clunky and ever-changing software, relearning the basic tasks needed to accomplish our work – where’d they move the print button?

And we cope with this increasing complexity without complaint. Because no one wants to look stupid. You can’t figure out the ribbon in Microsoft Word? You must be the idiot, not the software.

This is especially true in the world of content management systems for web sites. I’ve worked on large-scale web sites for more than a dozen years as a web editor, producer and site manager. I remember when we did things in HTML. I have fond memories for Claris HomePage. Compared to the complexity of managing a large site in Dreamweaver, a CMS seemed like a brilliant idea.

Be careful what you wish for. Over time, I’ve had the fortune/misfortune to use nearly every major CMS out there.

The simple publishing tools that we used back in the 90s “evolved” into massively complex structures requiring expensive experts to install and administer. CMS like SharePoint, Vignette and Percussion are punishing experiences for the user, turning the joyous task of writing into a machine-led death march. You enter your content and then engage in a series of database programming tasks, with the hope that at the end of it, if everything goes well, your article will appear in the correct format on the web site at the next publishing cycle.

It’s no wonder that there’s so much bad writing online when the publishing tools are so lousy.

WordPress is different. Being open-source, and closely tied to the community (would Steve Ballmer listen to your feedback?), it has a different philosophy – “The software is wrong, not the people.”

Of course, it’s not perfect – the media library definitely needs some work – but it’s easy to use and adaptable. WordPress now powers more than 50 million web sites.

And, most importantly of all, it’s software that people want to use. No one feels passionate about SharePoint. But they do about WordPress. This enthusiasm will lead to its greater adoption. Over time, the users will prevail.

Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year

SXSW 2007
SXSW in 2007

SXSW Interactive is an annual conference of social media and web geeks in Austin. It’s a huge, exhausting event that takes place over a long weekend in March and is popularly known as the conference that introduced Twitter and other new forms of communication.

The criticism now is that it’s gotten too big and too corporate, dominated by giant corporations trying to be hip. And that it’s gotten to be such a chaotic moshpit that it leads to network outages.

I went to SXSW in 2007 and 2008, just the right moment before it became mainstream. The conference taught me to love the brilliant minds at 37signals, whose radically hopeful ideas about the future of work cannot arrive soon enough. I learned that project management should be as simple as possible. Gantt charts and MS Project should be avoided in favor of clear goals that everyone can understand. REWORK is their vision for the ideal work environment, where meetings and busywork are eschewed in favor of collaboration and results. Their philosophy is subversive and attractive for anyone stuck in boring meetings or lengthy conference calls. Continue reading “Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year”

WordPress as a Platform for Journalism

My notes from the March 8, 2011 WordPress DC Meetup on WordPress as a tool for journalism.

Ben Balter at Fathom Creative
Ben Balter at Fathom Creative


March 8, 2011: Personal Branding and Lessons from Journalism, with local WordPress enthusiasts Ben Balter and Greg Linch.

Greg and Ben will be sharing best practices and how you can take the next step with WordPress as a platform. Pulling from their wide-ranging experiences in journalism, publishing, government, and development, they’ll be discussing how you can use WordPress to craft your personal brand, and what lessons that can be learned from how journalists use WordPress.

We’ve invited the DC Hacks/Hackers group, a meetup for journalists and developers, to join us this month. You can learn more about them at

Here’s their cheeky bios:

Since 2007, Greg Linch hasn’t had a journalistic job or project in which he hasn’t thought about using or — in most cases — used WordPress. His current job at The Washington Post is the only exception, but it’s only been a few months, so give him time. Most notably, Greg led The Miami Hurricane’s migration to WordPress in 2008 and co-founded CoPress to help other student news organizations do the same. (Twitter: @greglinch.)

An aspiring attorney, a coder, and an all around geek, Ben Balter is a J.D./M.B.A. candidate at the George Washington University and a member of the FCC’s New Media team. When not working or in class, he enjoys tackling otherwise-impossible challenges to sharing information using nothing more than WordPress, duct tape, and occasionally a pack of bubblegum. (Twitter: @BenBalter.)


Andy Nacin introduces and thanks sponsors for the beer and space.

April 12 next meetup. Format: lightning round. Looking for speakers.

Greg Linch

Used WP on multiple projects, including Miami Hurricane. NYT using it for blogs. Davis Enterprise using WP for content, then imported into InDesign for print. It’s web to print. (I am skeptical of all-in-one solutions, having seen balky print-to-web systems pushed by journalists who hated the web back in the 90s.)

EditFlow: assign stories, set status for newsrooms. It’s a WP plugin.

AssignmentDesk: interact with community, an open assignment desk.

NPR’s Argo Network uses child themes for local blogs.

WordPress goes well with a delicious IPA.

WP Courier is an email newsletter plugin. (I need that.)

LivingStories is an interesting experiment in online storytelling.

Good question: how to get reporters to use? Show em how simple it is.

Washington Post is getting a new commenting system. (Yea!)

Ben Balter

Using WP to craft personal brand, take back Google results. Dynamic speaker but then goes into brandspeak, i.e, “what is a brand?”

You’re the Chief Marketing Officer of your brand. Search engine management needed for professional reasons. They show pics of modems.”This is how people used to connect online.” Everyone laughs. I feel old.

No longer defined by a company, you need an online brand (like!). Your content online is your brand, including the embarassing pics. It’s like your college transcript.

73% of recruiters Google you.

WP makes it simple to tell your story.

Grab a domain (key in google searches), describe yourself on your site, setup a basic WP site, start a blog for credibility and engage others, use Google Reader to find things to blog about. It’s like an online brochure about you.

Use Google Analytics to discover your most popular posts.

Be social. Use Facebook, Twitter, etc to promote your posts.

Establish a Board of Directors for your brand.

Update: here’s Ben’s presentation.


Every journalist should have a web site. Every potential journalist should have a site. Every job-seeker should have a site, if only so that your embarrassing Facebook photos don’t show up in a Google search.

I’ve met writers and editors before who don’t have web sites. They don’t want to learn HTML and still look at the web as a lesser medium. That’s short-sighted. WordPress is not difficult. If you can use Word, then you can create a site in WordPress.

WordPress DC meets monthly. It’s a nice mix of developers, writers, bloggers and other creative and technical folk.

WordPress DC: Introduction to Themes and Theme Development with Thad Allender

This month’s meeting of WordPress DC was an introduction to themes and theme development.

WordPress DC is a monthly meetup group of WP developers, designers and bloggers. The meeting was held at Fathom Creative, in a beautiful second floor space overlooking 14th St. With hardwood floors and track lighting, it’s pretty enough to be an art gallery. And it has been – just last month, this space was host to Instant DC, an exhibit of amazing photos taken by cellphones. (It’s hard to believe but just a few years ago this building was an auto repair shop.)

There were about forty people in the audience, most of whom were WP developers, though there were also designers and bloggers, like me. And since developers were present, there was, of course, free beer. That seems a requisite for geeky meetups. Continue reading “WordPress DC: Introduction to Themes and Theme Development with Thad Allender”

The TSA, Blogger Bob and George Orwell

There’s been a lot of discussion going on at GovLoop about a post I did about the TSA blog. In it, I asked whether the TSA blog was supposed to be propaganda or the unvarnished truth.

GovLoop is an online community designed to be “Facebook for feds”.

I objected to the fact that “Blogger Bob” from the TSA categorically states that no one is being groped at airport checkpoints. This is so far removed from reality to be laughable. Anyone who has opened a newspaper or turned on the news has seen countless reports from ordinary citizens about being felt up at TSA checkpoints.

Blogger Bob responded to my post on GovLoop. He accused me of spreading misinformation. He puts “groping” in quotes as if it’s all a big misunderstanding. This agent of the government is disappointed in me. That’s a bit worrisome, considering the tools the TSA has to make my life difficult.

Friends of Blogger Bob defended him in the comments. One person even texted me privately. They say he’s a good guy. I’m sure he is. I’m sympathetic – being a blogger for the TSA has got to be an impossible job.

I’m a big fan of government blogging. When I worked at NOAA, I set up a blog and advocated for greater blogging within the organization. The scientists at NOAA do fascinating work that deserves greater coverage.

But government bloggers work for the people. They have an obligation to be truthful. They’re not supposed to do propaganda – that’s expressly illegal. When I was at NOAA, the feds I worked with stressed to me that we were public servants. All of us, contractors and feds, united to provide quality, vetted information to the public.

“Our work speaks for itself,” one veteran fed told me, declining to do any PR at all about what they did.

Government bloggers have an obligation to be truthful. When they deny the obvious (no one is being groped) that destroys their credibility. And the Orwellian language is even worse – “enhanced patdowns” for that hand on your groin.

Winston Smith rewrote history in 1984, changing the facts to match the policy of the day. We’ve always been at war with Eastasia…

It’s a dangerous path that the TSA is on. Instead of providing factual information, they give us taxpayers self-serving spin. I hope that the TSA and government bloggers turn away from this future. Because at the end of this long road lies Winston Smith, in a cubicle, sending inconvenient facts down the memory hole.

Chris Guillebeau and The Art of Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau in DC
Chris Guillebeau speaks at the Barnes and Noble in downtown DC.

Last night, I listened to Chris Guillebeau speak at the Barnes and Noble in downtown DC. Chris is one of my favorite bloggers, from the Art of Non-Conformity. His message is that you don’t have to live like everyone else, that you should follow your passions while looking to leave something behind.

He lives what he writes about – he’s on a quest to visit every country in the world and has been in 125 of them so far.

Now he has a book, also called The Art of Non-Conformity, and is off on a 5o state tour to support it. His publisher thinks he’s crazy. As a writer myself, I think he’s crazy – North Dakota?

While his DC reading was standing-room only, his next stop in West Virginia will be less attended. Chris emailed the one person signed up for the reading, telling her to make sure to be there.

In person, he’s much like his blog – more curious about the audience than himself, non-judgemental, cognizant of how lucky we in the West are to have the “problem” of following our dreams. After speaking for a bit (and filling in DC on his 50 state map), he took questions from the audience.

Why did he write a book? Blog posts don’t change lives, was his answer. His goal in writing the Art of Non-Conformity was to get people to positively change and to share his and others stories of how to do it.

One goal of his book has been to bring people together. In the Q&A session, he let the audience answer each other’s questions, covering such diverse topics as entrepreneurship and conflict-free diamonds.

What I like about Chris is that he doesn’t say that there is one magic answer for everyone – it’s not Scientology or the 4-Hour Work Week. Your quest to change yourself, and the world, can involve very small steps – life experiments, where you get away from your desk and visit an art gallery. Or start learning a new language during your commute.

Unlike other so-called “life hackers”, he believes that the quest for efficiency is overrated. A new method of burning through your email is meaningless. It’s better to figure out how you can pursue adventure while helping others.

In his view, the core questions to think about are:

What do you want out of life?

What can you offer the world that no one else can?

In a city filled with well-paid people trapped in bureaucracy, these questions have enormous resonance. The Art of Non-Conformity aims to guide people in finding their own answers.

More Thoughts on Transparency Camp 09

Some more random thoughts about Transparency Camp 09. Here are my big take-aways from the conference.

Excitement: There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among enlightened advocates of government transparency, fueled by the election of Obama and the mainstreaming of Web 2.0 tools like blogging. There’s a real can-do spirit, which is in marked contrast to continuing bad news about the economy. 

The Importance of Free Beer: How do you get people to hang out after the formal sessions of a conference, for a further exchange of ideas? You offer them free beer, of course (courtesy of Peter Corbett). I saw this at SXSW too. The convivial sharing of booze leads people to make connections they never would’ve made.

Twitter is Useful: This micro-blogging service was a great utility during the conference. Attendees tagged their tweets with #tcamp09, which enabled anyone (even people not at the conference) to see what attendees were saying about the sessions.

Macs are Everywhere: I was pleased to see so many Macs at the conference. The facility at GW had outlets at every table and wifi was available as well, which led to a proliferation of laptops, the majority of which were Macs.

Education is Needed: Advocates of open and accessible government need to learn more about the near infinite complexities of government policies and procedures. A host of rules limit what government can do online. Also, there’s not “one government” as Jeff Levy from EPA repeated over and over. Different government agencies have different IT policies and requirements. Pity the poor developer who wants to create a web application for all of government. 

As someone with a background in government and nonprofit web sites, I got a tremendous amount out of this conference. Attending events like this, you come away with renewed excitement about the possibilities of the web and a host of new ideas to explore.

SXSW Interactive 2008

Trying to see the future of digital media.

I recently attended SXSW Interactive, a conference on new media in Austin, TX, from March 7-12. Attracting digital creatives as well as visionary technology entrepreneurs, the event celebrates the best minds and the brightest personalities of emerging technology.

Taking place on three floors of the Austin convention center, the event is overwhelming, with sessions beginning at 10 and running to 5 with bonus events and parties in the evening. There were usually about a dozen different things you could do at any time during the day. For example, at 11:30 on Saturday you could choose from panels on e-commerce, managing communities that work, Expression Engine 2.0 sneak peek, accessible rich media, the contextual web or “how to rawk SXSW and achieve geekgasm”. In addition to the panels, you could also go to book readings, take part in smaller “core conversations” on select topics, visit the trade show or pop into the ScreenBurn Gaming Fest.

The evenings featured parties and events where you could meet fellow techies. I went to the Dorkbot happy hour (geeks showing off their robots), a BikeHugger happy hour (with excellent barbecue), the SXSW Web Awards (sponsored by Adobe) and the “Rock Bands Rock Opera” party, sponsored by a company called Opera. These were excellent opportunities to drink free beer and meet other web folks from around the country.

It amazed me how tech-savvy the participants at the conference were. Nearly everyone had an iPhone, it seemed, and those who didn’t brought laptops to the conference to take advantage of the convention center’s speedy wifi service. The conference provided many handy online tools for participants. For example, I created my own calendar of events and downloaded it to my iPhone. SXSW also featured a mobile version of the conference program and a daily blog that I could read on my iPhone. I took notes on my iPhone so I didn’t need to carry paper around at all.

However, I was a Luddite compared to many people, who were updating what they were doing on Twitter and Facebook, uploading pictures to Flickr, making podcasts, and chatting about the sessions they were in in Meebo.

The overall theme of the conference was excitement over the future of the web. Participants in the conference shared an evangelical confidence in technology. This confidence was not placed in big companies but in small, organic teams, reflecting the DIY attitude of Austin and SXSW.

I’ll write more about the experience in the coming days.