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Archive for the ‘communications’ Category

When the news came that Vancouver would be hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, I was jogging down from the Stadium-Chinatown Skytrain station to the Yaletown office where I was working. I didn’t hear the announcement, but I heard a cheer go up from the offices on all sounds of me.

Personally, I was surprised. At that point, I had no strong feelings about the Olympics one way or the other. But I had thought that the logistical problems of keeping people moving along the road between Vancouver and Whistler would prevent the bid from being successful. Even more importantly, my own contact with the bid committee hadn’t impressed me much.

About six months earlier, I had applied for a job as a writer on the bid. It wasn’t a position that strongly interested me, but I thought it worth a hour or two of my time to satisfy my curiosity. So, I duly strapped myself into my interview suit, stripped any obvious signs of eccentricity from my person, and presented myself at the Gastown office of the bid committee.

I was interviewed by two women who I quickly classified as marketing and communication workers. That isn’t prejudice; I’ve done similar work myself, after all. But, after a while, you get to know the signs. The two women talked in generalities, and displayed an artificial optimism and enthusiasm at all times. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine them taking part in a casual Friday.

Mostly, the conversation went well enough, so far as conversations during a job interview can ever be said to go well. But when I asked about how the logistical problems might be overcome, the women’s reply boiled down to, “Somehow, everything will work out..” I could also see that, in their minds (and probably on their clipboards), I had set a black mark against my name. That was all right; their replies had cost them points with me, too.

However, two other points were what really disturbed me. First, they said that working on the bid committee would be no guarantee of a continued job if the bid was successful. Since I was sure that the leaders of the committee would land jobs in Vanoc, that seems a lack of loyalty to staff members.

Secondly, as part of the interview, they asked me to go home and write seven or eight pages on how I would promote the Olympics. That is a considerable effort to ask someone to do on spec. Combined with the lack of a guarantee of continuation, I concluded that the request showed a cavalier attitude towards employees. I thought for a couple of days, then phoned the interviewers to say that I would not be responding to their request and that the job no longer interested me.

I have no idea whether those particular women found work with Vanoc. I no longer even remember their names. But it seems to me that their attitudes are echoed in everything I’ve heard from Vanoc ever since, from the feeling that problems would work themselves out to the assumption that local residents will put their lives on hold for the duration of the games next month.

It is not an echo that promotes happy thoughts about how the games will be organized and what the after-effects will be. Frankly, it has kept me from supporting the games ever since. I might talk about the financial and social costs, but behind them is an emotional core of distrust based on this one brief encounter.

This attitude puzzles people from outside the Vancouver area. When I was in Calgary last spring, people were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm. Remembering the Calgary games twenty years and the very different social attitudes in which they took place, everyone assumed that I must be looking forward to the occasion. They were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm, even when I explained my reasons. I’m not sure they ever did understand.

However, I don’t think my attitude is unique in anything other than its origins. No doubt it’s the company I keep, but I’ve found that only one in four – or thereabouts – actually supports the upcoming games. The intial cheering at the news of the bid just doesn’t seem to have lasted.

In fact, I’ve only found one person who defended the games with any passion, and her criticisms were bizarre – she argued that nobody who objected or even questioned the games should use the newly improved highway to Whistler (never mind that she also insisted on the official line that such improvements were not part of the costs of the games). But of eight or nine people in the store, nobody felt like taking her side in the discussion.

Maybe more people will show enthusiasm as the games approach, but, I don’t expect that most people will. The average person in the Vancouver region seems resigned to the games, largely indifferent and if anything mildly hostile, although you wouldn’t know that from the media.

You might say that, for most of us, 2010 will be divided into two parts: enduring the preparations and the games themselves, and the rest of the year. And, like most people, I find myself looking forward to the rest of the year far more than the preparations and the games. If I became dubious earlier than others, it is because I was exposed to the spirit of the games earlier than others.

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Yesterday, I went to the Third Tuesday Vancouver meeting to hear Shel Israel talk about his new book, Twitterville. I have a love-hate relationship with technology pundits constructed equally of envy, scorn, and (since I have been occasionally been called one in my own small field of free and open source software) fellow-feeling, so it was the presentation that interested me, not the hope of any revelations about Twitter. And, sure enough, what I learned was not about Twitter, but about story telling.

I probably wouldn’t have learned the lesson if Israel hadn’t described himself as a non-fiction story teller near the start of his presentation. This offhand remark, so peripheral to the actual topic of the presentation, ended up framing my reactions to Israel remarks.

Israel is an enthusiastic story teller, and he collects stories about the subjects he was researching as though he was a folklorist, or a geeky Studs Terkel. He also has a knack for apt phrases, such as “lethal generosity” (generosity that forces rivals to respond in kind or lose) and “braided journalism” (reporting through a variety of sources) that help to make his stories memorable.

However, as I listened, two things started to irk me about his presentation.

First, his stories seemed to entirely about people winning – that is, accomplishing something through their use of Twitter. This tendency bothered me for two conflicting reasons. On one level, it bothered me because part of the structure of non-fiction narrative is usually an attempt to look at both sides of an issue. To hear Israel, Twitter is an unalloyed good, with no negative effects whatsoever. In fact, Israel appears to have not even looked into situations where Twitter proved limiting or handicapped someone. As a result, his narrative seems not so much non-fiction as mere ad copy – and, as such, contrary to the genuineness that social media participants need if they are going to be accepted by their communities.

On another level, the emphasis on winning seemed to lack morality. Israel did not talk about whether people did good with Twitter, and when someone asked a question that tended in such a direction, he evaded answering. This emphasis got up my nostrils (to use a wonderful phrase I first heard from folksinger Eric Bogle) because it seems to be that all kinds of narratives are essentially about morality. Except in poorly constructed narratives, the morality is not an subtle confrontation of good versus evil. At times, it may be ambiguous. But a sense of which side is right – or at least deserves our sympathies the most – seems embedded in the whole concept of narrative. When such a perspective is missing, the way it was in Israel’s talk, it is like stepping on a stair that isn’t there, jolting me and making me uneasy.

Second, Israel consistently resisted drawing any conclusions from his narratives. I suspect that he would argue that making generalities was not his job, that his role was to report as accurately as possible. And I agree that outright editorializing would have been out of place in his talk. However, I believe that part of reporting is to make implications and relationships clear. Without such efforts to see the pattern, Israel’s presentation struck me as directionless. The effect would have been much the same in a piece of fiction that excluded plot.

I suspect that what I am saying has less to do with general tendencies in storyteller than with what I look for as a member of the audience, or with how I try to tell my own non-fiction stories. Still, in an unexpected way, I am grateful to Israel for having provided the starting point for me to figure out these things – even though what I took away from the evening was almost certainly not what he would have wanted me to take away.

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In the last few days, I’ve had several experiences that make me think about my role as a journalist in the free and open source software community:

The first was a reaction I had from someone I requested some answers from. Although I thought I was being polite, what I got back was an attack: “I am not prepared to answer any of these questions at this time. The intent of your article is to feed the flames and I will have no part in that. The fact that people like you like to stir up controversy is to be expected, since that is the job of any writer trying to get readers.”

This reply not only seemed presumptuously prescient, since I hadn’t written the article, or even decided what angle it would take, but also unjustifiably venomous, given that I didn’t know the person. Moreover, although I am in some ways a contrarian, in that I believe that questioning the accepted wisdom is always a useful exercise, when I write, I am far more interested in learning enough to come to a supported conclusion or to cover an interesting subject than I am in stirring up controversy for its own sake. The fact that an editor believes that a topic will get a lot of page hits is meaningful to me mainly because the belief sets me loose to write a story that interests me.

Still, I don’t blame my correspondent. He probably had his reasons for his outburst, even though they didn’t have much to do with me. But the fact that someone could react that way says some unpleasant things about some current practioners of free software journalism — things that alarm me.

Another was the discovery of the Linux Hater’s Blog (no, I won’t link to it and give it easy page hits; if you want to find it, do the work yourself). I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more mean-spirited and needlessly vicious blog, and I hope I never do. However, recently as I’ve been preparing stories, I’ve come across some commenters on individual mailing lists who were equally abusive. They are all examples, not only of what I never want my work to be, but the sort of writing that makes me scrutinize my own work to ensure that it doesn’t resemble them in anyway whatsoever.

Journalism that stirs up hate or encourages paranoia — or even journalism whose focus is sensationalism — is journalism played with the net down, and I’m not interested in it. Oh, I might make the occasional crack, being only human, or use the time-honoured tactic of saying something outrageous then qualifying it into a more reasonable statement. But, mostly, I prefer to work for my page hits.

Such sites also suggest that the line between blogging and journalism is sometimes being blurred in ways that aren’t very complimentary to bloggers. While some bloggers can deliver professional commentary, and do it faster than traditional media, others seem to be bringing a new level of nihilism to journalism.

A third is the unexpected death of Joe Barr, my colleague at Linux.com. Joe, better known as warthawg or MtJB (“Mister the Joe Bar,” a story he liked to tell against himself) encouraged me with his kindness when I was first becoming a full-time journalist. Later, when I started writing commentaries, his editorials were an indicator for me of what could be done in that genre. As I adjust to the idea that Joe isn’t around any more, I’m also thinking about how I’ve developed over the last few years.

The final link was a long interview – almost twice my normal time – with Aaron Seigo, one of the best-known figures in the KDE desktop project. One of the many twists and turns in our conversation was the role of journalism in free and open source software (FOSS). As Seigo sees things, FOSS journalists are advocate journalists, acting as intermediaries between FOSS projects and the larger community of users. He wasn’t suggesting that FOSS journalists are fan-boys, loyally supporting the Cause and suppressing doubts; nothing in his comments suggested that. But he was pointing out that FOSS journalists are an essential part of the community. In fact, much of what he said echoed my own half-formed sentiments.

Seigo also discussed how a small number of people making a lot of noise can easily deceive journalists who are trying to be fair and balanced by making the journalists think that the noisily-expressed beliefs are held by more people than they actually are. As he points out, the American Right has been very successful in this tactic, especially through talk-radio. He worried that part of the recent user revolt against KDE 4 might be due to something similar.

Listening to him, I tried to decide if I had fallen for this ploy in the past. I decided that I might have been, although usually I try not just to be thorough, but also analytical enough to sift down to the truth.

I was going to try to summarize what I had learned from these four separate experiences, but my efforts to do so only sounded sententious – to say nothing of self-important and over-simplified. But I’m thought of all four as I’ve exercised recently, and I’ll be thinking of them for some time to come, too.

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“You’re an English major? You must be planning a career in fast food.” Comments like this haunted me from the moment I declared my major in university. But hearing the sentiment recently, I realized that it was far from accurate. The truth is, people who have a way with words can make a comfortable living in all sorts of ways, so long as they don’t limit their possibilities to the obvious.

The worst mistake that anybody with an English degree – or, in fact, any Arts degree – can make is to hang about on the fringes of academia, hoping for a tenure track position. Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been hearing about all the tenured positions that are going to become available as their current incumbents retire, but, between budget cuts and the increasing tendency to hire non-tenured staff or sessionals, the positions are unlikely to materialize. People who were hoping for those positions when I left academia over a decade ago are still waiting for those tenured positions. Meanwhile, they endure semester by semester contracts, last minute hires, and doing the same work as tenured faculty for half the money. That’s fine for a few years, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.

The same is true of editing piece work. Just like academia, the publishing industry depends on having a constant pool of cheap work-for-hire editors. You may be one of the lucky exceptions, but the odds are against you, no matter how talented. Those who run the industry are careful not to employ you so much that they become obliged to offer you benefits.

Instead of lingering in limbo, waiting for the academic or literary job you used to dreamed of, English majors should explore the possibilities in business. Not only is the power of self-expression in demand there, but the competition is far less fierce than in academia – partly because of the greater need, and partly because many English majors seem to consider that taking a job in business is beneath them. Often, too, they make the mistake of thinking that their writing skills are all they need, and are slow to learn the subject matter expertise they need to do the work properly.

But, if you can get beyond the idea that you are dirtying your hands and are willing to learn what you don’t know, then the jobs are there. As a technical writer, you need to write clearly and organize information for conciseness and accuracy; in many ways, the job is writing stripped to the basics. As a communications and marketing manager, writing news releases or blogs, you take on the responsibility of being the voice of the company. As a product manager, you decide how to present a product or line, and you’ll find your skills with textural analysis serve you well when you come to deal with end user license agreements and other legal documents. As an instructor, you are reprising your role as a teaching assistant while you were in grad school, the only difference being is that you are teaching software or policies and procedures, rather literature or criticism.

And these are only the most obvious career paths. Writing and teaching skills aren’t a bad foundation for going on to law school, for example. Best of all, the first thing you’ll notice when taking these positions if you’ve been vying for scraps of work around academia, your yearly income will increase by over fifty percent or more.

Admittedly, some of these positions aren’t on the express way to the top. Technical writers, for instance, may rise to supervise other technical writers at a large company, but they aren’t likely to become CEOs. But they can serve as entry positions, and, if you’re interested in climbing the corporation, you can always expand your skill set later on. Meanwhile, you can reasonably expect a salary that puts you solidly in the upper middle class, to say nothing of responsible and often rewarding work.

Really, the only thing holding you back with an English degree is your own lack of imagination or initiative. Just because those who prefer an education they should be getting at a technical college choose to belittle your liberal education is no reason for you to believe them.

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