Archive for the ‘social networking’ Category

Passing On The Meme

December 11th, 2013 1 Comment

I got caught in an internet hoax, and I’m still stewing about how I got sucked in.

This is the clip I gleefully re-posted to Facebook: a supposed Google employee is yelling at San Franciscans who were blocking the departure of a company bus to Mountain View. They were protesting the rapid rent increases here brought on by the influx of high-paid tech employees.

In the clip the man screamed, “Why don’t you guys just move out of the way? I can pay my rent. Can you pay your rent? Then why don’t you go to a city where you can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. If you can’t afford it, it’s time for you to leave.”

As it turned out, this guy was not a Google employee but union organizer Max Bell Alper who was doing a bit of political street theater by pretending to be a Google employee.

I didn’t wait to find that out, even though his real identity was published in The Bay Guardian about an hour after I saw this. Although when I saw the clip on Facebook I had a little flutter of doubt about the truth of interaction, I ignored it. I quickly posted it to my Facebook page with the snarky precede, “Listen you pesky natives, if you can’t afford to live in the city of your birth, get a better job. The measure of your worth is your ability to pay $4000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Otherwise, you’re just in this guy’s way.”

People like him are the jerks who are shoving me out of my hometown, I thought, driving the rents beyond affordability. The clip verified for me that they really are as horrible as I believe them to be. They are cruel, dismissive, and entitled, the worst of humanity, people who have no understanding of the havoc they are causing among the residents. They are the very visible hand of the marketplace that lately has been firmly at the small of my back shoving me out of the city of my birth.

I’m a fourth generation San Franciscan. My grandfather played for the San Francisco Seals. In Noe Valley, the charming working class neighborhood of my childhood, four generations of my family lived within walking distance of each other. I went to the same elementary school and middle school as my mom and I had some of her same teachers.

If someone like me, someone with deep roots and traditions that stretch back generations, can no longer claim this city as her own, then something profoundly wrong is happening. The effect of this huge increase in millionaires in San Francisco has made me feel that that man was telling me I have no right to live here. The clip gave me a chance to hate him and what is happening around me, the world where I am no longer one of the “right people.”

Truth is that I don’t know anyone who works at Google. I have no idea how they think. It is unfair of me to assume that they are as mean spirited and dismissive as Max Alper portrayed them to be. Yet there was something that felt so right and righteous about revealing their crass materialism in public (well, among my sympathetic Facebook friends).

There’s been a lot of these fake internet memes lately, so much so that The New York Times published a story about it on the front page of the business section yesterday. There was the waitress humiliated by customers who tipped her poorly because she they thought she was gay. (Yes, bigots are cheap and mean, my friends and here is the proof.) The Thanksgiving story about the airline passenger stuck next to fellow passengers behaving badly. (Yes, holiday travel exposes you to the worst people and the worst in people.) Even my respected colleague Alicia Shepard, formerly the ombudsperson for NPR, was fooled by a Kayne West meme asserting that he had compared himself to Nelson Mandela.

I think she gets a pass on that one. Kanye West says really stupid, egomanical things all the time.

When I was thinking about how I was duped I saw it as a five-stage process.

1) Someone I trust posts this thing. In this case it was Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, someone whose work I respect very much.
2) The meme rouses in me something that I have an emotional attachment to believing to be true.
3) That meme appears to prove something I fear and justifies the feeling that the world really is as bad as I think it is, that I’m not just making this stuff up.
4) I am conscious that posting it will arouse strong feelings in my friends.
5) I need to do this quickly because it’s likely to go viral and I want to be one of the first up with this shocking piece of the truth.

The impulses behind this are emotional, status and a sense of urgency, all factors that make one less likely to verify that something is true.

But the bigger insight isn’t my jackrabbit like lack of impulse control. It’s the fact that this thing, whatever it is, says something to me that I am fully capable of articulating on my own. I’m a writer. I have a website. If something enrages me, horrifies me or even makes me feel small and discarded, I have the skill and the forum for discussing it rather than doing the cheap and easy act of repeating, re-posting. This re-posting almost as false as the meme itself. It mimics an action, or mimics an attempt to say something but repeating is reflexive, immediate and shows no judgment.

#OCCUPY OAKLAND — A Night of Mayhem And Social Media

October 26th, 2011 No Comments

Last night  the streets of Oakland became our own Tahrir Square when a crowd of around 500 people angry at the way they police had dismantled the Occupy Oakland camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall early that morning, marched through the streets in a show of solidarity and were fired upon by police with tear gas, flash bombs and bean bags.

Before the mayhem irrupted, I watched the crowd massing at 14th and Broadway via a live feed from the local ABC station’s helicopter. The feed  was mute, strangely, yet by linking to the #OccupyOakland feed on Twitter, I was able to read tweets from people on the ground. As with the tweets when Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square, the tweets were a mixture of truth and emotion.  People tweeted that the crowd was 2,000 people, and some estimated the number to be 5,000. Looking at the protestors on the street from above, I could see the the march was only about a block long and probably comprised a total of about 400 people.  They were emotional, the tweets definitely expressed, but they were peaceful.

That was until they decided to march back to the plaza at city hall. When they arrived there, more than 100 police stood in a line behind metal barricades wearing full riot gear.

The stand off between the cops and the protestors escalated as the cops warned they would lob tear gas and flash bombs at them if they did not disperse. They issued time-sensitive warnings, saying that the protestors had five minutes, then three, then one to clear out.  The Twitter feed  reported that the cops were lowering their masks, getting ready for battle.  The view from above via the ABC helicopter showed the distance between the protestors massing at the barricade and the cops holding their line.  Then suddenly the ABC feed went dead.

A few minutes later the television station posted a notice saying that at this crucial moment when the battle was joined the helicopter went to get fuel.  This was a stunning experience for me, the journalist.  At first I didn’t want to believe that this was true.  No news organization would, unless it was strictly necessary, pull away from a story at the crucial moment. This would mean that ABC was taking its orders from the cops, not guiding its decisions by its own news judgment.

Fortunately there was Twitter and the smart people on the ground with their cell phone cameras who were able to record what was going on.

Photos accompanied many of the tweets, telling a story that the media refused to convey.

Protestors carry wounded Iraq veteran Scott Olsen away from the Oakland battlefront. Olsen suffered serious head wounds and was hospitalized.

Calling these projectiles bean bags makes them seem playful and fun, but launched from a cannon, they're not in any way mild.


The crowd retreated to a park near Lake Merritt, a few blocks to the east of the plaza, to re-group and decide what to do next.  As they gathered strength and purpose, they decided to go back to the plaza and confront the cops again.  At that point, the helicopter news feed miraculously came back on the air.







Again the crowd marched back to the plaza. It seemed  from my distant vantage point that it had become larger.  Perhaps people nearby hearing the helicopters in the sky and getting the tweets on their cell phones, rushed to the lake to join in.  Then again, just before the confrontation was joined, the ABC feed from the helicopter went dark.

A better description than I can convey of what was happening on the street is available from The New York Times and Mother Jones whose reporters were on the ground last night and witnessed the carnage first hand.

My experience was at a remove, but had a different kind of immediacy.  I was as mentally engaged as if I had been reporting on this event, but without the personal risk.  It was if I was in my  own little newsroom here at my computer: watching the newsfeed, refreshing the Twitter feed every few seconds, which posted updates in blocks of 20 tweets.  I was updating what I collected from these various sources in Facebook status updates while simultaneously narrating it to my daughter, who was at work, and exchanging text messages with my son in New York.  The combination of all of these elements gave me a sense that I was involved in this struggle, even if the struggle was far from me.


I’m struck by two things sitting here the next day.  The first of which is the overwhelming power of social media. I just started participating in Twitter last week and was disdainful of it as a lot of inane chatter.  Most of the time it is, in an even more annoying way than Facebook, with people telling you what they had for lunch or that they’re bored.  Yet in the middle of this confrontation, when something of national importance was happening, it was vital.  It fulfilled a role that the media refused to take on. I have been taught to think that in a situation such as the one that transpired last night, the media was at its best. This was the moment when others want to look away, and the trained witnesses of the media point their cameras and their eyes toward the thing most of us are too scared to see.  That was what always made me proud to be a journalist: the fact that we turned an unblinking eye to the world and showed it, consequences be damned.

Yet last night, that whole illusion was shattered by the ABC, CBS and KTVU collusion with the police.  All of these networks went dark at precisely the moment when the public needed them most to record what was happening, both the alleged aggression of the protestors and the alleged too-strong response of the cops.  There is no way of any of us judging for ourselves who behaved badly in this conflict because the cameras turned away.  I am in a bit of mourning over this, but so grateful for the twitter feed.  The witnesses there have their biases — we weren’t getting competing tweets from the cops — but the photographs and videos they posted stand as a record for all of us to examine.

Secondly I respect the protestors for holding back, not becoming violent in the face of this assault.  The Oakland Police Department press release says that the cops were provoked by protestors hurling rocks and liquid: paint, vinegar, and one cop detected a smell of urine in those fluids.  In the tweets last night I also read that one protestor threw money at the police and taunted them by asking, “Now will you protect us?”  As terrible as it was, with more than 100 arrests and dozens sent to the emergency room, it could have been much worse if the protestors became violent and the police answered in kind.

My friend Edwin Dobb, another journalist, posted on Facebook a sentiment I also share about the unreported tragedy of last night.  Now we are writing and thinking about the clash between the cops and the demonstrators. The discussion is about police violence and whether or not the protestors have the right to occupy the public square. The cops claim that they had to clear the square because it had become a health hazard and that there were fights there; that it had become less about the ideals of the Occupy movement and more of a homeless encampment. This is what Edwin Dobb was noting last night albeit in a different way. We’re not talking about the way Wall Street has extracted so much money from the economy, the frauds and abuses of the investment class and the regulations necessary to bring it back in line, or the corrupting influence of money in DC.  We’re talking about cops vs. protestors.  We need to get back to that discussion and not lose focus, yet I fear that tonight there will be another confrontation in Oakland, bringing the conversation totally off this incredibly important topic.


March 22nd, 2011 No Comments


Magazines are broke, and so am I.

That’s not completely true. I’ve got a few dollars in the bank, but it appears most magazines do not.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to sell a story that is very important to me about the GutterPunks in New Orleans, and a  tragic fire that killed eight of them in a squat at the end of last year. The story is much bigger than that, as you will see if you read my previous post: Why Can’t I Sell This Story? These days anyone who is a magazine journalist finds it harder and harder to sell stories, and gets extremely low fees for the work. As a result, fewer good narrative pieces are being published, and many fear this form will die off.

I’m trying something new as of today, a new way of paying journalists to do their jobs, that might help ensure long form, investigative journalism survives. I am trying to fund my story through SpotUs, and I’d like you to make a tax deductible donation to this effort.

What if people financially supported the stories they wanted to read in advance, rather than waiting to see if the editors caught on to subjects that matter to them? That’s the idea behind the website Spot.Us, a venture funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a foundation dedicated to advancing journalism in the digital age. Spot.Us is a space where journalists describe the story they are working on and ask the community to help them fund it.

If you go to the Spot.Us website, you’ll see a collection of different kinds of stories: the homeless, nuclear power, school safety, wine making,  the labor protests in Wisconsin and my GutterPunks story in the center of the front page. People who want to fund a story click on the description of it  to register and pledge their contributions, which are tax deductible. When the project is fully funded, the supporters’ credit or debit cards are charged and the journalist gets the money.

It’s a way of doing journalism that turns the old model of reporting up-side-down.  As I raise money for the GutterPunks story, I’m also experimenting with something I call reporting in public.

In the pellet-dropping publishing paradigm, the reporter gets the assignment and works busily behind the curtain under direction of the editors, who get the privilege of unveiling the completed product for the profit of the magazine and its greater glory. In reporting in public, the audience of supporters I develop through Spot.Us and the people who follow my website will be witnesses to the whole process and help shape the story.

$7,000 is the goal

Instead of hiding behind the veil, I will post little pieces on my website as I work. The idea is to pay back my investors by giving them inside information on what I am uncovering along the way. If I meet someone interesting, I might post a small profile. When I go to New Orleans to investigate the fire, I expect I’ll post something about my talk with the cops and the coroner. I did a little bit of this  last week when I posted a comparison between economic conditions that caused kids to hop trains in the Depression and the ones who hop trains now (very similar). At the end of my reporting, my piece will by published by Boston Review, which has contributed the first $500 to my campaign.

This is an experiment in the kinds of connections and community that is possible on the web, the kind of association that ties us together in a spirit of curiosity, inquiry and innovation.I’m making a plea to you to support my story and this innovative way of doing journalism. My goal is to raise $7000 to cover my travel and time, which the founder and director of the site David Cohn says is difficult to do.  Any amount of support is greatly appreciated, from pocket change to the big bucks. Please go to Spot.Us right now and toss in a some wholly tax deductible cash that will make you  part of the community that pioneers a new kind of journalism in the digital age.