Archive - February, 2011

Taking the Pulse of News Today

Whoever said “the best things in life are free” probably never heard about Pulse. But the sentiment is correct for one of the best real-time iPad news reader apps around.

Pulse is an RSS feed on steroids.  It allows you to arrange your feed content into easy–to-browse, scrolling headlines.  Its slick magazine quality graphics feel like your own personal stack of magazines and websites. You can also personalize content by categories such as News, Business, Sports, Design, Food, and Tech.

Browsing through the app, I’ve discovered new sites and reintroduced myself to favorites like The Atlantic, BBC and Fast Company.  Plus, you can add any RSS feed to Pulse.

I also like that Pulse prominently displays the image associated with each story (as opposed to an abstract).  Its very pleasing visually. Viewing a variety of stories from all your favorite publications at one time is a real time-saver and engagement winner.

The way we use our iPads has contributed to the popularity of Pulse.  I turn to Pulse first thing in the morning, much as I used to do with a newspaper. For others, the iPad is the go-to leisure time reader.  It is the mobile device that we favor for couch surfing and bedtime reading.  Research has shown that consumption of articles in an iPad raises dramatically in the evening hours from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.  Pulse fits perfectly into our evenings and weekends.

Users can add Facebook and Twitter accounts as content sources, connect their Google Reader accounts or add individual RSS feeds or websites. The application supports up to 25 different news sources.

In November, Pulse added three different Facebook streams – news links, status updates and my wall –  so you can incorporate your own Facebook content in a unique fashion.

And this month, Pulse added six popular social media sites as sources: Reddit, Digg, Vimeo, YouTube, Picplz and Flickr.

Pulse is less than a year old but it’s growing by leaps and bounds.  An infusion of capital allowed parent company Alphonso Labs to move from a paid to a free site. The Pulse reader was developed by two talented young men, Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta, who created the app in ten weeks for a course at Stanford University.  After launch, it became a best-selling application in the iTunes App store.

The way we read is changing and while Pulse is the leader now, it will be interesting to see what tools will be our go-to in the next year.

What is the New Media Literacy?

Al Jazeera Home PageAfter I wrote a Twitter recommendation for the “Empire” program on Al Jazeera, a friend wrote to ask my perspective about being interviewed on Al Jazeera.

An organization she works for has turned down interview requests out of concern for the cable news provider’s reputation in the U.S.

In the new media ecosystem, how do we determine whom we trust? How do we confirm the reliability of the information we’re seeing and hearing?

Dan Gillmor addresses this concisely and well in Mediactive.

We need to be media literate, he says. We develop literacy by participating in the conversation, learning how media content is created and creating content ourselves.

Lest that sounds complicated, it’s not. It’s as easy as using Twitter, replying to blog posts, commenting on news stories. It’s posting your own content; a photo of a community event or a story about a local activity, for example.

When we do this, we learn the constraints and strengths of the medium. We learn to sort through the information and put it into a narrative. We learn what interests people, all of which informs our literacy. It’s relatively painless and cost-free.

It’s about participating and sharing in the new media ecosystem. That will be a measure of responsible citizenship, I think.

My suggestion to my friend was to encourage her colleagues to watch Al Jazeera, compare its coverage to other information sources (some U.S. cable news networks carried the Al Jazeera live feed from Egypt, which is a strong endorsement), and decide for themselves. The old way is to passively receive information from others. The new way is to participate, develop skills, think critically and judge for ourselves.

What counsel would you offer?

Asymmetrical Networking and Human Dignity

Protesters held banners saying that the Bahraini government treats its own people terribly. Photo: Al Jazeera English

Neither Twitter nor Facebook caused the uprisings that are now spreading across the Middle East, but much of the conversation about their role misses the point, as Mathew Ingram writes. It focuses on the technical and tactical, yet important as these are, they’re not the whole picture.

The ability to tell your own story is empowering, even more so if you’ve never had access to the means to tell it, or if you’ve been silenced by repression.

Among the many indignities of people who live in poverty is powerlessness. Their voices are scarcely, if ever, heard by those in power. Marginalization isn’t only economic, it’s also the diminishment of the human spirit. It’s the sense that if you’re poor, you don’t matter. When people who’ve been treated like this find their voice, they find a means to experience affirmation and liberation. It’s a chance to discover dignity and self-worth.

In many places, legacy media are in state control or subject to manipulation by the state. Under these conditions, it’s possible to stifle alternative voices and frame the social narrative to the state’s own ends. This repressive use of media has gone hand in hand with physical repression of dissent, often through the use of intimidation, violence, imprisonment and state-sanctioned killing.

With cellphones and smartphones, text messaging, still and video photography, emboldened people, tired of neglect and repression, are finding their voices and telling their stories. And they’re finding a global audience anxious to know more.

They’re documenting events firsthand and providing images directly from the scene in contrast to the manufactured plotlines of state media. They’re experiencing strength in numbers through the free flow of information made possible by this new asymmetrical network.

While revolutions have occurred throughout history without social media, these are the first revolutions that have occurred with the tools of internet-based digital media and they shift the power balance and turn the people into producers. A new media ecosystem is being born.

We can celebrate this new age, but we must also learn from it because repressive rulers and fearful states are studying how to shut down, restrict or control these media as quickly as they can. Corporations are seeking to capture control of the systems for profit, turning them toward the economic models of the past that have shut out divergent voices, limited competiton and concentrated control in their hands.

In this interconnected world, the rights of people in the Middle East are as close as the cellphone in your pocket, or your contract with your internet provider or cell carrier. We share this need for open access and free flow of information in common with them.

In the new global media ecosystem, the health and freedom of each part of the system is directly related to every other part. This is more clear in these 21st century revolutions than ever before.

These revolutions also reveal what’s at stake in the net neutrality debate. The desire for control isn’t limited to totalitarian states. Dan Gillmor in Mediactive writes of the threat of “broadband oligopoly” that would make the internet into the financial model of cable television, limiting the flow of information in ways that will restrict timely, universal access. Corporate oligopoly puts at risk the participatory free flow of information upon which these people’s revolutions rely.

The Knight Commission on The Information Needs of Communities offers a wealth of resources for getting a handle on this challenge. The Open Society Justice Initiative offers an archive on global freedom of information resources.

Hillary Clinton’s support of an open internet is encouraging, but meeting the threat will take more than speeches, and the recent FCC ruling didn’t demonstrate unequivocal support for an open internet in the United States free from corporate manipulation, and even that is under fire.

It will require advocates who stand as firm as the people of the Middle East are standing at risk of their lives for more freedom, the right to assemble, the right to speak, the free flow of information and to be free from repression.

Those of us who don’t face the extreme conditions they are fighting against need to pay attention anyway. We don’t know where these various uprisings will end, nor if they will result in the kind of democratic states we hope for.

But they challange us to protect the media ecosystem that is being born, and if we do, we will go a long way toward creating a more open world in which human dignity and freedom have an opportunity to flourish.

(I think “asymmetrical” is a more apt description of the networks assembling today online. I don’t know why I didn’t use this descriptor earlier. But I changed the title and copy to incorporate it in this revision.)

Networked Revolutions: The New Form of Social Change

Is the Egyptian uprising a leaderless revolution? No opposition party controlled the call to action. No charismatic leader led the charge. No group stepped up to negotiate on behalf of the people.

In the most cogent analysis I’ve read, Charlie Beckett writes that in both Tunisia and Egypt the popular movements accelerated incrementally and “symbolic individual acts combined into collective movements.”

They are networked revolutions, a whole new form of social change building on the past but using new media to mobilize, expand and sustain change.

The case for citizen participation in media is strong in these movements.

Beckett says multiple tensions for social change were present including poverty, corruption, an educated, unemployed or underemployed young adult population, and growing economic uncertainty in the business community, among others. These daily indignities fed the movement and allowed it to catch fire.

Social media became a critical set of tools, complemented by live television and other media, including word of mouth, to voice this frustration. On Twitter, I followed shrewd, street savvy, brash organizers distributed across the city and nation who used social media to mobilize, provoke, and sustain pressure.

They also used these media to encourage perseverance and hold it together. They gave it new momentum and strength. Given this distributed leadership, Bennett says Tahrir Square gave the global audience a necessary focal point. Nadia El-Awady, a science journalist turned revolutionary, posted a moving first-person report from Tahrir Square after Mubarak vacated the Presidency.

This remarkable confluence of human aspirations and technology in Tunisia and Egypt have created new  paradigms for social change but there’s much more to learn.

Social media empower people. However, we can’t take this for granted. These media are held by corporations licensed by governments, and they control our access to information. We can be sure that those who control these levers are considering these issues today, particularly after Egyptian authorities attempted unsuccessfully to shut down the internet and social media.

Because of this, as fundamentally important as these two revolutions are to the Tunisian and Egyptian people, they are also important beyond the borders of the two nations. We’ve entered a new global media ecosystem in which the aspirations of people and their desire for a better life are intimately intertwined with the new media that give them voice and mobilize them to action. This ecosystem connects us beyond borders and through shared aspirations and universal rights.

Protecting citizen access and use of these media have never been more important. Mediactive by Dan Gillmor offers a solid case for both consumers of journalism and citizen creators of journalism.

Grassroots advocacy for net neutrality is curated at the activist site Free Press. Another section provides perspectives on a range of open internet issues.

(Note: I revised this post by adding the photo upper left, the Twitter screen grab and a sentence with a link to Nadia El-Awady’s Yahoo Story.)

Social Media Giving A Voice To The Invisible

The legions of active mobile phones worldwide is 5 billion strong.  Think of it – the world is now linked by telecommunications and social media access giving a new voice to  people who were previously mute, providing a medium for social change.

What is currently happening in Egypt is certainly the most recent example.  Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said this week that Twitter “gives folks who might not otherwise have a voice a voice.”  That’s true.  Through Twitter, we can communicate, experience and empathize with those we will never meet.  Those who feel disenfranchised have a way to reach out to those who empathize with them.

In fact, social media has given a voice to a new group of dissidents in Egypt that have not been part of the conversation.  That group are the women who have experienced the poverty and hardship of men, but also have dealt with sexual harassment and discrimination.

The Egyptian Chronicles, one of Egypt’s most popular blogs, is run by Zeinobia, an anonymous female blogger. “I am just [an] Egyptian girl who lives in the present with the glories of the past and hopes in a better future for herself and for her country,” says her About Me on the blog.

Her sentiments are shared by other Egyptian women who are part of the newfound voice of the people, and their protests have flooded Facebook, Twitter and blogs.  “Women’s participation here is unprecedented. I can safely say that the crowd is divided into half female, half male,” said Ms. Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR).

This new voice has sprung up with blogs, online writers, Twitter and Facebook contributors. The women have shown a willingness to be heard.  And their new empowerment cannot be ignored.

What Egypt Says About Us

One in four live Egyptians in poverty. Unemployment is high, especially among the young. This young man sells fruit on a Cairo street.

The crisis in Egypt is about more than Egypt. Clearly, to Egyptian citizens, it’s a matter of life and death. All else pales in comparison.

But early news coverage in the United States revealed both a lack of substance and a penchant for simplistic commentary, pointing to our own need for global awareness and critical thinking.

Egypt’s social unrest cannot be reduced to the price of gasoline at the pumps in the U.S. (as an MSNBC cable commentator discussed early on), nor to a simple tale of good guys versus bad guys, as is often the reductionist journalistic ploy.

The oppression, abuse and corruption that have overtaken the Egyptian people make for a complex stew of social and political indignities that affect everyone in a multilayered society. President Mubarak is not only the leader who allowed corruption to grow like a cancer, he is the symbol for a host of indignities that permeate the social system and harm different people in different ways.

The Egyptian uprising is about him, but it’s about more than him. It’s about religious discrimination, but it’s not limited to that. It’s about poverty, but more than poverty. It’s about corruption, but… You get the point.

Most social conflicts shouldn’t be reduced to the stark simplicities that we often read, see and hear in too-simple reporting. It doesn’t serve us well.

When Egyptian Christians, some of whom have experienced religious persecution, linked arms to protect Muslims as they prayed in Tahrir Square, their action underscored the complexity of Egypt’s religious landscape and social context. This landscape shouldn’t be reduced to black and white simplification.

This is why I believe people of faith are called to work at being globally aware. In an interconnected world, viewing religion (or politics, for that matter) simplistically is tantamount to ignoring the transformative spirit of God in the ongoing creation.

It also risks not hearing or seeing people pleading for a more humane and just world. And that is simply unfaithful.

The world is a mysterious, beautiful place filled with unimaginable potential. It’s a place to be studied, reflected upon and celebrated, not a place to be feared and to withdraw from.

Faith calls us to participate in the world. Faith is a journey of discovery, of finding the divine spark that ignites new life in the human breast and helps us grasp the spirit of God that animates the creation.

This should be one of the lessons we learn from Egypt today.

The Real Story from Cairo – One Man’s View

A Yearning That Beats In Every Heart

Downtown Cairo in Peaceful Times

A young Egyptian man pulled me aside at a meeting of the World Association of Christian Communicators in Cairo a couple of years ago to tell me his story. He was at his wit’s end with police corruption and harassment.

After repeated shakedowns while coming into his suburban neighborhood from work downtown, he refused to pay the petty bribes of the traffic cops. They took away his drivers license. To retrieve it, he had to make an appointment with a civil office weeks later.
A family member had to drive him, complicating the family’s schedule and making tenuous his ability to get to work.  Meeting after meeting to recover his license was cancelled and re-scheduled. Now his business was affected, his family life disrupted and his income at risk.
While it’s true that poverty breeds social instability, so does corrupt government and discrimination. The millions who are demanding change in Egypt today are unified by their multiple and unique indignities, affronts and experiences of oppression.

Burdens of corruption weigh Egypt down

When corruption takes hold it eats at the social order as worms through wood. From Tiananmen to Tahrir to Times Square, the story’s the same. We want to be respected. We want a voice. We want justice.

The daily indignities, large and small, accumulate, and with the right catalyst, explode.
The real story from Egypt isn’t what’s happening in the streets but what’s happening in the human heart.  I’d like to think that the young Christian businessman was among those who linked arms to protect Muslim protestors kneeling in prayer in Tahrir Square, for the yearning for dignity and freedom is universal. It beats in every heart.

Homeless Not Hopeless: Reflecting on Room In the Inn

During this never-ending winter,  I participated as a guest in Room In The Inn at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee. I helped serve a meal to thirteen homeless men who spent the night, had a shower, used the laundry facilities and picked out new clothing.

As I ate with the men at my table,  I was impressed with the work skills they described and the work ethic that lay under their words. They were articulate but humbled by their current reality.

A merchant marine spoke to me at length of his frustration at being unable to find work after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Another spoke of his construction work and the layoffs that occurred when construction declined. There was a chef at our table. And a plumber.

The same day the New York Times ran a feature on the effects of long-term unemployment on job seekers. Frustration, damage to self-esteem, economic hardship and the risk of deteriorating skills were among the results.

How much more, I wondered, does it affect the young man who told me he felt he was at the bottom of the barrel? Having once been meaningfully employed, he went on a job search, left his backpack with his clothing in what he thought was a safe place only to return to find all his earthly possessions had been stolen.

Why, he asked, would someone steal the little stuff I have when they know I’m at the bottom?

There is no answer, of course. But it was a reminder to me that we must be with people, especially when they feel alone and at the bottom. That no matter our situation, we are entitled to simple, basic and profound human dignity.

And, through outreach such as Room In The Inn, we are. We, as the connectional church. are also with those seeking to re-enter the workplace through support groups and training sessions. And we must be with them with pastoral care and counseling for the emotional trauma many experience.

And we must be advocates for public policies that help to ease the burdens of unemployment, even as we support private initiatives to increase work opportunities.

The young man who had hit bottom volunteered to bless the food. He prayed a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving. As he was grateful to be inside the warmth provided by Christ United Methodist Church, I was grateful for the warmth of his spirit which spoke to my own soul.

In these times of economic hardship, we must be together. For it is by being together that we learn from each other, grow in our understanding and discover our common humanity.

What Do The Homeless Need? Charles Strobel Knows.

Recently I met a man I’ve long admired—Charles Strobel, a longtime advocate for the homeless and founder of Nashville’s Room In The Inn ministry. Room In The Inn partners with more than 170 local congregations in the Nashville area—including 34 United Methodist churches —to provide shelter for more than 1,200 homeless individuals from November to March.

It Started With An Open Door.

Back in 1986 when Charlie first decided to open the doors of Holy Name Catholic Church to the homeless, he knew the decision was a pivotal one. One cold evening, he briefly thought to himself, “If I let them in tonight, I may end up doing this for the rest of my life.” He did indeed foretell his future.

One question people ask Charlie repeatedly is, “What do the homeless need?” His answer?

“They need everything I need—everything you need. Of course, there’s Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starting with the fundamental things like food, clothing, shelter and basic personal things. And then they need education, social support, recreation, employment and those things on the next level.  But then Maslow talks about the highest level of need is the need to find meaning in life and purpose in living—to resolve the riddles and mysteries of our world and our life. I don’t have to understand them anymore than I need to understand myself. If I understand what drives me and what are the obstacles and roadblocks in my own life, then it’s easy to understand the homeless. We’re not that different.”

People also ask Charlie if he ever wishes he had some other “problem” than advocating for the homeless.

“They’re not a problem. I wrote once that they present a million problems, but they’re not a problem. Isn’t that what parents mean? I used to hear my mother say, ‘You all are driving me nuts! I can’t understand how you can do this and then do that, when I ask you to do this and you won’t do that!’ And  she was telling me that we caused problems, but we weren’t a problem. It’s because love was there. The homeless are not a problem. Love is there. They’re not a problem because I love them.”

This winter there will be anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 homeless men, women and children on the streets of Nashville.  Every city across America has its own version of that same reality. My hope is that every city also has a Charlie Strobel—a kind, loving and gentle soul who was once faced with a life-changing question, “Do I open this door and let them in?”  If he hadn’t, the lives of so many—especially his own life– would have been so different. I, for one, am grateful for the choice he made.

Coupons for Christ Fill Food Pantry

My wife is the coupon clipper in our household, but I do understand the concept of frugality, shopping efficiently and saving money with coupons.  I just never thought that coupon clipping could become a ministry.  However, one exceptional woman in Central Ohio has turned her practical hobby into help for others.

Jen Myers of Genoa, Ohio, has become an avid advocate of “extreme couponing”.  Based on a class that she attended, Jen found out that she could save more than 50% on her grocery bill by couponing.  Not only was she saving enough for her family, but her new-found talent at couponing began to fulfill her desire to donate more to her local food pantry and help others.  And as her talents have spread, she has created a way for other to provide truckloads of food for her local food pantry.

Myers’ friends wanted to learn her money saving techniques, so she taught a couponing class for 10 of them last March.  Instead of charging money for the class, she asked that each participant bring in 10 items for the Genoa Area Community Food Pantry. The pantry, which is housed at Trinity Methodist Church, serves the needy in the Genoa Area Local School District.  From her initial group classes with friends, she created Coupons for Christ, a ministry aimed at teaching coupon classes and encouraging food donations. She has since taught several classes — one of which recently drew 50 people — and brought in truckloads of food for the Genoa Area Community Food Pantry, housed at Trinity Methodist Church.

As we all become more cognizant of our purchases, we are inviting a new social and Christian consciousness to invade our beings – with the benefit of the secular becoming sacred as we reach out to help others.

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