Comment Systems as Urban Form: the #OpenComments model

medium-intro-page reply to Mark Carrigan, “Why Medium might be pretty great for academics” (21 Dec, 2013)

I agree @Medium [the publishing platform founded by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in August 2012] is quite interesting, especially for rethinking experience from author’s side. On the other hand, I’m bothered by the centralization (vs eg people using diversely hosted & designed/featured blogs and open-source tools), and in particular by its manifesting of the larger trend away from open comments/conversation.

I tend to agree with something Mathew Ingram said, “A blog without comments is a soapbox.” ( Voices in isolation, not engaged with challenging or divergent views, is a key problem in our whole information environment (from personal to popular to academic, etc., I think).  [I examine this point in more detail in “Collaborative Argumentation and Advocacy” 1 June, 2013].

Nowadays I see many people accepting the idea that open commenting online is impossible or undesirable, that it inevitably succumbs to abuse. But most comment/forum systems are quite naively implemented and run, making little use of decades of accumulated knowledge we have about how to make them work. Also, there is increasing robustness and steady evolution in systems to implement/integrate commenting at large scale, such as Disqus, LiveFyre, IntenseDebate, and (integratively) Twitter, Google+ etc.

Continue reading

Weaving the Tech-Urban Web

"Tron Gate" (Chicago), by John Tolva.

“Tron Gate” (Chicago), by John Tolva.

a response to “When tech culture and urbanism collide” by John Tolva (Chief Technology Officer for the City of Chicago, 2011-2013), December 30, 2013.

Thanks for citing my post “What Urban Planning Hasn’t Learned from Tech
of December 14th. In satirically inverting Allison Arieff’s “What Tech Hasn’t Learned From Urban Planning” (New York Times, December 13th), I was actually hoping to suggest much what you say in your post: that there are many productive and innovative things are to be done in the intersection and exchange between tech and urbanism today. Not only might tech learn from urbanism but, as you say, “there’s plenty of room for the most positive aspects of tech culture to remake the profession of urban planning itself.”

In order to help make such an interchange as productive and possible as possible, I think we might question not only whether “tech culture” and “urbanism” are necessarily opposed, but even whether there is a singular tech culture or urbanism to speak of. It seems to me the open and pragmatic path is not to set tech and urbanism in opposition, but to focus on the large, complex problems we have, to which we might apply various types of open, urban, historical, tech, and beginner’s minds.

In the spirit of that opening and reweaving, here’s some unpacking of the tech vs urbanism idea:

Continue reading

Information Overload, Containment, and Distillation

Ann Blair. "Too Much to Know" (2011)

Ann Blair. “Too Much to Know” (2011)

a response to “Information Overload, Past and Present” by Dan Cohen, Executive Director of Digital Public Library of America (December 22, 2013)

points well taken about the somewhat perennial nature of information overload.

As I see it, we inherently live amid many “streams” — moving amid our physical environment, the flows in a workplace, the flow of what’s published, social media, time itself. Likewise, we’re always, to take Blair’s terms, “storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing,” in a multitude of ways: from how our perception and memory works, to many ad-hoc means such bookpiles, shelves, notebooks, post-its, bookmarks, etc.

It’s a question of how well and happily we can do this navigation and minding. If we are too much in the stream, we experience overload and dissolution. On the other hand, if we retreat to existing acquaintances and interests, we risk being contained by habitual thinking and homophily.

Building on Blair’s terms, and incorporating ideas of “stream” and “flow”, I suggest the design pattern of a ‘distillery‘. Multiple incoming streams (eg water, grain, yeast, heat) come together in an ongoing process of refinement, becoming much more valuable and consumable (& ‘containable’ in a bottle!). I explore this model, and how I currently implement it for myself with various digital tools, at “From reading drift to reading flow.”

As to finding discussion, we might take the present topic and blog post as an example and ask, what might we do right now, to maximize the possibility of deep and meaningful conversation around this important topic?

Continue reading

What Urban Planning Hasn’t Learned From Tech

"the taster" outside shuttered cafe in Hills Plaza, San Francisco.

“the taster” outside shuttered cafe in Hills Plaza, San Francisco.

 (a response to “What Tech Hasn’t Learned from Urban Planning” by Allison Arieff, The New York Times, December 13, 2013. Note, you should read that article before reading this, it will make more sense that way). 

I appreciate and share Arieff’s concerns about the failings of tech and community in San Francisco. I work in tech, love San Francisco and the Bay Area, and want all to thrive.

Since Arieff has eloquently presented what we might call a classically urbanist view, in the interest of experiment I’d like to suggest a complementary view, which perhaps we could call “tech urbanist,” or “soft city.” So hypothetically, humbly, and hoping not to invoke the furies of culture/class war, let’s consider a parallel text to the original, or…

What Urban Planning Hasn’t Learned From Tech.

Urban planning is, increasingly, embracing the language of tech: hacking, data, open, innovation, smart, startup, entrepreneurship, design thinking, etc. So why are urban planners such bad technologists?

Continue reading

Smarter Social-Media Tools for Scientists

On November 8th I and Marie Boran of University of Galway presented at the 6th annual Spot On London (formerly Science Online London), a conference on science communication sponsored by Nature Publishing Group.

Our topic, which I proposed to the conference committee and had accepted, was “Smarter Social-Media Tools for Scientists.”
Abstract: What existing or possible social media tools could help scientific sharing and research? In this session we will explore ways to augment current tools for mission-critical goals, such as article alerts, literature discovery, recommendations, and public outreach/journalism.

The full video (55 minutes) is below, and I’ve also pulled out and labeled six 2-3 minute highlights below that, for the discerning.

Continue reading

Housing affordability in San Francisco: can we talk about solutions?

27bits-san-fran-tmagArticleresponse to: “Making San Francisco Accessible to More Than the Tech Elite
by Claire Cain Miller and Erica Goode, New York Times, November 26, 2013.

(note: as of 0400 27 Nov, comment unapproved, though later comments have been).

The problems San Francisco has with housing costs aren’t new, unique to SF, or reducible to anything so simple as the tech boom. There are a lot of accusations and rhetoric flying around, but I really wish we might give more attention to the people and organizations who’ve have been carefully studying the highly complex SF land-use/housing situation for decades, and proposing well-thought-through solutions.

I’d particularly recommend the work of non-profit SPUR (formerly San Francisco Planning & Urban Research; I’m a member), which dates to 1910. They do excellent events and publications examining urban affairs in the Bay Area.

SPUR’s “A Housing Strategy for San Francisco” (2nd ed. 2006) gathered some of their key reports/recommendations on housing affordability:

  1. Zoning for more housing.
  2. Rethinking parking requirements.
  3. Improving the permit approval process.
  4. Housing above retail.
  5. Secondary units. (also known as “in-laws” or Accessory Dwelling Units).

(to get these, go to, search on “Reports” for these and more).

Progress on affordability, and almost any urban issue, requires considering many factors, in this case zoning, permitting processes, building standards, construction methods, financing practices; the thicket of federal, state & local laws; etc. Finger pointing and reductive narratives like “tech elites vs. others” don’t get us far.

Tim McCormick
Palo Alto @tmccormick