John Klossner's Ink Tank

Social media and the quest for knowledge (and a good snow shovel)

John Klossner shovels

This isn't exactly breaking news, but we've received a good amount of snow in New England this winter. Key to that sentence is "winter" – it's not unexpected at this time of year, despite local residents statements of astonishment. As one friend put it, "I haven't had a conversation that didn't involve the weather in over a month." My children now think that school consists of two two-day weeks, with Wednesdays being another weekend.

The amount and frequency of the snow has allowed me to get into a shoveling groove. I have shoveled the driveway so many times this winter that I think I can now do it blindfolded. I haven't measured, but I think one of my arms is bigger than the other.

When you receive as much snow as we have this year, you start to understand the old cliche about Eskimos having – what was it, 25? 50? 1,000? – different words for snow. I'm afraid I can't be as eloquent as an Inuit, but we have had wet snow, frozen snow, wind-hardened snow and the dreaded "snowplow-packed-at-the-end-of-the-driveway" snow, among others.

This morning was one of the days I enjoy: a picturesque tableau of large flakes skidding on gravity, accumulating in a soft blanket that you could clear by blowing hard, if you don’t mind being seen on all fours in your driveway. I decided to use a shovel instead. And – this is the important part – I decided to go with the wide shovel. I have now accumulated a veritable golf bag of snow shovels with each tool, like a golf club, serving a special need. For example, when we've received 20 inches of heavy, wet snow I have to go with a narrower, smaller shovel. When I haven't gotten out early enough, allowing the local plow drivers to plug the end of the driveway with a snow-cement mixture, I have to resort to the good old-fashioned spade. But today, with 3 or 4 inches of light powdery snow, I could use the biggest shovel I have, as there would be little resistance to me pushing the piles around.

A recent couple days spent down the rabbit hole with Quora made me think that social networks and information sites are catching up with snow shovels in specialization. Quora – the online social network information questions and answers site du jour of the month – was released in beta at the end of 2009 and went public in June 2010. It is becoming popular in government circles, inspiring admiring posts like this. Quora bills itself as "... a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question."

As a frequent visitor to the Internet I am always on the lookout for the site or network that is accurate, informative and respectful in user conversation. I don't have to tell you, but a great amount of user content is filled with misinformation and name calling. I want to support any social site's efforts to address and avoid the downward spiral of communication.

One of the first things I noticed about Quora was its attempt to phrase users questions in a style that lends itself to conversation. When I asked, "why is Quora better than ___," a pop-up box appeared that told me questions would not be allowed if they contained spelling, grammar or usage mistakes. (Quora is also trying to avoid survey questions.) After capitalizing the "w" I tried to finished my question – "Why is Quora better than ( I was going to list individual sites: Facebook, Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, Mahalo, etc.), when another pop-up appeared with a list of already-asked questions. I chose "Why is Quora so much better than the competition?" I figured this would cover me, and the first user-provided answer was illuminating. As the user wrote:

"I think the one reason that Quora is better than competition is that it attracted a core group of smart, well-informed people who write really well right in the beginning. And now others who join are influenced by the culture of thoughtful writing and sharing."

(Just for kicks I went to Yahoo Answers and asked them "Why is Yahoo Answers so much better than the competition?" The first answer was, "I think the reason Yahoo Answers is better is because it attracted a core group of people who wanted to know the history of cheerleading. Just kidding, it didn't have an answer.)

I then asked Quora, "What is the smartest online knowledge market?" It wouldn't allow me to ask that, but it prompted me to "Why is Quora more popular than dozens of other Q&A sites?" There were no answers, but this linked to "How does Quora differ from other Q&A services?" (There were numerous well-informed and well-written answers, but my favorite was, "Geeks use it. It's the new trendy web service.")

From that page I found a link to "How is Quora Different from X?", which is comprised of comparisons of Quora with other social networks, Q&A sites, and sites that may be considered competition. This brings me to what I call "the Wikipedia question."

I was initially curious about the similarities between Quora and Wikipedia – specifically, that both are a knowledge base of user-created content. There is a specific page comparing and contrasting Quora with Wikipedia which deals with everything from page design to site funding, but my main interest was with accuracy. In the small circles of academia that I have access to, Wikipedia is strictly not allowed as an attributable research source. This is mainly because of experiences with users placing unsubstantiated opinions or misinformation on the site, which aspires to be an objective online information source. How will Quora, with its goal to "...have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question," deal with user misinformation, either erroneously or intentional? The Quora community deals with this by stating that it is not an encyclopedia and doesn't strive for objectivity, and that the cumulative information from a community of answers will give the reader a better understanding for the subject.

And what about concerted efforts by large groups to misinform or editorialize, as Wikipedia has experienced? My understanding is that there will be some monitoring, and that the community of users will be relied on to provide a balance of information to questions. I have not spent enough time with the site to see these in action. Also, as Quora states, it is a "continually improving" collection of questions and answers, and the quality of the community, combined with the site's intent to be an organic conversation and information source, might deal with the issue before I finish this sentence.

But are there gates? As the Quora community advertises its superior designs and talented users, isn't the goal to make it a destination for more users? And won't this flood of questions from the "mainstream" (as one Quora user termed it) bring with it a dumbing down of the discussion? Will Quora merely bat away questions it doesn't want to entertain? Or will the core group just move on to the next site, which they themselves will probably design when not busy answering Quora questions? Interestingly enough, Quora asked itself this very question. Interestingly enough, nobody has answered.

In all of this there is an assumption that we are all looking for the "best" social network or information site. Maybe the "best" won't be the goal in the long run. Maybe we'll all settle for the site that best fits our needs, whether they be for accuracy and consistency, connection to the most people or knowledgeable feedback on where to buy snow shovels. We want to know which source to go to for the best information to fit our particular question. Quora looks like a very good online community, with members interested in creating a respectful, accurate, and reliable conversation.

Time will tell on its consistency, especially as more people become aware of, and involved in, the site. But I still couldn't help but feel a string of insecurity weaving around Quora. Users constantly mentioned how talented and smart and connected the Quora community was, and in my three-afternoon foray into the site I found several statements making a distinction between "us" – the Quora community – and "them" – sites outside the Quora community. If the Quora community could just be satisfied with what it is at this point – a well-designed Q&A site that focuses on the strengths of its users and encourages accurate dialogue – instead of its users being concerned with it being the best and defining it so at the expense of other sites, it will become a very useful tool for online searching and social networking.

While still figuring my way around the site, I asked "Is Quora a better social network than Yahoo?" Inadvertently, it was saved and sent out to the community. I received two answers. The first a calmly stated, yes, much better, and the second, "Questions like this make the reader feel as if he's on YA" (Yahoo Answers) It's good to know that snark will still be allowed. I wouldn't want to think that I had accidently wandered off the Internet.

John Klossner Quora

Posted on Feb 24, 2011 at 12:19 PM0 comments

Shared keyboards, chairpooling and other budget-cutting proposals

John Klossner

Further suggested cost-cutting proposals for the federal workforce:

* Shared keyboards.

* Replace all smart phones with “nice personality” phones.

* One word: chairpooling.

* Any money found in employees’ pockets when entering federal buildings belongs to the Treasury.

* Federal employees required to provide their own toilet paper.

* At staff meetings, everyone will be asked to think of a number. Those that match manager’s number will be furloughed for the day.

* Employees with birthdays on odd-numbered days are furloughed on Mondays and Wednesdays, and those with even-numbered days on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

* Employees how have choice between mandated furloughs or cleaning agency windows.

* All desks will be metered at 50 cents an hour.

* Rent out cubicles as low-budgeted motel rooms at night and on weekends, conference rooms as “suites.”

* Replace all printers with slates and chalk.

* Agency coffeemaker now works on a lottery basis.

* “Bring Your Daughter to Work” Day will now be called “Have Your Daughter Take Calls” Day.

* Agency cafeterias to operate as pot luck.

* Return to budget 1.0.

John Klossner

Posted on Feb 09, 2011 at 12:19 PM11 comments

How the federal government is missing the bus with its telework strategy

Do not work

In reading the most recent foray by the federal government into teleworking policy, it occurs to me that this is becoming an annual event. For the past several years, the federal government has been trying to figure out some way to standardize teleworking for agencies and their employees. It's starting to feel like a New Year's resolution, with agencies on the treadmill, their list posted in front of them: "Lose a trillion budget dollars, get the entire country to eat carrots, create a coherent teleworking policy..."

In reading about this year's resolution one item in particular caught my attention -- "Currently, 102,900 of the 1.9 million federal employees regularly work remotely. Of the total workforce, 62 percent are eligible to telework. To encourage the practice, the Obama administration has set a goal of having 150,000 government employees teleworking on a regular basis by 2011."

Using my rusty math skills to roughly round these figures out, let me get this straight: 62 percent of the fed workforce is eligible to telework, and the administration's goal is to have 7 percent? Not to mention that from that 62 percent potential, only 5 percent is currently teleworking. "Encourage the practice?" Isn't that like needing to lose 10 pounds and encouraging people to give up cinnamon sprinkles on their mocca latte with whipped cream? If the people in charge of the space program had thought this way, they would have encouraged getting a man on the moon by having aspirants go to the top of the Sears Building.

This tiptoeing around telework is slowly taking the shape of following and not leading. In this story about the potential savings from telework, it’s noted that in a recent survey of government employees, “22 percent said they were teleworking without formal agreements, doing at least some of their jobs from home or elsewhere away from the office." ("Without formal agreements?" Is teleworking the new "don't ask, don't tell?"). Since these respondents said they were doing "at least some of their jobs" away from a central office -- and I'd be willing to guess that the majority of teleworking fed employees do so part time – it’s probably a safe bet the number of federal teleworkers already exceeds the stated goal for 2011.

I tried looking for some statistics about the amount of teleworkers in the world at large. While reports on teleworking in the private sector give a wide spectrum of figures -- often being used to support the argument of the particular author -- the one constant is that the amount of people working outside of a central office has been rising and will continue to rise. The federal government's lagging behind this change in work habits can only harm their efforts on several fronts.

Among them is recruitment. How do federal agencies, with their aspirations of having 7 percent of their workforce teleworking, hope to attract talent from a generation that has been working anywhere but a central office for their entire lives? Will the feds just dance around telework policy until the generation that has spent their careers working from the office retires? I would hope we could be more proactive on this issue, rather than waiting for the cubicles to slowly empty.

And I'll be the first to admit that teleworking is not for everyone. Besides the security and communication concerns, what can start out as an attempt to better balance one's work and personal life can sometimes lead to an uncomfortable integration of the two without clear borders between your personal and professional lives. It takes considerable discipline to telework, and I find numerous anecdotes of people glad to return to the protected environs of the office.

Unfortunately, the feds' approach to teleworking is echoing their timeliness on other technology issues -- "we'll get right to work on teleworking standards as soon as we finish those fax machine regs" -- leaving the workforce to figure out a way to make their federal employee lives reflect the world they live in outside the office, with confusing results. This is reinforced by the numerous anecdotes I find commenting on management-employee relations, with managers saying that they don't trust their employees to work outside the office and employees saying they don’t trust their managers to administer telework policy fairly, awarding the privilege based on favoritism or withholding it as punishment

With such animosity you'd think that the two sides would be happy to work farther apart from each other.

Oh, well, there's always next year.


Posted on Jan 26, 2011 at 12:19 PM13 comments