Building a zombie army

I have been trying to hatch a zombie army for the past eight months. Today was my last day as Senior Editor of Open Reporting at HuffPost, where much of my work has been the application of resilience and network theory to one of the largest online audiences. It’s been interesting. Earlier this week Bruce Sterling put up a post with Director of the MIT Media Lab Joi Ito’s nine guiding principles for navigating the current economy of creative destruction, so as I head out for new adventures, a few quick thoughts on how some of those principles shake out with content, community, and delicious brains.

Starting in July 2012, I inherited an ungainly database with tens of thousands of email addresses that was to be the foundation for my team’s external contribution efforts. Each registered address was part of the site’s distributed election coverage. In 2008. Even had those addresses been fresh (and a handful were), any massive amount of data needs sorting into smaller groups with the end goals being specific actions performed by those groups, and then by groups acting together. We still think of strength as numbers, with volume being the predominant metric, instead of tighter, increasingly valuable circles that rise to take actions again and again.

An alarming and accurate descriptor sometimes used for email addresses in a database is ‘captured’ - and just so, ensnared bits of information have no agency unless shaped by attentive human handlers. Like timestamped content, a set of email addresses is an archive that languishes without caretakers. Although you can juice the chances of content blowing up with enticing headlines and photos, noticing the reaction of your core group of users (or a desired new demographic) is a better indicator of and strategy for future success. I have started to think about community as patient groups, wanting to know the history of care before beginning a round of content treatments.

In journalism right now, there is a giddiness around sensors as passive collectors of information that can later be visualized and presented. The best of these efforts takes what is surprising in the aggregated sensor data and formats the finding such that the reveal can be widely understood even by those without expertise in the content genre. That thinking largely hasn’t made its way into journalism apps, with most as mobile-formatted versions of the site content, just recooked push mechanisms with few ways to pull in responses beyond comments and support question fields. What if humans could function as sensors?

My team used an active listening approach, compiling long posts showing a spectrum of geotargeted reader responses to issues of hydraulic fracking, foreclosure, border regulation, drones, gun control, and educational policy. These were not polls or rigid little widgets, but rather open-ended asks. Readers are, as we all are, experts in their own lives. You know when you are fracked - and I mean that in the “BSG” sense - so we would query the reader database for a geographic group affected by new legislation or natural disaster, then pose a question and structure posts around the most poignant and illustrative replies. Instead of opinion, we sought out evidence of the state of the American dream from readers’ real lives: pink slips, copies of fracking leases, audio of robocalls, photos of weather damage. ‘This is what we hear you saying,’ has been our technique, and the callouts have led to follow-up posts, new blog contributors, dozens of new sources, and kernels for later posts - when you demonstrate that you are listening, trends unfurl before you.

The other way to think about passivity in a network and choosing pull over push mechanisms requires making peace with the reader’s promiscuity. You need to be able to reach a few people, the salient nodes in the network, in a timely manner at specific moments (not all of the time). My dream for plumbing networks through devices is to create notification systems borrowing from the field of crisis cartography: you sign up once, occasionally receive a text asking for pertinent information, to which you respond, receive a confirmation of your submission, and (to close the feedback loop) are pinged when your contribution is included in a published post and/or referenced later. Associated with your online profiles, contribution karma systems could accelerate gathering news, where right now most apps only gauge reactions to reports.

There are more excellent bullets in Joi’s nine, and we know the maps are not the territory, but my favorite is his point about disobedience. #notsorry is the gleeful tag we append to posts to acknowledge that what it contains will fail to delight some who may see it. The tag anticipates different responses from those who may see what gives us weird joy. That liminal space of defiance is also often the most interesting as our elastic selves come out and play and we shift back from afforded binary options into nuance.

We have a real chance at connecting online when we can reflect in our actions what we hold dear. Unrepentant curiosity and nerdlery overshares will airlift us out of homophilic sinkholes, as we hoist ourselves and each other up in systems visibly designed to surface how our brains are fully, gregariously alive.