Steve J. Moore

Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Design Speaks Directly to the Soul

In collaboration, Design on March 27, 2009 at 12:36 pm

by Matthew Stublefield

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As Ryan observed, design is more than making something look pretty. It is the first line of assault against your senses, charging in to make room for a deeper truth–for the greater message being communicated through the whole of a piece. Design is the underlying foundation of everything, and much like our own skeletons, it is likewise hidden and sometimes forgotten.

There are two things I understand decently well amongst all the things in the world, and so it is those two upon which I will focus in the context of this series. The first is architecture, with which I will begin because (of the two) I understand it least. The second is writing in general and poetry in specific.

Architectural design is not something with which many Americans (by which I am referring to the residents of the United States of America) are preoccupied. We might admire a fine building and snap a picture while on tour, but it isn’t something we study, stare at, and marvel. Yet architecture is one of the great fascinations of my life, and when I am in a distant city, I spend the vast majority of my time wandering the streets, eyes fixed to the walls, roofs, and doors of all the buildings I can see. I have spent hours lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey so that I could look upon its vast facade and out across the square at its neighbours. Days beside the river Thames marveling at the wall that skirts the river, or wandering the streets and hills of San Francisco, or the wide sidewalks of Chicago. I derived a great deal of enjoyment from comparing German Switzerland to German Germany and the similarities and differences in how the walls meet the roofs, the materials used, and the arrangement of their towns. Architecture fascinates me in a way similar to the hypnotic stare of a dragon preparing to pounce on a meal.

The USA is very utilitarian in its construction, but once upon a time architecture was not just a pragmatic means of getting a building upright. Rather, it was an art designed to communicate something to the passerby. A non-Christian friend admitted to me once that she began to cry as she entered a cathedral in Europe simply due to its beauty. This is a design done right. This assails our senses, demanding entry to our heart because of its power and majesty.

And it is not unique to architecture. Though you may not admire buildings as I do, I imagine that you can sympathize with and understand what I have written above, because it is a very obvious example of the purpose, power, and presence of design. Less obvious is the placement and depth of a thumb scoop on a MacBook, the resistance and length of a switch on a coffee pot, or the arrangement of words in a poem.

I can communicate an idea to you with a straight-forward statement of fact in a simple, well organized sentence, and in so doing you will understand the words and potentially their implications. Yet such a statement will not touch your heart, nor will it influence your soul, for that is the purview of poetry. There are many who malign the ambiguity and obtuseness of poetry, wishing instead that the writers would be more direct with their intentions, but that directness is not of the greatest design.

There are times when communicating with your head is sufficient, such as at work or when figuring out where to go for lunch. But there are other times when that will not do, when I will need to build a bridge from my heart to yours if you are ever to truly understand what I mean. A simple sentence will not suffice. And it is in these instances that the power of design is made manifest in writing.

A good design not only joins our hearts and souls, but it satisfies something deep within our selves. No, the switch on a coffee pot is not a cathedral or a poem, but you will know it is right. You will flip that switch to turn the coffee pot on and think, “Ah, there we have it. This is good.” A good design is more than just functional, it is beautiful. It was created with love and an attention to detail that surpasses a mere statement and that goes beyond simple pragmatism.

Good design, like our skeletons, holds us up and drives us forward. It is a powerful charge we can only refuse by closing our eyes and ignoring the world.

Advertisements

Designing a Path to Identity

In collaboration, Design, identity, Writing on March 20, 2009 at 11:22 am

Steve J. Moore

“This is part of a conversational series shared between multiple writers. As each new article is written, they will be displayed on the sites of all participating authors.”

thumbprint

Design begs for authenticity

Today, you hear a lot about the importance of branding, in the online world. Whether you’re selling T-shirts for your band, writing Op-Eds for a periodical, or mocking up websites for photographers, you are aware of the idea of brand control and its potential impact. Business owners need to be sure that the products they put out are consistent with their plans for objectives as a company. It is the same in education; a teacher needs to be consistent in his or her message to the class about his lessons. If the rules appear to change for no reason, then you lose credibility. You lose your audience. Such is the purpose of design, to help you communicate your brand’s message clearly. But how does good design contribute to your objective? Isn’t such a thing as ephemeral as “design” only a subjective screen covering a person’s idea? How does good design help define who you are as a professional?

These are all questions with dangerously simple answers. They are questions specific to expression, that we all think we understand. The truth is, the ideas of design and expression boil your idea, your product, or your company down to one thing: Identity.

Being the good little scholar of literary concepts that I am, I naturally connect this concept which some may see as strictly economic, like “branding,” or rooted in art, like “design,” as a question of narrative importance. Design is all about who you are; it’s all about building, maintaining, and sharing your identity. So design becomes much less murky if you know who you are (or who/what you are representing). That’s simple, right!? Dang, that’s two posts in a row an interrobang could have come in handy. Sure it’s simple. Just open your chest up and look inside. Pop the hood. Crack open the server case. Read your old book-jacket cover. Well, if only life came with instr–resisting the urge to use cliche–if only, people were so simple, so static…

If design is inherently connected to identity, then marketers had better get on the couch and start self-discovering. Building web pages, you hear a lot about optimization through the use of “meta tags” that mark your domain with keywords. Looking at the word  “meta,” (which is really more of a prefix) we find that it means  “in reference to,” “about,” or “from within.” So websites and their designers need to do a little soul searching before their designs are complete. If you don’t understand the “within” for a particular job (web designers), then you most likely won’t be able to meet the needs of your client. Business owners, on the other hand, need to understand themselves before having new design implemented.

What questions can I ask myself related to establishing identity?

What language do I speak?

This is not as simple as it sounds; language is as deep and pervasive as any aspect of our identities. Furthermore, this question goes beyond what geographical tongue you use, but makes you describe who your audience is. Who are you trying to reach? Design, by definition, should fit a pre-determined purpose. Your website should be designed to fit a group or type of person with specific objectives. Maybe you are a blogger yourself and so, in considering design, you can access your own metacognitive habits and thoughts. Considering that I have a lot of readers who are, themselves, bloggers, web designers, and writers, I do my best to casually tailor my posts to fit their lexicons. I have an education blog too; I use different language off-the-cuff there than I would here.

For example, I may very easily dip into the educational “alphabet soup,” as one of my professors called it, and confuse readers if I am not careful. I wouldn’t dare write this sentence here without explanation:

“While NCLB may be considered to drive more action-based WFSGs and PDCs, there is  only correlative data to support this claim.”

Most people in the field of education (or very active parents) would understand that I’m writing about No Child Left Behind, Whole Faculty Study Groups, and Professional Development Communities, but a web designer would be rather perplexed most likely. On the same hand, I wouldn’t want to write this sentence in an education blog post:

“While pervasive in the development world, recursive acronyms like PHP, GNU, and TIP are humorous in ways often not understood by those outside of the field.”

What is your history?

Knowing where you have been is crucial to knowing where you are and where you want to go. So understanding the origins of your ideas is very helpful in forming a dialogue with your audience. If your readers perceive that you have an appropriate level of authority, then it will be much more likely for them to subscribe to your ideas. Being able to express where you are coming from is key to building a base upon which to prop your design (whatever it may be). Consider the classic frame of the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell describes it:

Is your design heroic?

Is your design heroic?

Inception: the hero’s call to action (expressing the origins of your idea)

Trial by fire: the hero’s challenge (show your work and experience)

Return: the hero finds his/her way home, changed (explain how you are unique)

I have always understood the basic plan for design to be rooted in this information. Maybe it’s your updated business plan, your master’s thesis, or an autobiographical reflection; find useful ways to incorporate this information, and your design will be more authentic for it.

If you’d like to contribute an article to our conversation,  comment here, on RyanBurrell.com or at SilverPenPub.net. We’re also all active on Twitter:

Steve, Ryan, and Matthew.

I Watched the Watchmen.

In Film, Graphic Novels, Science Fiction on March 16, 2009 at 10:55 am

Steve J. Moore

Starting where Alan Moore left off in his epilogue, I  began writing what became this post directly after coming home from the theater. I am glad that I saw the film on a beautiful Sunday afternoon because my leaving the theater provided a very natural sense of closure to the story, which I’ll get to later. Watchmen is a film whose plot I was only moderately aware of beforehand. Inkhead friends and the internet served as my own watchmen to what I eventually discovered is an incredible and powerful story on screen.

watchmen

Moore was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 before he put pen to Watchmen‘s plot. While I did purchase the book before seeing the film, I did not have the time to read it entirely. What reading I did do showed me that nearly every scene in Zach Snyder’s film was ingeniously lifted from between the book’s covers. Just like 300 and Sin City, this film is an adaptation of note. NPR’s Kenneth Turan does not agree with me on this. He called the film “pedestrian,” and argues that it was no one’s fault,

“It never should have been turned into a film in the first place.”

Please Kenneth. Don’t tell me that you’re one of those movie critics. That kind of commentary is acid to both the book’s authors and to directors everywhere. I suppose no one was up to the challenge? No human could have done this “landmark” justice in your eyes? This reminds me of something my cousin once said. We were a bit younger and X-Men had just come out. Being the collectors of comic lore that we were, we ran out to see the movie we had been waiting for since our sandbox days. While we both loved it, he had a rather strong opinion about one tiny detail, Storm’s eyes.

He complained that they weren’t white the whole time like hers are in the TV show, comics, and everywhere else.

Please. That’s your problem with it!? (WP won’t print me an interrobang, oh well) My cousin was only half-kidding, but he asserted this several more times, whether joking or not, and it stuck with me. Comic book fans tend to pick, pick, pick at their favorite things (it’s just out of love, I know). I can only hope that’s what Turan was up to when he so unsagaciously scolded Snyder’s work.

What the movie does well is tell a story that could span three seasons in an hour long prime-time spot on TV, in about three hours. Hyperbole aside, when I left I realized I had digested a staggering amount of detailed back story as well as the foregrounded plot. It certainly didn’t tire me as such. Bob Mondello disagrees with me too, but then again… I wasn’t a “rabid” Watchmen fan coming into the theater. I have a healthy appreciation of comics and superheros; but as I said, I had just recently purchased the book, not even reading it before I came. Even my beloved David Edelstein calls the movie “embalmed” due to over-reverence to Moore’s detail. Somehow these critics have suffered some sort of reverse-fanboy effect where the graphic novel’s artful traversing of mediums has left them hanging. I invite you to decide for yourself on this issue.

I feel compelled as a writer and English teacher to comment on the Percy Bysshe Shelley (Husband to Mary W. Shelley, mother of Frankenstein) poem referenced in the movie by its title’s namesake, “Ozymandias.” First, here’s the text of the poem you read in school at some point (most likely).

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This poem’s theme is, if I recall correctly from Introduction to Literature, man’s sense of hubris. The statue in Watchmen‘s pharaoh-obsessed billionaire’s fortress of solitude (pardon the possessive trainwreck) is more than legs of stone, but bears the same inscription. Maybe that’s what caught Turan, Mondello, and Edelstein off-guard, being weary at this point in the film (from looking on such works) they despaired…

Not I! This poem has always been a favorite of mine. It brings one’s humanity into the conversation. Even the greatest of superheroes in this alternate fiction are human (okay, please ignore the giant naked blue man, he used to be human). They all have faults, mortality, and an emotional attachment to life. The story deals with ultimate questions of life: what is right? How do we know good from evil, and when is evil or wrong necessary to do a larger good? The passage of time is introduced as the great equalizer (neither good nor evil); not even kings and their empires can withstand the hour hand.

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers

Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stones to meal,

Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down!

I won’t ruin any part of the plot for you, but the transitions between light and dark–between good and evil–play a significant role in Watchmen‘s deeply literate contemplations. Just as Gollum and Bilbo exchanged their own riddles in the dark, so do characters like Nite Owl and Rorschach go back and forth as close, but estranged, friends in battle against–well, you’ll see just what against. The message of the clock, of the metronymic timeline, and the bloody smiley face clockall help to mark time to the apocalypse. The iconography of time is at the heart of Watchmen; Dr. Manhattan (also called John) is the son of a watchmaker. His floating Martian fortress appears to be some sort of chronos-driven, gyroscopic monolith. In 1984, at the inception of this story, the Atomic Scientist’s Bulletin, had its symbolic “Doomsday Clock” reading at only 3 minutes to midnight, the closest it had been in thirty years. You can see that today the night a bit younger, but not by much (though I wouldn’t advise subscribing to a second-counting fear over the graphic gesture of the clock).

When I left the theater after a 3:50pm show, I had almost forgotten the time. My brain was expecting a parking lot illuminated by streetlights and a glowing marquee; what I saw was fluffy white puffs, a celadon sky, and a round yellow circle whose visage was covered not by a linear blood splatter, but by clouds.

sunset That’s how the film left me feeling too: in a surprisingly sunny place. In all of Watchmen’s nearly three hours, I was never bogged down by apocryphal details (though they were there for the discerning eye to see) or by chinsy action movie cliches. Sure Snyder loves his blood, but there was exponentially less than in 300. Being the queasy type that I am, I appreciated it too. There was a moderate amount of sex in some parts, but it didn’t pervade the entire plot as though a 13-year-old directed it. Rather, it was just enough to be steamy and R-rated. While movies like Fantastic 4 are filled with dumb one-liners, Watchmen takes its time before speaking. Several characters get the chance to narrate at different times, which is what I think makes its length so tolerable and productive. You get to see two generations of vigilantes and villans, as well as two different Americas, one real, and one alternate history.

Tyler Bates does the score, and well too. The soundtrack is filled with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nat King Cole, and (my favorite) Phillip Glass, but Bates’s orchestral tapestry makes the other works vibrant as placeholders for character emotion. The last track brings me easily back to my sunset sky. “I Love You Mom” is the Miles Davis-esque guitar tune that closes the film before the credits as Silk Spectre II and her ex-vigilante mom share a moment. It’s the same kind of song that made me buy the Finding Forrester soundtrack; (featuring Bill Frisell on guitar) it’s transcendental, spookily beautiful, and feels like warm sun on your face.

Just as Roger Ebert intends, I too want to see Watchmen again in theaters.

The Purpose, Power, and Presence of Design

In collaboration, Design, The Web on March 11, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Ryan Burrell

“This is part of a conversational series shared between multiple writers. As each new article is written, they will be displayed on the sites of all participating authors.”

To say that “design” is all around us would be a supreme understatement. It impacts the very nature of our perceptions, and does so most of the time without our conscious thought or notice. It is a subtle tool, often altering our opinions in ways we can’t really explain or quantify, yet will strongly defend if pressed. Design is a sword with many edges – it can cut deeply, deflect blows, or lead a charge. But, to ask the obvious lead-in question: What is design? Is it art, theory, math, philosophy, or some unholy combination of these areas and more? Is design purely visual, or does it hide a much deeper algorithmic structure?

An Underlying Order

The common view of design, in generalized terms, is to make “something” look “nice”, or “better”, or “pretty”, or [insert ambiguous subjective visual terminology here]. A designer makes shirts, or business cards, or websites, or… branded coffee mugs or something. Newsletters and brochures – that type of thing comes to mind immediately. Yet this is a very narrow viewpoint of what design is and of what the duties of a designer are. While design’s final products typically inhabit the visual world, a designer is not by nature possessed of a purely aesthetic skill set. The title Designer can better be equated with Problem Solver, specifically within the realm of how information is presented. Design strives to be as much an analytical set of tasks as an encompassing set of visual trends. A graphic designer does not simply make a t-shirt “look nice.” Instead, they deal with a complex set of mental algorithms and practices to determine the best placement of their visual components on the palette, taking advantage of the use of space, color, line, shape, and form to produce the most effective visual result. What the end result appears as is simply a piece of clothing, but to the designer it is a set of guidelines, wrapped in equations, coated in emotions, and finally covered in their own creative spin. Art and design are similar, yet fundamentally different, areas of expression. Art relies heavily on emotion, highly abstract ideas, and an intense desire to reflect the world around you from an individual viewpoint. Design, while using aspects that make up the nature of pure art, merges these with analytical ideals more in line with science or math. The foundation of all design relies on standards, conformity, rules, grids, and numbers. Margins, measurements, columns, padding, spacing, clearance; these are the elements that make up the essence of design.

An Overarching Chaos

Yet, while the foundations for design are firmly entrenched in the realm of numbers and grids, it is the more ethereal aspects that make it so unique. An intimate understanding of spacing will only work so far; a designer must also understand their audience, the goals of their project, and emotive methods to achieve their intended results. Once the framework of a task has been determined, a designer develops his or her “in the box” thinking. The borders and restrictions have been defined, and this can open up as much or more creative potential than having a boundless field to work in. A designer’s task is to use the guidelines that have been set and take them to the limits of creativity, while still keeping a sharp eye on how the final result will be usable. It is a frenetic juggling act of limitless creativity within a walled garden. The more artistic core of the designer emerges, yet must be restrained by the warden of practicality that remains in the back of their mind at all times. Visual appeal means nothing without functionality, but usefulness can be dulled if aesthetics are ignored. A designer must be mad – a Jekyll & Hyde combination of control and raw potential.

A Wider Path

Practically, there are many names and titles for designers. Commonly, we think of those that practice design as the people who create calendars, cards, and promotional products. But design is so vast and applicable to so many fields, that the job descriptions are almost as limitless. Interior designers deal with the feel of three dimensional space in architecture – with lighting, mood, and balance. Industrial designers concern themselves with the visual appeal of products as well as their functionality, ergonomics, and practicality. Web designers and interaction designers focus on creating visually appealing Internet interfaces, but all under the aegis of superb usability, accessibility, and optimization. Database designers work only in charts and arrows, but are responsible for laying out the interaction between the vast methods of storage that are now so commonplace. Nearly any sort of planning that concerns not only the visual output, but how that output is best presented and used involves design. It is a constant and integral part of our lives, evidenced by the fact that we don’t even notice it most of the time. The hallmark of good design is when it slips beneath our conscious radar, instead allowing the user of its final product to easily adapt to its requirements and efficiently bend them to their needs. Poor design is easily noticeable, taking the form of unreadable text, confusing interfaces, uncomfortable chairs, breakable parts, and unexpected reactions. Few professions require such a variety of skills, interests, knowledge, and the drive to use them effectively. Because of this, design is not typically thought of as a job by those who do it. A job is something you do to pay the bills – design is a way of life, a way of quantifying what we see around us, and still allowing for the vast creative potential that fuels the human spirit.

Collaborative Conversations

In collaboration, The Web, Writing on March 11, 2009 at 11:03 am

Ryan Burrell

The idea that anything written and presented on the Web is of a static nature and lacking malleability is a false one.  Likewise, the idea that articles or topics presented in format for consumption over the Internet are closed to observer modification and addition is also false.  The Web allows for an extremely unique interchange of thought, be it an initial article writing, subsequent discussion or comments, or responsive posts created on other sites.  It encourages viewers and readers to have an opinion or viewpoint, and to share that with anyone else who may be interested.

To that end, the idea of a “collaborative conversation” has been applied to writing for the Web.  Myself and several other individuals have taken up this notion (originally a teaching method) to try and spur ourselves onward in our writing, for several reasons.  We wanted something that gave us a focus for our writing, even if it was an arbitrary idea or topic.  Being able to dance around an issue and comment from multiple viewpoints was appealing; not arguing or making a case for anything (per se), just observations and discussion.

The rules we follow are minimal:

  • Someone picks a topic, and we try and tie in whatever we write with that topic. Think of it as more of a theme than a thesis statement.
  • Everyone participating must post each article that is written.  For larger numbers of people writing, we may dispense with this and simply include links to each part of the series on our own posts.
  • Don’t pander to the audience. Part of this type of conversation is to think on the topic, and come up with a unique viewpoint or observation on it.  Just as in real life, we want the conversation to be interesting.

The first experiment in this followed the the idea of the Internet being a product of humanity that has also changed it irrevocably.  Future topics have been selected and we will hopefully continue what has been (for me at least) a very nice exercise in both writing and observing.

All I Ever Wanted

In Music on March 10, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Kelly Clarkson has some pipes. Let me start by saying that.

everwanted
Her new album is out March 10, 2009

Her voice absolutely blows my mind every time she jumps into the upper register; it just gives me goosebumps. I can’t say that I watched American Idol Season 1, but the past few seasons I have usually watched with some degree of interest. I have noticed that mostly, the competition is a slew of karaoke singers with a few talented people peppered in. Clarkson is one of the best products the show has ever developed.

I’ve been listening to more and more pop music lately–rather, I have been more aware of my enjoyment of good pop music. I spent so much time in college with Indie music that I had forgotten how good some mass-produced material actually is. Every genre has one or two negative stereotypes that stick, and pop music’s is being “fake” or “unauthentic.” I think it’s hard to separate my opinion of Clarkson from the fact that she was literally produced by Fox through the fabricated process of a game show. That being said, there’s always been something I liked about her.

I remember going to see Red White & Boom in what used to be  Sandstone Amphitheatre back in 2003 (now it has a place amongst other sellout venues as “Verizion Wireless Amphitheater” Pshhh). The concert was a mashup of a lot of acts, many I didn’t know, and a few big headliners. The bottom line was that it was $10 to get in, so my girlfriend and I went with some friends. Kelly Clarkson was the last act that year and she had the great fortune of closing the show after some terrible acts like Lisa “Whispermoaning Marie” Presley”–shudder. I remember faintly seeing this girl come out onto stage and pick up the mic (I was far away in the lawn section); she was wearing a Royals jersey. I thought maybe it was another MC coming up to give introductions, but it was Kelly Clarkson. Kudos to her for brandishing my poor-excuse-for-a-baseball-team’s digs! She sang very well live, just as she did on the radio. That impressed me because I’d just watched a whole lineup of moderate to poor performances. She could really sing!

The funniest part was in one of her last numbers. I’d be lying if I said I remember what song it was, but she was just about to start singing when something hilarious happened. The music was keying up and she was just about to put the mic up to her face when she took one step too far backwards and into a monitor.

**THONK**

The crowd sounded with a din of gasps that turn to chuckling when people realize no one is injured. Clarkson jumps right back up and brushes herself off looking like she just stole second in that jersey. “I’m ok!” she announced with a smile, pointing to the band to start the song again.

She went right on as though nothing had happened, taking advantage of a very human moment that made her seem accessible and authentic to me somehow. It reminded me of another concert in that same venue where Counting Crows crooner Adam Duritz had a close encounter of the insect kind. He was coming to the end of Long December–right at the very climax–when his dramatic pause and deep breath were followed by something unexpected. The coda began

…I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass
And it’s one more day up in the canyon
And it’s one more night in hollywood
It’s been so long since Ive seen the ocean…i guess I should


That’s how it’s supposed to end, right before a chorus of jubilant na na nas. Duritz deep breath came at the wrong place though:

…To hold on to these moments as they pass
And it’s–**THWUNK**
<–That’s the sound of a vacuum sucking up a marble

**HIKACK**

**COUGH COUGH**

“Sorry. I swallowed fly.”

Outdoors at Sandstone, you never know what’s gonna hit you. Which brings me back to All I Ever Wanted. You never know when her tone is going to shift from flowing smoothly through the verses to a sharp, double-octave jump into the chorus–really it’s almost screaming, but it sounds so on-pitch, so undistorted.

I will say that whomever did the album design should have their head examined. Hot pink, yellow and orange…wha? I suppose maybe they wanted to catch your eye with it’s barbie vomit shceme and then you’d be pulled in by Kelly’s lovely face. Then again, maybe they wanted to convey the fact that she has two sides to her (pink and orange?), both of which reside in a horrible 1970s colorscheme nightmare.

Bad design aside, I really do like the album. There’s a voice in the back of my head that keeps nudging me in the proverbial ribs saying “defend the fact that you listen to ‘girl music,'” but I got through posting about Taylor Swift, so it’s easy to ignore now.

I still need to listen to the whole album a few times before I write about specific things I like, but in general she still feels very relevant, vibrant, and authentic.

The Constant Conference: Building a PLN with Twitter, Blogs, and Plurk

In Education, The Web on March 4, 2009 at 10:10 am

I don’t want to mix amongst my personal and education blogs too much, but I’m really overdue for a post on here and I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while. Rather than re-rewriting my ideas about this subject, I think it’s okay (considering my only slightly overlapping audiences) to re-post. “Repost”, by the way, should totally be a legal Scrabble word. I’m just sayin’.

Below is an entry from my Education blog “teachersaid” posted on February 12, 2009.

The long-term subbing job I have has allowed me some great opportunities so far. I’ve got my foot a little farther in the door at this school, for one thing. I know about job openings before they happen and I can speak easily to other teachers and administrators. Since I work at a computer all day (I’m a computer aide sub), I’m able to spend a great deal of time reading and completing my homework. I don’t think I would have attempted going to grad school full time right away if I had a teaching job right now. This way, I’ve been able to ease into my program and give it great attention.

rss-coffeecup

Furthermore, and perhaps most beneficial so far, I have been able to build and maintain a powerful personal learning network (PLN) online. I started using Twitter (@stevejmoore), Plurk (stevejmoore), and GoogleReader (Steve) to connect with teachers and administrators across the country and beyond. I’ve been able to find blogs, ask burning questions, and ultimately make significant connections with people whom I would have otherwise never met.

You’re obviously here, so I have either asked you to visit this page or you’re already hip to the benefits of reading Education blogs (maybe you’ve built a PLN of your own too). In case you’re with the former, I’ll explain each service that I use as a teacher, a grad student in Administration, and as a writer.

I’ll use a macroanalogy that most everyone should be able to grasp: the conference. When you go to a conference of any kind there is a similar format. Why do we go to conferences? To learn new information about our profession and to build relationships with other professionals. In my experiences, there are three basic environments at conferences: the keynote speech, focus groups (workshops), and mingling (unstructured). I use a digital counterpart that meets each of those networking criteria.

Blogs

These are the keynote speeches, the main events of conferences and PLNs. All social media networks lead to blogs at some point. This is where authors, the pros pen their prose. Like at conferences, there is usually one big headliner who sets the tone for the whole, and several more mini-keynotes that function as bullet points to the larger headline. This is a good way to stucture your blog reading. Have fewer big blogs you read and focus your attention on. These are bloggers whom you may not ever personally contact or meet like LeVar Burton or Erin O’Connor, but whose material is widely read and considered a part of many larger conversations. Then, there are a myriad other bloggers that you can find whom are more specific in their situation and whom you may come to know personally due to their smaller readership.

For example, I’ve come to know Scott Elias, a principal in Colorado through my spiderweb-like PLN. I live in Springfield so I started searching Twitter for teachers using the service nearby through a service call Twello. I found Melinda Miller, an elementary principal in nearby Willard, MO. I started following her and checking her blog regularly. Through her, I found Scott. He and Miller run a blog and a podcast together called The Practical Principals. I’ll write more about them in the Twitter section.

Twittertwitter

If blogs are the main event, then Twitter is the exact opposite. When you’re at a conference, you spend most of your time socializing and browsing: snacking on Chex Mix, drinking mysterious hotel punch, and browsing tables of displays that other people like you have set up. Maybe you’ll exchange emails, web addresses, and chat about your classroom practices. Maybe you’ll end up collaborating on a project together in the future.

This casual open forum is like Twitter. This service is like walking into a giant ballroom full of people and eavesdropping on conversations as you walk through. When you someone posts a link, it is like one of those displays leading to more information you may or may not be interested in. The bottom line is that you are exposed to a great deal of people and materials very quickly in little snippets. Twitter is a social gateway for building longer conversations, it’s like browsing the internet and making bookmarks of people rather than sites.

I mentioned Scott and Melinda before in blogs. Twitter is different than a blog because of the length. Twitter is often referred to as “microblogging.” There you are limited to 140 characters to express your opinion, state your question, or reach out to someone. At the risk of sounding very 1996, I’ll liken Twitter to a chatroom, one that never ends though. The more you use it and the more people you follow, the larger and more powerful your PLN can become.

Plurk

icones_plurk

Lastly, I discovered Plurk through Paul Bogush. His blog was nearly named the “Best Education Blog of 2008” by the Weblog Awards. I found him on the awards page and started reading his work. I started following him on Twitter and saw that he linked to something called “Plurk” on his blog page as well. Being the curious person I am, I decided to check it out. At first, I thought that this service was a lot like Twitter, only newer and more strange. I started following Paul and his “plurkers,” as they’re called.

You see, Plurk isn’t open and microcosmic like Twitter, nor is it as large in structure and as singular as a blog. Plurk is like the part of a conference inbetween the casual browsing and the big group keynote speeches. The small groups or workshops on specific topics, that is what it is. You can participate in whichever ones you want and the people running the groups are usually very casual about it. Plurk has a character length like Twitter and resembles another form of the chatroom. The difference with Plurk is that conversations are grouped by the person publishing each comment.

Just like at a conference, with Plurk, your reputation counts for something. You earn Karma through your volume, regularity, and quality of comments. Plurk is a great place to go with a question for other teachers.