Research for the book

I’ve been spending time lately reconstructing the earliest days of the AltGov for my book. Here are some of things I’ve been consulting.



The case for withholding judgment

I had lunch with a friend last week and he gave me a sticker he found that says “I am silently judging your grammar.” On the one hand, that’s awesome. I teach copy editing, so I do judge grammar all the time, and I even teach students the perverse pleasure of pedantry.

BUT, sometimes pointing out mistakes like that aren’t in your best interests as you make an argument.

My 15 minutes of fame came when I was quoted in this Kathleen Parker column saying “If you’re not taking care of the small things, people will assume you are not taking care of the big things.” I still believe your ability to use the language in a standard way helps you avoid questions about your credibility. However, as other language critics have pointed it, it’s not the only thing that matters, and you can miss good ideas if you are too tied up in worries about the literal jots or tittles in someone’s expression.

Sometimes it matters a great deal. I teach journalism and we use AP style, which mostly forgoes the Oxford Comma. As I tell my students, it’s one of the more contentious pieces of punctuation and, honestly, it’s not worth losing a job over. But I have lost count of the times someone has gleefully shared about a court case where a missing Oxford Comma cost millions of dollars.


(Students: Remember the FIRST and MOST IMPORTANT comma rule is to use one where needed to remove ambiguity, other rules be damned. Also, commas are screens.)

So yes, it matters. But it isn’t everything. And sometimes, you look like a jerk and that will cause your audience to discount your other good ideas as the peevish rants of the jerk you have proven yourself to be.

So, choose your battles. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but don’t stab yourself with it.

**Author’s note: I always have to look up whether it is judgement or judgment. I can still look at myself in the mirror.  



The secrets to beating writer’s block

I teach writing for a living, and one of the courses that’s a regular for me requires students to get to the point where they can create short, publishable piece in a short period of time, without saying too many unpublishable words. Typically, it’s writing about 500 words in 2 hours.

What’s the secret? There are three.

  1. Wicked deadlines. In journalism, the press runs when it runs. The tweet gets there in the early batch, or no one sees it. In my class, it’s due when it’s due. A deadline staring you in the face tends to unlock your fingers pretty quickly. For my #WeAreAltGov book, I give my agent a progress report every Tuesday. Just the embarrassment of having nothing to report keeps me moving. I set up that deadline, and my very patient agent puts up with it. It works great for me.
  2. Know a trick for getting unstuck. I suggest to my students what I used to do on tight deadlines: Type up your notes. Often, this will help you remember what you have, and will let you start putting some organization on it.
  3. Writing is really rewriting. Or as the extremely wise Dr. McDonald* told me when he was my professor at Cornell, whatever it is – your blog post or your dissertation – it won’t be the best thing you ever do. You can think of writing as performance thinking. Even if your s.f.d.** ends up getting completely replaced in the rewrite, you’ll have a better final performance if you make the effort to have a rehearsal. Even well-loved TV shows start with an awkward table read. 

*Dr. McDonald was both wise and extremely busy. The lore among the grad students was that if you showed up at night bearing cookies, you had a better chance of gleaning some of his wisdom.

**F and d stand for first and draft. S is one of those unpublishable words in adjectival form.

New tricks

“The AltGov is a reflection of the American democracy from which it was born – full of difference and impacted by technology. Technology was at the heart of the division leading up to and the results from the 2016 election. The AltGov shows some paths for well-meaning citizens to move beyond technological slactivism and become effective Americans together.”

No chance I’ll call myself old, or a dog for that matter, but one of the most awesome parts of my job is that I get to learn new things all the time.

If you read back a few posts (or click on the link at the top), you’ll see that I’ve been working on a first for me: a book for a more general audience than most of my work has been lately. We professors mostly write for each other – somewhat esoteric things about testing out a theory usually or other things that count as “contributing to knowledge,” which is a big reason universities exist. These ideas eventually get out to the public, but not until they’ve been thoroughly evaluated and tested by other researchers and often translated by a specialist science communicator.

My life wasn’t always this way, though. I’m trained as a journalist and actually used to be a newspaper reporter, covering things like police, health, the city government and the local Air Force base (particularly interesting as it was during a major, year-long international deployment). My readers were very close to me then – I lived with them and people would see my name on a receipt or something and recognize it from my byline in the paper.

This AltGov book project is a chance to exercise a lot of the stuff I’ve learned over the years – investigating something systematically, doing interviews, sifting for truth, wording things in a way that’s clear, but fun to read. It’s also been a chance to learn a whole lot. I’ve gotten the start of an education in how publishing works, for example. Slowly, mostly is what I’m taking away at the moment –  I’m developing capacities for patience. I’m also learning why the slowness is important. In about a month, my first major book project is coming out and even with 4 editors, it was a 3-year process. There are multiple rounds of work, including coming up with an idea, convincing a publisher, writing stuff, edits by different busy people, more edits, proofreading, manufacturing and more. But the time it takes is time to work out the big ideas that take the true smaller ideas and make them relevant and important.

I’ve been working on re-envisioning the AltGov book, and have come up with why I think they are important. The future readers feel very far away right now, but I’m figuring out what I want those readers to know about this moment in time. It’s the quote at the top. I’d be interested in your opinion in the comments.

Writing that’s fun to read

As I’ve been working on my We Are #AltGov book, I’ve also been teaching my regular courses at Elon, including one on digital strategy for our students in the graduate program in interactive media. Basically, that class covers both ways to make your online information easy for machines to process and useful and fun to read for the people who use it. Both matter when a search engine is trying to decide which pages to give back first.

I’m an experienced writer and I even teach writers, but I still need to go back and improve my own work. That’s what I’ve been doing this morning – taking a first draft of a chapter for the book and trying to get the “professorese” out so it can be fun to read.

Here’s an example with professorese in bold:

Taylor is extra secretive, but he does take pride in his ideas being shared or even criticized. You can see this in his account description: “Money-minded #altGov resister. Veteran. See my tweets in HuffPo, Raw Story, Elle, DailyStar, Sputnik, RT, Breitbart, InfoWars, Daily Caller et al.” He strongly owns the veteran description and, as he still serves in the National Guard, will comment on his service on his Twitter feed. He told me those tweets get some of the most engagement. His commentary on the military is a combination of very general first-person information like pride in troops he commands and of general information/commentary about the military like this tweet: “I see lots of self-described #veteran types decrying #SOCIALISM. If you get a chance, please ask them about their use of…. Government-provided housing Government-provided healthcare Government-provided childcare Government-provided dining facilities …all in the military.”

Taylor’s feed is an interesting combination of curation of news stories that are important but lost in the crisis of the day and of personal commentary on those stories. He generally has a somewhat more measured approach to communication than some of the other accounts and shows evidence of some depth of knowledge in social media strategy. Taylor shares and offers commentary on news about the economy, jobs and related matters…

Here’s a first shot at editing it to be more fun to read.

Taylor’s secretive, but he’s also happy when his ideas are shared or even criticized. His account description reads“Money-minded #altGov resister. Veteran. See my tweets in HuffPo, Raw Story, Elle, DailyStar, Sputnik, RT, Breitbart, InfoWars, Daily Caller et al.” He’s an Army veteran, still serves in the National Guard, and often talks a lot on Twitter about his service. His followers like some of those tweets the most, he said. When he tweets about the military, sometimes it’s his pride in the troops he commands. Sometimes, it’s more general, like this tweet: “I see lots of self-described #veteran types decrying #SOCIALISM. If you get a chance, please ask them about their use of…. Government-provided housing Government-provided healthcare Government-provided childcare Government-provided dining facilities …all in the military.”

Taylor’s feed is an interesting combination of important news stories that followers might have might have missed and his thoughts about them. He writes carefully, and you can tell he knows a lot about social media strategy.

Do you think that’s easier to read? Why or why not?

AltGov has all the feels


When you follow the AltGov, you might first think they have mostly feelings of…irritation. No. Anger? Maybe? Rage? That’s the one.

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It’s definitely possible to see rage, but there are other emotions, too. There’s been sadness at government policy, and sadness at relationship struggles within the AltGov that are spurred by the anonymity.

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It’s not all depressing. There’s schadenfreude – often when government actions are contrary to talking points from government figures.

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But there is more genuine hope as well, between AltGov accounts and from their followers.

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Anonymity and your voice

Politics. Everyone has an opinion, and it’s still not cool to discuss it in polite company. Online, and in particular on social media, the company may not even be polite. Posts may not be civil and responses can be downright frightening, with threats and sometimes actions as a result of things people post online. You also quickly lose control of your information.

As I’ve been working on this AltGov book project, one of the things I’ve been thinking about quite a bit is how the way we share political opinion has been shaped by social media. Whether people are sharing their opinions on Facebook with those they probably have known in some way or on Twitter with anyone the algorithm chooses to let see it, social media means one’s thoughts can travel in unexpected ways.

A big theme of the book is anonymity. Almost all of the AltGov use anonymous accounts, and they take some pretty extensive pains to keep themselves unknown (more about how in the book!).

As  professor, it’s interesting how what I seeing with them fits with what we think is how people communicate.

One theory is the spiral of silence, which we use to help explain why some ideas become popular, and others don’t. Basically, people avoid expressing unpopular opinions because they think it will cost them socially, or maybe in worse ways like with the loss of a job. There’s a whole lot more and you can read a basic summary here, if you’re interested.

That theory intersects with this project in a couple of ways. First, the Alts work to stay anonymous to avoid negative repercussions like losing a job or having real-world threats. Some have told me they wouldn’t be able to share what they do without that anonymity. The second intersection is when people the power of social condemnation, like we saw with images of the Charlottesville marchers. Their photos spread online until some of the marchers were identified.

A spiral of silence has an obvious problem when popularity doesn’t equal quality of ideas, and throughout history we’ve seen a lot of frankly stupid ideas that got a lot of traction. Anonymity intersects with technology to both make things better and make them worse.