The Homeless Homeless Advocate: Using Social Media to Advocate for Change

Eric Sheptock

Taken by Michael S. Williamson, Washington Post

Today in the Washington Post there is a story about a homeless man named Eric Sheptock who advocates for the homeless. What makes him unique is that:

  1. He uses Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and email (accessed through public computers at the library) to advocate for the homeless and
  2. He does not want to accept a job so that he can keep his credibility as a homeless homeless advocate

Sheptock, 41, wouldn’t take a 9-to-5 job that compromised his advocacy efforts or the long hours he spends tending to his digital empire, he says. He wouldn’t move out of the downtown D.C. shelter where he has slept for the past two years if it would make him a less effective voice for change.

“Too many homeless people have come to look up to me, and I can’t just walk away from them,” he says in a recent blog post titled “Tough Choices.” “My conscience won’t allow it.”

Specifically, along with advocating for more affordable housing Sheptock advocates for the improvement of the District government’s (the city of Washington DC) performance on homelessness so that the shelters can be “effective”. The article doesn’t go into detail about how Sheptock defines how the DC government can be more effective with the homeless, but it would seem as if he wants DC’s shelters to be more accommodating to a larger amount of homeless individuals:

In a city where 6,500 people have no place to live, affordable housing is scarce and shelters are full, Sheptock “aims to pressure them into actually being effective,” his Facebook page says.

Short Documentary

Short Documentary on Eric Sheptock

The Good

Sheptock is using social media as a soapbox to advocate for better accommodations for the homeless throughout the city. With the use of the Internet, he has been successful in reaching out to government officials that can make a difference in the lives of DC’s homeless population. For example:

This year, Sheptock contacted Laura Zeilinger, who oversees the city’s homeless services, because of a water leak in the women’s shelter at CCNV [Community for Creative Non-Violence].

“It’s taken the city longer to fix this water leak than it took them to stop the oil leak in the Gulf Coast,” he told her.

She quoted him, and within weeks the leak was fixed.

Unfortunately, the Post doesn’t state how he contacted her, so we can only assume this was done through email or through some other form of electronic communication. However the point is that, as an Internet-savvy homeless advocate, Sheptock is making a difference (even if it is minuscule) because of his continued use of the Internet and social media.

The Questionable

Alright everyone, time to put our thinking caps on. See these lines? Good. It’s time to read between them.

Despite the interesting fact that a homeless man is using Internet-based technology to advocate for the better living conditions of others like him, there are many points that shouldn’t sit well with you because despite his empowerment through technology, he is greatly limiting himself and the ability of others like him to lift themselves out of poverty into the economic mainstream:

  • Eric Sheptock is using the Internet for positive change, yet this call for change is only calling for better/larger housing for the great number of homeless people throughout the city. Sheptock should be calling to help the homeless out of their unfortunate situation through job training, job creation, and drug rehabilitation. He’s also advocating for more affordable housing, but you can’ t pay for rent unless you can get and hold a steady job, which is something that job training, job creation, and drug rehabilitation can solve.
  • Eric Sheptock’s belief that getting a job will somehow dismantle his credibility only works to glorify homelessness, which is not the message needed to uplift this struggling group of people.
  • Although we’ve now found out that through the Internet even someone without a home can be empowered and make a difference, Eric Sheptock’s refusal to get a job will ultimately keep him in a minimal position of government influence, which could be enhanced if he woke up and realized that working for local non-profits such as the National Coalition for the Homeless would improve his living situation, give him a steady income, grant him access to more contacts that can improve the lives of the homeless, allow him to be on the Internet and spread his message more often than any public library lab will ever allow, and ultimately lift him to a better position of advocacy where his skills and credibility could be enhanced and used in ways that will reach more people in less time than he ever could reach spending hours walking and busing back and forth between public libraries and shelters.

Does this sound too harsh? I don’t think so, but it’s my blog and I can say whatever I want, which is way too boring. That’s why I would rather hear from you. What do you think? Am I bursting this story’s uplifting balloon? Or is there some sense to be had out of my uber-long analysis?

By the way, if you want more Eric Sheptock, you can look him up using the following links:

Facebook
Twitter
Blogger

WikiLeaks: National Security Threat or a Revolution in Information Dissemination?

 

I’m torn when it comes to the WikiLeaks debacle. I’m all for the freedom of information; for example, I’m a firm believer in softening copyright and trademark restrictions throughout the world and I take a very serious interest in the teachings of Lawrence Lessig who believes in the same thing (to speak very generally). However, I think that these leaks (especially from my own biased American perspective) go too far in exposing top secret information to the public sphere.

One positive way to think about WikiLeaks is that, as an academic and as a researcher, this massive amount of information provides us with more knowledge than we were once privy to, which is always a plus in academia. It also spits in the face of traditional matters of diplomacy and begs the question as to whether or not people like Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, are releasing information like this in order to defy and revolutionize the way information gets released from the government to the people. This may very well change the way citizens of the world who live in the Information Age go about policing our governments.

However, to play Devil’s advocate, although there is now a wealth of information on international diplomatic relations due to WikiLeaks, this debacle could put a freeze on such information leakage in the future because foreign governments will be more hard-nosed when it comes to keeping their information secure. This is not to say that leaks will not happen in the future. What will most likely happen is that it will be years or even decades before a gold mine of information such as this reappears. WikiLeaks will change the way foreign diplomats will disclose information to US diplomats by stymieing the flow of information. It will also change the way US citizens will view their government and government officials. US citizens already have a healthy (and rightfully so) skeptical view of their government, but leaks like this hurt the trust we as Americans have in our government even further. The same goes for foreign citizens who view the United States government in the same way.

So is WikiLeaks a good thing because the site is acting as a revolutionary watchdog of world powers by exposing their foreign relations practices to the rest of the world? Or is this a threat to national security on a world-wide scale? Personally from an American perspective, I think that our media does enough to watch over our government (as it has done for decades). Our government shouldn’t be micromanaged any more than I need to be micromanaged at work. And oh and how I fucking despise being micromanaged!

Like I said before, I’m all about the freedom of information, but top secret government information is top secret for a reason. I can only speak for my own country, so with the United States in mind it would behoove American citizens to trust in their traditional media watchdogs rather than trust the nebulous mission of WikiLeaks whose disclosure of top secret government information does more to hurt international relations than it does to revolutionize media dissemination.

So what say you, oh all-knowing interweb peoples? Yay or Nay on WikiLeaks?

RockMelting Faces

RockMelt. It’s supposed to be what we’ve been waiting for. It’s supposed to be a form of Web 2.0 that is as seamless as it is intuitive. What is RockMelt? According to their website:

RockMelt does more than just navigate Web pages. It makes it easy for you to do the things you do every single day on the Web: share and keep up with your friends, stay up-to-date on news and information, and search. And of course, RockMelt is fast, secure, and stable because it’s built on Chromium, the open source project behind Google’s Chrome browser. It’s your browser – re-imagined and built for how you use the Web.

In short, they use Google Chrome to give you constant access to your Facebook and Twitter accounts in the form of two bars on either side of your browser:

As you can see, I have my Facebook friends who are currently online to my left — including my own profile on the upper left-hand side of the browser. Clicking on my picture allows me to update my status. I can also alternate between my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

On the right-hand side you can see the large Facebook icon, which gives me all of the most recent updates from my news feed. Thankfully, I don’t get any annoying sounds when something new pops up. All I get is a counter that silently counts the number of updates from my news feed. The same goes for any other page I decide to subscribe to, like Twitter or Roosterteeth. Lastly, the little Facebook icon shows a summary of the Facebook activity that is directly associated with me — like comments for example.

What’s cool:

  1. Twitter and Facebook any time & all the time
  2. Seamless integration of icons aren’t abrasive to the overall look of the browser
  3. I’m my own 24/7 news station
  4. I can add more feeds

What’s lame:

  1. Un-Godly distracting; unless you develop enough willpower not to check the constant updates
  2. Only works on Chrome, which is disappointing for Firefox fans like myself
  3. Using the Google search bar is a bit awkward because it lets you preview pages before you click on them and doesn’t automatically bring you to the Google search results page. Of course you can avoid this by using the address bar to search
  4. You can only post links to your status. You can’t post links with a description and a picture. You have to log onto Facebook the old-fashioned way to do that.
  5. In saying this, I’ve noticed that the social networking functions on the sides act as highly advanced applications that are somewhere between smart phone apps and the completely robust functionality of the real thing

So is this Web 3.0? Is this the semantic web? In short No. I think we still have a long way to go before the Internet is truly defined by participatory culture and informed by our peers in a way that makes using the Internet almost like using a tool that knows more about us than we know about it (expect for computer nerds of course…they know about everything).

I do think that we’re getting closer though, and an innovation like RockMelt is definitely a positive contribution to the ecosystem that will give rise to the next generation of computing technology and the Internet as we know it. In the meantime, I’ll be happy tinkering around with this browser and waiting for RockMelt to work all the kinks out. I can’t wait to see how this evolves.

Rock On!

Violin-Hop Prodigy: Thank You Web

I was going to write about how Wired Magazine made an interesting point about how the use of the Web is dwindling due to the popularization of mobile apps, which is of course a direct result of our information hunter-gatherer culture where keyboards and ethernet chords have been eschewed for the pocket-friendly, 4G mini tablets that we used to call phones. However, the Web, being the cruel bitch that she is, discouraged me from contributing my weekly minutia to the sphere of blogs because apparently everyone else has brought their two cents to the bank and are collecting interest.

Fuck you Web for beating me to the punch with your smug all-powerful intelligence and the ability to be in any and all places without anyone being the wiser!

But guess what? This is where Wired’s argument has a gaping hole. Hence, the title of today’s post. Wait for it……..

 

Jason Yang

Jason Yang!

There! One case who represents the silent majority of Web content that can only be discovered by farting around the Internet without any real goal in mind. I’m not saying to Hell with mobile apps, but unpredictability still exists online. And if you believe that a Violinist who drops a killer track on the Internet with no one around to hear it can’t possibly make a sound (without sufficient old media coverage – like with Antoine Dodson) then I say to you non-believers to shut the hell up and give a listen, because the Web may be dead to those goal-oriented prudes, but to Web scavengers, the clinically bored, and those with a penchant for clicking hyperlinks, prepare to be entertained in a way that you could have never preconceived.

Welcome back to the Web fools!

Blogger’s Block – No Burgers, No Web 2.0, Just Wiki

Grrrr! I can’t seem to find anything Web 2.0 related to write about. At least nothing recent. So…

Food News:
Rougue States in Dupont Circle, one of my favorite places to nom, closed down because white-collar curmudgeons didn’t like grease fumes seeping into their Armani suits. That’s pretty interesting in my opinion (although it makes me upset that such a fine burger place is getting taken off of the menu in the restaurant that is DC). I guess I’ll have to go to north Dupont to BGR, or wait for Go Burger to open up right across the street later this year.

 

Web 2.0 News:
Other than that I’ve been reading up on the history of Wikis and the emergence of the masses taking over where the encyclopedia professionals left off – in small circles huddled around hard-cover books mumbling about changes that won’t take place until the next decade.

It sounds dramatic, yes, but this is the impression I got from the stories about how Wikipedia sprung up in 2001; a cheeky experiment to see if an encyclopedia made by anyone could help with the creation of new articles for an encyclopedia made by  professionals. As it would turn out, Wikipedia ended up being the better option.

Why? To put it succinctly, it’s because Wikipedia had more contributors who wanted the site to succeed than detractors who wanted the site to fail or become a fortress of rebellion and naughty language.  This behavior is much akin to how neighborhoods work try to stay prim and perfect. The thought is that the more people care about the neighborhood, the less likely it’ll turn into a “bad” neighborhood with crime. Of course this is a very large generalization and doesn’t take into consideration socio-economic status, race, class, etc..

However, it seems to be working when all these things are not involved. If you’re a dog with broadband, no one else gives a crap whether your a dog (just don’t forget to cite your sources…and pick up your dog crap from my lawn).

Insightful Thought in 3…2…1…
The ability Wikipedia has in kicking the ass of the professional and giving power to the “people” is only due to the fact that the user community has a vested interest in what the site represents and what their thoughts represent (which is the historical record of mankind). This is how Yelp works as well. The power of Yelp is created by the user community. In the end, just like in your neighborhood, the actions of the community are as narcissistic as they are noble. Picking up trash in your neighborhood and mowing your lawn are acts that make both you and your neighborhood look like nice places to hang your hat. Multiply that by 100 and form it into PTA meetings with bake sales and boring late night Wednesday meetings and you have yourself an aware  public who’s looking out for the best interests of the place you call home.

Random Thought in 3…2.

Hey, weren’t we talking about burgers?

Group Think = Smarter Think

Yes, well, only if you play well with others and, umm…have women in your group.

In a study that was co-authored by Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Union College and is published in Science,  researchers found that the intelligence of an individual has very little bearing on the intelligence of the group he/she is in.  What made the group in the study more intelligent was the way the group interacted and how well it could “distribute turn-taking, how socially sensitive the group members were, and how many woman were on each team [they suspect it's because women exhibit higher social sensitivity and can read social cues better than men].”

This doesn’t read like a politically correct statement, and I doubt that this study (which included 699 participants) will result in managers strategically placing women in more brainstorming groups for obvious gender bias reasons. However,  this does make one wonder if managers will use this study to think of better ways to facilitate brainstorming sessions to fully optimize knowledge building. Will they supplement these sessions with wikis, content management systems, etc? Who knows.

One thing’s certain; group think kicks way more ass than what one person may come up with. I think Wikipedia has proven that much. Just so long as you’re getting ideas from different viewpoints rather than hearing echoes from your your chamber of comfort, you’re doing the right thing.

Play nice. You might just get a gold sticker.

Clay Shirky v. Malcolm Gladwell

After reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Malcom Gladwell’s October 4th article in the New Yorker, I thought I would give a comparison between the two minds and make some thoughts of my own.

 

Clay Shirky

 

Enter Clay Shirky
author of  Here Comes Everybody:

A new media enthusiast who believes in the gathering power of new media. Protests in Iran, political activism in Egypt, and teenage girls who get blasted on the Internet for stealing a cell phone prove how social media is a force to be reckoned with in the 21st Century. Shirky uses these as examples of how social media is changing the way we interact due to our need to share, edit, and play nice with each other’s digital contributions to the world.

 

Malcolm Gladwell

 

Enter Malcolm Gladwell
author of The Tipping Point:

A social media realist who believes that the power of social media can only be thought of as a place where weak ties between individuals and groups can exist. This power is only good for fleeting moments of togetherness and collective activism. For Gladwell, to think that a “@MLK #CivilRightsMovement” in the 21st Century can have the same or even a much larger and effective impact than the  Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s ignores the basics of group formation and social psychology.

What Do I Think?

Gladwell has a valid point. I don’t think social media is a place where strong ties are made. Any interaction through media, regardless of their relative richness (email v. phone v. skype v. etc.) will yield much weaker results than old-fashioned, strategic group organization. Strong ties can only be garnered through face-to-face relationships, such as friendships and partnerships.

However, it’s unfortunate that Gladwell doesn’t argue for the need to incorporate social media into strong ties between individuals and groups in order to make the relationship between them stronger and easier to access. Hasn’t he ever used Facebook to keep in touch with his buddies from undergrad? He simply states that the passion and success of a long, sustaining movement cannot hinge itself upon the ephemeral nature of social media flash mobs. True as this is, he’s not thinking past the social media/social organizing dichotomy. he should be think towards a combination of the two.

Gladwell assumes that people like Shirky are “tech first people second” new media scholars. This is hardly the case. In Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, Shirky clearly makes the statement that social media and groups must be corralled in some way by an organized structure in order for it to work. Also, and most importantly, Galdwell states throughout the book that social media and technology are simply extensions of the needs of the people (like how the printing press came out of the need to distribute literature, which was once done by scribes).

In the end, I’ll have to give more credit to Gladwell for pointing out a significant flaw in new media theory because he makes note of the myth that social media create strong enough ties among individuals and groups to develop long and sustaining social movements (something that he convincingly disproves in the New Yorker article). However, Gladwell fails where  Shirky begins. Shirky takes this myth, and acknowledges it’s faults; explaining how  fleeting relationships can be used for good. Again, Gladwell seems to be 100% people oriented and does not make the attempt to bridge social media and pre-Internet group formation.

What I would like to see in the future is a practical explanation on when social media can be used to gather certain types of people for certain types of movements. With such a map, users of new media can plan accordingly and use social media to turn what was once a fleeting relationship into a long sustaining relationship of people willing to do what is called of them.

In the end, I’m still waiting for the Million Twitter March, which will be streamed live on Ustream and updated live Wikipedia faster than the papers can say “print” :P. Just so long as mankind continues to act human and form strong relationships, social media will be there (and improved upon) to support these relationships.

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