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

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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!

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.

Want My Music? Just Ping Me

So digital music sales have stalled this year. It looks like the music industry can go back into panic mode and release their lawyers on unsuspecting college students illegally sharing tunes by the terabyte.  I’m not saying that they already have, but we all know that’s a realistic option for the music behemoths. Over the past decade they’ve learned slowly but surely the lengths people will go to hear their favorite Lady Gaga single, whether that’s flirting with accidentally downloading a virus, getting poor quality files, or being caught by the man.

How can the music industry raise the bar without tightening their grip around the neck of progress? They’ll have to embrace social networking, the very thing that they’ve been fighting against since Napster almost brought them to their knees.

Apple is trying to use their clout as the number one seller of digital music to convince the music industry to embrace such a future with Ping, an add-on to iTunes that allows people to share music. When Ping first came out in early September, it was met with very little positive reviews because it stymied social interactions. However, a recent software update has made Ping a much more social tool that will allow it to climb the ladder of Web 2.0 success.

Where will this take the music industry? Hopefully the same place iTunes and video game downloadable content (DLC) took Steve Jobs and console and PC game developers over the past 10 years, which is out of a rut. Where will this take consumers? Hopefully to a place where music is cheaper and more readily available and where new music is discovered every day. Never heard of the group who was “formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”? In the future, if Ping is a success, you and the entirety of your social networks will know who they are before the Lenos and Lettermans of the world can lay a finger on them.

That’s the world that I want to live in because I’m tired of grainy tracks filled with viruses…not that I would know anything about that of course 😛

What are your thoughts?

Media and the Message @InyofaceEnzensberger

I had the pleasure (not really) of reading the work of Hans Magnus Enzensberger called Constituents of a Theory of the Media (1970). Enzensberger is a pretty ingenious guy in that he affixes Marxism to communication theory and likens the mass media to the superstructure trying to keep a monopoly on the unparticipating masses/proletariat.

Is that a mouthful? Yes. Does he have a point? Sure, why not. I mean, before the Internet, it was much more difficult to become a participant in the mass media because the means of production were too expensive to own and distribute. However, this example shows where his ideas are flawed.

While raging against anything remotely technologically deterministic and announcing his deep-seeded hatred for Canadian communications theorist Marshal McCluhan, Enzensberer fails to realize that technology, and the means of production have progressed to such a degree in the past 40 years to render his points about revolutionizing media through purely social participation moot.

There are many ways to create, share, and re-share/tweet, or whatever. Much of it is due to social networking, but the catalyst for our newly empowered proletariat masses has more to do with technology than anything else. For example the only reason why people have changed their day-to-day behaviors is because of technology. Office meeting etiquette, prime time TV viewing, relationships, word of mouth, personal privacy, etc. have all been shaped by revolutions in technology by the likes Smart Phones with QWERTY keyboards, hulu, cheap video cameras, Facebook, and geo-location software.  And as anyone will surely tell you, correspondence using any of these technologies will mean different things depending on what you use (and also depending on who you talk to, but that doesn’t negate the fact that new technology has changed our approach to dealing with individuals and the masses as an individual consumer/producer).

Don’t believe that the medium is the message or the fact that the medium almost completely shapes the way we view things, thus making it a message in and of itself? Take this article in Wired as an firm example of why technology reins supreme. As in the article, depending on which of the semi autonomous creations of plastic and metal you choose, you’re experience will vary considerably

So what say you? Do we have more agency, or are we mostly shaped by our technology use? Before you answer, consider your interactions with your friends and family sans just a cell phone. I can see you twitching with stress already.

Constituents of a Theory of the Media

Jumping on the Foursqaure Bandwagon

Time to jump on the bandwagon. Foursquare, the real-life achievement oriented, barhopping, smart phone friendly web 2.0 creation is taking over a city near you. With 23 cities total (21 in the US and 2 international), and 1.35 million dollars of investor moola to throw around, this New York-based Internet startup is going to be on many a phone in the coming years.

Foursquare_icon

So what is Foursquare? It’s a location-based website where you can “Check-in” to different locations in order to build up points and earn badges. Sounds lame you say? Hear me out.

It’s Friday night in Washington DC. You take the Metro from Silver Spring to DuPont Circle and go to Buffalo Billiards to hang out. In doing so you make a trip over to the fountain to relax and then head back home. Sure you had a great time, but with Foursquare you just earned Mad Points that night.

There are rules to checking in though, which are explained in Foursquare’s help section. One of the most notable is that you won’t earn any points during normal work hours (M-F 8am-4pm) unless you discover a new place or provide them new info on a location that hasn’t been entered into the system. I like this because it encourages being adventurous and shuns the lame folks who’d rather stay in and watch Gray’s Anatomy on a Thursday night *shiver*.  So yeah, that lunch with your co-workers doesn’t count. Sorry Jon from Accounting.

Foursqaure turns a fun night into a competition that makes it even more fun to be out with your friends. It’s almost like how your mind works when you play fantasy football. More achievements = more points. You can even become the mayor of a location if you check-in enough times. I mean, you’re talking to the mayor of the Silver Spring Metro and Mayorga Coffee Factory here *ahem* *ahem*.

So what do these points and mayorships get you? Nothing right now. The point is to be able to use the service with your buddies to talk up how you scored more points than them in a single night (or week). When they check-in you can even see where they are so that you can be there too (that gets you more points as well). It’s a social networking site, so it pays to be social.

The creators of Foursquare, Dennis Crowley, Naveen Selvadurai, and Harry Heymann are playing around with ways to reward players in real life for their efforts, but to me this is problematic because if people start getting discounts for being mayors, users will start blasting the system with bogus check-ins to earn more freebies.

Another caveat is that this all works under the honor system. Foursquare has no idea whether I’m actually going to these places. I could just be sitting at home all night putting myself all around the city, earning points, badges, and mayorships without anyone being the wiser. Some people may actually do this because that’s how they have fun, but the folks at Foursquare are banking on the fact that the people who do this are going to get tired of it and won’t have as much of a drive to check-in as those who are actually going out and having fun in the “real world”.

Foursquare apps

This leads me to one last caveat. Having an Android phone or an Iphone makes checking in a lot easier because each of these phones has a Foursqaure application that will give you access to their services without much hassle (such are awesomeness of apps). Using other Internet-enabled phones is a bit trickier because you have to go to their websites, which takes a lot longer. Those who don’t have a data plan can text in their location, but I’m going to bet that most people don’t do this at all because the service isn’t as interactive, and if you come to a spot that doesn’t exist in the system it’s impossible for these users to enter the new location, thus defeating the purpose of the game (Foursquare is relatively new to the scene and I’ve had to enter new locations on the fly many times).

The good news for Blackberry users without an app to call their own is that the folks at Foursquare say that an app made especially for them is on the way. Yay!

I would also suggest that Foursquare take note from the Yelp team and hire city community managers. These CM’s can organize Foursquare nights where members can earn more points barhopping on the nights being lead by a city’s respective CM. This way, if people know that they can earn more points by not cheating, they’ll be more likely to come out, get involved, and have a good time. Businesses will love this too because this means more revenue for them. Also, can you say publicity? Think about it.

In the end, Foursquare is very smart. They’ve created a system where normal shmoes like you and me are willing to advertise for other businesses for the sheer pleasure of earning points and being crowned mayors. We don’t mind making other businesses more popular because we want to share our experiences and get our friends to come along with us in our late night revelries. If sharing virtual drinks has become the most popular application on Facebook, if Yelp is slowly wheeling Zagat into a retirement home, and if scholars are using Wikipedia to start their research (after looking at citations of course), then it’s no wonder that our Web 2.0 culture of Stumbling, Digging, and sharing has lead us to this new form of entertainment that has created a hybrid legion of techy-fratboy-nerds bent on pwning their respective cities.

Foursquare, you are t3h 4w3som3s0rz br0!

If you want to jump on the bandwagon too, connect with me on Foursqaure.

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