Internet


A Note On #Techies

 “We should interrogate the code of cyberspace as we interrogate the bills of Congress.”

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Last week I joined 70,000 others in Austin for the interactive rodeo known as SXSW, a breeding ground for ideas & creativity. This meant a lot of pedicabs, food trucks, open bar parties, and hashtags.

A lot of my friends have asked what the experience was like. Questions range: What did you learn? What’s the next big startup?  Was it overrun by hipsters? Did you eat a 3D Oreo? It’s like I had been hurdled into the outer reaches of space and back to return & report on the other-worldly activities of those “techies”.

IMG_2891The fascination is understandable. It’s not everywhere you see people wearing Google Glass and dancing with robots like it’s perfectly normal. SXSW represents everything emerging, innovative, and techie….buzz words of the decade.

I’ve decided to share a few thoughts on the conference – both positive and negative – because there is clearly a curiosity. But my commentary is less about the festival itself and more about  tech as a “phenomenon” (spurred by an observation that the term “techie” has been rabidly used in recent months).

Lesson 1. South by Southwest is not so much about innovation in tech as it is about innovation in marketing. 

When did all this nerdy stuff become cool? One word: brands. Years before I even touched a computer, South by Southwest was just a humble little conference fostering relationships between indie filmmakers, bootstrapped technologists, and garage bands.

A purist would say these early builders are the real technologists, the ones who actually built the memory chips that make up each of our computers. Since the dot com era, however, that definition has changed. Marketers have accelerated the mass commodification of “pure” technology with their ability to package previously bulky tech items into hip and accessible tools for all. At SXSW, it’s the marketers who now run the show by connecting with the early adopters whose products they evangelize, and then ultimately attract mainstream attention. We all buy into it.

My personal gripe with today’s loose application of “techie” is that those who self-appoint that term, including myself, often only understand the external aspects of technology- the result of the internal wirings, but not the wirings themselves. As consumers, our understanding is rather limited to the outer ecosystem of online communities, landing pages, and sharing platforms.

But I digress. I guess it doesn’t really matter who “techies” are anymore. We’ve moved into a world of platforms and social feed-based behavior that allows anyone to create without knowing a line of code. Which means that aside from developers and designers, most of us don’t actually spend time building like the Leonardo da Vincis of the dot com era…and don’t need to. Have a computer? Claim your domain!

Which leads to my second point: Tech is not limited to hipsters.

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One of the strangest (and clearly most ingenious) selfies I snapped in Florida several years ago.

A recent phrase I’ve heard to characterize tech’s intruding influence on cities is “hood to hipster”. It implies that technology has resulted in increased gentrification, which the numbers (sadly) do support.

Admittedly, there were a lot of bikes, Warby Parker glasses, and converses at SXSW. And yes, participants in this “brave new world” are often SEO, CMS, Java, and Twitter gurus, overlapping with members of the “#selfie, #hashtag #excessive, Trader Joe’s” demographic.

The problem with describing tech as a strictly hipster phenomenon is that it precludes tech’s reach. The people who are going to adopt something early are often going to be upper-class “hipsters” with the means to. But as technology seeps into more areas of our life, it will inevitably become the underpinning of every industry. Tech is not so much an industry but a lifestyle everybody, regardless of class, will be adapting to.

This is why the public sector’s role in technology is crucial. The only way technology’s benefits can be experienced beyond a select population is when government prioritizes basic infrastructure upgrades that increase access to fast, reliable Internet, while implementing education training programs that make the less technologically-inclined prepared for tech-related jobs.

Chelsea Clinton noted in her keynote at SXSW that the distinction between “technologists” and “policy makers” is a false dichotomy. The “hood to hipster” phrase excuses the responsibility we each have to learn about this new world. There’s no excuse: we are all technologists.

So, what gives?

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The Spotify House at SXSW

Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”.  Even this accurate depiction of an important tech issue leaves me stuck. Pitting the old tech guard against today’s hungry youth yields nothing but balding folks angrily shaking their fists at millennials, a hardly desirable solution.

I don’t know the answer. One thing I do know: the new code of power lies in technology. Something we can all do, regardless of age, is to increase our tech literacy. Algorithms are the new gatekeepers: they affect our search results, what we read, what is deemed “news”.  That’s enormously powerful! To that end, we should be asking more than just “what is the news?” but “how did this information find me”? Understanding this basic code will set the framework for healthier, more proactive digital lives.

My overall feeling after leaving SXSW is a a mix of overwhelming awe at the explosive advances in tech, coupled with a cynicism that none of these advances are leading us toward a world all that meaningful. But my real angst comes from the frightening prospect that the majority of us, including mild consumers of technology like you and me, aren’t technologically literate enough to understand the algorithms controlling SO MUCH of our daily online lives. How does our current consumption feed future consumption? What is data being used for? When are algorithms harming us? (To learn more about algorithmic literacy, read this.) I also worry about the growing knowledge gap for those with absolutely zero technological prowess.

I’m aware of the irony. I work in technology and the very things I decry are fueled by my own actions: a love for the packaging & commodification of technology, which leads to a voracious appetite for more, which exploits our largest human vulnerabilities, which leads to compulsive behavior.  Yet that’s why I question it, knowing that speaking up is a privilege afforded to those with the luxury of access and with the hope that these questions can improve our evolving relationship with tech.


In 2013

IMG_0088For all its messiness, 2013 was a strangely awe-inspiring year. It was the year I found 3 professions, separately, in 3 very different industries. It was the year I failed, took a leap of faith into full-time writing, and discovered that it wasn’t for me. It was the year I lived in 3 apartments (6, if you count the 3 Air BnBs in San Francisco), started a group, and learned to like brussel sprouts. It was the year I traveled alone, got off Facebook, accepted that I am not Carrie Bradshaw. It was the year I became a public servant.

It was a year of relentless change.

I toasted to the occasion at a New York City bar. Like every other year, smooching couples basked in their “Auld Lang Syne” moment. I took note of those other trusty sidekicks. The buzzing ones. The plastic babies clamoring for our attention, crying “How dare we live in the moment”. This was the year we reflexively gave in, coddling our smartphones shortly after the midnight kiss because the moment is not to be lived; it’s to be created.

The moment has become a customized stream, a fully immersive sensory experience sprouting from multiple devices and directions. The moment is filtered, with selfies never more beautiful, words never more prophetic. Gifted to you, me, everyone – the most democratic of platforms – it’s social.  2013 was the year the megaplatform ruled the Internet, and we, the people, developed our megaphones. The once-scrappy kids on the block (Facebook, Twitter) became the establishment. We created a life by documenting and connecting because our lives are better when shared, if slightly embellished. No longer a phenomenon, the sight is ubiquitous: bouncing thumbs on the subways, streets, and most pervasively, our heads.

I suppose we celebrate the year’s end because it’s proof that we’ve lived and have more to live in the next. But does proof lie in the act or the memory? Now that 2013 is over, I wonder – if I don’t write this post and preserve the moments- will the year’s significance be lost?

These are tough questions that may not be resolved this year, next, or anytime soon. But we can aspire to greater conscientiousness and become regular customers of our own repair, all together now, tapping once, twice, thrice to the beat and eventually finding our balance to this strange but beautiful amorphous dance of life.

2014 will be the year of liberation. Carpe diem.


Let’s Be Real

Our daily observations are often riddled with emotion. Even the most scientifically-rooted of us are subject to bias. So it’s important to be aware of the temptation to fit data into existing beliefs that don’t necessarily reflect reality.

I’ve recently begun diving into data from our agency’s website and social media traffic. This exercise has produced unexpected findings.  For instance, the most popular pages on our website are, anti-climactically, the Jobs and About pages. The many other sections filled with rich information about our programs, services, and developments – which we’ve spent hours developing – have minimal views in comparison. Does this mean we should produce less compelling material on these pages? No. But it does indicate that we might serve a greater number of people by investing just a little more time in pages we might normally skimp over.

Another example. Back in September, I compiled research findings for a blog post about Lower Manhattan’s growth. It took about a month to prepare, yet didn’t come close to cracking the top 10 on our blog. Instead our most-viewed post was about ferry service changes.

After diving deeper, I saw that people had searched and accessed ferry service-related information more than double that of any other blog post topic. While I personally don’t find ferry service a fascinating subject, this outlier forced me to reevaluate how we’re deciding what to write about each week. Lower Manhattan, while an interesting topic, doesn’t serve a need. Ferry service, meanwhile, is a crucial service people are depending on to get between boroughs.

Looking at anomalies and asking certain questions informs better decision-making. What is driving traffic? Is there a larger site linking to us? What do people really want to know? As a reporter, I’m accustomed to editors assigning stories based on their almighty evaluation of what the audience wants. I’m also used to pitching stories that are interesting to me, myself, and I.  In both scenarios, public information decisions are made from the top-down based on personal whims and a tepid grasp of reality. Even surveys aren’t that effective since personal biases and framing of questions influence how people respond. Data can be a clear, democratic, and objective way to ensure that public needs are being addressed. While not the answer to everything, web behavior shines light on trends. If the public is clicking on or searching for something, data reveals a demonstrated need or interest.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot wrote an informative piece on what she and her team learned during the redesign of the NYC Government site. She says, “Any digital experience can become an emotional debate, especially when you have lots of smart stakeholders…Data can be a great tonic for subjective conversations.” (I also love the reference to Mayor Bloomberg’s data-driven philosophy: “In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data”.)

Traffic metrics and search analytics informed the City’s new design. Alternate side parking, schools and garbage collection status were the top drivers of traffic, so they placed that information front and center. They also embraced data post-launch to measure success and constantly analyze user response.

People can decry the end of privacy, but open data can create a seamless user experience with more intuitive navigation, better content placement, and targeted information. It’s either that, or continued speculation based on personal biases.

I’m all about listening to intuition. It’s part of being human. This conversation isn’t about eliminating that. It’s about doing enough of a gut check through application of data to decide whether or not we should defend our instincts. Because let’s be real, our instincts are sometimes wrong.


The Value of Social

I’ve been on a “social media cleanse” since Monday. Not a full-out purge, just a mini-cleanse to rejuvenate. (That person on a juice cleanse…at the bar? That’s me.)

I’ve removed the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone. It means I’m still able to go on these networks via desktop but also removes the temptation to compulsively, incessantly, maniacally graze through an unending stream of (mostly) uninteresting updates on-the-go. It’s a small move, but proven immensely helpful.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot gives the specs on NYC gov social media engagement.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot gives the specs on NYC gov social media engagement.

My cleanse lasts a week. On Monday, I’ll be back on the social grid, starting at NYCEDC as manager of social media and content. My task is to develop their social media, blog, and content marketing strategy, which will require full immersion in these platforms.

Though I sometimes decry the impertinent nature of social media content, I do believe in its value. The problem is I can never explain it. Does its primary value lie in the human capital that powers it? Its technological ability to surface interesting content? Its power to connect?

My real reason for disconnecting this week is to determine the void social media fills, if any. As I pull back the curtain and prepare to step behind the scenes of the grand social media production – taking on the “voice” of a 500-person organization – I’d like to know what exactly it is that people get out of their feeds.

So, I’m curious:

  • What gets your attention online?
  • How do you interact with social media? Do you use it as a discovery engine, an address book, news source?
  • What conversations/stories are relevant to you? (Particularly about your city?)

Please share your thoughts! I may be on a cleanse but ultimately, I believe that social media’s *nutritious* value is just waiting to be revealed. (sad food pun, sorry)

Food for thought:

Social Media Is For Listening.

Are You An IDIOT?


5 Reasons Why You Should Read This Awesomely In-Depth Post

For starters, this post is not about crepes. And it’s actually a pretty obnoxious and superficial post. But I can promise that I’ll get you outta here in less than 3 minutes (4 minutes if you’re multi-tasking) , so we can all get on with our merry royal baby-stalking lives.

This post is really about the 5 things I learned from my 2-month journalism internship. In reality, I learned a lot more than 5 things- not just about writing, but about technology, multimedia, and the way we consume information . Most likely, you wouldn’t have the bandwidth to read it all (nor I to write it). About 40% of you have already clicked away. Half of you will dart off after this paragraph. And I understand: there are more exciting GIFs waiting to be explored.

For those of you remaining (thank you), here are some lessons I learned from Business Insider that are invaluable not just for writers, but for anyone looking to leverage some influence in our modern, distractible, cyborg world.

I. Inflict emotion. 

Why should anyone care? Ultimately, it boils down to framing: picking a nugget of information that will resonate.

The age of objective journalism is gone. A headline like this will get clicks, Dunkin Donuts Hired Psychotic Credit Card Thief Carolyn Kravetz As Director Of Communications ,

or Here Are The Angry Texts A Mom Sent Her Bonehead Son Before He Ran Across The Field At The All-Star Game 

These headlines sound like bullish statements made at the bar, which is exactly the point. Read them, and you’ll see that they’re actually marvelous stories: the first being a serious piece of investigative journalism, the second a creative integration of new media.

We act on our instincts which are guided far more by emotion than logic. So, appeal to the audience with colorful adjectives , and the way YOU feel about something. It’s not completely PC, but I guarantee it will leave an impression and get people to bite into an important issue worth reading.

II. Simplify simplify simplify.

Humans like to digest information in compact bits, so any sort of list you can compile will be dopamine for the brain.

III. Pictures are (sometimes) more important than anything you’ll write.

I hate to use this story, but it’s a telling example of how superficial we are.

I manned a daily business advice column which averaged about 200-300 views per post. Each post had a picture of the person offering the advice. One particular post came from a businesswoman  who shared an uncanny resemblance to Kim Kardashian. (Before you ask for the link, it wasn’t her.) Within a day, her post received over 1000 views, more than most of these posts receive in a lifetime.

Several commenters admitted the only reason they clicked was because of the “hot picture”. Admittedly, this post was not written better than any other post, but having a fair face certainly got people to care.

IV. Brother, be brief. 

V. And clear.

I love a good story that weaves its way to an unforeseen ending in novel form. But theres a time and place for that, and the web is not that place. Albeit a few exceptions, a modern reader (or friend, colleague, whatever) wants to learn something new (with some context) fast.

The writer’s first job is to help us understand, not to dazzle.

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Thanks to Henry Blodget, CEO of Business Insider, along with my editors Vivian and Gus, who helped elucidate these insights along the way.

I’m not saying page views are all that matter. I’m going to work for a government agency which isn’t exactly known for provocative, click-baiting headlines. Impact will be measured by relatively dry economic initiatives. But, for every silly story out there, there are a myriad of other stories that matter. If you can figure out how to get people to care about really important issues, you can maximize your impact and maybe, just maybe, increase your chance of doing something truly world-changing.


The Backstory

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Bad hair reporting days. You rarely get to see this.

What makes a good story? Writers are often judged by what appears below their byline, but there is so much more to a good story than that. The public rarely gets to see the exciting grunt work behind the scenes. An initial story idea, like any entrepreneurial venture, goes through several pivots and iterations, before the golden story materializes.

Pitching to my editors is my favorite part of the job, but it’s also the hardest. Balancing what the public wants to know with your moral compass of what you think they should know is tricky.

You spend a lot of time swatting bugs behind the scenes.

You spend a lot of time swatting bugs behind the scenes.

There are a million backstories behind the final product. The vetting process – determining what is worth writing about, what people will like, what they should know – involves asking the right questions. What are readers curious about? What is their perception on a topic? What do they know that I don’t?

I’m creating a newsletter to involve my friends and family in story development. Each week, I’ll share stories I’ve posted, stories in the pipeline, and stories that need some fleshing out. I want to hear your thoughts on the stories in queue. Think of it as a sounding board, and your chance to add input to a story before it is published.

My strategy thus far has been to post a question on Facebook and Twitter. “Hey, what internship advice do you have for new interns?” “Do you know anything about Atlanta? Let me know!” It can get annoying. So, one other purpose of this newsletter is to reduce my clutter and create a targeted community of people who do actually want to participate in the development of stories without bombarding everyone else’s social feeds.

If you’re interested in participating, here’s the link to sign-up and feel free to forward to anyone else who is interested:

https://tinyletter.com/lynneguey

ps. the inspiration for a newsletter came from Ann Friedman, who wrote this helpful post on How Writers Can Use Email To Share Their Work. Her weekly newsletter is a mix of her original work, suggested reads, pie charts, and funny gifs.