Feeling Sad Weirds Me Out

I am not a normal person when it comes to “feeling things” or “reacting to sad shit.” Rather than having all of my sadness points distributed evenly–like a Mario of suffering–I’m the sort of person who cries at dog commercials but not at things like the end of summer camps. I appreciate suffering, and I’m sad when bad things happen to other people, but I am not particularly expressive except when I’m experiencing sadness through the media–This American Life stories about the Khmer Rouge, or pretty much the entirety of Up. Celebrity deaths don’t bother me, usually, except in an abstract, “I feel sorry for their families, because that’s awful,” kind of sense.

So I was really quite surprised when I was as sad as I was when Steve Jobs died. I didn’t know him, and Apple hasn’t ever hosted me at an event. Though I use a Macbook Pro, I’m not an Apple fangirl. I didn’t watch the iPhone 4S release announcement.

I’m not the only person I know who’s had this same reaction. Most of the people who I’ve talked to who aren’t tech folks still felt sad, and most of them were surprised at it. It seems inappropriate, sort of, like we feel sad about this public figure because we’re supposed to.

My friend Cameron has an interesting post up about how he thinks our sadness at Jobs’ death is related to collective guilt about expecting him to be superhuman. I don’t know how much I believe in our culpability (Jobs was always pretty private, from what I can tell), but I do think the idea of collective grief and idols is interesting. Maybe that’s why we’re sad.

Amy Winehouse’s death was sad, but she was incredibly human–we may have provoked her death (I agree with Cameron more here), but we also saw it coming. Jobs was someone who, because we never saw any real personal insight into his life even when he got cancer, did seem vaguely superhuman. He had pancreatic cancer and survived for more than five years, which considering that the five-year rate on pancreatic cancer is 4%, is kind of insane.

I still feel weird about feeling sad about Jobs’ death. But I do, if for no other reason than it means that there’s 30 years where he won’t be making cool things any more. That, if nothing else, is something to be sad about.

Social Media and Reproductive Justice Nonprofits

Recently, I’ve been volunteering at a women’s health clinic. They provide abortions, along with a wide range of other gynecological services, and so safety of staff, patients, and volunteers is a main priority. Though Atlanta is a fairly liberal area, it only takes one nut with a gun, etc.

Tonight, the outreach director at the center called me in to talk about how to best manage the social media for the center, as I have some experience managing social media for my internet day job. I love my internet day job! I sometimes am pretty sure that I don’t suck at it! So I am totally psyched to put some time in for this nonprofit. However, it quickly became clear that there are several really distinct challenges facing a reproductive justice organization (and, to some extent, any nonprofit) when it comes to managing social media presence that are not faced in the low-stakes world of internet technology writing. The main issues are:

Safety vs. exposure: This is particularly true with a reproductive rights organization, where people might actually shoot you. On the one hand, social media can be a godsend for nonprofits who are trying to organize people in meatspace in order to protest or support legislation. On the other hand, giving too much detail about where staff members can be found outside of the very secure offices opens up the opportunity for harm–which is particularly worrying if the organization is using the social media to gather volunteers and others who may not realize the danger of affiliation with the organization. Using the new Facebook groups, which automatically add members, may put someone in a compromised position if they don’t want a political cause (for example, a reproductive rights organization) showing up on their profile, and may put them in danger if they live with people who are not supportive. How do we best publicize events through social media, maintaining some of the impromptu strength of the medium, without putting anyone in harm’s way?

Multiple, independent programs within a single organization: My particular organization, like many nonprofits, has several initiatives going which target completely different audiences (for example: youth, Latin@s, and transmen all have programs targeted to them). A person interested in one program may not be interested in another program. How do we best manage information specific to each program while still making the organization’s main Twitter and Facebook feed useful to casual visitors? Is it fair to ask a user to follow multiple Twitter accounts or become a fan of multiple pages in order to get the information he or she needs? How do we maintain multiple accounts while reducing information overlap?

Limited staffing: Multiple accounts grow to the point where they require a dedicated staff member in order to maintain them or someone in each individual program to give up some of their time in order to maintain the individual program’s social media presence. This makes tracing accountability in case of an error quite difficult, and means that social media accounts may not be of consistent quality. Of course, most nonprofits don’t have the money to hire a person to manage these accounts full-time, and the job is often shunted off to an intern or a volunteer, who may or may not have any of the training required for the position and is likely a transient staff person at best.

Creating universal protocol: Figuring out a standard way each event is publicized so that it is traceable is key if social media is to be overseen by some central person for the organization. Do we tweet out a link to the Facebook event page in order to publicize? Does each event get its own group? Does the event get created by a staff person? Does it get linked to on the organization’s main page? One is either emphasizing uniformity while sacrificing in-depth knowledge of each event (if the job is centralized) or sacrificing uniformity while increasing the chances of a really qualified person managing the page (in the case of department-specific management).

Matching networks with target audiences: Social media have very different ethnic, class, and age makeups. For example, if an organization is targeting a program to Black teens, Twitter may be a good place to really focus energy. Cell phone-accessible sites in general may be good for youth targeting, and text messages are even better–particularly if it’s for something a teen may not want their parents knowing about. Facebook may be better for other audiences or for wider outreach for events which users don’t mind making public. Google+ is good for the nerds. All sites are not created equal if your audience is very specific, and nonprofit audiences frequently are.

I have an answer to literally none of these issues (though I am most comfortable with the audience targeting). I can’t think of any specific, small non-profits which are doing an outstanding job with social media other than Scarleteen. In particular, I’m interested to see if any organization with several specific, niche programs has figured out a way to solve the second problem, and if any repro justice organizations have mastered the first. Hopefully we’ll figure something out over the next couple of months.

I want to get it published.

Paper monsterNews Paper Origami Dragon Monster / epSos .de / CC BY 2.0

I’ve been talking a lot lately about essays. This is partly because, as of today, I am done with classes at Oxford College (woo! and also, wah!) and so I and my friends are writing lots and lots of term papers now (including mine on Facebook and death). But mostly, it’s because several of my friends have had some very similar interactions in the last few days. They go like this.

SANE PERSON: Done with my paper!

CRAZY CLASSMATE: How long is it?

SANE PERSON: Fifteen pages. You?

CRAZY PERSON: Oh, 35. I want to get it published.

This has happened with us on papers with 12-page limits, on papers with 20-page limits, and on papers with one-page limits. Someone-typically multiple someones–turns in a paper 10-20 pages longer than the maximum word limit assigned by the professor. This bothers my friends.

It’s offensive to begin with because, if nothing else, turning in final papers twice as long as requested indicates that students do not value a professor’s time. The professor presumably knows how long it takes her to grade 20 five-page papers, and so that is what she has budgeted. When one person (or five) turn in papers of 10 pages, then the professor is put in a bind. Plus, speaking from a purely self-interested standpoint, turning in papers which are longer than requested takes away time from every other student in the class, meaning that their papers (the ones that followed the requirements!) are likely to receive a less thorough evaluation than they might otherwise. It’s not that the people who turn in extra-long papers are bad people, but they are being inconsiderate. There needs to be a reassertion that maximum word limits are there for a reason, not just for shits and giggles. Grading takes time. Turning in unasked-for huge papers wastes that.

More worryingly, approaching papers in this way seems to indicate an underlying problem of a culture which values quantity over quality. Students are encouraged to do more: more clubs, more classes, more honors societies. Little attention is paid–by faculty and staff or by students–to doing better. At best, this leads to substandard work and clubs dominated by the same small group of people who are minimally invested–the same complaint that I’ve been making at HackCollege over the last few weeks. At worst, as Lena Chen has been discussing on her blog this week, it leads to a college culture which promotes mental illness and anxiety disorders. Colleges need to look at what they are doing as institutions to encourage this approach to learning.

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How I Wound Up Freelancing

At my building staff meeting tonight, the question of the week (our little closing ritual) was where we saw ourselves in five years. It being Emory, half the group answered “med school.” I said that I was planning to be working in the Smithsonian by then, but on second thought (after much debate among the med school kids about whether residencies are in a lottery that, I must confess, I did not pay attention to) I said that I might want to run social media outreach for an interesting company. One of my co-workers said that she could see me doing that, and another pointed out that I have job skills that are not like normal college kid job skills.

Though I don’t think I’m unusually skilled, I do realize that my sources of income outside of school–primarily freelance writing gigs–are weird. So, I thought I’d talk a little bit about how I stumbled into getting paid for writing.

I didn’t do paid writing until this year. As a high school student, I spent three years as an editor on the school paper, the last two as the Editor-in-Chief, and that gave me some experience writing on a deadline and a lot more experience with badly-applied AP Style, group writing, and how to manage an illegal install of InDesign and hook up a network the school didn’t want–plus how to deal with our printers in rural Georgia and fiddle with a WordPress supplement that my teacher didn’t want. All of these–particularly group dynamics and learning to work around silly restrictions–were tremendously useful skills, but when I graduated I quit using most of them.

This summer, while working at school, I saw that Kelly put out a call for new writers on HackCollege. I’ve been reading the site since I was in high school (yes, I’m that kid) so I applied. I was accepted, and after a truly geeky happy dance, started writing for the site regularly. I don’t get paid for the site*, but having someone force me to write regularly in a non-academic context made me more confident in my writing abilities and gave me a body of work that other people read.

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Exactly How I Spent My Time Today

On Monday, I stuck a post up on HackCollege the basic premise of which was that I have decided that when I treat college and the work attached to it like my job, and attempt to confine it to a roughly 10-6 schedule, I am a) surprised at how little time it takes to get through my work and b) happier. Then I got to talk about hobbies, and about having them in college in an attempt to retain some semblance of an ability to interact normally with other people. That part of the article is basically just a conversation I had with my friend Bijan over Spring Break, but with me writing it down instead of him figuring it out because he is wonderfully smart. (He is also a tremendously interesting person to talk to.)

The article seemed to be well-received, and some people who I respect tremendously said nice things about it, and I was very happy. External validation is the best, you guys!

But since this is my personal space on the internet, I wanted to address something that’s not looked at in the original piece, which is how I spend my day in terms of work/not work/work-that-I-like-so-it-isn’t-work. I want to know if I spend more or less time doing things now than when I will be employed. So, here’s how my day broke down (for tl;dr scroll down): Continue reading

Lying to Bouncers, Dancing with Nerds: SB ’11

So much plaid, everywhere.

SXSW 2011 / Shashi Bellamkonda / CC BY 2.0

After my weird little half-week and a weekend back from Spring Break, I am fully readjusted to not living out of a suitcase (yay!). I am not the sort of person who does well with traveling–somehow my clothes always wind up smelling weird and I wear the same outfit six time even though I overpacked. It’s not attractive.

I spent the break, along with two additional being-a-truant days, in Austin with Kelly, Shep, and Laura from HackCollege exploring the unconference aspects (ie, networking and parties) of South by Southwest Interactive. I was glad the trip wound up happening in part because it gave me an excuse to see some relatives I have not seen in several years, and because it involved tacos*, which are one of those foods that are delicious and that Georgians just don’t do.**

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Use Stereomood for Focused Study Music

If you’re someone who has to have music to study to, preparing playlists can take up more time than the actual learning. Particularly if you want to have control over what kind of music you’re listening to, most music services require a great deal of fine-tuning.

Pandora, though excellent if you don’t need to focus, builds playlists on artist characteristics rather than moods. Because it’s curated automatically, it can sometimes wildly miss the mark–tossing up “Boy Named Sue” when you want unintrusive music for other activities.* Grooveshark‘s great, and its selection can’t be beat, but it requires time-consuming curation. It’s a fabulous option if you want control over a party playlist, but it’s too time-intensive for study background music–the same issue as iTunes playlists, which have the added downside of being confined to music you actually own. And, though Frat Music crosses over most of these issues, it isn’t quite what you want to study to.

Read the rest at HackCollege.

Keep Your Body From Falling Apart During Finals

Finals are approaching, and for many students that means hours of studying supported only by coffee and occasional sugar-filled study breaks. Not surprisingly, this wrecks your health, lowers your concentration, and makes you a dead person by the end of finals. Laura’s already done a great job covering environmental hacks for finals–now we’re focusing on how to keep your body from falling apart during study time. Here are a few ways to avoid that inevitable crash-and-burn cycle so you can finish up testing and head home for important winter break activities, like chugging egg nog until your arteries cry.

Get a flu shot – As soon as you can (preferably before you start taking your exams), get a flu shot if you haven’t already. Your student health center probably provides them for free or cheap. You may normally have the immune system of a horse, but long periods of study punctuated by lack of sleep and bad food can reduce your immunity–and you don’t want to be vomiting any more than you have to on your Computer Science final.

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Winning Friends and Influencing People: College Cause Edition

College is a time for people to get really involved in something they’re passionate about, whether it’s a Free Tibet, vegetarianism, their college political party of choice, or something else entirely. However, what starts out as a well-intentioned passion for social change can quickly take a nosedive into the realm of irritating (and alienating) everyone around you. Here are some tips to prevent that from happening and, hopefully, encourage others to listen to you.

Don’t get confrontational: This is the particular problem of newly-converted vegetarians (especially if they came to it via PETA). There is nothing wrong with not eating meat (or only buying fair trade, or campaigning for a candidate), but there is something wrong with being rude to people who disagree with you. If, to use the vegetarian example, you rag on your friends every time they sit down with a dining hall steak, they will grow to hate you. However, if they simply begin to notice that you don’t eat meat and ask about it, it can be the opening for a great conversation about why you’ve made the switch. You don’t want your defining feature to be your cause, because that alienates people who don’t initially agree with you. You want to be “Tim, my lab partner who uses Linux and doesn’t eat meat,” and not, “Tim, that asshole who glares at me when I grab a burger.” There’s a difference.

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Home for the Holidays: Explaining Your Major to Friends and Family

Students are gearing up to head home for Thanksgiving and winter breaks, and that means getting back into the swing of life with family–including explaining what you’re doing at school to your parents’ friends and your extended family. For some people (engineering majors and pre-med people), this is not so bad! For others, it can be a little stressful. Here’s how to handle some of the most common less-than-positive results.

“So you’re planning to go to law school?” or “A future teacher, I see!” – This one tends to be tossed at Political Science majors (and liberal arts majors in general) by people who see law school/teaching as a backup plan. This can be frustrating for people who actually do want to be lawyers or teachers, since it implies they’re following a predictable path, and for people who are interested in other things (for instance, being the next Nate Silver) it’s equally irritating. It’s best to pick your battles–if it’s someone you’re only going to see once, laugh and say, “Anything’s possible!” before finding some more eggnog. For family members and people who will be interacting with you when you finish school, a little more explanation can be good. If you are, say yes and give a short summary of what kind of law you want to do or why you want to become a teacher. If not, something like, “Actually, no. But I am planning to try for the Peace Corps!” will usually do the trick. You want to make the point that there are other career paths than law school or teaching that you can follow. Don’t stress about one-off encounters too much, though–over the holidays it’s best to save your energies for people who you’ll be seeing again.

Read the rest at HackCollege.