Civic Idea of the Day: On Intentional Browsing

About once a month, the “is the internet good or bad?” conversation comes up. We all know this conversation:

There’s the “internet is bad” side we all know. The internet is a giant hole that sucks us in, wastes our time with nothingness, and makes us feel worse about ourselves. Who has ever felt good after reading a newsfeed for 20 minutes? Does it really matter that we knintentionalbrowsingow if some goofy celebrity said something racist some time back? Do we need this or that random opinion about this or that tiny news story? Aziz Ansari put it best: he said that he reads the internet so much that he is “on page a million of the worst book ever.”

We all know the “internet is good” side, too. It’s a tool filled with all this great and useful information that lowers barriers to connect with people and tunes us into new worlds with which we can immediately engage.

Usually these conversations end with each of us saying it’s all “mostly good” “mostly bad” or “alas, I donnow.”

I’ve been feeling more and more that the answer to whether it is indeed mostly good or mostly bad comes down to whether you are participating in what we might call ‘Intentional Browsing’ or not.

What helped clarify my thinking was a statistic I recently remembered from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone regarding television viewing data: “Selective viewers [of television] (that is, those who turn on the television only to see a specific program and turn it off when they’re not watching) are significantly more involved in community life than habitual viewers (those who turn the TV on without regard to what’s on and leave it on in the background), even controlling for education and other demographic factors. For example, selective viewers are 23 percent more active in grassroots organizations and 33 percent more likely to attend public meetings than other demographically matched Americans.” The gist: if you watch TV with intention (“I want to watch this show and then stop watching TV”), TV viewing isn’t really that bad. If you watch TV without intention (“I want to watch TV to watch TV”), it has all the standard negative effects you expect.

Cannot we think of the internet this way, too?

If we go on the internet to “be on the internet” — if we open up a browser or app without intention — then it usually ends up making us feel bad. Unintentional browsing is a timesuck and, worse, a soulsuck… as anyone who woke up after a two-hour Buzzfeed daze can attest.

If we go on the internet to “learn about something”, to “connect with someone”, to “find out what’s going on with something”, to “explore something new” (action verbs!) — if we go on the internet with intention — then it usually ends up making us feel good. Intentional browsing is useful and enlivening…as anyone who found that they organized all their friends into a party in 10 minutes or finished a collaborative google doc or learned everything about Bulgaria or has a set Google Alert for some specific topic’s news each day can attest.

This idea of “Intentional Browsing” has implications for all of us as individuals and for public interest web designers.

For web designers, the call is to design webs platforms that promote Intentional Browsing and reject design standards that encourage mindless/addictive browsing. For example, the renaissance of the email newsletter seems good for Intentional Browsing, because it tells you, “Here’s 3 things to read today on a topic you care about,” without sending you into a much deeper clickhole. Linear, one-article-at-a-time, media designs that avoid the shopping-mall-like walls of spectacle that have become popular on homepages seem good, too.’s card stacks, that encourage you to step-by-step learn everything about one policy topic seem good as well. Those Chrome apps that warn you when you are getting lost in a Facebook time suck seem like a step forward, as well. Hopefully you can point out in the comments other hopeful examples of design for Intentional Browsing.

For individuals, the challenge is to set up systems and commitments for ourselves that routinize Intentional Browsing and discourage mindless browsing. Some of it might be negative, like committing to stopping doing something. Some of it can be positive, though, too: you can use all this added internet time to intentionally learn all about a specific topic or develop a new skill or get deep insight into some corner of our culture.

This is how I answer “is the internet good?” now: If we intend to use it, then yes; if it intends to use us, then no.

Civic Idea of the Day: 3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Giving Up Civic Hope

Unfortunately, many of us are beginning to resign ourselves to the belief that healing some of the great social ills of our time is impossible. But most who believe that haven’t yet gotten their hands dirty trying to help. So here’s three questions to ask oneself before saying “we’ve already tried and failed.”3questions

1. Are you serious?

To be serious about solving a public problem means that you actually care about solving the problem. When helping to solve public problems, we are tempted to care more about personal things: mimicking the style and affect of an activist subculture, affirming our own innocence in opposition to social ills, or scoring points in the eyes of our peers. To be serious is to not give into these temptations. To be serious is to be strategic: thinking, experimenting, and analyzing about what needs to be done to solve the problem. Many times, being serious means being willing to do something uncomfortable, like thinking about what the “other side” values and speaking to them in their own language.

2. Are you ready to devote time?

Time is the currency of public problem solving. If enough people are not willing to devote enough time each week to help, the problem will not be solved. A good practice for getting involved in helping to solve a public problem is to start by committing to set aside a certain amount of hours per week (or per month) to the task. It’s even better if you routinize it — “Every Thursday night, I’m going to devote two hours” — because you will get into a rhythm and be less likely to go back on your commitment.

3. Are you ready to turn that time into a project?

The time you devote can be wasted if it is not organized into a project. At the beginning, it might be good to not have a project: taking that time to explore and learn and follow your curiosity will help you discover how you can be helpful. But, eventually, you have to transition away from always following your whims and towards laying out a direction and set of first steps you hope to accomplish.

If you start answering yes to these three questions, the hope starts pouring in. If you start thinking seriously about how to solve a public problem, you start reading the news differently: you start to have a proactive optimistic attitude instead of a reactive cynical one. If you start setting aside time for this work, whole new areas of your imagination are opened up during that time and tasks that seemed too out of reach start seeming doable. If you turn your work into a project, you start respecting your civic self more: you start believing that your ideas are worth listening to and might just be helpful; you start looking at your work and thinking “woah, this is real!”

So, before you give up hope about some public problem, give this a try for a while: get serious, carve out some time to work and start thinking about that work as a project. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the joy and civic hope that comes from it.

Civic Idea of the Day: Caring = Curiosity

Caricaringng = curiosity. Most bad things in public life have come from people not being curious enough: about how things work, about why something has become the way it is, about each other. Most good things in public life have started with people deciding to be curious about something. Sincerely wondering why something happened is often more useful than just being outraged by it. What in public life can we be more curious about today? Will we let our curiosity flourish into care?

Civic Idea of the Day: Redirecting ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’

Civic idea of the day: we should only expect to call people “sir” or “ma’am” if they are older than us and only be expected to be called “sir” or “ma’am” by those younger than us.

Right now, sir and ma’am are most commonly used in America by service and retail employees in deference to clients and customers. This would be fine if the role of service employee and customer were equally distributed in our country. But they’re not: the reality is that a set of1505113_785325964811322_2682549062093141809_n people – the economically wealthier – are disproportionately represented as customers in commercial interactions and another set of people – the economically poorer – are disproportionately represented as service and retail employees in commercial interactions. The result is that for most times – not all times, but most times – when “sir” and “ma’am” are said on a day-to-day basis, it is said by a poorer person in deference and respect to a wealthier person.

So, the result is: as kids you are taught that you say “sir” and “ma’am” as a sign of respect and deference to older people; as you grow up, you experience it as a sign of deference and respect to, generally, wealthier people. In fact, all dictionary definitions I found of “sir” and “ma’am” reference it being said as a sign that the recipient has “rank” and “authority.” This creates ridiculous situations: for example, it’s 9 a.m. and I, a buffoonish 24-year-old who has little worldly experience, have already been called “sir” today by a 50-year-old cab driver, a 40-year-old Mom at the bus station ringing up my Diet Dr. Pepper and a 30-something bus driver while telling me I’m talking too loud on the phone. The only reason I’ve “earned” this respect and deference is because I had money to buy the cab, the Diet Dr. Pepper and the bus ticket. The only reason they had to give it to me was because it was in their job description as service and retail workers.

Doctors and lawyers get to enter cooperative relationships with their clients where they rarely use “sir” and “ma’am”; creative professionals, scientists and other knowledge workers spend most of their day not interacting with clients. So retail and service employees are the ones caught having to say “sir” and “ma’am” the most, reinforcing the idea that those with the money to buy something are of a higher “rank of authority” (Merriam-Webster), in a “position of authority” (google), deserving of “honor” (etymology), and noble (British history of the words) and those serving them are less so. This is a small but notable blemish on the proud American tradition of classlessness and anti-aristocracy.

Even more, it is giving too much respect to consumers and not enough respect to producers: the customer is not always right. Sometimes they are jerks who just happen to have enough money to eat at the restaurant. Sometimes they are 24-year-olds talking too loud on the phone who just happen to have enough money to buy a ticket. Just as much as the customer is gracing the interaction with money, the producer is gracing the interaction with labor, goods and services. If commercial interactions are going to take up so much of so many people’s time, the day-to-day commercial realm has to be one of democratic mutual respect, not aristocratic unidirectional respect.

Let’s end that practice and just keep using “sir” and “ma’am” as a sign of respect for those who are older than us. It will be a tiny step away from the perverted value that those with more money are somehow more noble and towards reclaiming that conservative value of perhaps not deference to, but at least humble respect for those who have lived longer and experienced more than us on this Earth– our elders.

Civic Idea of the Day: Create ‘civic problem-solving teams’ for high school students.

Why do high school students like participating sports and theater? Sure, part of it is intrinsic to the specific activity: they like running around, they like winning, and they like being on stage. However, part of it is the fact that such activities, unfortunately, are one of the few times in school where – instead of working individually towards a high-stakes grade under a perceived critical gaze — you are rather: (1) working together as a team; (2) towards a shared goal; (3) under an adult mentor.

10003534_781364568540795_2031961962493802333_nCivic engagement is not going to be engaging if it’s treated as a set of personal “service hours” that you have to clock in alone.

So here’s a proposal: what if there were civic problem-solving teams that you could join in high school? What if they weren’t just run-of-the-mill clubs, but designed with an added heft, like sports teams are? Think about it: add a coach, have tryouts to be on either Varsity or Junior Varsity, have an inter-school league that has routine conferences, have a schedule of benchmarks you have to hit, have a team captain, have uniforms, etc.

Imagine kids walking down the hall and being like “I’m thinking of trying out for Varsity Environment” or “Yah, I have Junior Varsity Public Health practice that day, so you’re going to have to pick me up at five today, Mom” or “I heard Mason High School’s junior varsity poverty reduction team won regionals last year. Congrats to Coach R and all the Mustangs for their hard work this season.”

Though it adds some goofy frills (uniforms, faux ‘competition’, ‘seasons’), this would be a step towards putting students in situations that resemble actual public problem-solving work: being in a group, having intergenerational mentorship, and working towards a shared goal for a long period of time.

Civic Idea of the Day: Trade Tribalism for Actual Civic Work

Most of us experience politics as political tribalism, by which I mean, we post and share the latest outrage from the opposing tribe. For example, those in the tribe I often find myself in will post something Ann Coulter wrote or Rush Limbaugh said and we shake our heads and get angry. But, in the end, all we are doing is helping that figure get more eyeballs looking at them and brain space thinking about them. Other times, we are sending out posts about how some trend is disappointing or some event is indicative of some disappointing trend. This usually just piles on a bit more cynicism and pessimism. I’m not holier-than-thouing here… I do it all the time.tribalism

But, I have this thought: what if we took all the time we spent on tribalism (posting outrage, posting disappointing trends, getting angry) and each just became experts in some public topic. If 100 of the people reading this today did it, we would pretty much cover all important political topics of the day. And then, what if we used that new-found expertise to actually participate in bending the arc of history on that topic in real forums? So, instead of having a wide-ranging, inch-deep, mile-wide flurrying opinions about everything that we got from the Atlantic or BuzzFeed or Upworthy that we throw out into the ether and let fade into the pile of tribal bitterness, we actually could start having inch-wide, mile-deep, empowering expertise in some civic topic that we can wield as a weapon.

Here’s the step by step:

(1) Pick some civic topic you are passionate about;

(2) Find something specific inside of that topic;

(3) Do a deep dive of becoming a Citizen Expert on it. Read some book on it. Read some Congressional Research Service Report on it. Read some Think Tank report on it and rent a documentary or find the applicable Frontline episode or expert interview or podcast on it;

(4) Set a Google Alert for the topic in the news so you get an email to read the three articles in the news about it each day;

(5) Inform your friends about what you’ve learned. Perhaps throw a dinner where you present the information to your friends and neighbors;

(6) Be an advocate with your new-found tool… help your Congresswoman become more informed or send an op-ed to a local paper on it or publish some cool infographic about it or write to some rich person about why it’s important.

I think this is the more empowering way to consume and share information with each other. It makes you have real Citizen Expertise instead of passing, fading snowflake opinions. It gets you into the concrete world and out of the abstract tribal ideology fights. It empowers you to participate with your new-found knowledge.

Try it out. We can call it the Anti-Upworthy Pledge for Deep Informational Empowerment: Pick a public policy topic. Read up. Keep updated on new news. Inform your friends in a deep way. Wield it as a tool.

Civic Idea of the Day: A Traceback Curriculum

One of the most important ideas to show kids is this: “what exists in society today only exists because somebody decided to make it happen. Everything has an origin; everything that is in society today was once something else (or nothing) until someone decided to make it what it is today… and thus, today, you can play a part in the origin of new things!”

Kindergarten, flip flops, the newsticker at the bottom of certain TV channels, the Dollar Menu, the STOP sign, the seventh inning stretch, prom, the greenspaces near highways, and the weekend — as well as everything else in society! — were conceived, realized, developed and expanded by individuals and groups who were no different than themselves.

TracebackSo here’s an idea for history education:

(1) have kids go around and make a list of things in their own lives and communities: concrete things, abstract things, products, institutions, events, ideas, cultural artifacts, places and more (the pencil, the school’s lunch policy, the song “Happy Birthday”, the no skateboarding policies at the mall… anything that affects them!);

(2) Narrow the list to a manageable size;

(3) Have the kids start tracing things on the list back through history… all the way to the original creative thought or set of thoughts;

(4) Have the kids share the story of the thing and the individuals, groups, institutions, and ideas that led to it being what it is today with each other; and, excitedly,

(5) Have the kids imagine the thing into the future, answering “Do you like the thing as it is? Is it good or does it need to be changed? What ideas do you have for it?”.

This “trace back and imagine forward” approach is assuredly a more inspirational use of history for kids than the standard “this happened, then this happened, then this powerful guy did this, then this happened, then this happened…” approach to history education.

It makes history seem consequential, it makes the present world become more alive, and inspires creativity and purpose for the future. Try it out and let us know how it goes!

Civic Idea of the Day: The Crowdsourced Dinner Course

If you’re a group of people who wants to learn something, here’s a fun way you can do it:

Let’s say you have 10 people. Split what you want to learn into 10 chunks and assiDinnergn one out to each person. Each person is required to become an expert on their chunk. Each week, have one person present on their chunk to the rest of the group over dinner. After 10 weeks, you’ll all have learned it, in addition to being a double expert on a part of it. It’ll also build community and spread the stress of learning one thing out (you’re only stressed about it on your week; every other week, you sit back, enjoy dinner and listen). After you’re done with the 10 weeks, have a follow-up email list to share any links or ideas that have arisen because of your crowd-sourced course. The applicability is endless: have a group learn any course syllabus that you missed in college, finally understand Econ 101, catch up on the Pentateuch or the Gospels, learn the different areas of public policy, learn 10 different schools of philosophy, etc. etc.

It’s The Crowdsourced Dinner Course: A Lifelong Learning Tactic + A Community-Building Opportunity among friends.