Monthly Archives: March 2009

Quick Data Visualizations

There’s been a bit of press about “data visualizations” lately. Basically, following in the footsteps of the great Edward Tufte, people are beginning to catch the wave of graphic renderings of complex data sets. And, the internets being what they are, are now able to comb through pretty big chunks of information and produce some interesting (if inconclusive) images that can hip you to all kinds of interesting things.

One of my current faves is Wordle, a pretty simple interface lets you type in text or blog-url’s or websites and it trolls the content of those sites, and presents a “word map” that shows which words pop up the most by representing them in larger fonts.

You want to know who the 800 pound gorilla of social networking is? Mashable’s visualization makes it pretty clear.

You want to know the relative popularity of terms in Borges’ “The Library of Babel?” Check it here.

How about the US Constitution?

Wordle is just the latest fling in my ongoing love affair with data.


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Too big to fail?

My boy Andy Bachman did a number on the new Cohen Center Study of follow-up programming for the alumni of birthright israel (Full disclosure, I had a small role in the study, in which I conducted preliminary interviews with people who work with young Jews in the SF Bay Area).

Bachman noted that when he served as the Executive Director of the Bronfman Center at NYU, he asked on a number of occasions for the rosters of birthright participants so that he could reach out to them while at NYU. He was told “no.” In other words, Andy asked for the chance to reach out to the students of his university, and BRI said that it would not share that information with him.

This kind of attitude persists through the study, which suggests that the newly-branded “BirthrightNEXT” arm of the birthright juggernaut ought to be the primary provider of services and programs for birthright alums. Not synagogues or concerts. Not independent minyanim or libraries or book clubs or magazines: but birthright israel itself.

The idea being that only birthright, because it provided a “powerful Jewish experience,” could possibly sustain the allegiance and interest of its alums. Now…. imagine if NFTY or Young Judaea or the Solomon Schechter Schools approached their work with a similar attitude….

Maybe, in the spirit of the “economic contraction,” the idea isn’t an expansion of programs, but a contraction of them — or, has birthright israel become, to use a popular phrase that usually refers to unpopular corporations — too big to fail?

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Community Glut

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. Basically, I’ve been wondering how they work, in three basic dimensions.
1. How people conceive of their own relationships within / senses of belonging to a larger group of people.
2. How people behave in conversation with the feelings in #1
3. How organizations — as formalized hubs for interaction — operate as combinations or ossifications of #1 and #2

I think that #1 and #2, above are part of an ongoing conversation. I don’t believe that membership is either wholly on the shoulders (and feelings) of the individual, and neither do I believe that membership is wholly behavioral. There’s something in the middle, and, I think, organizations play a big role in that process. But they may be creating more problems than they’re solving.

So, here’s my idea (which came to me while reading Clay Shirky‘s book Here Comes Everybody):

I think that American Jews have a glut of community. A glut of community organizations and a glut of community language and focus. Here’s why I think this: Shirky points out that most groups map out along a power law graph — that means that a minority of people are highly active, but that most people are only marginally so.

And, I think the assumption in the Jewish world — mistakenly — is that the more people that are more involved, the better the Jewish world (whatever that is) will be. In other words, Jewish organizations are hoping to beef up the very top of the power law distribution curve. BUT, as Shirkey points out, communities don’t work like they.

It’s not whether they should or shouldn’t — but they don’t. And, perhaps, some of the bloat and stagnation that American Jewish organizations have been known to experience could (And this is my thinking, currently) be a result of too many interventions, organizations, efforts, money being leveraged against what seems to be a pretty compelling argument for a power law distribution of community involvement and engagement.

So, what if the “problem of engagement” wasn’t a “problem” at all, but something caused by much of the meddling intended to ameliorate said “problem?” What if the problem is not that there is too weak a sense of “Jewish community” but that the sense is too strong?

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