A Post About Slack That Isn’t Really About Slack

This is a post I wrote a few years ago for the old blog. I’m reprinting it this week because, as my colleagues and I continue to telework full time, Slack has become our primary communication tool. We also do meetings on Zoom, but I have to comb my hair for those.

There used to be a website called Meebo. It was a web-based instant messaging system that could be integrated with AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and other IM systems. Users had the option to create their own rooms, which allowed groups of folks to chat in one place at the same time.

Meebo was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2012, Google bought it. Google integrated the Meebo team with its Google+ team, then quietly closed Meebo up.

There also used to be a website called FriendFeed. You could hook it up to all of your various social media accounts and blogs and so forth and all those accounts would feed into your FriendFeed account. You and your friends would be able to see and comment on everything you were populating the web with.

Over time, the function of collecting posts from your sundries became less important than just posting stuff directly into FriendFeed and talking with your friends and followers about it.

FriendFeed was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2009, Facebook bought it. Facebook took whatever code it needed for its Newsfeed feature and… well, let FriendFeed continue to exist. Gradually, FriendFeed began to deteriorate: features would stop working and the site would sometimes go down for awhile. For six years, FriendFeed users felt like it was not long for the world, but it only closed up shop in 2015.

Which brings me to Slack. The bureau I work for licensed Slack a couple of years ago with an eye towards improving telework. The idea our Bureau’s leadership had was that we would use Slack to get quick responses to short questions and to converse with coworkers about projects rather than bogging down inboxes with emailed conversations or interrupting a telework day with unnecessary phone calls.

At first, I didn’t really get it. I have been teleworking regularly for years, so I already had a routine down. (In other words, I’m a bit stubborn.)

And then light dawned on Marblehead: Slack is like a combination of Meebo and FriendFeed, except for work. It takes a lot of what I liked about Meebo (channels here instead of rooms) and a lot of what I liked about FriendFeed (integration with other resources, private group discussions and archived direct messaging) and packages it up for a work environment.

Granted, it lacks things I liked about Meebo and especially FriendFeed: for example, the threaded conversations in FriendFeed were unique in a way that even Slack’s threads don’t quite capture. But once I made the connections between resources I had used before to this resource, I could start to think about ways I could work it into my job.

The lesson here is that everything you have learned informs everything that you are going to learn. Just making some simple parallels can be the cognitive breakthrough you need to understand how something works and how it can work for you.

Welcome to the House of Fun

Years ago, I wrote a brief article about telecommuting for the 2014-15 edition of LexisNexis Best Practices for Government Libraries. Rereading it got me to thinking about how the telework landscape has changed a lot since then.

While my office has always been very supportive of telework agreements, it seemed that this wasn’t broadly the case in other parts of the bureau. So when recent events made it a requirement for me and my colleagues to do work from home, I was fascinated to see how this was going to work out.

And so far, it’s been fine. We had been hampered a bit by the limitations of our teleworking tools. Not surprisingly, they were originally designed to work for the average number of telecommuters, not the maximum number. So it’s been nice to see how much work has gone into improving the resources and streamlining the set-up process in the past couple of weeks. It’s a difficult job to implement rolling upgrades while also communicating with a large number of people whose work lives have been totally disrupted and are learning how to get set up and use everything all at once. I have a huge amount of respect for everyone working on this, because as much as we all like to complain about things not working perfectly, the fact that they work as well as they do under extraordinary circumstances is pretty great.

A bright spot in what is broadly a miserable time for everyone is that this whole experience will probably permanently alter how telework is done here. And not just from the technical and logistical end of things. I think a lot of people who were resistent to telework before will discover that it’s not so bad, and even has a lot of advantages. Not to say we all won’t be itching to get back to the office as soon as it is safe enough to do so. Even me, who teleworks more often than I work onsite.

One of the things that I noticed for myself is how loud my commute into DC has been. It takes me one hour and 15 minutes each way to get into the office. A significant portion of that commute is spent on a Metro train, and a significant portion of that Metro ride is spent underground. It is noisy down there, to the point where I bought noise-cancelling headphones so I could hear the podcasts I like to listen to en route. I have tinnitus, so I thought I was protecting my hearing this way.

But I realized that despite the use of those headphones, my ears were still buzzing at the end of the day. The reason? I was still turning up the volume on my podcasts so I could hear them. Even with the noise cancellation on, the din from the Metro tunnels was still too loud to hear properly. I’m only listening to people talking, but I’m listening to them at a stupidly high volume.

So when things back to whatever normal is going to look like, one of my personal tasks will be to figure out how to rectify this situation. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, because I have a backlog of podcasts to get through now that I’m not listening to them while commuting.

Life Is What Happens to You…

… while you’re busy making other plans.

I spent quite a bit of time planning out content for this blog, and I had a schedule in place and everything. But current events are inspiring me to reframe that a bit.

I want to keep writing, because it is a soothing hobby as much as it is a constructive method to work through stuff that I struggle to grok. I just need to reframe what I want to do right now.

One of the things I am going to start publishing soon is probably going to seem a bit bizarre to you. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years and am finally getting up the gumption to do it. It involves two of my favorite topics: music and Austria.

Another thing I have planned is jumping back into the productivity well that I like to dip into from time to time. I had been wanting to revisit some of those old posts and update them, and right now is as good a time as any to do so.

I’m going to continue to do book reviews on a monthly basis, but I’m not sure yet if I’m going to take a break from the beer reviews. On the one hand, I was trying to visit a lot of my favorite breweries in person. On the other hand, 7 Locks is experimenting with home delivery… 🍻

Until next time: be well, stay safe, and remember that we are all fellow passengers, not different creatures bound on separate journeys.


Things Can Only Get Better

It‘s a bit ironic to be reading Factfulness at a time of a global crisis when factual information is necessary and disinformation is rife. Factfulness’ late author Hans Rosling was trying to battle the perception that the world is falling apart using simple, readily available data, and maybe right now that battle seems a bit naive.

But one of the side effects of reading Factfulness is discovering the ability to take comfort in hard facts. As intense as the spread of COVID-19 seems, looking at the raw numbers indicate to me that the recovery rate is high.

I’m not kidding myself into believing that those numbers are perfect. For example, the number of cases may be artificially low based on how many people are getting properly tested and how (or even if) governments are reporting their stats.

And I’m not kidding myself that the spread of COVID-19 won’t get worse. It probably will, which is why my home state of Maryland has closed schools and libraries. But while living in a time when people are panicking because they’re not finding accurate information and when some leaders dawdle as some leaders act, the best thing I can do is be informed by reliable sources and take precautions, both with my physical health and my mental health.

So I will close this out with two quotes. They are keeping me as grounded as I can get during a tough stretch of time.

People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about. That makes me angry. I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious “possibilist.” That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.

Hans Rosling on page 69 of Factfulness

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien on page 82 of The Fellowship of the Rings
(Ballantine Books edition, 1986 printing)

(To be fair, the rest of Gandalf’s quote isn’t as inspiring as that, so maybe just stick to the version from the movie.)

Introduce Yourself… Right On

It may seem odd to write an introduction to a two-year-old blog, but here’s why I’m doing it: I’ve been working in a non-traditional library environment for a decade and at some point in the past 10 years, I convinced myself that it is too hard to write about my work because only my colleagues would understand.

Then it dawned on me that this was a failure of imagination on my part. While writing “Libraries Gave Us Power,” I realized that if I am looking to find connections with librarians and other professionals that would be mutually beneficial, then it is up to me to write clearly and concisely about what I do.

So, what do I do for a living? I manage data about and electronic resources for the U.S. Department of State’s American Spaces program.

What are American Spaces? They are a network of more than 600 cultural centers supported by the State Department. Modeled after modern American libraries, they  provide free access to information about the United States and give local audiences the opportunity to engage with Americans on issues that are important to them. This description may raise more questions than it answers, but I will explain it all in more detail in due course. I need blog content, after all.

Anyway, my official title is Program Support Specialist, but the jargon-free title is contract librarian. I was hired to manage electronic resources, but as our program has developed and matured, I began to tackle my office’s data collection and management needs.

What I haven’t been able to do is analyze that data. I’ve left it to others to do, even though I have a good handle on what we have collected. Therefore, my next major task at work is to learn how to be a data analyst.

So when I talk about not getting what I need out of professional associations, that is what I was getting at. My professional journey is taking me in a different direction now, so I am reevaluating how I manage my career. And where this takes me will dictate what I write about here. Again: content!

Come Down From That Bough

When it comes to beer, I don’t stray too far from my adopted home state these days. Heck, I don’t even stray that far from my own neighborhood. If I can walk to a brewery, why the heck would I go to one that’s further afield? A 10 minute drive to True Respite or 7 Locks is just too far away.

And if that 10 minute drive is a daunting distance, then going to a brewery in Baltimore or Frederick is like going to the moon. It takes planning!

Fortunately, distribution of local beers is such now that I can develop a strong loyalty to a craft brewery without ever setting foot in it. For example, I’ve been a fan of Union Craft Brewing for three years almost to the day, according to a post on my old beer blog. That was when I wrote about their Balt Altbier. I don’t really like Altbier, which I usually find too bitter and too syrupy. But Union’s version was special: bittersweet chocolate flavor without being bitter, smooth and creamy without feeling like I was drinking Hershey’s syrup straight from the bottle. It was love at first sip.

So what better way to celebrate an anniversary with the one you love than by going to a special place that means a lot to both of you?

The Union Collective building is massive, with plenty of room to brew beer, have a tasting room and a beer hall, a restaurant, a creamery making fresh ice cream on the premises, a distillery, a coffee shop, and an indoor climbing park. It’s altogether impressive.

There was no Balt Altbier available, and although they had my other favorites on tap (Blackwing Schwarzbier-style lager and Duckpin IPA), I made sure to try stuff I had never tasted before.

I got a three-beer sampler and started with Divine IPA, as classic an India Pale Ale as I will ever find. It was clean and crisp and citrusy without being overly hopped. I then moved on to Michele’s Granola Porter, which at first glance, seems bizarre. But it’s really just a classic porter with a little extra oomph. It has an aroma of chocolate milk and starts off sweet before dissolving into a bitter, malty finish.

Lastly, I tried Kev’s Winter Warmer. Kev refers to Kevin Blodger, co-founder of Union and an all-around hero of mine. A lot of brewers will find their lane and stay in it. But Kevin and co-founders Adam Benesch and Jon Zerivitz brew stuff that would make even the hippest beer hipster feel like a frat boy stocking up on Natty Ice. They make an Altbier! Who else in the United States makes an Altbier?

It’s Kev’s favorite, by the way, in case you needed further reason why he’s my hero.

As for his Winter Warmer, it tasted of hazelnuts and nutmeg. Union pulled it through a nitro pump, so it had a smooth body with a toasty finish. It’s the type of beer I’d like to sip in front of a warm fire, which is an odd obsession of mine because I never sit in front of a warm fire. But I like to find beers that I would drink in front of one in case I ever do.

Needless to say, it was worth the visit. Not just for the beer, but also for the Duckpin bratwurst and the popcorn from Well Crafted Kitchen, the brown bread ice cream from The Charmery, and the nice cup of tea from Vent Coffee Roasters. If I’m going to go there, I might as well GO THERE, right?

Yes, brown bread ice cream: malt and cinnamon ice cream with Grape Nuts. I probably should have had it with Kev’s Winter Warmer. That would have been amazing.

You Slay Me

I am a big fan of musical theater and an even bigger fan of unintentionally campy entertainment. You can understand how I became such a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, although these days I’m more apt to defend it against accusations of being campy entertainment. I may have lived with it too long!

I trace my camp sensibility to Bad Movies We Love, an offshoot of the old Movieline column that scoured old Hollywood for classic examples of unintentionally funny hamfests. Reading that, then subsequently watching Valley of the Dolls and A Summer Place in college prepped me for the misguided glories of ShowgirlsGlitter, and Battlefield Earth.

While still in college, my budding interest in theater merged with my affection for flops when I came across Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie. Bookended by the story of the ill-fated musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie, the book describes noteworthy flop Broadway musicals from 1950 to 1990. There are bombs from famous stars like Lucille Ball and Yul Brenner and from famous composers like Stephen Sondheim and Stephen Schwartz. There are weird little over-plotted oddities, like the puppet-driven Flahooley. And there are grandiose over-budget disasters like Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge. Not Since Carrie covers over 200 shows and explores how they all went awry.

Unlike Bad Movies We Love, which revels in its cattiness, Not Since Carrie is fairly even-handed. Not to say that Mandelbaum can’t be a bit harsh from time to time: he describes the rock musicals Dude and Via Galactica as “the two most salient horrors” of the post-Hair era and writes that Peter Allen is “a star with a passionate following” but “lacks hits records and is not really all that famous.” You can’t savor camp without a little bit of a zing, right?

But Mandelbaum doesn’t celebrate these shows’ failures. He tries to figure out what went wrong, and even offers up advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes.

His analysis really helped me arrive at the way I write about Eurovision now. The early days of Eurovision Lemurs are marked by snarky commentary, boarding on being mean-spirited. Later, my wife challenged the both of us to write more thoughtfully and more analytically. Since taking on that challenge, our work gradually began to resemble the work Mandelbaum did in Not Since Carrie.

Of course, we still have our moments of comedic depreciation (we do have a page on our website about camp classics, after all). So I guess without trying to do so, we created the Bad Movies We Love meets Not Since Carrie for the Eurovision Song Contest. If what we do is half as good as either of those books, I’ll be pretty happy.

Libraries Gave Us Power

I’ve been letting a lot of my professional association memberships lapse because I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with them. I’ve always felt that I needed to maintain my dues based on past opportunities these associations had provided. Now I have come to terms with the fact that I have been paying for something that I didn’t really use much any more.

Coincidentally, Kendra K Levine articulated some of my dissatisfaction in her recent Library Attack post “Professional Associations: Maybe We Should Start From Scratch?” She starts off by pointing out how she is a member of three different associations in the midst of existential crises.

In one specific case, that existential crisis has existed for as long as I had been a member and, like Kendra, I used to have strong opinions about it. But the repetition of the debate wore on me to the point where I asked myself, “Does this association exist only to debate its own purpose?”

Similarly, Kendra asks (and I can’t emphasize enough how much I echo this sentiment):

Do the associations exist so that they exist? (Then what’s the point?) Or do they exist for the members? And then what do members want? I want to connect with others doing similar work. I want to learn what they’re doing. I want to share what I’m doing. I want to advocate for a democratic information ecosystem. I want to support others in the profession.

Kendra K Levine, “Professional Associations: Maybe We Should Start From Scratch?” in Library Attack

To that point, I found it increasingly difficult to make the connections I needed through the electronic communications channels available. The general channels would be swamped with the aforementioned debates. The specific topical channels where I would likely have found those connections had gone fallow because the members stopped having active discussions.

I take responsibility for the fact that I stopped going to conferences and meet-ups. Personal circumstances partially dictated that, but it’s not like I couldn’t have worked around that if I really made the effort. That’s on me, not on any of the associations.

In either case, my network has become insular: I work with the people both in D.C. and in the field that understand the questions I need answer. That’s all well and good, and we often come up with creative solutions internally. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is value in working with people coming from different backgrounds, but facing similar issues.

When I first started my current job, I had a supervisor who was really good at identifying institutions and organizations that had similar scopes to ours. Not just other governmental foreign offices maintaining cultural centers, but non-profits with global reaches, universities with dispersed campuses, and corporations with multinational operations.

One of my next steps will be to re-identify those institutions and reach out to them to establish new connections that can be mutually beneficial. (Good thing my aforementioned supervisor is on another Washington tour.)

The other step is to re-engage in a professional organization that offers local meet-ups and conferences and work to make those connections in person. Instead of waiting for organizations to understand what its members need, I have to create the experience I need.

A Valentine Out of Season (although technically it is in season…)

I have a professional Facebook account and when I’m not publicly linking to brilliant stuff like spreadsheet horror stories or progressive metal bands from Bangladesh, I’m usually gushing about the people I work with both in my office in D.C. and at U.S. missions and partner spaces around the world.  I’m surrounded by good people who help make the job a joy.

One of the things that has impressed me the most is the fact that we support each other so much through thick and thin, and that it doesn’t take long for new colleagues to get that support.

Normally, I publish stuff like that only to my connections, many of whom are obviously those colleagues I’m praising.  But every now and then I get the urge to shout this from the mountains. I’m always grateful that I work where I do.

The Morning Fog

My bureau is using Gallup‘s CliftonStrengths right now, a personality-based team building tool. The idea is that each participant will uncover and build on their core set of talents. By focusing on strengths instead of trying to improve weaknesses, individuals can become better team players by working with others who compliment their skills.

How much you buy into that depends on how much you buy into any sort of corporate team building exercise, obviously. I tend to be skeptical, although that doesn’t usually stop me from playing along. I kinda love the mechanics of the whole process. I took a big old personality test, and got back a 25-page report that ranked 34 copyrighted buzzwords purporting to reveal my top 10 talents and the 24 other skills that I need to work around so I don’t trip myself up.

I’d like to scoff, but when my report tells me that I comprehend what I read better when I read in short bursts, that I prefer books with short chapters, and I tend to seek out publications and websites offering useful tips for organizing things… well, I’m a little more inclined to buy in.

Of course, a lot of this confirms what I already know about myself. What I found most useful both in the report and the accompanying workshop was the list of pitfalls to each of the personality traits. Maybe it’s a little obvious that someone who is overly empathetic will feel worn down by taking other people’s energy levels. But for someone who deals with confidence issues and imposter syndrome and the like, it’s nice to have a little guide to myself that I can use to navigate though those negative moments.