October 17, 1989, 5:04pm

I remember everything about that day 20 years ago.

It was a Tuesday. In the morning, Rebecca and I made plans to meet at Slim’s after work to buy tickets for the upcoming Phranc show. Then she went off on Muni downtown to her job, and I took a bus and walked to my job, at an architects’ office, on Townsend at 4th Street. On the top floor. In a brick building. On landfill.

I had only been working there for about a week, I think. I was temping. For lunch, I walked the couple blocks up 4th toward Bryant and ate Mexican food. It was a balmy, hot, humid, windless and dusty day. I ate a big lunch…

At 5:00pm, we were getting ready to leave work. I was sitting nearest the window to Townsend Street. My workmate Roxanne was sitting at a different desk across the room. Towards the entryway, there was a huge vase full of flowers against the wall, then the door to the emergency stairs, then the entry door.

At 5:04pm the rumbling began. It was fairly strong but not long, and I heard it as much as felt it. I heard the sounds of the bricks, just a couple feet away, rumbling together — a sound I shall never forget. I hadn’t gotten under the desk by the time it stopped – but as soon as it stopped, it started again, with a vengeance. I looked over at Roxanne just as she dropped out of sight below her desk. I promptly dropped under mine. The noise and the shaking was so incredibly violent; I was holding my desk so it wouldn’t rock away; I was holding the desk drawers that were flailing out. I was trying to keep my typewriter — typewriter! — from jumping off my desk and hitting me. I might have even groaned somewhat. It went on forever — and yet it had all stopped only fifteen seconds later.

Then there was silence. Which also seemed to last forever. But it must have only been seconds later that I found myself running down the emergency-lit stairwell the floor flights down to Townsend below. I’ll never forget (well, everything, obviously) the flower vase on my way out the door. The vase had lifted itself up and flown several feet, and laid there, a perfectly flattened smashed version of itself, flowers in tact, on the floor in my path.  I never returned to that job and never saw Roxanne again.

Outside, there was dust and heat and thick air. People were waiting in line at CalTrain phones (hard to believe – no cell phones, right!). I promptly thought of contacting my family, then about Rebecca. Was she stuck underground on Muni? Was she OK? I took off down Townsend towards our meeting point.

There was a huge cloud of thick smoke coming from the Marina area. I think I had already heard rumours of the Bay Bridge having fallen down. Then, two blocks from my work, I reached 6th Street at Townsend.

6th Street between Townsend and Bluxome; C.E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey; courtesy Wikipedia

6th Street between Townsend and Bluxome; C.E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey; courtesy Wikipedia

Down the short block, there was dust, there were a lot of people gathered, and there was a big pile of bricks. Somehow, I remember people were not moving very quickly — something I could hardly comprehend. I started towards the bricks; someone told me this: “You better not go any further; there are people buried under there.” Later I found out that five people died when the bricks had fallen on top of them as they were getting into their cars to go home.

I started to feel sick and worried about Rebecca and I started running towards Slim’s at 11th and Folsom. Homeless people had sprung into action and, since there was no power, were directing traffic in the SOMA area. I was terribly relieved when I found Rebecca, leaning up against the wall at Slim’s, waiting for me just as we had prearranged.

We had a beer at the Paradise Lounge on the corner and were watching a TV in there, that for some reason had power, when we figured we oughtta go see about our apartment.

It was now growing dark outside. The long hallway to our apartment on the second floor in the (brick) Skyline Building at Church and Market was dark, and the smoke detectors were going “beep, beep, beep,” which they would regularly do for weeks to come every time power went out again, as seemed to happen with the biggest aftershocks. We pushed to open our door — at first, the door was stuck and we were freaked out that it was wrecked inside. But it was just the stowed-away mirror doors that had fallen and blocked our path. There were a lot of cracks inside and broken plaster, and our refrigerator door was open — but other than that we were in-tact. I made a quick call to my parents to tell them we were OK. Then friends arrived.

Since we had a great central location, we were fortunate to have many visitors that night. Becky, who lived just across the street on 14th, came by. Later in the evening Lisa showed up — she worked in San Francisco and was waiting for the bus to take her back to Oakland when the quake hit. Others came by. It wasn’t until the next day that we heard where Becky’s roommate Angela was… Follow her blog for more on that.

We went and stood in line at the corner store and bought canned beer, batteries, and white bread, which we ate in candlelight, while aftershocks continued to freak us out all night.

That’s the basic story. There are many many strong memories in the shaky days, weeks, and months and years that came, such as standing in line for hours trying to give blood (when I was too faint by the end to donate), and being glued constantly to the TV (once the power came back on) to people I came to know as my guardian Angels, Pete Wilson and Anna Chavez. Every day for years after that — for as long as we lived in that apartment — I gazed at the leaves on the tree outside the window to see if they were moving. When there was still and calm, I was nervous. I craved the wind.

It was only 15 seconds those 20 years ago — and at 7.1, which somehow years later shrank to 6.9 on the Richter Scale, not nearly as big as some of the recent quakes we’ve seen worldwide. And in a pretty well retrofit city. Yet, those fifteen short seconds and the time that followed altered my own personal landscape, forever.

As a result of those few 15 seconds, I am now permanently claustrophobic, a terrified flier, and nearly always consider what I’m driving over when I drive the Bay Bridge. To this day my heart sinks when there’s an earthquake, regardless of the size, especially in the middle of the night, because I don’t get back to sleep. I tune into the radio (and now Twitter more and more) to find community to pull me through till morning.

On the other hand, I enjoy wide open spaces, I can usually tell you where the nearest exit is (along with all the other exits), and I value my friends and community so greatly.

So I finally commit this to writing today, in deference to the memory of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and to my friends and my community, and most of all, to the powers of nature — and of love.

6th street between Townsend and Bluxome, today

6th street between Townsend and Bluxome, today

Serving the @NoOnProp8 Twitter community

Real-life stories from @NoOnProp8

@NoOnProp8 on Twitter

@NoOnProp8 on Twitter

Last night I tweeted my final tweets as “@NoOnProp8.” I immediately got so much good feedback and appreciation that I nearly regretted giving the account away (note: the account is not going away — Equality California will carry it forward to serve the marriage equality community).

However, I’ve had to accept that there is no longer a “No On Prop 8 campaign,” so to speak, or at least that we need to move on to different campaigns.  I’m also excited to continue to be working with organizations involved towards embracing and better serving online communities.

In contemplating all that great feedback, I decided that the best way I can show my appreciation for having been a part of this community is to share what I learned with you.  So here we go — what follows are my real-life “best practices” for building and engaging a Twitter community — I was originally going to say “creating a Twitter community” — but since a lot of it is just paying attention to the community that exists already, “serving” seemed better.  All of this is thanks to you, the community itself — I only had to tune in and listen.  I cull the main things I heard down into four easy themes: Inform, Engage, Listen, and Measure.

Inform

The  initial mandate of this official campaign channel was to point to all communications from the campaign, from press releases to videos. As the campaign, and the community, evolved, we loosened  the mandate with official blessing to push “non-approved” messaging that served the community. We still were sensitive to stay within the overall messaging parameters — by not spreading attacks of any kind or propagating violence, and by trying to remain compassionate, for example.  Here are the sorts of things we did and learned in the “inform” category:

  • Point to every “official” press release
  • Point to every blog post from “official channels” — such as from Kate Kendell
  • Point to every new video on the campaign’s YouTube channel
  • We’d also occasionally post “un-approved” more casual messaging, reacting to what the community was asking for more of (for example, connecting people at rallies while they were happening)
  • Use http://tr.im or other link-shortener to trim URLs (tr.im was a suggestion from @krabigail in the community!)
  • Don’t be afraid of over-tweeting — tweet multiple times throughout the day if you want — but try not to deliver 5 tweets at the same time. People will let you know if it’s too much (but not if it’s too little).
  • Let people know that we are people and tweet what is happening at campaign headquarters, in the city, personally — and include real names/Twitter names when doing this  (thanks to the blogger community, @QueenofSpain and more, for these tips)

Engage

When I really listened to what people were tweeting, responding, and direct-messaging, the “engage” part was really easy.  It did take a lot of time, however. If I could, it was clear I could have spent nearly the entire day working with Twitter and its community (but I had plenty else to do).

  • Follow back every new follower — also, direct-message at that time (NOT automatically) with thanks and encouragement.  May also use this opportunity to send a pointer to a current story or latest action or other item of interest, to immediately invite the tweeter to engage.
  • Respond to every direct message; respond to @ replies where it makes sense — where it adds a suggestion that serves the whole or encourages somethign everyone can do. (I @ replied people less frequently than I dm’d). Put another way: keep what’s relevant for the public stream in the public stream — direct-message people when it’s a personal conversation.  This is a point that I notice many business Twitter accounts doing differently, so I’m willing to adjust based on feedback.
  • Requests for promotion:  We got a lot of people asking to promote their own blog posts — which I appreciated — but generally I avoided using our Twitter for individual promotion — including self-promotion. I tried to keep that to my own Twitter account. However, I did encourage people to publicly “@” NoOnProp8 when they had a post – that way, it would appear in the public timeline.
  • Again, use our real names or individual Twitter usernames when engaging personally.  I suppose this is a bit like “self-promotion” — but people let us know they wanted to know we were people, so I would occasionally remind people who I was.
  • Ask people specifically to retweet sparingly.  People in general did a LOT of retweeting just on their own, which was GREAT, but I only requested it if something was REALLY important or time-urgent.
  • We also — and this is key to helping your friends and colleagues say the word “Twitter” with a straight face — used Twitter successfully as a donation channel in the campaign.  If you “try this at home,”  make sure you can track which funds are coming in through Twitter by through a parameter identifying the donation link.
  • “Mini-campaigns” for engagement — ask a question, and use tags plus http://search.twitter.com for a great way to surface results to everyone, providing visibility for people as well. Thanks to @Pistachio for setting the example here. It goes like this:
    • During the campaign, we asked “What are you doing today to beat prop 8?” and told people to “tag” responses by adding “#beatprop8″
    • At http://search.twitter.com/, search for “beatprop8″ — http://search.twitter.com/search?q=beatprop8
    • After responses start to come in, you can then click “feed for this query” or directly “twitter these results” — which will twitter a trimmed URL to the search results. This caught on really well.

    Provide a place to just BE — if people are venting, let them vent; support; connect

Listen

This one is really key. You can tell from all the other sections that we got a lot of good things to do out of just listening.  Examples:

  • I noticed a lot of replies to @NoOnProp8 about rallies, so I began distributing information about where and how to connect with people. It was well received, so I paid attention to growing it even more.
  • Lots of people wanted to know how to volunteer, so we were able to hook people up to their local field offices this way — and also to get signs, which was a very popular request.
  • We also heard about several new house parties this way, and were able to connect people to their closest event.
  • Conversely, when I initially followed back all new followers with an “@” reply, the community also let me know that they didn’t like it — and I stopped.
  • We also learned about everything from polling place problems to the site being down to donation server problems, etc via this channel.
  • We corrected some messages that had some inaccuracies this way too!  Quick attention to the community’s response saved us from spreading any mistakes further.
  • Twitter knows no geographical boundaries — but voting does.  Nevertheless, we were able to engage globally with online momentum that in the end had an affect beyond just California.

Measure

This is part of listening — actually, part of all phases.

  • Keep track of follower growth. Good to keep a trend. Falling off? Change something. Great growth? Continue doing more of same.
  • Keep track of what people are talking about and note trends, feeding these back to official messengers
  • When you tweet links, running them through a trimmer like http://tr.im first is good for two things — shortening, as well as letting you track hits to that URL.
  • Use, and reuse, http://search.twitter.com — to measure what people are saying about / to / retweeting about your twitter account.
  • Note trending topics on search.twitter.com — the term “Prop 8″ was consistently within the top-ten topics towards the end of the campaign.

That’s what comes to my mind and what I was able to track throughout the intense weeks of campaigning before the election, and in the couple of months since.  We had much, much success with Twitter and it was a great experience getting to know all 3,500-plus, but I’m sure I missed opportunities too. Feel free to add to the thread if so — and if you have any additional suggestions or feedback about what else we could have done or done differently.  And thanks, again, to you — the real heroes of @NoOnProp8.

Nations are not communities

A Peoples History of the United States

A People's History of the United States

I’m finally taking the time for a book I’ve been wanting (needing, really) to read for a long time. So rarely do I light on the cutting-edge of the latest books (witness Arthur C. Clarke…), but when the time is right for me, boy do I dive in.

In A People’s History of the United States, the venerable Howard Zinn sets up his groundbreaking approach — the reason the book’s title starts with “people” — right from the outset, in his retelling of the Columbus-Arawak genocide from the standpoint of the Arawak Indians. His fundamental viewpoint:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

And as always, when I see the word “community” I ponder how we have digitally co-opted the concept, and whether successfully or not. Perhaps with Internet communities we go beyond just the two sides – conquerors and conquered. It strikes me that “thinking people” are provided via the Internet with all opportunity to not just choose one side or the other, but to populate all of the lands between the two poles. Indeed, it seems the whole purpose of the oft-contentious “comments thread” is to voice a counter-opinion to the “memory of the state.”

It almost makes it sound like — on the Internet at least — there is no nation at all. Or am I being too idealistic? Do nations and corporations, in the end, still control the telling of the “history of a family”?

It does make me wonder how the conquest of the “Americas” would go down in history if the Internet were around as it happened.