Preserving our physical past & our digital present.

This is my dad’s mother’s family (aka my grandmother). She was one of 12 brothers & sisters.

Lauren and I went to Michigan this last weekend to see my parents and celebrate my dad’s birthday.  Saturday evening, my mom pulled out a scrapbook to show me this amazing work that she’d been doing mapping the genealogy of our family with what she could find online.   And it wasn’t just a map of the family tree.  It brought in the pictures that we had from boxes that we found in my grandmas’ basement, along with the stories they had told us.

It was amazing to sit and listen to the cohesive narrative about how my ancestors immigrated to the United States from England and Germany.  It made my imagination run wild thinking about what my ancestors might have been like and what kind of experiences they had.

I also started to reminisce about my days at the Library of Congress.   Everyday I got to interact with the people whose job it was to preserve world culture and make it accessible for generations to come.

While it was a government agency that was filled with bureaucracy that’d make you wanna pull your hair out, there was something truly magical and noble about what they have to accomplish. They had whole groups of people whose job it was to digitize print materials into formats what would allow them to be accessible infinitely in the future.    They had created these incredible machines that could scan incredibly old books and images without doing any damage to them.

It all makes me wonder how many people are taking the time to trace their roots and preserve all the documents and photos from their past.  I want my future children to be able to know where they came from, hear the stories, and see the photos.  I’m so glad thankful for the genealogy work that my mom’s doing and that my dad writes so much of his story on his blog.

Another thing my parents had been doing is going through all the old photographs, scanning them, and uploading them to Flickr.  We had been using Flickr as a bit of a repository, with over 10,000 photos up their currently.  We figured, just incase the house burned down, the photos would definitely be safe. I’m surprised there aren’t more startups that are creating business models around helping people preserve the past.

Then the other question is… who’s going to preserve our present?  When I was growing up, I learned a lot about American History by looking through old Time Magazine covers with my dad.   It was amazing.  But… how am I going to be able to teach my future children about this current election?

What system will be in place?  Will Wikipedia be the place we go to learn about the past?  How will they be able to see & read what was on the front page of the New York Times on Election Day 2012?  I know there are projects like the Internet Archive but are they enough?


When Communities Hit Critical Mass, Powerful People Take Notice

As we’ve talked about, when you have a commonly held goal/topic/cause and a platform where people can stay connected, you have the potential for building a really big and powerful community.

Social news site Reddit has quickly become “the front page of the web.” They have a large community that scours the Internet for the best and most interesting links.  And it’s not even just a single community.  It’s really a number of communities rolled into a single platform.

On Reddit, there’s this feature where someone can stop by and open themselves for questions by anyone.  The community has become so big and powerful that last week President Barack Obama stopped by for a session of Ask Me Anything (AMA).   It was the perfect opportunity for him to make himself accessible (or look accessible) during this election period.

Similar idea but at a different scale… over the last few years, we’ve seen the DC technology community grow at a pace that I never imagined.  Recently,  we’ve really seen the DC government take notice.  The DC Mayor’s office has gone out of his way to support our efforts.   I’ve also had a number of conversations with DC city council candidates that want to make supporting DC tech part of the platform they run on.

As a community grows, people external to that community start to take notice and want to meet/interact with your community.  If you’re leading/managing a community, this is something to keep an eye on.

Communities Need a Platform

Once you have a group of people who are rallied around a topic or cause, a key part of building a community is platform for everyone to stay connected. In the age of social media, it’s easy to just point to things like Facebook, Twitter, or blogs but some of the best community platforms are offline like churches, coffee shops, are bars.

Let’s walk through some examples…

A couple of years ago, the DC technology/startup community was growing quickly and it was hard to keep up with all that was going on.  Facebook had just come out with the relaunch of Facebook Groups. Facebook already has such unbelievable engagement that it just made sense to also make it the place for this group to congregate online to talk about what was happening in DC tech. So we created the DC Tech Facebook group and it just took off. A few years have passed and it now has over 1600 people.

Later, the community was looking for a way to connect via Twitter.  My friend Debbie suggested that we start using a hashtag.  She suggested #dctech.   A year or so later and now the entire community uses the #dctech hashtag as a way to connect all of our disparate tweets together.

Moving away from technology communities… if you’ve seen the tv show Gossip Girl, it’s a tv show about a lot of well to do high school students who are looking to survive life on the Upper East Side of NYC.   The community uses a blog, called “Gossip Girl”, which dishes on the social scene and gets piped to all of their cell phones as a way to stay in touch on what’s going on.  The blog & their phones act as a platform for their community.

As I said, communities can be offline just as much as online. When I was in college, I had to spend time working in industry.  I worked as a Web Developer at Michigan State University.  It worked perfectly.  Lived at home and was close to all my friends from high school, who were still in Michigan.

Of my friends who were still in the Lansing, Michigan area, we decided that we wanted to be intentional about staying in touch.  We found a hole in the wall Mexican restaurant that we’d go to every Tuesday.  It had cheap beer and nachos.  The tradition lasted for years well behind the 6 months that I lived in Michigan.   The mexican restaurant acted as an amazing platform for our little community to come together and talk about surviving life after high school.

You see similar situations played out in pop culture.   I can’t even name all of the great TV shows.    There was the crew that met at the bar Cheers, a good part of Friends was spent at a coffee shop, and a good part of one of my favorite tv shows How I Met Your Mother is spent at a pub in Manhattan.

If you have a community and a topic that ties you together, the next step is that you need some place or technology platform that can keep you all connected.