What I Know


I’ve decided this private blog should be a repository for things that I often find myself repeating to one person after another.  It’ll simply provide a convenient collection of the various observations I’ve made, to which I can refer people.  Comments are welcome, and might suggest topics for future rants.

People always say “Write about what you know”, meaning what you know first-hand.  What you’ve seen with your own eyes.

I hope to stick to that as much as possible, and what I seem to know most is the boring clerical stuff involved in keeping activist groups functioning, so that’s what my first blog entry will be about.  If you think a unit can function with all Hawkeyes and no Radars, stop reading right now.  My free bandwidth is limited.

This is mainly to cover some things that are pretty obvious to me, since I’ve been doing them a lot, but maybe not obvious to everyone.

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INTRO:

TO THE PEOPLE WHO COME TO A MEETING OR TWO, DO A THING OR TWO, AND THEN NEVER COMMIT TO ANY OF THE REGULAR, DAILY, INFRASTRUCTURAL WORK REQUIRED TO KEEP A GROUP IN EXISTENCE

If you’ve ever performed well in a job that included…

– answering a phone politely and responding to messages

– checking mail and writing responses

– writing a coherent essay

– proofing and editing

– compiling and processing information

– setting up a display on a table

– storing and tracking supplies and paraphernalia

– contacting people who have something you want and figuring out how to get it in a pleasant way

…you are needed.  This is part of basically keeping any group in existence, and it’s not up to someone else. If a group is alive, there is some of this to do almost every day.

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I.  COMPUTERS

Ok, how many people “don’t know much about computers”?  I see nearly all the hands in the room go up.

Good news:  You don’t need to know any more about computers to get this work done than the lowliest clerk knew about how typewriters or telephones worked in the old days.

If you came of age before the IBM Selectric or you never had a desk job of any kind in the last 15 years, it’s understandable that it could take you a while to gain some proficiency, BUT…

To a large degree, “knowing about computers” is kinda like “knowing about wrenches”.  Knowing what you want to do with them is far more important than the tool itself.  Not since the days of literal “core” (look it up) have users been required to know much about their inner workings.

But it IS nice to know a few things like:

– the names of the applications you’re working with.

– how to file something and find it later.

– which email providers to stay away from because they will arbitrarily block your friends’ mail as “spam”.

– which human errors you might have made that could make a strange result

– How to find out how much space a file takes up.

– Which commonly used software is useful for a particular task, and how to learn it.

– Which “user-friendly features” to stay away from because they will turn over control from you to the software.

Conversations about such things are not, I repeat NOT “technical”.  I am not a techie.  Though I worked many years in data processing, techies would call me a “user” (or “luser”, depending on the context).  The points above are all of concern to every user, which draws ever closer to meaning “everyone”.

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II.  LISTS

Everyone has lists, or should.  Shopping lists, “To Do” lists,  enemies lists…..  and there are the kinds of lists that I’ve mainly worked with:  contact lists.

Everyone has some kind of address book in some form, right?  The computer just makes it easier.  The power of a politico, businessman, or just about anyone, is manifested in personal contacts, often symbolized by the Rolodex.  If anyone under the age of 60 still uses a Rolodex, I’d be surprised.  Computers offer far better tools for the purpose.  Many come already loaded on when you buy the computer, in most cases.
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A.  Your Master File

If you know Excel or something like it, just lay out names & addresses on a grid.  There’s probably something more like a “database” application somewhere on your machine.  You can import your Excel file into it later, if necessary.  Make an extra column or two for whatever little codes you make up for whether each person is family, a car enthusiast, a dog breeder, a bum you want to avoid, or whatever you might want to group people by.  Any number of little notes about the contact can be added any time for later reference.  Just think about what criteria you might use later for sorting and selecting the contacts for whatever purpose might arise.

It is most important that everyone do this for him/herself.  I’m often surprised at how often people seem to rely on me for it, when anyone can do it.
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B. Your Email Address Book

This is a hairy thing to talk about, since there are so many different email clients and web interfaces that people use to work with their email.  But basically, nearly every email interface has some way that you can create “groups” for your addresses.  There are some hazards here.  If you rely too much on “groups” in your address book, it  probably all goes into your “To” or “CC” box as a mess of individual addresses.  Many spam filters use the number of recipient addresses as one criterion in deciding whether something is “spam”.  That means if you load up the “BCC” box too much, some people will never get your message.  Also see the section below about email ethics.  If you get in the habit of sending email to lots of people at once, there will eventually come a time when you’ll want to create a listserve.
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C.  Listserves

“Listserve” seems to be the most generic word for this:  a service offered in which people subscribe to a list, and one or more subscribers, “moderators”, or “owners” are able to send a message to one address, and it will go out to all subscribers.

If you have a large number of potential subscribers, such a thing makes sense to set up.  It is a free service, usually, and some of the more commonly used ones are Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, Riseup Lists, and Mailman.  It’s very easy to learn how to maintain one, but maintain it you must.  If you create it and then leave it to rot, it can be overrun by spammers. Any listserve must have someone who watches the traffic on it daily and removes offending subscribers or helps people with it when they can’t figure out how to do things themselves.  This is a long rant in itself, for some other time.

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III.  EMAIL COMMUNICATION

This is most of the communication activists do these days.  It has limitations, but is indispensable.  A few things about it don’t seem to be obvious to everyone:
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A.  If you use email a lot, don’t rely on web mail. Even with a good broadband connection, you’ll find yourself waiting a lot for every command you click to go around the world & back, just to delete a message or look at a different folder.  With web mail, any mail that you’ve saved in a folder exists only on your provider’s server.  You can’t get at it if your web connection is down, and you’re entirely dependent on your provider not losing it.

Figure out how to set up Outlook Express, Thunderbird, or something like them, that downloads your mail to your own machine, so you can work with it offline.  This means having your own computer, of course.  Sorry.  It’s an indispensable tool these days.
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B.  Don’t contribute to data bloat. If you can say what you need to say in plain text, please do so.  Google the phrase “plain text”.  It has a very specific meaning.  It might not be the format in which your email is sent by default.  You might have to explore the “options” in your email client to make your typing default to plain text.

Most large listserves don’t allow attachments, as a safeguard against spreading viruses and data bloat.

If you’ve made a flyer with cute graphics, that’s nice, but very few people will actually print it out and distribute it on paper.  Sending it to hundreds of people unsolicited doesn’t make sense.  Better to post it on the web somewhere and give a link to it in your email.
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C.  Email requires a somewhat different writing style from other media.

Think about how you go through your own mail.  If you can’t tell in the first two seconds what it’s basically about, you probably delete it, right?

—  So put something about the basic “what, where when, who” very close to the top, easy …..to find at first glance.

—  Keep it short.  People have vast amounts of mail to sort through and little time to read.

—  Make it clear what the source of the information is.  If it’s an “announcement” kind of …..thing, make it clear whom to contact for more info.

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IV.  EMAIL ETHICS

A.  The fact that someone gives you their email address does not confer upon you the right to give it to anyone else. This is what the “Blind Carbon Copy” function is for.  You don’t always want every recipient able to just look at the header of your message and collect addresses from it.

Corollary to A.:  Don’t make assumptions about the interests of the people you see in someone else’s CC box. This applies to the infamous “Reply to All” situation, in which many people with no interest in the matter get their inboxes filled up by a one-on-one.
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B.   Rarely or never should you send an email to someone whom you don’t have SOME kind of reason to think MIGHT be interested in the message you’re sending.

Corollary to B.: You never, ever, have a right to send email to someone who has explicitly asked you not to.  Period. This is like sending “fax blasts” in the old days.  Though the cost at the other end is mainly time, rather than paper and ink, it makes you a jerk, plain and simple.

Corollary to the above corollary:  No one can ever be forced to subscribe to a listserve.

Corollary to the above:  Subscribers who post needlessly unpleasant or off-topic messages to a listserve may need to be removed by the moderator immediately, to preserve the usefulness of the listserve.


Let the Comments Begin.

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5 Responses to What I Know

  1. josh says:

    i’d like to add to the email ethics rant. corollary to b: when someone sends you an unsolicited email laden with half-truths, misinformation, outright lies, jingoistic pablum and the like, it is permissable, nay, compulsory, to respond not only to the sender but to all email addresses visable in the email chain in an effort to enlighten all who might have been taken in by said bullshit. one should include links debunking deceptive stories (snopes.com works well) and statistics (wikipedia.org is a fine default).

  2. Tom says:

    Tom said…

    Mudge, I love this! And I hate blogging. You have outlined the job description of a community organizer, something the Republicans made light of in their convention. It is one of the most admirable ways to spend ones time. You are an experienced and talented community organizer. I appreciate your work more than words can express. Thanks for the memories. Would you share your insights on the role of provocateaurs or infiltrators in the local peace movement. From reports from the DNC and RNC we know the groups organizing the protests had been infiltrated for at least a year prior to the conventions. To think that our members would be exempt from this intrusion would be nieve. With the current state of local coordinated peace actions at a low I was wondering if this was by accident or design. Any ideas?

  3. Tom says:

    Josh, I do not even bother to open up a unfamiliar email address. My finger gets stuck on the delete button. For those senders I know, I still keep my finger on the delete key but scan the subjects to see if it is anything worthwhile. Every now and then I will delete something important but I do not want to unsubscribe from any of the lists I am on. So you have to wade through a lot of mail.

  4. Pingback: Not a Techie | kitchenmudge

  5. Pingback: Not a Techie | kitchenmudge

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