Saturday, April 03, 2010

Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society

I've just been alerted to Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society. It sounds interesting:
Present Tense is currently seeking submissions for its inaugural issue. We are a peer-reviewed, blind-refereed, online journal dedicated to exploring contemporary social, cultural, political and economic issues through a rhetorical lens.

Seeking to address current or presently unfolding issues, we publish short articles of no more than 2,000 words, the length of a conference paper. We also encourage conference-length multimedia submissions such as short documentaries, flash videos, interviews and podcasts, as well as reviews that are thematically related to the goals of the journal.
If you're sitting on a manuscript along these lines, take a look and see what you think.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Coworking in Round Rock: A Conversation with Will Hampton, Director of Communication, City of Round Rock

After my SXSWi2010 panel "What Coworking Tells Us About the Future of Work," Will Hampton approached me and suggested we chat sometime about the City of Round Rock's efforts in this direction. I had heard something about these efforts, and was especially interested in looking at a coworking model in which local government was involved, so I was happy to take Will up on the offer.

So, on Monday, I drove up quite early to beat the traffic, parking near City Hall. Since I was early, I grabbed a coffee and some breakfast tacos at Star Co, which has a great location on E. Main Street and turns out to be a nice place to get some work done. (More on this later.) At the appointed time, I walked across the street and met Will at City Hall.

City Hall is one street over from E. Main Street, but it backs up to a building directly on E. Main. This building was purchased by the City a year ago and has just been renovated, Will told me, and much of it will go toward expanding the City's offices, housing the Visitors' Bureau, and hosting an art space. But some of the building has not been programmed yet -- and Will sees a potential for a coworking space.

Why a coworking space here? Will saw a presentation on coworking at SXSWi2009, moderated by Tony Bacigalupo and featuring site owners from Caroline Collective (Houston), Indy Hall (Philadelphia), Office Nomads (Seattle), and Souk (Portland). And he saw the potential for a coworking space to attract the Creative Class to Main Street, helping to revitalize the core of Round Rock. After all, he thought in 2009, "we have this building we just bought." And a coworking community has already started in Round Rock - a Jelly, which has been held at Star Co for just over a year. The Jelly draws an eclectic mix of people, heavy on the tech crowd, particularly people who have been recently laid off by large tech companies. But the community also includes a freelance photographer and a writer. (He quotes one Jelly member as saying that Jelly changed his life by helping him to focus and to network.)

Others have also seen the potential. For instance, he says that the Williamson County Entrepreneurs Network has also shown interest.

So right now, Will has identified two options for opening a Round Rock coworking space. Both would be initiatives in which the City would attract and facilitate a coworking facility -- but the City is not itself going to go into the coworking business. The two options are (1) to open a coworking space in the City's new building, in currently unprogrammed rooms, and (2) to open a space in a nearby building for lease.

Option 1: Coworking in the City's Building
As I mentioned above, Will says that two open-plan rooms have not yet been programmed, and he sees them as potential coworking spaces. Both are on the second floor, and both have lots of natural light from windows facing E. Main Street. The first is a 1600 square foot space, a large rectangle:

The second is approximately 1200 square feet and is a more irregular shape, with windows facing a public green:

Both are just a short flight of stairs from a potential 800 square foot conference room, suitable for client meetings and presentations, with windows overlooking the green:

This conference room is just across the hall from the arts space, which will feature local artists and juried competitions, with receptions planned on the green. The green, Will says, would also be a great place for the farmer's market -- which currently meets nearby in the parking garage. The arts space will open in early May.

In considering this option, the City sees the potential of leasing coworking space to an established operator at a reasonable rate. The idea is to pull the Creative Class to downtown Round Rock, keeping local businesspeople who currently commute to Austin or work out of their houses. "I'm interested in activating downtown," Will told me more than once.

On the other hand, Will tells me, the City might need the extra space as flex space. So that brings us to Option 2.

Option 2: Coworking on Main Street
Option 2 is a building for lease just two blocks from the city building. The space is very different from Option 1: It hasn't been renovated yet, the building is older, and the space is essentially a long hallway with a succession of small rooms. Rather than trying to photograph each of these, I took a video with my phone. Apologies for the quality.

As you can see, this space is quite different, and the warren of small rooms is less conducive to the open-plan sort of coworking I've seen at Cospace and Conjunctured. Also, it strikes me as I watch the video that there are no windows. But the space could be suitable for an incubator, and I suggested that Star Co (just across the street) could serve as an extension of the space for open-plan coworking.

In this case, the City's role would be more as a facilitator or connector. The City doesn't plan to buy or lease the space or to compete with the private sector. But it does want to engage in "placemaking," in creating a "third space" that would be attractive to Creative Class workers.

At this point we moved to Star Co, which is, as I said, a very nice place to work. The back room was already starting to fill with people, working singly on laptops or clustered in twos and threes, getting business done. We grabbed a table and chatted about the community's long-term vision for Main Street. As project manager for the Downtown Master Plan, Will is invested in making this vision a reality.

That vision, Will told me, was of a denser urban space that was more attractive to the Creative Class. Along with other plans (creating a larger town green, reconfiguring a busy street), coworking could support a downtown with a "more organic feel," a downtown that is more "funky" and vital. Coworking could be a differentiator for Round Rock, separating it from Cedar Park and Pflugerville, and make "good business sense for the city."

I've seen several different models of coworking, some in Austin, some on the Coworking Google Group: as a loss leader, as a nonprofit or not-for-profit, as a for-profit business, as a way for existing businesses to recover excess building capacity, as a service provided by incubators, as a center supported by business development grants. When I first heard of Round Rock's efforts, I thought they would fit that last model. But I was impressed by the community's vision and the fact that it involved public-private partnerships that are heavy on private initiative: The City isn't trying to shoulder the burden of starting a coworking space, it's trying to attract a space that will support itself while supporting the City's vision.

The question that occurred to me as I toured the spaces, though, was: Are these the right spaces? Do they offer the right mix of open-plan, conference, and private spaces? Can people make phone calls, conduct presentations, isolate themselves when needed, but still network and bat around ideas when needed? Right now, without furniture and without renovation of Option 2, it's hard to tell.

On the other hand, as I remarked to Will at Star Co, Main Street could function as a larger ecosystem that could make up for the limitations of the individual spaces. For instance, I could imagine coworkers working in Option 2 when they needed to place phone calls, collaborate closely on a project, or take a client meeting; trip over to Star Co when they wanted to do some open-plan coworking; and take a break on the Green or in the art space. Similarly, I could see coworkers doing open-plan coworking in Option 1 and conducting meetings downstairs - although I'm not sure where they could take private phone calls. (Maybe in booths.)

In any case, I see a lot of potential in this effort. If you're thinking about starting a coworking space, do think about sending Will an email.

Reading :: Building Web Reputation Systems

Building Web Reputation Systems
By F. Randall Farmer and Bryce Glass

Some time ago, an acquaintance in the Austin tech industry, Ian Strain-Seymour (@ifss on Twitter) suggested I begin Twitter-following a fellow he knew in graduate school, Bryce Glass (@soldierant), who was then working for Yahoo. So I did, based on that recommendation. Soon I realized that Bryce knew my frequent collaborator Bill Hart-Davidson (@billhd). At some point I mentioned to Bryce that I knew both of these guys, and he followed me back. Like me, Bryce doesn't follow that many people, but we both made the decision to follow each other based on what our trusted friends thought - that is, on each others' reputations.

Reputation is a critical factor in making web services worthwhile, since it allows us to make decisions we wouldn't otherwise be able to make and to accrue social capital we wouldn't otherwise be able to accrue - whether we're talking about goods (think's reviews), services (Yelp), or social networking (Twitter). And in the absence of more durable connections, when we need to develop swift trust, we look for different ways to judge the authority and ethos of the people with whom we connect. Bryce and his coauthor, F. Randall Farmer, tell us how to do this systematically.

I've blogged before about how Farmer and Glass handle reputation in terms of ethos claims, so I won't repeat that work here. Suffice it to say that although the authors are not rhetoricians, rhetoricians should read this book. Rhetoricians will recognize a claims structure that looks a lot like Toulmin's (see Ch.2), but is fitted for digital literacy and its many ephemeral, distributed connections. They'll learn a lot from the book's descriptions and case studies about what ethos looks like in digital environments -- and how to fine-tune reputation systems to keep them healthy, productive, accurate, and aligned with the purpose of the community.

The book not only covers vital ground, it also covers that ground gracefully: the book is highly readable and is full of useful examples and diagrams. Although some parts assume some basic knowledge of system design, readers shouldn't have trouble getting through the rest of the book or gathering the core messages.

Disclosure: I reviewed this book in manuscript form. And yes, I was smitten with it then too.

If you're a rhetorician who is trying to understand claims and ethos in digital literacy, this book is a must. If you're a rhetorician of any stripe, you still might want to pick it up. Highly recommended.

The Coworking Book

Alex Hillman of IndyHall has begun a book (really, a curated project in the form of a wiki) about coworking. It only has one short chapter right now, so if you're in the coworking community, feel free to contribute.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reading :: Traditions of Writing Research

Traditions of Writing Research
Edited by Charles Bazerman, Robert Krut, Karen Lunsford, Susan McLeod, Suzie Null, Paul Rogers, and Amanda Stansell

In 2008, I attended the Writing Research Across Borders conference in Santa Barbara. It's an international conference, and I was very happy to make it and to see presentations from colleagues across the world. (I'll be going to WRAB 2011 in February.) The research was of high quality, the perspectives were many, and I gained insights into writing research in many different milieux.

This book features some of the best papers of that conference. Mine isn't in it - I presented on themes from my second book, which was in press, so I didn't submit the paper - but the book is full of short but solid pieces. It reminds me of some of the best conference proceedings I've seen in other fields (and made me wish that we had more conferences with proceedings in our own field). Like good conference proceedings, this book's short chapters hold well-developed and methodologically sound cases. Like good scholarly collections, the book relates these chapters well in thematic sections. It's like a scholarly tapas bar.

In this collection, you'll find studies on writing from China, France, Norway, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Poland, Armenia, Colombia, Argentina, Spain, Australia, Canada, and the US. One chapter even examines how Chinese and Moroccan immigrants learn a Romance language in Catalan. US contributions are a large minority, but still a minority here. Studies ranged in methodology from ethnography to case study to discourse and text analysis to surveys, and involved both qualitative and quantitative analysis.

With a range that large, it's hard to pick out some standouts, but I'll try.

I really enjoyed the first chapter, Huijun's "Modern 'Writingology' in China," which chronicles how the Chinese approach to writing developed from the vernacular movement in the 1910s, through the Revolution and its Soviet-influenced approaches, to the more recent approaches influenced by the emerging market economy.

Speaking of the Soviets, I was touched by Cezar Ornatowski's "Writing, From Stalinism to Democracy: Literacy Education and Politics in Poland, 1945-1999." Ornatowski notes how ideologically centralized writing instruction was, including how it taught the genre of the "life story" as an ideological confession that students repeatedly had to write. Ornatowski takes us through the later transitions, showing how political changes were reflected in changes in writing instruction.

Maria Silvia Cintra's "The continuum illiterate-literate and the contrast between different ethnicities" describes a Brazilian ethnography about literacy. In the course of the ethnography, she examines the relationship between Bakhtin's discourse genres and Voloshinov's social psychology and ideology - two constructs that, she says, must be considered together (p.114).

Doreen Starke-Meyerring also takes up the topic of genres in "Between Peer Review and Peer Production," comparing academic peer review with wikis in terms of genre. Genres' dynamic structures are produced, she says, by internal conflicts between the residual cultural logic of their origins and the situations they must address (p.342).

Finally, in "Writing in multiple contexts," David R. Russell puts cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) in dialogue with Schutz's phenomonology. This move, he says, lets us take into account a theory of multiple contexts on "both the social-psychological (subjective and intersubjective) plane and the sociological (objective and institutional) plane" (p.353). "The network is the context," he tells us, describing how the neat triangles of activity theory describe messy networks (p.354). He neatly pins this discussion to Schutz's understanding of a tool as a "thing-in-order-to" (p.355), and compares Vygotsky's and Schutz's "shared understandings about thought and action, communication and contexts, and situations" (p.356).

Overall, a really solid collection. If you're interested in examples of writing research from different countries, activities, and contexts, I recommend it.