Communications, information, tools, and pathways

One of the unique things about running an organization is universal responsibility. I’ve been in many jobs where I feel like I’m spinning plates on poles, running back and forth between the wobblers, just trying to keep things up and running. In the past, though, there were entire categories of tasks that were “not my problem”, plates that I knew someone else would take responsibility for. Here, ultimately, it’s all on me. And that makes for quite a lot of variability in my days! Let’s look at what’s open on one of my web browser windows right now: I have my DTI email inbox, of course, and my calendar. (I keep my personal email, Twitter/Mastodon/Bluesky, and my todo list open in a different window.) I’m reading an IEEE article about privacy-preserving data exchange agreements. I have a Google Doc open where I’m compiling notes and ideas for a potential future data transfer product. The other four tabs reflect the active project that prompted me to write this piece: two for LinkedIn, one for, and one for a tool called MarsEdit, on which I’m currently writing. Because in addition to managing DTI’s substantive product and policy work, legal work, and accounting (with the help of consultants and a growing team, thankfully), I drive DTI's communications work, and that is the topic of today’s piece.

Generally, I like communicating, at least when it’s through an efficient and effective process. I enjoy writing updates on my work at DTI to share a little bit of the sausage-making process. I wrote the first few as brief notes on LinkedIn, and then experimented last week with LinkedIn Articles, their product offering to make it easier to write slightly longer pieces. Today I’m testing out MarsEdit, an app for writing blog posts that synchronizes well with and allows for easy cross-posting to social media. I’m going to see what it’s like to write first here, and then post both to and to LinkedIn Articles. Ultimately, I’ll fold our MailChimp list in with that outreach. My goal is, ultimately, a communications stack that is both easy to produce for me, and easy to consume for those who want to stay informed about DTI. Information should be accessible to people where they are, whether that’s via email, LinkedIn, RSS, or social media.

Like almost everyone else, I expect, the ways in which I consume information have changed immensely over the past couple decades. Twenty years ago, print as a source of news was still something I regularly consumed, gradually giving way to email and blogs, read on a desktop computer and the Web. Fifteen years ago, social media and mobile devices started to come into the mix, but remained a complement to desktop digital. I remember the moment when I came to understand the value of social media, specifically Twitter, as a tool for dissemination of information: It was in 2009, when I learned first through Twitter (and before others in my circle) that Michael Jackson had died. And then ten years ago, social and mobile became predominant sources of news, and Google shut down Google Reader. (No, I still haven’t forgiven them.) Five years ago, perhaps reflecting the information cacophony I increasingly find myself facing, I started to get back into newsletters and email, re-prioritizing professionally produced content over spending more time treading water in the real-time and recommended feeds of social-first systems. The digital sources are, as they always have been, supplemented with human ones too - if I don’t catch something myself, it’ll be mentioned in a Slack instance I participate in, or someone will send it to me over email or a messaging service.

I’m often asked by mentees and people new to the tech policy space what I recommend they read. At this point, it’s a hard question for me to answer. I expect many of the people reading this are in a similar situation! For law students I can point them to James Grimmelmann’s excellent Internet Casebook. I’m still invested in email newsletters: Garbage Day and Axios Login are my top recommendations (yes, even over Platformer, sorry Casey). I have my own curated lists on Twitter, and I created+run a Mastodon instance dedicated to tech policy. Over the years, I have cultivated a hodgepodge of digital information sources, intentionally with substantial overlap, so that I can look at any one of them only sporadically and still maintain a high likelihood of catching as much as possible relevant to my interests.

It’s an interesting contrast to the work of the Data Transfer Initiative. I suppose that, because data is used by computers, data portability is hard; but because information is used by humans, information portability is comparatively easy. Communications, though, is not easy. The combination of a rich landscape of sources and a high volume of information puts burden on both the writer and reader - on the reader, to allocate a scarce budget of attention and time, and on the writer, to determine and reach the right target audience. (Not to mention, to identify a business model that can adequately support the work!)

Remember the old Comcast broadband TV commercials, where the Web surfer reached “the end of the internet” because of the speed of his cable modem connection? It was funny then and it’s even funnier now, in my opinion. I often describe the modern internet as an environment where each of us has a seemingly infinite ocean of information available, far more than what we can navigate alone. We depend on the various filtering and recommendation systems that serve as an interstitial layer between us and that vast universe, including both the machine learning algorithms that power non-linear social media feeds, and the very human processes, such as my earlier recommendation that you all subscribe to Ryan Broderick’s email newsletter Garbage Day.

Here is where data portability and information portability intersect. As a starting point, data portability allows us as writers of online information to move our work to another host, if we want to change the pathways by which it reaches our intended audiences. Just as importantly, as readers, we can also port data about our activity - vital seed for growing good recommendation systems. Because computers are more rigid in their consumption of data, though, it takes work; work the Data Transfer Initiative was founded to take on.

And in the meantime, I’ll write where I think it will reach people. For today, I’ll try and LinkedIn. We’ll see what tomorrow will bring.

Data Transfer Initiative @dtinit