Facebook’s algorithms don’t read so stop writing for them

typewriter

When it comes to determining what good content is, Facebook’s been acting a lot like Google.

In 2011, Google released Panda, an update to the algorithm which determines what users see and – more importantly – don’t see in its search results, particularly that crucial first page. The effect was immediate for some publishers and those that survived were forced to radically change their business models.

Panda was, in Google’s words, an effort “to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible.” Google’s subsequent algorithm changes only reinforced this mission to deliver high-quality content by making poor-quality content disappear.

With recent announcements that it would cut down on “News Feed spam,” and “click-baiting,” Facebook is essentially warning publishers not to create content for algorithms because algorithms could change tomorrow and wipe you out.

Sound familiar? This is what happens when we try to make content perform instead of inform.

STOP TRYING TO GAME THE SYSTEM

Whether it’s Google or Facebook, the big gatekeepers keep telling us it’s a waste of time to write to an algorithm that might change at a moment’s notice yet we keep doing it anyway. It’s an ineffective way to spend scant resources and, ironically, the tricks we’re using to get people to click, share and comment obscure the fact that most publishers do create quality content.

Facebook made two recent changes to its News Feed algorithm. The first targets clickbaiters, those nefarious pages that either trick you into clicking a link with an enticing headline that never really pays off or keep a key piece of the story behind a link. The second is aimed at clever community managers who route around the lower reach of Facebook’s link posts by creating better-performing photo posts with a link in the caption. Both tactics will now result in posts with diminished visibility in the News Feed.

For brands and publishers already facing down the era of zero organic Facebook reach, these changes may seem like another shot across the bow: a suggestion that paid efforts will be the only way to guarantee a certain number of eyeballs.

HOW TO GET FACEBOOK TO WORK FOR YOU

The good news is if social marketers created this problem, we can also solve it.

First, let’s stop writing content for Facebook’s metrics and go back to relying on content that relates to our overall business goals: awareness, education or engagement, to name a few.

Let’s create content that’s concise, understandable on a scan within the feed and rewards the user for the time spent reading it. We know many people don’t read past the headline so why deliberately write it to obscure what matters most in a story? If we give a reader something of value at the beginning, they’ll assume we have more to offer at the end.

Most importantly, let’s consider the unique role each of our social channels plays in the overall marketing mix and stop focusing all our efforts on just one. When we’ve optimized our best content with an informative headline and an engaging graphic, we can share that link on Facebook and use paid dollars there to increase its visibility and earned media traction. Meanwhile, those gorgeous photos can go on Instagram or Pinterest and the clever joke or meme will get published on Twitter.

If nothing else, let’s make sure our content reads like it was written for a purpose and doesn’t resemble a hyper-caffeinated, all-caps email from our aunt. Readers will reward us with organic clicks, likes and comments and we can all sleep better at night knowing we didn’t goad them into doing it by appealing to their lesser demons.

After all, having conversation with humans – not algorithms – is why we started experimenting with social in the first place.

Image: guidedbycthulhu

U2 and iTunes: Being big isn’t always the best

U2 has always wanted scale. But it’s always been in a fight for itself about how to reach millions of people and what it wants to say to them once it has their attention.

Lyrically, their scope has always been big. If your second album has a song about the Polish solidarity movement, you’ve distinguished yourselves from the “I wanna hold your hand” school.

In the book U2 by U2, Bono says of The Unforgettable Fire, the band’s fourth album, “all we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin.” And though Bono said the were “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world” in 2000, they’ve often substituted “big” for “best.”

At some point though, trying to go big isn’t always the best.

Say whatever you like about the album itself, but U2 forcing its album on iTunes users evokes desperation. It seems to say “If you had the choice, we know you wouldn’t take it. So we’re not giving you the choice.”

Mike Fourcher at Vouchification says push distribution is the future and he’s not wrong, per se. But it’s only the future if a brand is OK with being ignored. He puts a fine point on it here:

This, in digital form, is basically the power newspapers used to have when they landed on everyone’s doorstep. You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there, and you could see them.

“You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there” is the operative phrase.

U2 via iTunes is what happens when a brand is less interested in engaged users and more interested in empty impressions. “They own it but haven’t listened to it” is such a long way away from how U2 started and what they used to mean. U2 was a band that with Zoo TV offered a pointed commentary on the role media plays in shaping image. Now they’ve let the mechanisms subsume them. The conversation in their art is beside the point.

Or, to put it another way, they’ve put all their money on being big, not the best.

The hard work of making Jackie Robinson West happen

rahmquinn This is a piece I read for Tuesday Funk last night. It’s a reading series at Hopleaf on the first Tuesday of each month at 730pm. Last night was a particularly eclectic mix of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Normally when I do a live reading, I favor something with some humor interspersed. This was the first time I ever read a piece without any of my usual tricks due, in part to developing this for both Tuesday Funk and an op-ed on the Sun-Times’s website. (The version that appears below is a little longer.) It was great to do something new in a live setting and to get this piece out there in a couple different forms.

Over the Labor Day weekend, I was thinking about it means to do hard work. Hard work is filled with lots of little details that eventually pay off in the long-term, but aren’t much fun to hear about until you see the results.

I’d been thinking about what hard work looks like because of some news stories about Jaheim Benton and his South Side teammates from Jackie Robinson West, this year’s United States Little League champions. Benton scored five runs in the series, including the winning run in the championship game. In a month of news stories dominated by violence in African-American communities here in Chicago, in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, the story of a group of young, inner-city black boys represented the pinnacle of American athletic accomplishment and contradicted an all-too-familiar narrative. This was a feel-good story on the scale of a big-screen movie, playing out in real life.

Just days after the team’s victory, the Sun-Times reported Benton, along with his mother and father, had been sleeping in the homes of friends and family for the past few months. They were homeless. Both parents work, but have been unable to pay their rent on two part-time salaries. Benton’s mother recently had her hours cut as an in-home care worker with Catholic Charities.

The story was a stunning contrast to the events of a few days before at a homecoming rally for Benton and his teammates at Millennium Park. Many of Chicago’s most powerful – the mayor, the governor, the State’s Attorney General and others – took the stage to praise the Jackie Robinson West team for its skill on the field. All were happy to celebrate the win and connect their names to a Chicago victory.

The question on the minds of many was whether any of the politicians who shared the stage with Benton earlier in the week would step up and be there for him now that his family needed help.

They didn’t. But the neighborhood did.

Leak and Sons Funeral Home offered to pay the family’s rent for a year. A South Side institution that has seen the effects of violence firsthand, Leak and Sons is no stranger to helping those in need, often providing discounted or pro bono funeral services to those who can’t otherwise afford it. In a story on ABC7 News, Spencer Leak Jr., said “I would hope that this rent turns into a mortgage that turns into homeownership for them,” said Leak Jr. In a separate Sun-Times story, he was quoted as saying “My dad always say a setback is a setup for a comeback. We’re going to try to help them come back.”

Other offers of assistance followed from various South Side businesses and institutions, including one from Leo High School in Auburn-Gresham, which offered Benton’s mother a job.

It’s easy to show up to a victory rally. It’s harder to show up when there’s lots of work to do and no cameras around. But the politicians were silent even though an offer of help would have been an easy win for them. Would it have been an obvious piece of political grandstanding? Sure. But no moreso than their appearance at the rally.

The reason they didn’t is simple: People in power only like to take credit for a win, not blame for a loss.

The South Side has seen plenty of loss in the last year. Twenty out of the 49 Chicago Public Schools were closed in this part of the city. It also sees a higher proportion of gun deaths and shootings. Many of these neighborhoods are starved for economic resources as well. These facts are all interrelated and help to explain why a family like Jaheim Benton’s would be homeless.

The politicians who shared in Jackie Robinson West’s win don’t want to acknowledge their part in preventing any of the above.

In the same way that electing one black man President doesn’t make racism go away, sending one South Side baseball team to the Little League World Series doesn’t alleviate the problems of poverty, violence and homelessness in the neighborhoods of Chicago. But it definitely shows what happens when you provide the right tools to combat them.

Jaheim Benton’s family has a solution now. But what about all those other families who are on the brink, but don’t have the benefit of a Little League World Series victory to bring attention to their plight? The young men of Jackie Robinson West either live in or live close to neighborhoods that make headlines due to gun violence. But they’re also supported by families, churches and schools. Their victory and the offers of help from Leak and Sons and Leo High School show what is possible when we stop thinking there are either “good” or “bad” neighborhoods.

The comments sections of our local news sites are replete with those who sneer at the notion that the 20 year old kid who was just arrested for shooting someone could be described by his mother as a “good kid.” But the distance between a good kid and a bad kid is short. Maybe only the distance between their home the nearest baseball field. And if we’re going to talk about the importance of baseball to the youth of Chicago, it’s worth talking about what happens to youth baseball when those cameras aren’t around.

In a piece for Substance News, George N. Schmidt notes that most Little League play isn’t affordable for kids in vulnerable neighborhoods. So this leaves baseball fields at the school or park district fields. The frequent rains this summer showed that most Park District fields weren’t maintained well enough to withstand the weather, with flooding a constant problem. As for the school fields, we’re back to those 20 closed South Side schools. If there’s no school, there’s no field. Schmidt also notes “Chicago’s public schools do not have frosh, and frosh-soph baseball programs because the funding to pay the coaches for these programs has been eliminated.” Nevermind all the other issues that plague Chicago’s youth: we haven’t even managed to invest in the very thing our city and state leaders just finished praising.

Even if the most celebrated young men in our city aren’t immune to the city’s larger problems, investment in their neighborhoods may be the key to solving them. Local businesses are present in a community for more than just the exchange of goods and services and public schools are a lynchpin of safety and stability for families with an uncertain home life. When we don’t work to create strong networks of both in our neighborhoods and instead save those tax dollars for downtown, we aren’t investing in our city’s long-term future.

This story is also a reminder that a systemic problem in any of Chicago’s neighborhoods – violence, poverty, failing schools or homelessness – is a problem in our own.

It’s something the politicians at Jackie Robinson West’s victory rally should remember, too: The victories of our youth come only when we take the steps necessary to prevent the losses. It’s hard work that starts long before anyone takes the stage.

Photo via Quinn For Illinois, CC License

If you can’t beat them, write a media criticism piece about them

With all the big news stories this summer — racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., Iraq, Ukraine, and Gaza — a site like Vox seemed destined for success. Those stories cry out for explanation, context, perspective. Vox does its best to offer that, and it has seen some promising traffic numbers. But industry sources say the site has yet to demonstrate a novel or innovative approach, much less show that it can be an essential destination for news consumers.

In Vox not living up the hype, explained

And then Dylan Byers of Politico proceeds to contradict his entire thesis. Vox’s traffic is at 9 million readers, its editorial forms are new and experimental and its coverage of Ferguson has been must-read and indispensable on a fast-moving story. Byers also soft-pedals how other media organizations hustled to create their own explainer verticals before Vox even launched. If Vox doesn’t seem to have changed the media landscape in the last four months, it’s because its effects were felt in the three months prior.

I have my own issues with Vox - more than a few embedded-tweets-as-articles diminish its value as an analytical, completist source – but Politico doesn’t make any of its criticisms stick. So much so that if Ezra Klein wanted to respond with the schoolyard taunt of “I’m rubber, you’re glue…” then he’d be justified.

In Slate, Dave Weigel provides further evidence that this is more about Politico trying to undercut a potential long-term competitor.

Content streams: The Internet is terrible edition

This week, the guy who invented the pop-up ad apologized for making the Internet terrible. Here’s a roundup of people and companies who might be the next offenders or the next innovators.

Digiday: ‘Brands aren’t people. And if they were, they’d hate ads too.’
What’s the thesis?
Brands should look for ways to be niche publishers, not broadcast advertisers. Talk to a smaller, more relevant and engaged group who will take your content, share it and integrate it into their relevant conversations on their platforms of choice for you.
Why should I care? This is a variation on the larger pushback we’re seeing on brands using social (mostly Facebook) for scale and substituting impressions for engagement. And the re-examination of earned media’s value vs. paid media.
Anything else? The YouTube Hero, Hub, Hygiene strategy he mentions sounds odd, but it’s how YouTube content creators formed a loyal subscriber base without big budgets.
Who else is talking about this? See last month’s Newcastle item.
What’s the next thing people will be saying about this? At this rate, I’m assuming you’ll see people falling all over themselves to name their SXSW talk “Facebook Is Dead.” Oh and then there’s this:

Quartz: Messaging apps are reprising the web’s business model, circa 1999
What’s the thesis?
“The internet giants of the present era are rushing to…become the Google of mobile.” The old web portal model (Yahoo will find everything for you) has become a mobile brand model (YOUR FAVORITE INTERNET BRAND HERE will provide you with every conceivable mobile service – email, messaging, gaming, travel reservations, etc.).
Why should I care? Theoretically, the more data brands have on consumer activities, the more customizable and effective they can be at marketing to them.
Anything else? “What is your brand’s Yo! strategy?” went from a joke to an actual thing people are talking about in two months. And apparently, ICQ use is increasing again. <digression>I really miss the early aughts, you guys. Even if half the music was terrible.</digression>
Who else is talking about this: I remain skeptical about broad use of new mobile apps as smartphone adoption plateaus. This Nielsen study says time spent using apps is on the rise, but people aren’t trying new apps. Emarketer backs this up with its own data. (Though this data might be affected as trusted brands like Facebook and others expand offerings in the space.)
What’s the next thing people will be saying about this? Mobile data is probably the most personal of all (think about the content of the last email or photo you sent someone). With the Snapchat security breach still fresh in mind, upstart brands ability to compete will rest on their ability to prove they can keep user data secure.

Rolling Stone: The Presidency and the Press: A former Obama spokesman on the history of the toxic relationship
What’s the thesis? “To communicate with everybody in this country at the same time and get them all wrapped around one issue – it’s very much an idea whose time has passed.”
Why should I care? This piece isn’t really about content marketing per se, but the above quote and the details about how the Obama administration often goes around traditional media outlets (and matches their reach) to get its unfiltered message directly to the American people offers plenty of lessons for brands.
Anything else? I never thought about how media cost-cutting led directly to more coverage of smaller stories but it’s pretty obvious in retrospect. Less money for more complex reporting means you spend time on gaffes and nonsense.
Who else is talking about this? The Boston Herald did a story on social media portals’ effects on the 2016 election. iCitizen is an app that helps voters track issues that are important to them. What’s the next thing people will be saying about this? The election is more than two years away and that’s forever in both politics and technology so anybody who thinks they have it figured out in advance of 2015 is probably full of it.

Why Robin Williams’s death feels that way

I’ve been trying to understand why Robin Williams’s death is hitting so many people so hard, me included. Whether you are someone of my cohort and saw a guy on a massively popular TV show act like a big, spazzy kid and make that seem cool – especially when you were a spazzy kid yourself – or watched a movie of his (The Fisher King, Dead Poets’ Society, Mrs. Doubtfire) that reminded you of something primal inside you that you’re still working on (a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose or the love of family and close relationships), this was a guy that did something to your heart at multiple points in your life. His foil was often (always?) you onscreen: a kid, a teenager, a son or daughter…a lady with a nice two-story walkup in Boulder. And any expectation that he might deliver that emotional revelation to you again at some point in the future is gone now.

And then there’s the juxtaposition of joy and indescribable pain. The notion that if It can come for him then It can come for any of us. The loss of the joy he gave you is coupled with an unignorable fear.

That’s all surface. Those are the obvious things.

1276407-600full_robin_williamsThere is a final thing and I think it is this: Robin Williams was an icon. And I know that word is thrown around a lot but when you’re a representation of a time and an attitude and a freewheeling…something that only you can embody? That rises above. He was a pair of suspenders, a shirt from Live at the Met, a set of Popeye arms, a microphone, a genie, a wig and glasses, a rumpled elegance, a Rough Rider.

We’re lacking in icons lately when everything is a bunch of small moments. I’m not saying approachable is bad. It’s just different. It’s not big.

Robin Williams was big. Often a cartoon, fifty feet high. So it makes sense that his death evokes a big reaction.

That’s my read on it, anyway.

UPDATE: Helen Rosner just dropped this on me (via maura, says she) which says it better than I did above. Incidentally, if you find yourself with dark moments of the soul then Helen’s post about depression is worth every minute you will spend on it.

If you only critique the worst examples of something, you’ll always be right

I’m a huge fan of of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It’s probably my favorite TV show of the last year with Inside Amy Schumer running a close second. LWT is funny, sharp, intelligent and complex. Exactly what you want out of comedy and TV. So when I saw Oliver’s take on native advertising pop up in my various feeds, I was sure it was going to be brutal.

Not really.

It’s disappointing that Oliver comes across as little more than a vulgar Bob Garfield here. Not that there’s anything wrong with vulgarity, mind you. But when you reduce native advertising to the worst possible version of itself then of course it will be terrible and something that should be resoundingly mocked.

Judging all native advertising by the standards of Buzzfeed’s native advertising is like judging all television by Two And A Half Men. If you use your editorial department to create native advertising or give it an ugly design or try to hide its origins, you should stop creating it.

Anyone who does what Oliver describes is doing wrong by both the editorial and business departments. You’ve basically created more Internet garbage and ethically compromised your work.

But when it’s done well? It’s informative or entertaining and supports a brand’s overall identity. It’s notable here that “but it’s still an ad!” is the only complaint Oliver can level against the Orange Is The New Black native piece from The New York Times. Honestly, I’d rather watch any of the videos that accompany it than Two And A Half Men any day. (I’d embed them here but it’s not possible.)

Sadly, there are probably journalists in newsrooms right now that have viewed the above OITNB native content – a 1,500 word piece on women in prisons with three compelling videos alongside it – and would love to be able to do work of that caliber as a purely journalistic undertaking instead of the listicles or aggregated content they’re told is the stuff that people really want right now and will fund the newsroom’s more lofty endeavors.

Frankly, that should have been the target of Oliver’s viral rant: the race to the bottom of online content. There are plenty of supposedly pure journalistic undertakings that are as disposable and advertiser-driven as any native advertising piece. Watching “real news” organizations all try to explain what went on in an elevator between Jay-Z and Solange is far more depressing to me that native advertising.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this:

That’s native advertising. Though I’d argue it should be disclosed better which is bad for Wren, the company that made it, because it barely mentions them and only right at the beginning. But 88 million people watched it.

Incidentally, that’s about the same number of people who watched the first six seasons of Two And A Half Men. Combined.

I’ve written about making native advertising more ethical and effective before. You can read that here.

Content streams: Anna Kendrick vs. Neil Patrick Harris edition

I’ve started a monthly roundup of interesting articles about content marketing for work. Whether this becomes an ongoing thing here as well, I don’t know. But after a two-month run of personal introspection, it felt like time to get back into the business of media extrospection here.

Ad Age: Newcastle reveals the secrets of Facebook advertising

What’s the thesis? “If you have no TV ad budget, would all-digital work? Newcastle Brown Ale would argue yes—digital content is just as effective if not more effective.”

Why should I care? Marketers are re-examining their Facebook strategy. Some are throwing more paid media at it. Others, like Newcastle, are taking an integrated approach that uses PR tactics and social analytics to get into more News Feeds and increase its earned media.

Anything else? Newcastle creates different content for its hardcore fans and drive-by fans. Add in the Conan appearances and this campaign doubles-down on customized content instead of repeating the same thing in different channels.

Who else is talking about this? Here’s the next set of Newcastle ads that build on this strategy. Heineken has a similar tactical approach without the strategic underpinning (IMHO).

What’s the next thing people will be saying about this? Advertisers will brag about how they’re not putting all their eggs in the Facebook basket and instead using all the owned/digital channels at their disposal.

Quartz: This Google videogame is trying to drive iPhone users into advertisers’ real-world stores

What’s the thesis? “There is a great deal more value for advertisers in having a users walk into shops than ignore a blink-and-you-miss-it ad on the web.” With Google backing, Ingress might be the first but the jury’s still out.

Why should I care? As the banner ad turns 20, we’ve seen a renewed conversation about whether digital/social can drive sales. This also seems to be the latest effort to try and make fetch…er, augmented reality happen.

Anything else? There’s been a lot of controversy about shady mobile ad networks and Foursquare’s recent confusing split into two apps which says many publishers and clients are still trying to solve for mobile.

Who else is talking about this? TechRadar goes deep on the physiological aspects of Ingress. Blippar has an AR game for Google Glass that’s somewhat difficult to play. Google is also all up in your thermostat.

What’s the next thing people will be saying about this? We’re about three months away from the “Google is evil and trying to track everything in your life” article.

Ad Age: How a magic toilet transformed Kohler’s digital strategy

What’s the thesis? It’s a classic story: Brand meets girl. Girl makes video about brand that blows up the Internet. Brand realizes it needs to experiment with digital more to fully engage its customer across all channels.

Why should I care? Creating a video that will “go viral” is a great way to make it not. Brands talking to people who already have great relationships with the audience they’re targeting and asking them to create content alongside them is better.

Anything else? A good example for brands hesitant to fully engage bloggers and a great mini-case study for a B2B brand that got consumers talking about it in social media (“Purchase intent registered via social media, for instance, has gone up…”)

Who else is talking about this? BrandChannel.com talks about the spot in reference to other toilet technology. Unrelated but important is this serious conversation about water happening in Detroit right now.

What’s the next thing people will be saying about this? My read on this is it’s a great headline, but the text doesn’t really back it up. I’d be interested to see if Kohler really integrates social engagement or user-generated video in its future digital strategy or if all the insight from this just gets flushed down the…I’m sorry.

Digiday? Inside Atlantic Media’s twist on an agency business

What’s the thesis? “Atlantic Media gets paid when people attend [its] event, when companies sponsor it, and also when brands pay its separate content agency to cover it from their perspective.”

Why should I care? Most brands are really uncomfortable with creating content streams that build a brand identity but aren’t expressly sales-driven. Atlantic has always done this for itself (as a magazine) and has now figured out how to do it for brands and create multiple revenue streams out of it.

Anything else? Despite the headline, the work discussed here is more campaign-driven than brand-driven; it’s a better model for publishers than agencies. Ironically, as publishers have become agency-like in their offerings, agencies have considered them more as an activation tactic for brands.

Who else is talking about this? Atlantic’s been cited as an innovative publisher since about 2011 but Digiday’s been covering the heck out of their events and web development platforms lately.

What’s the next thing people will be saying about this? If Buzzfeed doesn’t get into the branded events space within a year, I’ll be surprised.

Reacting to life: Essay Fiesta – 07.21.14

I haven’t read at Essay Fiesta in three years so it was great to be back at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square last night. It’s now hosted by Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin and benefits 826Chi, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth get excited about reading and creativity. Their next event is August 18th at 7pm. You should go.

Or: Come see me read at Tuesday Funk on September 2nd at the Hopleaf.

I’ve had a couple things knocking around in my head recently and writing this piece really helped bring them all together. Saying more about that spoils a couple bits in the below so…

Last week, my grandfather and I were sitting in a steakhouse in the northwest suburbs drinking dry Rob Roys on the rocks, with a twist. It has always been his drink and so in his presence it is mine as well.

We were waiting for our food to arrive and he was telling me the story of how he and my grandmother met. I’ve heard this story at least ten times before but something about the way he told it that night – or maybe it was the second Rob Roy – made me realize how close I came to never being born.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of how my grandparents met because it seemed really complicated but that night it seemed moreso.

grandmaHere’s the gist: This guy from another school (which is all I’m ever told about him) asks my grandfather, who is then just a 17 year old Norwegian kid named Edgar, if he knows a certain girl named Jean, a 14 year old Polish girl. This guy asks Edgar if he knows Jean because he’s trying to find out whether she was in Holstein Park some recent evening. (The reasons why he’s asking have never been made clear to me.) My grandfather says no, he doesn’t know her, but he thinks Jean is in class with his brother, my uncle Hal. Edgar says he’ll ask him. Either Edgar has Hal ask Jean or the two of them ask her together – again, the details are less than clear – but what is made very clear is her emphatic no: She was not in Holstein Park that night because her mother – my great-grandmother Martha – would never allow her to be in Holstein Park at night. But Edgar takes a liking to Jean and so they begin dating and then a few years later they marry, then have my mom and et cetera, et cetera.

So I’m sitting there sipping on that Rob Roy, listening to this story and I suddenly realize after all these years that this story makes no sense.

Confusing the symptoms of Chicago’s violence with the disease

7452178210_4424a362a0_mI swear this blog isn’t going to become “Our Man In Chicago On Crime” but it’s probably going to be on my mind for a couple weeks.

I’m trying to understand the mayor’s mindset when he does things like this:

Emanuel attended an anti-violence vigil in Roseland Monday evening where he said everyone — from parents to police to federal lawmakers — must play a role to curb bloodshed in Chicago.

“A lot of people will say where were the police … and that’s a fair question, but not the only question,” Emanuel said. “Where are the parents? Where is the community?

First of all, I don’t know how you stand there at a anti-violence rally in a community that lost one of its own in a drive-by shooting two nights prior and ask “Where is the community?” That takes some gall.

I also don’t know how you read about the father of the 14-year-old boy shot in a separate incident and ask “Where are the parents?”

“What happens to kids when they’re not with their parents?” said Susan Diaz, whose daughter married into the Rios family. “The kid was 14 years old. The parents do the best that they can. When the kid walks away — he goes to school, the beach, the park, the library — the gangbangers are hanging around waiting to recruit them. … That’s just the way it is.”

When the mayor asks “Where are the parents? Where are the communities?” it implies neither exists where there is gun violence. That’s reductive. And wrong. Especially when the underpinnings of those communities have been ripped apart by lack of economic investment. Gun violence doesn’t start because a kid wakes up and decides not to listen to his parents. It starts when he thinks a gun keeps him alive. And that happens when crime seems like the best – and safest – possible way to earn a living and keep on living.

More police aren’t going to solve the problem. But pointing a finger at parents without talking about why parents aren’t around? Or the economic reasons why parents alone aren’t enough to shout down the other voices kids hear on those streets every day? Not helpful.

When you’re the mayor, your rhetoric frames the way people view a situation. Your words make headlines, they lead the evening news. Demonizing an entire community gives fuel to those who think “those people” are all criminals. It lays the blame for crime at the community’s collective feet, helps keep “them” at arm’s length and convinces people that crime is something that exists in other neighborhoods and won’t affect them.

I’m reminded of last week’s shooting in Lakeview:

The Pride parade revelers who had filled the street earlier were gone, Lane said, and a younger crowd replaced them.

“I doubt any of them was over 30,” Lane said. “A lot of them don’t live around here. They come from other neighborhoods. It’s just the attitude they have, the mentality.”

[snip]

Neighbor Juan Chavez, who’s lived in the area since 2007, said “the majority of people who cause trouble don’t live in the neighborhood.”

People in “safe” Chicago neighborhoods really will go to great lengths to convince themselves that crime isn’t a problem where they live. Saying “they come from other neighborhoods” suggests there’s a leaky faucet of crime you can just turn off and fix the problem.

Instead, we – all of us – need to support crime prevention and economic improvement efforts for all Chicago neighborhoods. Not just our own. That’s not easy, I’ll admit. But it’s the cause of the problem, not a lack of morality or parents or community.

Or to put it another way: morality, parents and community are what get infected by the disease of violence and poverty.

Image via Don Harder/Creative Commons