Letters to ...

The word is getting around

... on setting up a yet another SilverStringers

Dollie Gull-Goldman and Jack Driscoll

The question:

From: "Dollie Gull-Goldman" Athens, Alabama
To: Melrose@media.mit.edu
Sent: Sunday, January 15, 2006 12:43 PM
Subject: Wanna-be SilverStringers  

Hi, I mentor a growing group of seniors/youth involved in video journalism and also involved with the Athens (Alabama) Senior Center where there is a paucity of programs for seniors, many of whom are interested in learning to write and use computers. I and my group are interested in establishing a local Silver Stringers and Junior Journalists group/s and want to know how to get started. Can you tell me how? We've got the "Setting Up a New Silver Sringer Site" info, but there must be someone to contact to network with either at MIT or ?? We'd like to know.

Thanks, Dollie Gull-Goldman (50+ yr journalist/info specialist)  

... and the answer:

Dear Dollie--Seeing that you have found the cryptic instructions for setting up a site, let me give you a few expanded thoughts, based on working with several groups, the most notably being the SilverStringers of Melrose:

Usually there is an instigator who gets the process off the ground, but crowning that person as king or queen could be a mistake. In community group settings there's a need for every member to have equal footing. Tortuous decision making may result, but the benefits outweigh the hand wringing.

Financial costs run from non-existent to minimal. All you need is a place to meet, access to a computer server, publishing software, an internet address and the will. A recent group I was part of bought an address with a .org ending for $60 for 3 years.

The means of expression range from writing, to audio, to still photography, to video, but I generally recommend that you start slowly with writing and digital photography. But I recommend starting off slowly (if you have a group that really wants to fly with video, I recommend you check out two sites put out by grassroots journalism expert J.D. Lasica at http://www.newmediamusings.com/ and http://www.realpeoplenetwork.com/).

I usually recommend a few organizing sessions before anything else. What kind of website do you want to produce? Who would your likely readers be? What do you want to name yourself? How often do you want to publish? Are there any requirements for membership in the group (fewer the better; in fact, I recommend guidelines for all matters rather than rules). If you publish monthly, I recommend a minimum of one meeting a week. Normally that should be enough, at least for starters.

You also will need to decide what your website will look like. You can get off-the-shelf publishing softtware, some of which has suggestions for page appearance. In this area, you need someone with some technology experience.

After you get the basics under control, the best way to ease people into writing is to have them do an autobiography with a limit (like, no more than 400 words or whatever). When the Silverstringers first started, we had one digital camera. Someone gave the group simple instructions, then we passed the camera around and had them take photos of each other. Seemed to work well.

Some people won't need encouragement in the writing area. Others might require patience till they get their confidence up. Once the first story gets published, you won't have to worry. Seniors should be encouraged to write in longhand, on a typewriter or on the computer--whatever is most comfortable. Someone in your group (I even did it) will surely volunteer to enter their work into a computer.

Who's in charge? It may be an adviser, which was the case with Melrose for a few weeks--very few. After that, they decided on a group of 5 editors--mainly people who courageously volunteered even though they were pretty unsure of themselves--and you need someone to run each meeting. Melrose rotates the chairperson every other week simply by the alphabet. It works. I recommend take brief minutes and record who attended. It sometimes can come in handy later.

Again, you don't have to rush to publish. Get enough stories in hand to get a jump on your first two editions before starting, because once you start, it's best to publish on a regular schedule. So you want to make sure you have enough people and enough production from those people to sustain a monthly or a quarterly or whatever.

I recommend two other main overview points: (1) this a group activity, so members should share at the meeting the story they are thinking of doing in case others have ideas of how to make it better, whom to talk with, etc.; (2) folks should know why they are doing this: For seniors, it is a way to share their wisdom but it is also a way to stay mentally and physically active (research shows this activity actually extends life); for teens, it is a way to have your voices heard in a world that doesn't listen to its young people enough. And in all cases it is a great learning tool, because we all learn by doing.

Hope this helps. jack driscoll (editor-in-residence, MIT Media Lab)

February 3, 2006

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