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How We Organize Information

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“Property is information.”

Though land is a real and tangible thing, the notion of property isn’t, my friend (and property law professor) Marc Roark explained. Property only exists because of the collective expectations and understanding we share about what property means. I walked away pondering: What does it even mean to own something?

The answer to that question gets even more complex when we consider purely digital assets. Intangible assets account for a staggering 90% of the value of the S&P 500. Information itself has become the most valuable asset of all, and how we organize it is the key to unlocking its value.

Information may be infinite, but our capacity to make sense of it isn’t

We interviewed Brian Minick from our favorite email deliverability company ZeroBounce, property law professor Marc Roark, and archivist Miranda Mims to explore different strategies for organizing information.

Organizing Personal Data

Brian Minick is chief operating officer for ZeroBounce, a company whose email validation system ensures optimal deliverability for companies sending high-volume emails to customers and clients.

What makes ZeroBounce remarkable is their sincere devotion to respecting and protecting privacy and security. “We’ve never fallen short on data and how we treat insecurity,” Brian says. That’s because the company constantly goes above and beyond to protect their clients’ (and their clients’ clients’) data and information, to the point of paying third-party hackers to try to find weaknesses in their system every month.

Many companies don’t even do that every year. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Brian says. “A lot of people cut some corners on the things that you don’t see, and even if you might not feel it today, you might feel it down the road.”

Brian is equally dedicated to protecting his personal information and data using two-factor authentication, alphanumeric password protections and multiple communication channels.

He advises everyone to do the same. “Just be very cautious,” he says. “Read a privacy policy, see what they do with your data. Because they actually have to disclose it — if they’re real, they have to disclose what they do.”

Organizing Property

Marc Roark is a professor in the Indian Law and Policy Institute at the Southern University Law Center with expertise in property law, urban law and affordable housing law and policy. He believes it is important to understand that information goes far beyond emails and personal data — it encompasses where we work, shop and live.

For Marc, Airbnb is a useful example to help us consider the virtues and pitfalls of information-based aggregation. “What Airbnb is doing is taking and financializing property information utilizing the internet, and making it accessible and viewable for individuals,” he says.

By aggregating that information, Airbnb has opened a door for individuals to commodify their property through short-term rentals. “That’s the virtue of Airbnb,” Marc says. “And that’s the potential information aggregation allows us to do. It allows us to give those people on the margins an instant platform to make their space available, to preserve their interest and their identity in that location.”

But there are drawbacks to that broad commodification and organization of property information when it comes to big data information communication and society.. As individuals buy property to market using information aggregation sites like Airbnb, they take away units of much-needed sustainable housing stock.

This not only raises the cost of housing in these communities, but also impacts cities’ tax bases and revenue sources — effectively reducing the ability to pay for public works including infrastructure and affordable housing initiatives. “There is a whole new cost on cities that you need to account for,” Marc warns.

Organizing Memories

Miranda Mims is the Director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation at the University of Rochester, and the co-founder of the Nomadic Archivists Project. Her role as an archivist entails what she calls “memory work” — telling the story of a company, institution or culture through the pieces of information that make it tangible and permanent. “Organizing is a big part of that,” Miranda says. “How do we approach preserving it so that we can all learn from it and understand it?”

Miranda says the biggest challenge in memory work is determining what gets preserved in the historical record. The cloud’s apparent promise of infinite space is in fact an obstacle — the sheer amount of information means that vital pieces of cultural memory become lost or inaccessible.

In making these decisions, Miranda says it’s important to approach the archival process from an intellectual level. “We try really hard to understand the culture in which we live,” she says. “What’s important to people now, and what will be important to people in the future? How do we make sure that certain people in certain narratives are not lost and are not left out of the historical record?”

Miranda’s memory work is, at its heart, about organization. “When you take a look at the materials, you can see the organizational scheme sort of come up to the surface,” she says. “What you really want to do is make sure that you are seeing that organizational scheme, but also seeing the intention behind the artist. That is part of the discovery and understanding of the artistic process.”

It’s important that we also do this memory work for ourselves, using what Miranda calls a philosophy of simplicity. “What matters to you? What’s important to you?” she asks. “Pick out those things, then let everything else go and think about how it tells the story about your work or your life.”

People Featured in This Episode

Full Transcript

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Mary Ellen Slayter:

This season of Margins from Managing Editor is brought to you by Showcase Workshop, which helps your team deliver outstanding sales presentations, wherever you go. Marketers, see how your content performs in real time and plant thousands of native trees in the process. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/margins.

Intro

Mary Ellen Slayter:

For Managing Editor Magazine, this is Margins. And if you've got content in your job description, we've made this podcast for you. I'm your host, Mary Ellen Slayter. In this season of Margins, we're exploring what it means to be organized.

Elena Valentine:

And I'm your co-host, Elena Valentine. Everywhere we go is information. And as humans, at least the way I see it, is we're constantly looking for how do we organize it in our heads to make sense of it all and whether it's a playlist, even how you might organize that playlist, whether it's by selecting this song after this song, after this song, whether it's by theme, who knows? I mean, when I think about organizing information, Mary Ellen, I go straight to my husband's closet which, great, we can switch out information for clothes, but my husband's nuts. It's organized by type of shirt, by the texture of shirt, by the color of shirt, whether that's a summer shirt, whether that might be a winter shirt, it gets pretty serious. And when I think about that, that's where it just becomes so clear to me that I can look anywhere and everywhere to understand how I organize this for myself, because I think that that's how we make sense of our world and make sense of ourselves.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

It's interesting that you mentioned those physical things. One of my interviews was with my friend Marc, who is a property law professor at Southern University, because we were talking about this episode and I was chatting with him. I had this realization that like, oftentimes we think of there's the thing. So like there is Emilio's shirts, so like there's actual clothes. And then there's information about clothes, like our own layering of things. And where I think I thought this got interesting where I kind of had this weird realization talking to Marc was when he said to me, "Well, property is information." And I was like, “What? Property's information?” He's like, "Well, land is real, like land is tangible, but the idea of property and like all the expectations that we have around it. And it's like it's information that isn't stored by the government."

Mary Ellen Slayter:

So if property is actually information, as opposed to land, and then we think about other ways that we're like the tangible and intangible. I mean, what is it? 90% of the value of the S&P 500 now is intangible assets. Not tangible. And that's a total reversal from just 60 years ago. What does it even mean to own something?

Elena Valentine:

Speaking of my conversation with Emilio and trading, which is exactly what you're talking about, sometimes they're going in and out of owning for a matter of seconds, but somewhere in the world, there is a tangible asset of aluminum or of steel.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

So we've abstracted this stuff. Suddenly now when we start going down this hole, Marc's argument that property is information doesn't sound so insane. If everything, if like the real value in our economy, now the way that we're measuring it is in these digital assets. And then these, like it's in the form of information, not in the form of the thing. Then that puts us in an interesting place where I think that often we don't actually take care of that information in a way that aligns with that. One of our other guests that we have coming on here is Brian of ZeroBounce, which is an email deliverability platform, which I understand to somebody who doesn't care about email marketing probably sounds like the least interesting thing on Earth. But the guys that founded that company have been extraordinarily successful in part because they decided to do something really crazy. They decided to take the privacy and the security of the people whose emails they were collecting and analyzing and testing seriously. You think you're practicing good digital hygiene.

All it takes for you is one conversation with Brian to find out otherwise.  Think about how casually we gather people's information. So you have an email list. This is something that I will often encounter. People will have some sort of webinar and they'll download people's email addresses into a spreadsheet that sits on their desktop and then they'll email it to someone else and they'll kind of pass it around and like their email service provider or their CRM might have two-factor authentication. But these files that they're just like swapping, that have hundreds or even thousands of emails, don't. When did you delete them? What's your policy for deleting them? What's your policy for storing them? And so then you get into things like there's sites that track whether or not your information's been pwned. But at this point you should just assume that it's going to get sold, that your information is going to get turned loose into the world every six months.

Elena Valentine:

And it's interesting because the deeper that you get into this hole of like, even down to email, I think that's where it almost becomes overwhelming because at this point it's like, we're almost stagnated by the amount of information that we have to filter and make connections by. And so when I think about, I would say the majority of folks I know who are organizing their information online, whether that's photos, that's music or that's playlists, I think it's become less around the filtering and the curating and more around, Well I'm just collecting to collect and one day, one day, I'll get back to it and maybe organize it. And just like any good, even real photo album that we have in our closet, which doesn't get touched for 10 years, imagine what we leave online, we just keep on collecting. The information part is always going to be ahead of how fast we can actually get to it and really review it meaningfully in a way that some of our guests on the show have spent and dedicated their careers to doing so.

Interview 1 - Brian Minick

Mary Ellen Slayter:

For digital marketers, few things are more critical than organizing and protecting the information and data we collect. I've always admired ZeroBounce's approach to privacy. And I spoke with their COO, Brian Minick, about how privacy and security have been central to their company from the beginning.

Brian Minick:

The founders of our company have been in the email marketing space and they had a need for email validation years ago. And they went out searching for companies and vendors. And one of the things that is very critical and a big part for our founders is how data is treated and the privacy and security of that data. And when they went through the evaluation of all the major players, they took a step back and said, I'll never send my data to any one of those people. So the owner, he's our CEO, Liviu, and he came back and said, “We're going to build it ourselves, we're going to find the best guy that has all the knowledge here” and we came and built it. And the first thing that was built into the product and the core of it is around the privacy and security of your data.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

They also make sure they don't cut corners.

Brian Minick:

We have a lot of experience with security based on some really good and talented people on our team. I have on staff a security officer. We have 24/7 on our network, live people ready to go, always looking at things, making sure everything's good and clean. I have two counselors on staff, a DPO, we're GDPR compliant. We go above and beyond every single time. We've never fallen short on data and how we treat insecurity. I mean, we pay people to try to hack our system ethically and we do this monthly. Most companies don't even do it yearly. We do anything new, the first thing is go to those third parties and say, “Hey, go hack it, go break it.” And we do it with multiple companies to make sure that we've not got a lazy guy on the other end. We just take it so seriously. And it's really what people should be doing. But a lot of people cut some corners on the things that you don't see, and you might not feel it today, but you might feel it down the road. So it's just something we're really passionate about. I'm really proud to be part of that, to be thinking about it in that way, because we don't have to. I mean, do we have to do that? No. But we do it because really, it's the right thing to do.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

How has working at ZeroBounce changed the way Brian thinks about his own data?

Brian Minick:

I've always taken it seriously. I've been in the tech world my whole life, even down to in middle schools, programming on AOL. And so my life and hobbies and passion is in the tech space. And so I've always been conscious, but I'd argue that I was as conscious as I am now, especially when you hear about all the data breaches and everything that's going on.

Brian Minick:

Some of the things that I do on a personal level is I always enable a two-factor authentication. So that's kind of how I manage against, let's say people logging into any account that I might not want them to. So on any bank, anything with financials, whatever it might be, sensitive information, health. I would always encourage two-factor authentication. Secondly, if I'm ever sending any sensitive data, I would always password protect that with at least a 16-digit password, 16-digit alphanumeric. And that would go through a secondary communication channel. So if I'm emailing you a ZIP file, I would text message you the password. And so in order for your computer to get hacked or anything get hacked, you'd have to get both lines of communication. And just be very cautious. I don't just believe everybody. Do the research, read a privacy policy if you're putting very sensitive information, see what they do with your data, because they actually have to disclose it. If they're real, they have to disclose what they do.

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Interview 2 - Marc Roark

Mary Ellen Slayter:

When we talk about organizing information, we're not just talking about emails. We're also talking about where we live, work and shop. Marc Roark is a law professor at Southern University Law Center who specializes in property. He says that if you want to understand how property works in the abstract, consider Airbnb.

Marc Roark:

Airbnb is an information aggregation service. So what Airbnb is doing is it's taking and financializing property information, utilizing the internet and making it accessible and viewable for individuals. Before sites like Travelocity and sites like Airbnb for short-term rentals came online, if you traveled across the country, how did you book hotels? Well, you drove on the interstate until you saw the sign of the hotel you preferred to stay in and you stop in and you say, “Do you have any vacancies? I'd like to book that.” Or if you're really advanced, you might call in advance to  the brands that you know to say, “I want to book your space.” What Travelocity has done, what Airbnb has done on the short-term rentals is they've aggregated that information through price points and through geographies and through locations to make them very easily accessible to communities.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

That doesn't sound all bad, right?

Marc Roark:

The virtue of Airbnb is it gives the flexibility for individuals to commodify something they own and, in a way, preserve their interest in that space in a way that they might not have been able to do so before. So, for example, back during the 2008 mortgage crisis, short-term rentals of property became a way for people to sustain their interest in their mortgage, even though they had lost their job or they'd lost their income. People had converted their homes into bed and breakfasts, or they convert them into short-term rentals. And they lived in those properties and they rented out a room, or they rented out a couple of rooms, they commodified the property in a way that enabled them to preserve their interest in the property. That's the virtue of Airbnb. That's the potential information aggregation allows us to do. It allows us to kind of give those people on the margins, an instant platform to make their space available, to preserve their interests and their identity in that location.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

But there can be too much of a good thing.

Marc Roark:

What has happened has been this broad commodification of that information and market, so the individuals will now buy up whole pieces of property and they will market those through the information aggregation side. What that is doing is that takes away supply housing. So let's say I own a house that has three units in it, three individual units that I could rent out to long-term users. But instead I decide to put it out for short-term rentals. What that means is I'm taking three units out of the sustainable housing stock of the city in a period where we're not currently building at the same rate, this housing is coming off. So that does two things. Number one, it causes the market in housing to shoot up. The cost of housing immediately goes up because our basic supply-and-demand economics says when supply of housing goes down, the cost of housing goes up. The second thing that it does is it alters the way the city's tax base interacts with these short-term rentals. The hotel motel tax is an important revenue source for cities. But one of the things the hotel motel tax does is it supplements the taxes that the local municipality pays by paying for things that are directly attributable to tourism-type activities. Things like roads, things like sidewalks. This money gets deployed in ways to try to offset the burden of those tourists. Once you take short-term rentals like Airbnb, and you take away housing stock out of this space, now you have a whole new cost on cities that they have to account for.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

What actions have governments taken to account for these challenges?

Marc Roark:

Some cities have deployed what's known as Airbnb tax, where the money goes to local affordable housing initiatives like housing trusts, or like other types of low income housing. But the problem is that those taxes rarely equate to the value that is lost from simply having sustainable, affordable housing in the city. Oftentimes the ratios are so low that it doesn't actually dent that problem. I think some states have done it right where they've said, Okay, we're going to impose the tax only if the owner is not living on the property as part of his primary residence. The majority have just simply imposed it as another hotel motel cap tax, and sometimes just redirected it back to others. But that would be one way of splitting that baby to ensure that the good sides of Airbnb are still promoted while trying to limit the bad side. And then some cities like Savannah, by the way, have cordoned off whole areas of the city where they simply say, “You can't run an Airbnb.”

Mary Ellen Slayter:

And how do people respond to that? Do the homeowners get mad or are they happy?

Marc Roark:

It's mixed. Because as owners who want to run an Airbnb, they probably are a little upset that they can't monetize this use of their property in that way. As neighbors, they're probably not upset that they don't have traffic problems, parking problems, other people that are coming in that they don't know. So it's kind of a mixed bag.

Interview 3 - Miranda Mims

Elena Valentine:

Miranda Mims is the co-founder of the Nomadic Archivist Project and the Director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation at the University of Rochester. However, Miranda doesn't call herself an archivist. Instead she prefers another term.

Miranda Mims:

I think of myself as a memory worker and not as an archivist, and that can sound a little abstract and out there, but it's really not. It's sort of knowing and understanding what's worth hanging onto and coming up with creative ways to do that. So for instance, organizations or companies, there's a lot of memory work that goes into that. There's a lot that revolves around institutional memory. What records to keep, what to hold on to, what really tells the story of that company, how it came to be, the people behind it, the innovation that gets created day to day within a space. And so that is all a part of memory. So at its roots in archiving, you sort of just think about what tells the story that connects us as a society. And how do we approach preserving? Organizing is a big part of that. How do we approach preserving it so that we can all learn from it and understand it? And so that we can also say, if it's an artist’s records, if it's community group’s records, it's your family's records. Once it is preserved and organized, how can we say we existed? We were here, and we did this and this is the evidence. And so I think of it as memory work in that way, but it is very tangible. It's definitely not a very abstract identity.

Elena Valentine:

But why can't we save everything?

Miranda Mims:

This is actually a big theme in the archival world, in the preservation world right now, this idea of what gets saved and what makes it into the historical record is definitely something that is weighing on a lot of minds. Because the very act of archiving, there is another political piece that is the exclusion. You cannot save everything. No repository, no archive, no institution- I don't care how much money that institution has--can save everything. The Cloud seems so magical, that space: We will never not have enough space. But space is costly. In a physical building, if you think about it, you only have that building. And after a while, you fill up every single shelf and then what do you do? Then you have to buy another building. But most institutions, especially the work that we do, because it's mostly non-for-profit, you don't have the capacity to keep buying more buildings and the land to keep putting those buildings on. There's so many practical and logistical reasons why you cannot save everything. And when making it accessible too, if you think about it, if you have hundreds of thousands of millions of photographs, it becomes very inaccessible, it becomes very difficult to find things. You have to apply some sort of organization to it. And that takes people, it takes people with design thinking, it takes people with understanding how people search. You have to have all those elements to be able to do that work. And those elements are not infinite. And so there has to be some sort of selection process for just those logistical reasons. But also as archivists, we try really hard to understand the culture in which we live, to understand what's important to people now and what will be important to people in the future. And that's when you start to think about the selection process on a more intellectual level. And depending on who is making those decisions, the culture from which they come, the biases in which they bring forth, it can be very problematic. And that is why this is a big discussion in the community. And this is why we're also trying to bring more people outside of the field into the discussion so that this can be more of a collective work to thinking about how do we make sure that certain people and certain narratives are not lost.

Elena Valentine:

So what's Miranda's process for organizing information?

Miranda Mims:

I let the materials tell me how they want to be organized. When you take a big picture look at the materials, you can see the organizational scheme sort of come up to the surface. And what you really want to do is make sure that you are seeing that organizational scheme, but also seeing the intention behind the artist. So if this is an artist's collection, you can see how the artist’s works, how they even unintentionally organize their own materials. And you want to stay somewhat honest to that as well, because you want--when people see and start to interact with that material--that they feel the artist there, they feel their presence. They understand, I mean, not just the drawing or the manuscripts that somebody may have written, but also looking at them more holistically. That's the wonderful thing about archives is that you are really seeing it almost like if you were in the artist's home. You don't want to divorce it from that, you don't want to make it so cold and just put it into boxes and folders and divorce it from the intention in which it was made. Because that is also a part of the discovery and the understanding of that artistic process.

Elena Valentine:

To close our interview, I asked Miranda, what should we keep in mind when we do memory work for ourselves?

Miranda Mims:

I feel like a philosophy of simplicity and asking yourself, What matters to you? What's important to you? And then look at whatever it is that's in front of you and start to pick out those things, not even organize it, but just to bring it forward and let everything else go. And then look at what's in front of you and start to think, How does what's in front of you tell the story about your work or your life? And, How do you want people to interact with that story? If you're thinking about subject based work, if there are different themes that you can organize things into, based on that theme or that subject, that's a great way to start to compartmentalize what's in front of you, whether it's physical or digital, even ideas. It's just trying to figure out a practical and intuitive place for things. But the wonderful thing about the work that we do as archivists is that we also take some of that labor off the shoulders of the people who are actually creating things. If you engage with somebody who is interested in organizing or does that work or is an archivist or memory worker and does that work, they're a great resource. People don't have to think about doing it themselves as well. There are many, many, many, many people out there who are trained and skilled and passionate about this work that can also help.

Outro

Mary Ellen Slayter:

Well, that's it for this episode of Margins from Managing Editor. You can find us on Apple Music, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Make sure you get organized and subscribe so you don't miss a single episode.

Elena Valentine:

And if you like what you hear, share us with your friends and rate us on your favorite podcast platform.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

If you'd like to hear more from the Managing Editor team, there's an easy way to do that. We send out an email every Friday morning and you can join the club at managingeditor.com/subscribe. Thanks again to Showcase Workshop, the exclusive sponsor of this season of Margins. With Showcase Workshop, all of your marketing and sales collateral is organized in one place, ready to present to prospects on your device or by email. And it even helps plant thousands of native trees making the world a better place too. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/margins.

Elena Valentine:

And a special thanks to the info-maniacs who made this episode possible. Producer, Rex New, audio editor, Marty McPadden, and assistant producer, Michael Thibodeaux.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

We'll see y'all next time.

Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Rep Cap. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. You can find Mary Ellen on Twitter @MESlayter.

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