This is the second of a two-part interview conducted with Cayden Mak, Executive Director of 18 Million Rising, for my book Change the World Using Social Media (Rowman & Littlefield; projected publication date is autumn 2018). The interview was conducted online using a shared Google Doc, and has been lightly edited.
Broadcast vs. engagement: what would you suggest to those who still see social media as a broadcast medium rather than as a way to engage others in reaching shared goals?
The answer to this one is in some ways similar to the one above [at the end of part one of this interview]—there’s a thing about moving your social at the pace of ordinary people. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things you can do to run a tight ship, but at its core you need to be approachable and responsive to the people who are excited about the work you’re doing. Knowing how to route inquiries, for instance, is really important. And making sure responses to those inquiries have a real human touch makes a difference.
Early on, we also adopted a policy where staff would respond to questions and critiques on our Facebook page as themselves. This was easier five years ago before Gamergate and the rise of alt-right trolling, but it really put a human face to the ideas we were sharing and fostered a culture of inquiry on our page. Which you don’t see a lot—and I think people were pleasantly surprised to get a response to their questions from a real human being, not a brand or whatever.
We’re trying to figure out other ways to do this, because I think people’s expectations are constantly changing.
In terms of figuring out new ways to approach what you’re doing on social media: any innovations you’re exploring that you’re particularly excited about?
Well, for one thing we know that young folks are leaving Facebook in droves, so trying to follow them where they’re going is going to be an imminent challenge. We aren’t ready to leave Facebook behind, because its network effects are real and powerful.
Another challenge that has emerged is what a toxic swamp Twitter has become. I personally have had a Twitter account for nearly a decade and I used to actually make friends and stuff on there—now it’s very professionalized, partially because it’s so filled with awful trolls, Nazis, and misogynists. Twitter continues to be a dominant platform for real-time conversation and breaking news, so again, it’s hard to leave it behind.
We’re trying to think of ways to reach people that are a little more in our control, as well. I’m looking forward to doing a pilot of a podcast next year that will be an advice podcast (but not necessarily a personal advice podcast. We’re working on the concept, anyway). It came from the experience of having members ask us to go into more detail about our reasoning on campaigns, and realizing that we need an outlet for that. Again, I think its tone is going to be very personal—like talking to a friend about their political beliefs rather than talking to [This American Life Host/Producer] Ira Glass about his political beliefs. I also want it to be about how to navigate the social challenges of being a person who is involved in social movements for the long term—things like when the work interferes with a friendship, how to care for yourself to avoid burnout, how to preserve a collective memory of a moment in movement history—that kind of thing.
That raises a question I was already going to ask: what emotional toll does all of this take on you and your staff?
Oh, man; it’s hard. It’s super-exhausting to be in a news moment. And when your staff is predominantly people who are personally targeted by the state and by trolls, it’s really hard to keep an even keel. We have a section in our employee handbook about digital and operational security that includes what to do in a crisis—with a big emphasis on allowing people time to walk away. We talk really openly about the cost of this work with each other. I really recommend the book Trauma Stewardship to anybody doing political or movement work on social media—it’s all about how secondary trauma and witnessing trauma can be triggering and impacts your own internal ecosystem, and how to manage that when we are in caring professions, and I think organizing is a caring profession. It’s been very helpful to a lot of our team who are resistant to the idea that they should care for themselves while they do this work.
The past five years have been really rough in terms of the rise of targeted harassment on social media. I really came up in the gaming community and while I never was super close to the epicenter of Gamergate, I think it had a really chilling effect on what a lot of people are willing to be candid about online. Knowing what folks like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian went through—and continue to go through because they have the gall to be outspoken women—is a reminder of how critical it is to keep showing up online.
Gamergate was also a rehearsal for the so-called alt-right trolling we saw during the 2016 election cycle. Targeting Muslims, trans women, undocumented people—a lot of the darlings of the new reactionary right have taken the Gamergate playbook and started to use legit-seeming media and public appearances to do that kind of thing. I worry all the time about the safety of my staff, and we take digital security very seriously. My nightmare as an executive director would be having one of my team members doxed. But again, I think that this points to why I think online organizing is no different than offline organizing—we’re building trust together so we can take risks. And it’s easy to understate the risk you take speaking out online these days. There are often very real material consequences to this stuff.
Whose use of social media for social change do you admire?
I really love the work that Mijente is doing—especially because their online presence is backed up with in-person organizing, especially in the borderlands. They are sassy, thoughtful, earnest, and fun. (http://mijente.net/) They also have a deep analysis of social issues that they are not shy about sharing.
Some of the individuals I think are doing a great job are Linda Sarsour,
Any resources (e.g., books, podcasts, websites) you would highly recommend to anyone interested in using social media to foster movement-building?
I’ve found the research that Upworthy shared a couple years ago to actually be really helpful in thinking about how to approach the nuts and bolts. The annoying “write 25 headlines” thing they do is actually very effective—it gets the ideas out there and generates conversation in a team about what makes good copy and why.
I also really encourage people who do this work to dig a little deeper and start building an analysis of the attention economy. Some people doing great research on this are the folks at Data & Society, who work on current issues and publish white papers regularly.
In terms of books, I actually think learning about the history of the internet and the ideology that underlies design to be very valuable. Reading theorists ranging from Yochai Benkler to Theodor Adorno have been really useful in developing an understanding and an analysis—I believe that the tools we use are political and being able to critique them thoughtfully helps figure out how to use the tools in ways that are not oppressive.
N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the fifth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.