Changing the World With Cayden Mak (Part 2 of 2)

January 23, 2018

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?

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

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.

For digital security stuff, I highly recommend the work of Equality Labs—very oriented towards social movements and very practical. https://www.equalitylabs.org/

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 Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the fifth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.

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Changing the World With Cayden Mak (Part 1 of 2)

January 22, 2018

This is the first 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.

In the next two minutes, type in any words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the term “social media.” Don’t try to overthink it, and don’t try to filter. We’re just trying to get some vocabulary on the table and see where it takes us in our overall conversation today.

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

A lot of my thinking about social media is informed by the way I see it influencing the economy—a lot of the big social media companies are these firms that started with a vague idea that they wanted to build something to connect people, and as they struggle to figure out how to make money, their technology becomes more and more coercive. I think that’s a big challenge because they do have some value and have been helpful in a variety of contexts—like bringing social movements from different corners of society into the attention of “the mainstream” —but they’re building this hyper-surveilled social space that is also completely enclosed. it feels like there’s no such thing as the commons anymore, and that’s partially because social media has become the biggest “third space” for most young people. I think it’s a problem also because they have taken up so much bandwidth (literally and figuratively) that they have become the whole Internet for some people. I think that’s scary, especially in light of our current debate about net neutrality—we’re stuck on the ISP level and need to also talk about the platform/gateway/software level.

Social media is powerful because of its network effects, but I worry about monopolization, or even just dependence on a corporate platform to communicate as an individual or small group online.

In the next two minutes, type in any words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the term “social change.” Don’t try to overthink it, and don’t try to filter. We’re just trying to get some vocabulary on the table and see where it takes us in our overall conversation today.

I don’t necessarily ascribe the term “social change” to my work. It feels a little flat, and lacks a little detail. I assume most people use the term “social change” to talk about ostensibly progressive policy changes, or popular opinion changes, but one of the things I think it lacks is the how. Especially working in technology, you see a lot of people use it to mean a lot of different things.

To me, it seems like kind of a catch-all, and as a result, I like to talk more about movement-building. I think that social change can include a lot of things beyond that—such as policy changes at any level of government, or things like representations of different social groups in popular media. What it doesn’t necessarily point at that I think is really important is a people-powered model of change. It seems to me that one of the places I get stuck on the term is that I often see leaders use it to wave away concerns that they aren’t taking leadership from the grassroots, which is, of course, really hard; I guess the term just feels super general to me and doesn’t necessarily speak to the tactics, strategies, or values that drive and create the change.

You have an incredible breadth of experience listed on your [18Millionrising.org] About page. Let’s take any aspect of that description and run with your own thoughts on how one important aspect of your experience reflects the ways in which social media promote what you’re trying to achieve.

I think a good place to start is when we started 18MR five years ago. There are a lot of organizations in the field of “online organizing” or whatever you want to call it, and we saw that there were some models available to us. What we decided right off the bat is that we didn’t want to make any assumptions about who our constituency was, and what they need out of an organization like ours. I think that if you talk to a lot of the people who founded sister organizations—like Color of Change—[you will find] they were really thinking along these lines, too. The majority of preexisting online organizing groups had lists that are (and often continue to be) overwhelmingly white and middle-aged. We were particularly interested in building an organization that is driven by the needs and interests of young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and since there was no good information out there about what this group of people did or liked online, we had to kind of make it up as we went along.

I started out managing our social media as a part-time contractor, and I had been doing strategic communications (although I wouldn’t necessarily call it that then) for this New York State student movement group that I helped found, New York Students Rising. With that group, since there were basically no expectations (read: funders), we were able to be incredibly incisive and kind of push the envelope in our online communications, which was an amazing environment to learn in. One of the lessons that taught me was that people, especially young people who have a sense of their own marginalization in our society, are really hungry for outlets that speak their language. This was really before Buzzfeed, Mic, and other outlets like that got big.

So, I took a lot of that ethic to 18MR. I think it’s not a coincidence that our staff still tends to be highly educated—not just in a book/academic way—but many of them, past and present, have been schooled so to speak in the history of social movements and stuff like that. That kind of expertise allows us to speak from a very genuine place—I think the voice an­­d the tone that we built was intentionally comradely in that way because we share a set of cultural references, but we’re interested in bringing more people on board with those cultural references. I think it’s been a careful effort to ensure that we both demonstrate our expertise while making that accessible to people.

The thing that this process taught me is the importance of trust. With other organizing formations I was a part of at the time, we were building trust in order to do high-stakes things like shutting down New York State Assembly meetings and risking arrest in order to highlight hypocrisy in the university system. Online, there isn’t necessarily a sense that there are high-risk actions to take. However, I think online organizers often do themselves a disservice when they emphasize that their tools and platforms make social action “easy” or “simple.” Because the whole point of organizing, to me, whether it’s online or off, is to build trust among a group of people in order for them to take calculated risks towards a goal.

That’s important because I think that’s something that we can and should build online. Especially with the rise of more many-to-many social media tools. I really don’t think about our social media pages as tools for broadcasting our work—they’re first and foremost places we go to listen to what our members think about the work we’re doing. Building the audience we have on social media platforms has been challenging because of that—we aren’t going to crack the code of virality and also get the kind of deep organizing conversations that we want to get at the same time, or with the same content. So, balancing on that knife’s blade is really important—you need the more viral content to get your work in front of new people, but you need the deep, genuine, well-thought-out stuff to build that trust and that relationship with people, so that then you can go and ask them to join you in taking action on things.

Let’s go down two roads of what you just wrote (and I’ll leave space beneath each for your comments):

Trust and engagement are clearly essential in movement-building online. Care to offer tips to readers of this book?

There are a couple tips and a couple challenges I can offer. I definitely don’t think I have all the answers, and since platforms are constantly changing the terms of engagement, these are as general as I can make them.

First, this is somewhere [that] building a style guide is really important. We have a style guide that talks not just about aesthetics and design choices but also about who we are as an organization. It talks about our values and where we see ourselves in the grander scheme of people-of-color led social movements. And it also talks about affect—how people should feel when they interact with us online. Between those three things, we have a pretty good road map for everything from how to write copy for sharing our campaigns on Facebook to how to live-tweet the Oscars.

The second tip is to not try to be someone you’re not. It sounds really basic but it’s actually very hard, because in some ways the social media popularity contest is about performing an identity on the internet. But finding ways to genuinely be who you are while connecting with people is critical.

Now, for some sticky problems:

One sticky problem is that the metrics that outsiders use to measure our success are the same measures that the powerhouses of the attention economy use to measure their success. So, things like reach, post engagements, stuff like that. I think the struggle here is that we can get really caught up in these sort of things that seem to show how wide our reach is—but they can’t and don’t measure how deep our connections are. I haven’t yet figured out what good alternative metrics look like, but I do know that sometimes a measure of trust is how many people come to you with their problems. This sounds challenging (and it is, because you always have limited resources) but to me having people approach you on social media and say, “This thing is messed up in my community, how can you help me?” is a very powerful measure of that trust.

The other big sticky problem is that the very personal style that we developed can be very draining on your social team (or you, if you’re a one-person show). Popularity online can often turn into problematic cult of personality type dynamics, and those don’t really help anybody in the long run. One thing I’ve found to help here, and again I don’t think this is the only approach, is to have a system that you use to deal with times when you screw up. Being transparent about culpability when mistakes are made is really rare and very refreshing for online audiences—they respond well to times when we have, for instance, made a misstep in sharing content that is actually harmful in a way that we didn’t realize. But apologizing, taking responsibility, and then never doing it again (the hard part!) is a good reminder to both you and your constituency that you’re just people, doing your best. And it’s often an opportunity for a good conversation and deep political education, which is hard because of the pace of social.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the fourth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress. The next post will include the second half of this interview.


Changing the World Through Facebook

January 15, 2018

When Klaus Schwertner (Managing Director of Caritas in the Archdiocese of Vienna) posted a lovely photograph on Facebook to celebrate the first birth of the year in Vienna earlier this month, he could have had no idea that his sweetly-intended routine action would attract thousands of comments and become the subject of an article in The New York Times within a few days.

There was nothing inherently alarming about that photograph; it showed a young husband and wife, with their newborn baby girl, shortly after the child was born. It was, for me, no different and no less heart-warming than any other “New Year’s Baby” photo published in newspapers around the world during the past several decades or posted on Facebook or any other social media platform during the past several years.

This one, however, caused enough of a reaction to inspire Melissa Eddy to write the article that appeared in print and online editions of the newspaper on January 4—because the parents and child are Muslims, and the smiling mother in the photograph is wearing a pink scarf. A version of the article in a print edition carried a headline capturing the initial shockingly brutal nature of many of the negative responses: “Vienna Welcomes 2018 Baby With Online Hate and Racism”; the online version that was also available as I was reading the print edition that morning included a more balanced, positive headline: “Vienna ‘New Year’s Baby’ Greeted First With Hate, Then Hearts.”

Those joining the online conversation extended the conversation beyond Facebook, into Twitter, and the hashtag #GegenHassImNetz (AgainstHateOnTheNet) helped bring many of the online participants together, but the controversy didn’t stop there. Schwertner’s updates included a post expressing astonishment that someone at Facebook had taken down his original post about the birth—in which he playfully called for a “rain of flowers” to commemorate the birth. His follow-up post publicly asked Facebook Chairman/CEO Mark Zuckerberg for an explanation for the disappearance of the now-controversial post, and asked for helping in restoring the post to Schwertner’s Facebook timeline—an action that was taken later that day, to Schwertner’s obvious delight.

“When you share something with the world, you’re sharing it with a lot of people who don’t think the way you do—who have different upbringings, values, and perspectives. If you believe in something, know that others believe in the opposite just as vehemently,” Samantha Becker, an independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, noted during an interview we did earlier today. “There is still a lot of blind hate, and you have to separate the downright hateful reactions that have no basis. At the same time, the situations like the one you described…serve as an important reminder that though there has been a lot of social progress, we still have a long way to go. These kinds of incidents should incite more action towards positive change. Sadly, nothing brings people together like tragedy. It takes people’s hope for change and inspires them to make it a reality, in service of helping people they care about who have been impacted.”

There are numerous elements worth examining here to better understand the power of incorporating Facebook into efforts to foster small- and large-scale positive changes through the use of social media. First and foremost is a recognition of how quickly even the most innocuous posts on Facebook can become a central part of your responses to an issue you are interested in pursuing, e.g., the global effort to combat hate speech and bullying in public discourse by moving it into the context of #GegenHassImNetz. A second, nearly-as-important element, is acceptance of the fact that what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook: my own awareness of the reaction to Schwertner’s post didn’t come via social media: it was a result of reading a copy of a print edition of The New York Times on January 4, 2018; feeling a mixture of amazement and horror as I read the language used against the parents and the child herself (solely because they were perceived to be different than those posting those hateful comments); using a mobile device I had with me to locate Schwertner’s Facebook account and use Google Translate to examine the source material; my discovery of the #GegenHassImNetz hashtag (mentioned in the newspaper article) and my subsequent exploration of the it to locate and read some of the positive comments posted on Twitter with that hashtag; and a quick decision to take positive action by posting a link to the article, along with an expression of support for Schwertner, the parents, and the child, on my own Facebook account to draw my own friends and colleagues into what had become a global conversation.

None of that, however, takes full advantage of the potential power of social media if we ignore the social aspect of Facebook and other social media platforms. I decided to pursue the social side by sending a “friend” request to Schwertner as a way of reaching out to him to express support and determine whether he would be willing to discuss the situation for inclusion in this book. I’m hoping that our eventual connection will be yet another example of how social media creates fruitful opportunities to produce positive change that would not otherwise be available to us

Equally important is a third element built into any attempt to use Facebook or other social media channels to nurture social change: there is no guarantee that we are reaching those we are attempting to reach. We often have far less control and far less reach than is apparent. The removal of Schwertner’s post reminds us that we cannot completely determine which of our online efforts remains accessible to those we want to reach, and the dissemination of Schwertner’s subsequent messages hides a common problem encountered in posting on Facebook: the algorithms that determine who sees a post often result in those posts reaching far fewer members of an intended audience than expected.

Love it or hate it—and my colleagues and I often find ourselves having both reactions—there is no denying that Facebook is a potentially powerful tool anyone interested in fostering positive social change has to understand at some level. As Tim O’Reilly notes in his book WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, “…Facebook is the defining company of the social era…it has challenged Google as the master of collective intelligence, uncovering an alternate routing system by which content is discovered and shared.”

That’s a tool that cannot and will not be ignored.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC): 461 Words About the #OneLittleWord Challenge

January 3, 2018

I may have been overthinking the challenge a bit after first coming across references to the #OneLittleWord and #OneWord2018 challenge a few days ago on the #IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindset massive open online course) Facebook page. After all, how difficult can or should it be for a somewhat self-reflective writer/wordsmith to identify and agree to adopt the one word that will serve as a guide and source of inspiration for the upcoming year?

As it turns out, it was more difficult than I anticipated it would be. Looking at examples from others who had already chosen their One Little Word for 2018—now there’s a possibility: “overachiever”—was daunting: “Adventure.” “Appreciate.” “Brave.” “Create.” “Engaged.” “Find.” “Forward.” “Gumption.” “Hope.” “Kindness.” “Passion.” “Peace.” “Present.” “Transformation.” “Unfold.” So many choices; so little space to house the right one. It felt as if I were trying to select and love one solitary bird when my real love was for the beauty of the entire flock.

“Creativity” quickly pulled itself into my intellectual driveway as an option that always looms large for me when I think about what gives me pleasure. But, somehow, it felt too easy—not enough of a challenge.

“Completion” came knocking at my door soon after I found a parking place for “Creativity.” After all, this is the year when I have committed to completing an entire manuscript for a new book (Change the World Using Social Media, to be published in autumn 2018) for my wonderfully supportive colleagues at Rowman & Littlefield. But “Completion” seemed to be putting the horse before the creative cart in the sense that it focused on the destination more than on the journey—an element of creative writing that I very much adore.

“Exploration” briefly took its place among the contenders as I found myself thinking about how the act of exploring Rich, Intriguing, Inspiring (three more options!) Options (yet another possibility) for the role of One Little Word this year.

“Writing,” “Collaboration,” “Creativity,” “Improvisation,” “Partnerships,” “Friendship,” “Creativity,” “Learning,” and “Creativity” all offered themselves up at one point or another (are we seeing a trend here?), but none of them carried the promise and spontaneity that so often leads an inveterate over-planner like me to the most unexpectedly fruitful and rewarding experiences that feed my soul. None of them felt Spontaneous enough to leave me open to the Spontaneous choices that so fully satisfy me.

Except for the word “Spontaneity” itself—which, of course, spontaneously became my #OneWord2018.

I would love to assure you that, in the spirit of the #OneLittleWord and #OneWord2018 challenge, I will be writing throughout the year about how Spontaneity is leading me down some lovely paths. But we’ll just have to wait a bit to see where that #OneLittleWord carries us.


Hate Speech vs. Legitimate Political Expression: A Wicked Problem in Our Social Media Landscape

October 21, 2017

It’s a stunningly blunt and emotion-laden headline: “Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men From Hate Speech But [Do] Not [Protect] Black Children.” And the full ProPublica article posted online in June 2017 appears beneath an equally blunt subhead: “A trove of internal documents sheds light on the algorithms that Facebook’s censors use to differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression.” The discussion extends into the ProPublica Facebook account (irony, anyone?), which includes a series of slides summarizing how “Facebook has used these rules to train its ‘content reviewers’ [aka “censors”] to decide whether to delete or allow posts.” And there is an additional thought-provoking follow-up in an article (“What Does Facebook Consider Hate Speech? Teach Our Quiz”) published in The New York Times this month.

The articles and that post provide a highly-nuanced, very thoughtful examination of the difficulties we face in establishing universally acceptable standards in a world where universal standards appear impossible to establish—and raise questions for at least a few of my colleagues as to whether we should even be attempting to establish those standards.

Let me be blunt: when I read the six statements included in The New York Times article to see how our own conclusions might differ from the conclusions resulting from those Facebook guidelines for its content reviewers, I don’t see a single comment there that I’m comfortable expressing or defending. I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t say any of those things, but I’m also not going to remain silent face-to-face or online rather than expressing my firm opposition to those words and other thoughts that are so patently and disgustingly uncivil, incendiary, and destructive; terribly hurtful to friends, colleagues, and other members of our extended onsite and online communities; and in opposition to so much of what I hold to be foundational beliefs as to how we should be treating each other. I want us, collectively and collaboratively, to be seeking ways to make America (and our social media environments) a bit more civil again, and I believe that starts with us doing our best to find some acceptable minimum standards to which we can comfortably adhere.

Let’s start with the six “true-false” statements cited by Times staff members Audrey Carlsen and Fahima Haque, including their up-front statement and question (“Most readers will find them offensive. But can you tell which ones would run afoul of Facebook’s rules on hate speech?”) and the same question (“Would this statement meet Facebook’s criteria for hate speech?”) posted after each of the six statements:

  • “Why do Indians always smell like curry?!They stink!”
  • “Poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus.”
  • “White men are assholes.”
  • “Keep ‘trans’ men out of girls (sic) bathrooms!”
  • “Female sports reporters need to be hit in the head with hockey pucks.”
  • “I never trust a Muslim immigrant…they’re all thieves and robbers.”

The final entry on the ProPublica slide deck provides answers purportedly taken from the training Facebook has provided to its content reviewers, and a follow-up article in The Times provides additional information on that topic. It’s not pretty; as ProPublica suggests in its in-depth article, some of those comments make it past the Facebook guidelines, as users of Facebook must know from reading some of what comes into their feeds. But that doesn’t make them defensible, acceptable, or right—at least to many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, from a variety of political spectrums, with whom I communicate via Facebook and other social media platforms.

I have the same reaction to those six statements that I had last week to some extremely crude and derogatory comments an acquaintance made the mistake of making to me, face to face, in front of my wife and another woman—in a way that suggested he thought he was being clever and funny: I want to—and in this case did—ask him what made him think that what he was saying was acceptable discourse among friends or acquaintances (although my wording was much less civil and much more crude than the paraphrase I’m offering here). Being tone-deaf to the question, he continued in a similar vein for a few more seconds until I explicitly told him—again, in much cruder and far less clever language—that he could take his trash to a different garbage can.

As I carry that thought back into that ProPublica article written by Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger, and the responses Facebook representatives provide in that article, I’m not left feeling that the people at Facebook are completely tone-deaf, despicable, or out of touch with the world around them. One important conclusion reached by reading and re-reading that article is that they—and we—are struggling with some very wicked problems here. I also acknowledge the truth behind one of the many thoughtful observations included in the story:

“‘The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,’ said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. ‘That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.’”

That article is also very good about citing positive steps Facebook employees have taken when they create their own do-not-cross lines (“graphic violence, child abuse, revenge porn and self-mutilation”) and how they have apologized when some of their decisions and actions (including deleting comments and temporarily locking users out of their Facebook accounts).

But what we’re left with is a classic example of a wicked problem: how to establish minimum community standards when significant numbers of people within a community are far from being in agreement. Which, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the first in a series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


How We Work: Asking the Right Questions—And Then Doggedly Pursuing the Answers

September 29, 2017

Don Bennett, a friend whose work and play has included making music and architectural models for a very long time, once suggested that we make the mistake of thinking that work and play are two different things.

“Man,” he suggested with an impish gleam in his eyes, “is never happier than when he is picking berries.”

Don Bennett

And although I don’t combine the work and play of picking berries nearly as often as I should, I was thinking of Don again this week when a colleague interested in expanding his writing and training efforts asked a series of questions about what leads some of us to the successes we have. The implicit short form of my answer was to share Don’s advice to make work and play as seamless as possible. The longer version took the two of us down a path of thinking about simple, yet essential, moments and actions that move us closer, ever closer, to the world of our dreams.

When I think about what has given me the moderate successes I’ve had using my writing and teaching-training-learning skills, I think about the unwavering long-term commitments I’ve made to and the decades of effort I’ve put into developing those skills—something Malcolm Gladwell captured so well in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Writing, for me, is something requiring a very serious, meticulous, dogged approach—yet it also involves a great deal of playfulness.

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I wrote daily news stories for the campus newspaper at UCLA, which was tremendously valuable experience in terms of learning how to write quickly, effectively, and engagingly (not that I always do that). Writing seems to be one of those passions embedded in my DNA: it gives me pleasure, drives me to continue working, and connects into virtually every other endeavor I pursue.

The same is true for me in my teaching-training-learning endeavors, the instructional-design work I do, the work I do as a social media strategist, and the consulting work that is fully integrated into nearly every moment of my days of work and play.

I also, as I told the colleague who was asking questions, benefit tremendously from ongoing, first-rate mentoring from very supportive colleagues. Without the support of those fabulous, generous, altruistic mentors—some who are peers, some who are much younger than I am, and some who have many more years of experience than I’ve managed to acquire—I wouldn’t have the breadth and scope of knowledge that I attempt to bring to work and play. With all of this goes a lifelong commitment to learning, accompanied by a rich, ever-expanding community of friends and colleagues who are there to support and encourage me on a daily basis.

This carries us quite a way down the road of responding to my colleague’s questions, and leads to the all-important question of how to identify topics that would be well-received by my (ever-changing) target audience. My own approach involves lots of reading (my friend/colleague/mentor Jill Hurst-Wahl consistently teases me about my inability to carry on a conversation without dropping titles of the numerous books I seem to always be devouring; I can hear her saying “See? See? What did I tell you?” as she gleefully points to my mention of Outliers earlier in this piece). Lots of listening. And, most importantly, close attention to the reactions my work produces (positive as well as negative). A simple process I follow involves identifying ideas that seem worth spreading (very TED of me, right? my influences are showing again), then researching them, discussing them face to face and online with colleagues, and writing about them. If an idea proves productive, I continue working on—and with—it; if it doesn’t, I put it on a back burner to see if something might come of it later in a different context or with a different approach.

A commitment to continue learning is obviously a key element of the approach I take. Every informal and formal learning experience has proved useful to me at some level. Earning a B.A. in Political Science nourished my passionate interest in politics, social movements, community, collaboration, history, and positive social change. My M.A. in Arts Administration (a degree for nonprofit arts organization administrators) gave me transferable business skills that continue to serve me to this day. My MLIS (Master of Library & Information Science) degree more closely connected me to what was and is happening in Library Land—one of the primary countries in which I travel. And the numerous workshops, webinars, online courses (including connectivist MOOCs), and conferences I attend reinvigorate me while also reminding me what it feels like (in the best and worst of learning situations) to be in the learner’s seat; this helps keep me from subjecting others to what has troubled me about how we approach training-teaching-learning-doing.

A final, essential element that seems to produce wonderful results is to be flexible, responsive, and attentive—to listen and then react. Many years ago, when I was looking for opportunities to write more book reviews than I was producing at that time, I unexpectedly met the editor of a monthly book review publication. We were at a conference and were chatting about the possibility of my submitting reviews to him. Without thinking, I blurted out the question, “What unfilled niche can I fill for you?” That led to a number of very interesting book review opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise sought, and taught me the importance of asking that question of any potential or current client. Very simple. Very effective. Very playful. And it produces enough work to leave me with time to go pick some berries if that’s where heart leads me.

N.B.—Thanks, Jeff Marson. for inspiring this piece through your wonderful questions.


Telling Secrets (Josephine V. Signorelli, 8/5/1925 – 1/22/2017)

January 27, 2017

The following post is the final draft of the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral service on Friday, January 27, 2017. The draft—as all drafts do—differs a bit from the spoken version delivered to the more than 100 friends, colleagues, and family members who gathered to commemorate all she meant to us during her long and richly rewarding life.

Let me share a secret with you. Josie was really concerned about how this was going to go. She and my father [who is still alive as of this writing] had attended so many funerals over the past several years, lost so many friends, that she had convinced herself that no one would be left to attend hers. She kept telling me she was worried that we wouldn’t even have enough people available to serve as pall bearers. Thanks for proving her wrong.

josephine-2012-08-05Our mother, wife, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, parishioner, business colleague, confidante, and overall playground director had a thing for planning. She and Dad had this whole thing organized years ago, and occasionally revisited the arrangements to be sure that it would go smoothly and wouldn’t be burdensome for any of us. It’s the same way she led every day—every single day—of her life. She had a plan. Get up. Take her pills. Make sure Dad took his bills. Prepare breakfast. Eat Breakfast. Do the dishes. Take a walk. (During Lent, all of this would be preceded by daily attendance at Mass.) Clean the house. (God forbid she should leave home without having cleaned at least three closets, done five loads of wash, shouted “scat cat” at the neighborhood felines who were lounging in her backyard, baked 20 dozen cookies, and started a library. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit on those last items, but that amazing, upbeat Energizer Bunny of a woman could send the rest of us to bed to recuperate from extreme exhaustion for weeks after we listened to her describe what she had done before noon on any given day of the week.)

Her afternoons often included reading time—for herself as well as for the other kids in the neighborhood! Recitation of her daily chaplet. Making sure Dad was comfortably situated to take his nap. Talking with friends by phone. (She and my sister Carol apparently taxed the limits of the local phone company with their marathon conversations.) Getting dinner ready. And after dinner, she was back to reading, watching television, and, if necessary, starting another library. (Ever wonder why there are more libraries in American than there are McDonalds restaurants? Now you know.)

I jokingly focus on the library part of my mother’s life because I know the earliest memories my sisters and I have are of sitting with Mom as she read to us from library books. Making sure we understood where the Main Library in Stockton was and what day and time the local bookmobile visited our neighborhood. (I checked this with my sisters: we may have been the only kids in Stockton who were familiar with the term “Library Summer Reading Program” before we knew who Captain Kangaroo and Captain Delta were on our local TV stations.) She worked diligently and ceaselessly and lovingly to instill in us an appreciation for and commitment to lifelong reading and learning. And she carried that commitment over into the work she did here at St. Bernadette’s, where she introduced at least a couple of generations of the parish’s youngest learners to the mysteries of their shared faith.

st-_bernadettes_churchHer church and her faith were the foundations of her sense of community. You couldn’t be at St. Bernadette’s without seeing Josie Signorelli engaged in doing the weekly readings from the front of the church. Or working with her colleagues in the Ladies’ Guild to organize social events—this was a woman who was a social maven decades before social media came along—or serving on the parish council, or helping to count the proceeds from the weekly collection plates, or or or…we could spend the rest of the day today (and part of this evening) recalling all she did with and for The Church and not even begin to scratch the surface. But an important point to remember here is that her Church was her family, just as in many ways her family was her church. She honored them. She worked tirelessly for them. She loved them. She embraced them. She cooked for them—oh, God, you cannot think or talk about Josie without thinking about all she cooked. And she never wanted or expected anything in return.

josephine-at-st_bernadettes1So, Church as family, and family as Church: let’s hone in on what family meant to Josephine Signorelli and how her attitudes and actions touched so many of us. I believe her parents, her nieces and nephews, her cousins, and other members of her extended family were with her in spirit every day of her life—long after many of them had preceded her in death. In fact, I know many of them were and are—we just need to look around the church this morning and see two of her beloved nieces, Peggy and Donna, who flew in from New York to be with us when they knew Josie was about to leave us. We look up at the altar and see Father John Peter and Monsignor Moore—yes, Monsignor Moore, who was the pastor at St. Bernadette’s for 30 all-too-brief years and surprised members of our family two days ago by driving up here from Monterey to sit with us for a lovely afternoon conversation filled with comforting reminiscences and appreciations for all she did for all of us. We look around this church and see my father, my siblings—including those who, by marrying into this family, were embraced as sons and daughters, not as sons-in-law or as daughter-in-law. We see the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, her church family, members of the business community who were like family to her.

My wife, Licia, made an interesting observation as a few of us were talking this morning: we often focus on my Mother, and all too rarely explicitly acknowledge the complementary halves of what our mother and father bring to themselves and to the world overall. As Licia noted: Josie was the sun. Paul Frank was and is the moon, fully reflecting and contributing to the brilliance that the sun brings to our world. And I would add this: all of us in this room—and many who are with us in spirit today—are the billions of stars, the constellations that shimmer in a dark night of the soul that will lead us to much brighter days together.

We are family. We stand alone and we stand together in numerous ways. If Josie leaves any long-lasting legacy—and let me assure you, she leaves a legacy larger than the state of Texas—it is the extended family, now spread out all over the country, that will convey bits and pieces of her to countless people who will never physically meet her, but will know somehow they have been touched.

She was unique. She was an inspiration. She was humble. She was persistent. And in the end, when she told us she was ready to go, she left as quietly and peacefully as she could. But she was wrong about at least one thing. She may have returned to the God in whom she so fervently believes. But she is far from gone as long as any of us continues to build upon all she did and cherished and loved.

January 27, 2017


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