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.


Changing Ourselves as We Try to Change the World Through Social Media

January 2, 2018

Change often starts small, with the most simple, innocuous of acts. For some of us, it was our reaction to the news that a Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, DeRay McKesson, had driven from Minneapolis to Ferguson to witness and document what was happening in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson Police Department in 2014. We had been reading about shootings of fellow citizens who were African-Americans—by members of our police departments, by private citizens who felt threatened by the presence of a young men like Trayvon Martin because those citizens were Black. We were—and continue to be—increasingly horrified by what we were and are seeing in “post-racial” America.

DeRay McKesson, from Wikimedia Commons

When McKesson began reporting from Ferguson, via Twitter, we recognized that something had changed significantly. In addition to all the other forms of media that provided first-rate, reliable information about critically important issues we were facing, we now had an ever-increasing level of access to and involvement in defining, reacting to, and seeking information about and solutions to those issues. This was raw and visceral—far beyond the polished, often pseudo-objective reporting that comes from our cherished mainstream-media representatives. We were experiencing and willingly joining multi-level, non-curated, expansive reports and conversations and calls to action through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, and other online resources. Social media was not completely replacing one-way broadcast media including newspaper, radio, and television as important, significant, much-needed primary sources of information; those resources remain the meat and potatoes of information-gathering at a time when we struggle to distinguish between fake news and reliable reporting. On the other hand, social media tools were increasingly adding an important, dynamic, potentially world-changing element to our conversations and our perceptions about our world, how we interact with it, and how we might attempt to change it in positive ways.

Those already familiar with Twitter and other social media platforms need only glance at the most cursory list of the hashtags to become aware of the scope of our conversations and the way that the use of hashtags is making action-based conversation easier for even the most inexperienced of activists:

#BlackLivesMatter, #Brexit, #BringBackOurGirls, #DACA, #Dreamers, #Ferguson, #GunSense, #HealthReform, #MeToo, #NODAPL, #NotOneMore, #NotInOurName, #OccupyWallStreet, #ParisAccord

Let us make no mistake about it: This is a deeply personal, highly transformative level of change to some of us. It began changing the way we used and viewed social media tools including Facebook and Twitter. We began initiating conversations that we previously thought of as being too risky for online conversations; our shift came out of a decision that avoiding those online conversations that exposed and forced us to confront some of our deepest differences was far more risky than not exposing and confronting them. We openly reached out to friends and colleagues whose experiences and political beliefs differed tremendously from our own. We sought to listen, to learn, to find common ground, and to attempt to produce positive change in response to the difficult and often painful challenges that so often seemed to irrevocably separate us.

At times, our tongue-in-cheek approach (e.g., my own promotion and use of the hashtag #MakeAmericaCivilAgain in response to the disgustingly uncivil nature of discourse that was on full display during the Presidential election campaign in 2016) produced surprisingly encouraging results: colleagues from all walks of life found common ground in the idea that promoting civility in our interactions would be a great first step in trying to address some of our most wicked problems. We also realized that incorporating humor into our discussion was an important element in trying to re-civilize our exchanges.

We are drawn into these conversations, and we are engaged by small- and large-scale desires to positively respond to the challenges we face, because we all are potential activists. The use of social media tools is one of many resources we have in our personal and collaborative toolkits; the people I am interviewing for my book Change the World Using Social Media know and understand this because they use social media nearly every day.

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

Some (e.g., Samantha Adams Becker, Maurice Coleman, David Lee King, and Jonathan Nalder) have been friends and colleagues for many years and are people who, before they agreed to be interviewed for this book, did not overtly identify themselves as activists. The fact that, as librarians, educators, and writers, they foster social change at small- and large-scale levels through their activity in a variety of social media platforms, will, I hope, encourage you to see that you don’t need to be famous or have thousands of followers in your social media accounts to be able to contribute to positive change in the communities you serve. Others (e.g., Cayden Mak, Elizabeth Myers, and Camila Mariño Venegas) have titles and responsibilities that put them at the heart of facilitating positive change within their communities; they are people I met through the use of social media and other online resources as I was seeking activists from a variety of backgrounds so I could provide examples of effective use of social media in a variety of environments and involving a wide range of issues attracting the effort of activists fostering positive social change.

Regardless of your current use of social media and your reach in promoting change, you can easily find plenty of examples via social media platforms themselves to help you see how social media, as part of your overall activist’s toolkit, can provide opportunities for conversation, planning, collaboration, and action that will bring you and others closer to riding waves of change rather than being drowned by them. You can also easily find plenty of examples of how some of our most creative colleagues using social media remain committed to honestly and openly cultivating a sense of trust and engagement with their online and onsite collaborators and those they serve.

“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,” 18 Million Rising Executive Director Cayden Mak said during our initial interview for Change the World Using Social Media. “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.” 

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


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