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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Checking Out Disagreements and Learning by Re-Viewing Our Landscape

March 26, 2014

One of the many inspiring and great learning moments to occur during recent community meetings sponsored by the Mendocino County Library with support from their Friends of the Library groups came during a discussion of recently-installed self-checkout machines at the Ukiah Library.

The issue was superficially clear cut. Some people in the community appreciate the convenience self-checkout machines provide. Others absolutely hate this introduction of technology in a setting they value for its person-to-person interactions.

Ukiah_LibraryThose appreciative of the service specifically mentioned that they like being to locate library materials online, visit the library to pick up those materials, and handle the checkout transactions quickly (without having to ask for staff assistance). Others mentioned that checking out materials without staff involvement might appeal to teens and others who don’t want others seeing what they are borrowing.

Opponents to the recently-installed machines expressed unhappiness with the appearance of the tall, upright machines for a variety of reasons—and it quickly became clear that more than anti-technology feelings were at the foundations of their objections. They said they didn’t like the fact that the machines, placed just inside the entrance (where those about to leave the library could complete their final checkout transactions just before they exit the building), were the first thing they saw; having the devices there made them feel as if staff were being replaced by machines (something that is not happening, particularly since a local ballot initiative to provide additional funding for library services passed in November 2013 and library administrators have been hiring more staff members to support increased hours system-wide). Further exploration of the feelings leading to their opposition revealed a sense that staff was becoming less accessible to them and that they were concerned they were losing what is extremely important to them: the person-to-person interactions that are a valuable part of their library experience.

Fort_Bragg_Library--2014-03-24

Mendocino County Library staff and users continuing conversation after meeting in Fort Bragg branch

The inspiring part of all of this was that although people attending the meeting and two others held in Fort Bragg and Willits—one element in the library’s current strategic planning process—offered a variety of (sometimes conflicting) opinions on several different issues, there was little overt animosity expressed between meeting attendees. By providing forums for discussion about the library’s future and how the library could even more actively be part of an effort to address community issues, library staff and users were able to document what is important to them, see issues from differing perspectives, and almost immediately begin looking for ways to address some of the less difficult challenges they face.

A few of us, in fact, continued the discussion after leaving the Ukiah meeting by using a technique employed by a colleague who helps library staff improve library users’ experiences: each of us walked into the Ukiah Library with the intention of looking at it as if we had never before seen it, and paying attention to what caught our attention.

Whereas I had, during my first visit one day earlier, quickly walked past the self-checkout machines and immediately looked for (and found) staff—easily spotted both at a desk almost directly in front of me (across the room) and at a service counter to my left after I passed the machines—I spent more time after the meeting looking at the self-checkout machines and how they did serve as a visual focal point to anyone entering the building and looking only at what was closest to the doors. (Wonderfully enough, a staff member approached me while I was looking at the machines and initiated a conversation.)

Conversations with library staff members produced at least a few options they plan to quickly explore for those who fear the loss of that person-to-person level of attention library staff strives to provide: rearranging the entrance in a way that makes the self-checkout machines less of a visual presence; incorporating a few visual changes that tone down the bright lights that are part of the machines themselves so they won’t, as one critical library user commented, look like “slot machines”); and determining whether volunteers (who were unhappy to have been moved out of public service areas and placed next to staff in crowded workspaces in the staff area) would be interested in sitting at a desk in the entrance area to greet library visitors and help first-time users familiarize themselves with the self-checkout machines—a nice solution to two different challenges (the introduction of the machines and unhappiness expressed by volunteers in search of more opportunities to support the library while interacting with other members of their communities).

It was impressive to see the library representatives react so quickly to the concerns expressed; even if whatever changes they propose and implement don’t please everyone, the changes will have come from a position of listening and learning by re-viewing familiar situations and settings. It was equally impressive to see how positively members of the community interacted even when there were clear disagreements that they recognized they, in collaboration with library staff, will have to work to resolve together. And it was wonderfully refreshing to contrast the visible and obvious levels of civility, respect, and collaboration with what we so often see elsewhere when people talk at rather than with each other until conversations sink into confrontation and an inability to address what is important within and to a community.


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