Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 1 of 4): The Questions That Inspire Us

February 5, 2020

I’m learning to use Instagram as a tool to foster training-teaching-learning. Not because friends and colleagues told me I should be on Instagram. (They did.) Not because I feel a compelling need to become active on yet another social media platform. (I don’t.) And certainly not for course credits or a grade: there are no grades given in the course I am pursuing—just an opportunity to explore an unfamiliar resource with the support of a tremendously innovative community of learning, under the guidance of a writer-presenter-educator (George Couros) I very much admire.

It started with a question, as have so many of my favorite and most transformative learning opportunities: how can Instagram be used to innovatively foster learning? And it’s the sort of learning opportunity I very much admire. It’s engaging—the moment I posted my first offering on Instagram, I became drawn into brief exchanges with George and my other co-conspirators in learning. It’s multifaceted—an online (mostly asynchronous) book discussion group, functioning as a connectivist MOOC (massive open online course), that includes the opportunity to explore a social media tool (Instagram) as part of the larger goal of engaging in transformative conversations on a topic (innovation in learning) that is of interest to me and those I serve. It’s rhizomatic—expanding and exploding across multiple platforms including Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even blog postings like this one. And it is creative in every sense of the word, including the idea that we as learners engage in the creation of numerous examples of how Instagram can be used in learning (while learning about Instagram itself) so that, at the conclusion of this three-week book discussion/course/community-of-learning-in-action, we will have produced a fluid, amendable “textbook” that can be used by others interested in learning about Instagram in learning.

The online book discussion group/Instagram-in-learning course fostered through this “Innovate Inside the Box [#IITB] Book Study” group begins with a chapter-by-chapter set of readings from and responses to Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset, written by George and his co-author Katie Novak. We seamlessly jump from the pages of this trainer-teacher-learner must-read book into Instagram (using the hashtag #InnovateInsideTheBox and more specific chapter-by-chapter hashtags, e.g., #IITBCh1 for postings connected to our exploration of Chapter 1) to learn from posts and comments by George and Katie.

We cannot, if we want to understand how this all works, overlook the magnificent organizational skills George brings to the course. He seeds the Instagram conversations with concise, visually-consistent suggested discussion points; incorporates short videos produced with other social media tools, including TikTok, to draw us in as co-conspirators in the learning process; and obviously gave plenty of thought to creating those chapter-by-chapter hashtags so that any of us, at any time, could easily locate, contribute, and respond to content on the topic of our choice. We also benefit from the unspoken assumption that, with content exploding across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, blogs, and other social media platforms, there is no expectation that “keeping up” requires attention to all those possibilities and conversations; we choose what we can do within the time we have for the discussion/course, and happily work in what is a guilt-free learning zone.

Although I was late to joining the conversations—completing my first post on Instagram near the end of the second week of #IITB—I had been slowly reading and reflecting upon the book from the moment I received my copy. I was also using online resources to learn more about how Instagram works; how to create visually appealing posts appropriate to our goal of using Instagram for learning; and to survey some of the tools available for use in creating posts combining images and text. Attempting to complete and post a couple of contributions each day, it hasn’t taken me long to realize that the combination of text and imagery in those posts, along with reflections in the comments field of each post, are giving me a record of my learning; a quickly-growing resource library of images I can use in other projects I am currently completing; and examples I can use for the remainder of this blog post to show how the entire process is working for me—and might also work for you.

Comments accompanying the first post: Experimenting…always experimenting: the heart of training-teaching-learning. So, belatedly, I’m diving into what is meant to be a three-week innovative opportunity to explore Instagram as a tool for learning through an online Instagram-based book discussion centered on Innovate Inside the Box, by George Couros, with Katie Novak. George, upfront (on p. xxxv), reminds us that great learning opportunities, are fostered through our ability to draw upon our own creativity, our willingness to innovate to the benefit of our learners, and “the artistry of teaching”—which inspired me to go back to this photo I took of a playful work of art and think about how the successful incorporation of art into teaching-training-learning can help us hit the bull’s-eye when we are successful.

Comments accompanying the second post: In a chapter on learner-driven, evidence-informed learning, George suggests that a focus on grades (or, by extension, certificates of completion) rather than achievement reduces learning to “letters and numbers” and leaves our learners “lost in the process.” Fostering learning where “people are invested in their own goals” and where success is judged by evidence of positive transformation, on the other hand, carries learners “above and beyond goals that we set for them”—a lesson I’m re-learning as I participate in the book study group. If I were doing this for a grade or a certificate or if I were participating in a workshop on how to use Instagram, I would probably race through the learning challenges and be done with it; bringing my own commitment to lifelong learning to this innovative opportunity  to study innovation (and Instagram) and taking the time to explore what Instagram might offer me and those I serve through training-teaching-learning-doing, however, is inspiring me to spend much more time than expected preparing each of these posts—with the result that I’ll leave the study group, when the formal interactions conclude, with an understanding far deeper and more useful than anything a grade provides.

Comments accompanying the third post: In his chapter “Master Learner, Master Educator,” George addresses a theme that comes up often with my colleagues: our roles as teacher-trainer-learners are inextricably interconnected; one part of that term without the others leaves us—and those we serve—at a terrible disadvantage in terms of facilitating and taking advantage of effective, positive, learning opportunities. “If you want to be a master educator, you need to be a master learner,” he reminds us, adding, later in the chapter, the wonderful punchline: “…learning has no endpoint; it is a continuous journey with many opportunities to explore.” And the more we encourage our learners—and ourselves—to solve challenges for themselves/ourselves rather than being spoon fed information they/we will not be able to remember, the more we help them—and ourselves—grow into successful lifelong learners—a lesson I continue to see reinforced as I explore the intersection of Instagram and teaching-training-learning by struggling with the tool; experimenting to produce thoughtful, visually appealing posts; and celebrating small victories while continuing to overcome the challenges that each new post provides.

Comments accompanying the fourth post: In his chapter on creating empowered learning experiences, George contrasts engagement (“listening, reading, observing, consuming”) with empowerment (speaking, writing, interacting, creating”) and suggests that “asking better questions” leads us—and our learners—down fruitful paths in developing valuable lifelong skills. There is an acknowledgement that we cannot ignore the basics when we are working with our learners, but the basics are the starting point, not the finish line: “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics…and are less likely to check out mentally.”
It’s a reminder I appreciate as I explore basic as well as innovative possibilities Instagram provides for training-teaching-learning-doing—not because George or Katie dictate every step I must take as a learner and co-creator in their online book-study experience, but because they are the learning catalysts and I am a willing, curious, engaged, empowered co-conspirator in my own learning process.

So…I’m learning to use Instagram as a tool to foster training-teaching-learning. And I’m learning so much more. If this and subsequent posts about #InnovateInsideTheBox serve as learning opportunities for you and other readers of this blog, then the learning will continue far beyond the three-week online offering, and we will have come full circle in creating when-you-need-them learning opportunities from those in which we have participated, and to which we have contributed.

–N.B.: This is the first in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group.


Changing the World With Patrick Sweeney (Part 2 of 2)

January 17, 2020

This is the second  of a two-part interview conducted with Patrick Sweeney, Political Director for EveryLibrary, for my book Change the World Using Social Media (Rowman & Littlefield; to be published in 2020). The interview was conducted online using a shared Google Doc, and has been lightly edited.

On the theme we were pursuing earlier: it seems pretty clear that EveryLibrary sees part of its work as the work of training/educating prospective supporters. How do you train your own trainers (e.g., board members, volunteers, other supporters involved in reaching out to prospective supporters) to serve effectively as supporter trainers?

That’s largely a personality issue. People who want to be trainers will be—and if they want to be, then we’ll take the time to teach them how. It’s really hard to teach people to be trainers if their heart isn’t in being a trainer. It’s much easier and more efficient, in my experience, to hire for personality and then teach skills. I can teach anyone to do the work, but if they don’t want to do it, or if they have a personality that doesn’t engage like that, then I can’t teach someone to change their personality.

Are you doing those trainings face to face, online, both, or in some way that I’m just not putting out there through this question?

Training to do the work of the organization or the work of advocating for libraries in general?

Was thinking specifically about the advocacy side of the process…

Sure, so we do a ton of speaking, workshops, webinars, etc. every year. We don’t do enough “onboarding” of people who want to get involved, and we’ve had complaints about that from the community. But, we are doing so much so quickly that it’s hard to onboard someone. We have about a dozen really active volunteers that do a lot of work for us and for libraries, and it’s admittedly one of our weak points that we don’t have hundreds. We’re trying to change more into the networked change model of organizational development, but that’s a big curve and we just don’t have the capacity to make that switch this second. But we’re really close to being able to do a lot of advocacy training and onboarding of board members, volunteers, etc.

We are using Facebook to identify volunteers and find the kinds of people who want to be engaged at a much deeper level. So, we have volunteer sign-up forms and everything. We also organize volunteer days and other events for volunteers to get involved, but we’ve gotten mixed results with that. Still, the only people showed up were people who had more personal relationships to us beyond just Facebook ads or posts or whatever.

Anything else you want to offer in terms of tips about Facebook?

A million things…but one of the biggest things that we use are all the deep data tools that Facebook allows to help us create really significantly data-driven ads. So, we can run ads about donating to just people who are known donors to causes that are similar to libraries, and we can target them by a bunch of consumer index models. So, people who are donors, who have kids, who like libraries, who make 50,000-100,000 a year, and are in their thirties, can get an ad that is specific to them and their beliefs and Facebook gives us a ton of data about those people. For example, I can see that these people are mostly made up of “Tenured Proprietor” and those kinds of people are made up of “households are large, upper-middle income families located in cities and surrounding areas. Activities, media and spending all reflect priorities of home and children.” This helps us craft ads about libraries and donating to libraries around those interests. Of course, we can also see what their top “likes” are on Facebook and other issues that they care about, and [then] tailor ads just for them. Connecting the value of librarianship to their already held beliefs is how we radicalize them about libraries. We aren’t changing their mind about libraries; our goal instead is to connect libraries to their already held beliefs and then, by doing that, we are raising the value of libraries to them.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the twenty-first in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Changing the World With Patrick Sweeney (Part 1 of 2)

January 15, 2020

This is the first of a two-part interview conducted with Patrick Sweeney, Political Director for EveryLibrary, for my book Change the World Using Social Media (Rowman & Littlefield; to be published in 2020). The interview was conducted online using a shared Google Doc, and has been lightly edited.

What’s one positive example of how Facebook provided good results for those EveryLibrary serves?

We used Facebook to drive our petition to fight against the closure of libraries in Mary Esther, Florida. The town board was going to close the library so they could hire another sheriff, and the Sheriff’s Department was pushing really hard for them to do it. It meant more money for police, and the complete loss of the library.

So, we worked with the folks on the ground in Mary Esther to put a petition together. We used our large network on Facebook and our email to make this a national issue. Small-time local politicians often hate it when their decisions become negative national news. So, we ran a ton of dark ads in Mary Esther and the surrounding area as well as national organic ads, and they got their email blown up by the response. Having that large network on Facebook who are already familiarized with our work and the threats to libraries that already existed meant that people were prepped and ready to take action like sending emails to the town council.

There’s a very sweet passage in that EveryLibrary posting:

This note of thanks doesn’t just belong to us, but it also belongs to each of you who have stood up for libraries in the United States through your donations (it costs less than coffee to support libraries), signatures on petitions, and pledges to support libraries.

It implies partnership/collaboration/cooperation/humility (i.e., it’s not all about us). Do you routinely draw people in with that sort of invitation to engage in your social media outreach efforts?

We do. But it’s because we spent a lot of time cultivating our audiences and educating them about the issues. We spend between $50-$100 in Facebook network ads to our highly specified audiences to educate them and rally them to become ready to take action for libraries. Basically, we’re radicalizing Americans about libraries because only radical or ardent supporters of anything will take action. In fact, something like five to seven percent of an educated audience will take action on any given issue, so we spend a lot of time and money educating larger audiences and networks about the issues around librarianship.

Looking at the mechanical side of that first: roughly how much do you spend each year on Facebook network ads, and what percentage of your overall budget (approximately) is that?

We have a budget of $36,000 for media ad buys through Facebook. Then we try to add some to that. It’s about one-third of our budget. But because of the way we structure our campaigns, we also use them to fundraise—which means we make a significant portion of that money back each year and typically we make about 5-10 percent on our social media and advocacy strategy overall. So, we spend $36,000, but we make around $40,000-50,000 through them and with our email list.

On the theme of cultivating/radicalizing your audience to spur audience members to action: what steps would you recommend others take to achieve the positive results you’ve achieved?

The thing to remember is that it’s a really long process. Social media ads that ask for donations just don’t work. You can’t run an ad that says, “give us $10” and expect to get back more than you spend. It either doesn’t work, or I don’t know how to write those ads in a way that draws in donations. So, about one-half to three-fourths of our spend is just about communicating with our audience about who we are and what we do and why libraries are important. We also use it to open dialogues with audiences of people so it’s not a one-sided conversation. The other one-half to one-fourth is on direct action, such as signing petitions, joining coalitions, etc. And it’s those actions that yield our donations.
“It’s not a one-side conversation”: Care to offer some brief thoughts on the importance of avoiding social media as a broadcast medium while ignoring the “social” side of it?

Well, it is a broadcast medium, really. But, there are still ways to build conversation into those broadcasts. So, we run petitions, people can message us on Facebook, we reply to comments on our posts, we respond to emails, and have places where people can directly talk to use—we address a lot of issues that come up there. But our most powerful dialogs are not in Facebook. We use Facebook as part of a holistic communication strategy. So, we organize events and fundraisers where people can have direct access to us or have dialogs with us IRL. Because those are really the conversations with the highest ROI.

[Thanks for adding that comment about the most powerful dialogs not being on Facebook; can’t emphasize that enough in a book that focuses on social media as part of an overall activists’ tool kit.]

Our biggest donors and library supporters are really the people who have learned about us on Facebook—our broadcasts—and then contacted us or had a dialog with us in some way.

Facebook as a “gateway drug” to social engagement!

LOL, yes. This is your brain on Facebook. Any questions?

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the twentieth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


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 2020. 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 2020. This is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


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 2020. This is the first in a series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


ASTD International Conference 2014, Twitter, and Staying Connected: No Longer Left Behind—Again!

May 5, 2014

The news that I made a new friend by participating in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2014 International Conference & Exposition (ICE) today isn’t particularly noteworthy. The fact that I unexpectedly accomplished this with the help of two other people who weren’t physically attending a conference that I, too, am not physically attending does, however, suggest that there is a worthwhile story to tell any trainer-teacher-learner who is interested.

ASTD_ICE_2014We’ve heard quite a bit suggesting that social media tools make us lonely; that it’s time to deliver “A Eulogy for Twitter” as “the beloved social platform enters its twilight”; and that a social network can’t replace a “real” one (as if everyone who uses social media makes this an either-or decision).

What isn’t as often heard or read is the idea that being left behind when we are not able to physically join our friends and colleagues at wonderful professional development gatherings like ASTD ICE, American Library Association (ALA) conferences, and the numerous others that beckon is increasingly less of a problem than it was before social media tools came our way.

As I have continued experimenting with the use of social media tools in workplace and personal settings over the past several years, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities they offer in terms of not being left behind. With that in mind, I tried a spur-of-the-moment experiment with ASTD colleagues last fall by trying to participate in an ASTD conference I was unable to physically attend. And while the last-minute nature of that experiment limited the number of exchanges I had with those onsite colleagues, I did unexpectedly encounter one sign of success: interacting with onsite participants by responding to tweets rather than just retweeting content for others caused a couple of people to ask if I were actually there. When we see the lines blur so much that offsite participation creates the sense of onsite interaction, I believe we have, in the best of situations, moved beyond the idea that we can’t be there unless we’re there.

The inspiration to retry the experiment with more deliberate planning came after another ASTD colleague, Larry Straining, posted a note on his Facebook account to let others know he was sorry he wouldn’t be physically present this week, but that he was looking forward to seeing tweets from conference attendees.

“If we follow the backchannel a bit and interact as time allows, we might extend the reach of the conference in significant ways and, at the same time, learn even more about how to effectively incorporate social media into our training-teaching-learning process,” I wrote in response—and that’s exactly how it played out today as I followed, responded to, and interacted with onsite colleagues from the comfort of my own home.

TwitterIt didn’t take long for my initial retweets—including brief comments building upon that content—to begin being retweeted under the conference hashtag. And it took less than three hours for a wonderful colleague to pop that magic question: Are you here? Which, of course, inspired the response “yes and no,” depending on how we define “here.”

Those who remain skeptical of the power of online exchanges will immediately raise a number of objections, including the (mistaken) belief that we can only make new conference acquaintances and interact with conference colleagues when we are face-to-face—an idea we disproved when Larry and I, via Facebook exchanges extending his initial thoughts, drew one of his colleagues into the exchange. The colleague—Kent Brooks—asked Larry for permission to quote from Larry’s postings about the value of using a Twitter feed to stay in touch with colleagues at a conference. I dove back into the exchange to ask Kent whether he wanted to try to coordinate blog postings on the topic—at which point Larry formally introduced us to each other, and Kent and I quickly completed the “friend” process on Facebook to move things along. My own tweet (to the conference feed) documenting that we had met through the conference without physically being at the conference was retweeted—as was a follow-up tweet I forwarded to draw attention to Kent’s earlier piece on “10 Reasons to Tweet at a Conference.”

It probably goes without saying that I laughed out loud when I discovered that my retweet of Kent’s piece was itself, retweeted by others—including Melissa Daimler, who serves as head of organizational effectiveness and learning at Twitter and also serves on the ASTD Board of Directors.

Atkinson--BackchannelIt’s worth noting that one very important element making this level of onsite-offsite interaction possible is the existence of a very strong backchannel among the first-rate trainer-teacher-learners who are at the heart of ASTD. The quality of the tweets from ASTD conference attendees is among the strongest I encounter: multiple voices tweeting individual sessions (not just notes about where to meet for drinks or swag) so that it’s possible to gain a sense of what is being discussed onsite; combined with the use of a conference app that is easily accessible and includes schedules, speaker bios, session materials when presenters have made them available so we can view them from a distance, and much more; and observations which in themselves provide magnificent learning moments.

As we began to wind down toward the end of this ever-evolving cross-platform series of exchanges, Kent and I returned to Facebook and Larry’s original post.

“When you state in your [original “No Longer Left Behind”] post, ‘The real pay-off for the experiment came when the exchanges put me in touch with one of the presenters who had seen the retweets and comments. The result, in many ways, was exactly what it would have been if I had been onsite and meeting members of those expanding communities of learning and personal learning networks rather than feeling as if I were part of the left-behind gang,’ I would suggest it was better than a come and go exchange which includes the standard ‘business card trading ritual’ as it allowed you to follow them (on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. and continue to learn from them beyond the 60 minutes of the session + the 5 minute rush to talk to the presenter immediately following the session,” Kent proposed.

To which I openly admitted: “It would have been true if I hadn’t treated the virtual exchange exactly as one of those business-card exchanges you describe. Just as I do keep and return to business card contacts occasionally as time allows (loud sound of rueful laughter here for missed opportunities), I do occasionally return to that sort of virtually-established contact—but not nearly enough. It would appear that bad habits onsite translate to bad habits online–but I’m continuing to learn, thanks to people like you who inspire me to look for ways to become a better trainer-teacher-learner.”

So, no, Facebook is not making me lonelier. And I’m far from ready to join others in delivering a eulogy for Twitter. And yes, it would be lovely to be there onsite at the conference with others. But if I were there, I wouldn’t have had this latest magnificent experiential learning opportunity to help me further understand, at a visceral level, what amazing tools we currently have at our trainer-teacher-learner fingertips. Each experience brings its own benefits, its own rewards. And having the opportunity to learn with my colleagues remains at the heart of what continues to draw me to these conferences and exchanges.

N.B. — Here’s Kent’s latest contribution to the conversation: Twitter Activity at #ASTD2014 Through Monday May 5 [2014]. Also found backchannel participation from Michelle Ockers on her blog.


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