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 Winter/Spring 2019. 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.

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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 Winter/Spring 2019. 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 Winter/Spring 2019. 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.


Hidden Garden Steps: A Community Continuing to Evolve

January 15, 2014

The Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic created and completed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is in place here in San Francisco, and an ever-expanding community has quickly claimed the site as its own—just as organizing committee members hoped it would.

The Steps as venue for exercise

The Steps as venue for exercise

New resources connecting that community are appearing online with increasing frequency. We have seen our existing website, Facebook page, and Twitter account (all created and maintained by project volunteers) augmented through individual initiatives by those who are falling in love with the Hidden Garden Steps (on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District): There are already reviews on Yelp, check-ins on Foursquare (including our first official Hidden Garden Steps Foursquare mayor), favorable mentions in the San Francisco Examiner and on Weekend Sherpa, and wonderful articles on Cindy Casey’s “Art and Architecture – San Francisco” blog and Tony Holiday’s San Francisco park trails and public stairways blog.

A two-fold agenda was always at the heart of the four-year effort to transform the overgrown, ill-tended, graffiti-marred 148-step concrete staircase (originally constructed in 1926) into a neighborhood gem: creating a second ceramic-tiled staircase with community gardens to complement the original steps on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues, and creating an outdoor variation on the indoor Third Place concept promoted by  Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989)

The formal opening ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2013 provided plenty of signs that both goals were being met. Sherry Boschert, a Hidden Garden Steps supporter who remains active in a variety of neighborhood initiatives, worked with Steps organizing committee members to organize and orchestrate a community-based volunteer-driven block party that attracted more than 150 participants. Among those speaking at the event were San Francisco County Supervisor Norman Yee (also serving as acting mayor that day); San Francisco Department of Public Works Community Liaison Jerad Weiner, who remains a conduit of onsite support through the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; DPW structural engineer Ray Lui; San Francisco Parks Alliance Executive Director Matt O’Grady, offering support as head of our fiscal agent; and the artists themselves.

Every one of those brief from-the-heart presentations acknowledged the number of partnerships, donors, and community volunteers needed to produce something of that magnitude, and Supervisor Yee’s own presentation captured the spirit of the endeavor—rather than placing himself at the center of the event, he very generously spent time  acknowledging that he was elected to represent the district as the project was nearing completion and that it was the work of his predecessor (former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) and predecessor’s staff that contributed tremendously to the success of the Steps initiative.

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Organizing committee members had one intentionally brief, wonderfully playful moment in the limelight as we were surrounded by many of our project partners to cut a multi-colored crepe-paper-weave ribbon stretched across the foot of the Steps. We then literally and figuratively stepped aside as dozens of people streamed up the Steps to transform the site from a project facilitated by a core group of community volunteers to one claimed by the larger community that supports it.

By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed. A sense of tranquility was once again palpable on site. And by mid-evening, the Steps were continuing to quickly evolve into a meeting place for friends as well as for neighbors and complete strangers who otherwise might not be seeing, talking, and dreaming with each other. As I was taking a final look down the Steps just before 10 o’clock that evening, I ended up talking with someone who hadn’t realized the Steps were already completed and open to the public. We chatted about how the project had developed, talked about how he wished he had been available to more actively support and be an active participant in the development and implementation of the project, and talked about other neighborhood projects in development—which made me realize that less than 10 hours after the Steps opened, they were already functioning as an outdoors Third Place that draws people together and creates the possibility of additional collaborations.

A recent spur-of-the-moment sweepathon

Those encounters have continued on a daily basis since that initial day. Several organizing committee members and other neighbors all found ourselves engaged in a wonderful impromptu conversation on the Steps on New Year’s Day. Visitors from San Francisco’s East and South Bay areas have repeatedly come to the Steps and brought friends. Those who supported the project through the purchase of individual tiles interwoven into the completed mosaic with personal inscriptions come, photograph, and bring friends to enjoy the beauty of the site and the spectacular views it provides. Project volunteers continue to participate in the monthly two-hour clean-up and gardening sessions held on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm (open to any interested new or returning volunteer), and neighbors, without any formal guidance or call to action, simply show up when they see that the Steps need to be swept or in some other way spruced up a bit to keep the site pristine.

HGS--Third_Place_Clean-up--Al--2014-01-05

Steps volunteer Al Magary engaged in clean-up

Most importantly of all, the spirit of community and collaboration that drove the Hidden Garden Steps to completion is already inspiring a neighbor—Al Magary—to see if he can informally organize a group to sweep and take other actions to clean up the long-ignored even larger set of steps one block away (on 15th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). Anyone interested in joining that budding community of interest can contact Al for more information at 15thAveStepsPark@gmail.com. Who knows? Perhaps a third set of ceramic-tiled steps is on its way.

N.B.: This is the twenty-third in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Seeking Social Media Clout While Scoring and Losing Klout

September 17, 2013

The San Francisco-based online service Klout purports to provide a score that documents how much influence we have through our online use of social media tools. What it actually deliberately does is lower scores if users do not agree to provide access to secondary (demographic) information in their Facebook accounts. This provides a social-media lesson meriting attention: we need to be diligent about determining what online services offer as opposed to what they claim to offer. And we need to make others aware of what we learn to provide a context for the information that businesses like Klout disseminate.

Klout_logoLet’s be explicit about what we’re seeing here. Klout claims to offer a beneficial service: a tool, that if it were accurate, could offer us an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of our online presence and provide impetus for us to improve what we are doing. Because Klout representatives insist on collecting data including date of birth and what we have liked on Facebook—information ostensibly of more use to Klout’s advertisers than to the process of determining the level of influence we have allegedly achieved online—before they will include accurate information about our levels of online interactions in those scores, I’ve joined those who tried Klout, didn’t like what we saw, and have taken steps to shut down our accounts rather that acquiesce to Klout’s clumsy—and ultimately unnecessary—attempt to bargain access to information for a higher Klout score.

Here’s how it works. Once you start using Klout, you and others can view a score that is supposed to document your levels on online interactions and the influence those interactions suggest. Only after you have used Klout for a while do you start receiving email messages that feel like a low-level dose of blackmail: Klout representatives’ insistence that you start allowing Klout to access additional information in your Facebook account, including “your birthday, work history, education history, current city and likes.” The notes explicitly warn that failure to provide access will result in a lower Klout score because the service will not include any of your Facebook activity that Klout should already have been able to access when you initially connected your Klout and Facebook accounts.

Facebook_logoThere is something more than a bit disingenuous about Klout representatives’ approach to this issue. When I initially added the service to my social media mix, I had no problem using it without having to respond to the sort of one-line agreement that now pops up when Klout directs me to log in to my Klout account via Facebook. (I’ve generally accessed Klout via Twitter.) It was only after using Klout for a few months that I started receiving email messages from Klout informing me that “Recently (emphasis added), our systems haven’t been able to access the Facebook account you’ve linked to Klout. As a result, your Facebook activity is not contributing to your Klout Score right now. You might not have logged into Klout using Facebook in a while. A day after clicking ‘Reconnect’ below, your Facebook activity will contribute to your Klout Score again (emphasis added to confirm that this apparently wasn’t a problem for Klout before now).” The catch is that you can’t “reconnect” without authorizing access to that additional demographic information.

An exchange with a Klout representative yesterday afternoon produced the following inaccurate statement regarding “current permissions”: “The current permissions allow us to access your public profile, friend list, email address, News Feed, birthday, work history, education history, current city and likes.” But that statement contradicts the report that my Facebook activity could no longer be accessed without a new acceptance of what Klout claimed it could already access. Seems to me that Klout’s representatives can’t have it both ways.

What’s interesting about this sort of low-grade online ultimatum is that little of this demographic information is particularly difficult to track down online, but Klout representatives’ admission that the measurement they propose to provide would deliberately be lowered if I didn’t agree to actively provide additional access to information in my Facebook account made me wonder what other “new current permissions” I would be forced to accept down the road. Besides, my Klout score really doesn’t have that much of an impact on what I do; it simply appeared to be another interesting but far-from-essential tool in my efforts to track online successes and failures to improve my ability to reach colleagues, clients, and others who are important to me. Losing Klout will simply provide a bit of additional time to use more credible web analytics tools to make me a more effective user of social media tools.

Wired_Magazine_LogoAnother interesting aspect of Klout’s approach is the range of reactions online writers have expressed in discussing the company’s ability—and inability—to accurately document the online clout that matters. At one extreme is the Wired magazine article published in April 2012 suggesting that a low Klout score can have a significantly negative effect on a person’s opportunity to thrive in our competitive business environment—although the writer does undercut that argument with a concluding admission that “folks with the lowest Klout scores…were the people I paid most attention to.” The suggestion that a Klout score affects employment possibilities certainly contributes to the anxiety some users describe regarding perceptions that their online clout, per their Klout score, is lower than it should and needs to be.

A view from the opposite extreme side of these discussions comes through British author Charles Stross’s characterization of Klout as “something that spreads like herpes and…[is] just as hard to get rid of.” His online post on the topic (under the title “Evil social networks”—Stross obviously isn’t taking a subtle approach) asserts that Klout is “flagrantly in violation of UK data protection law” in terms of how it collects and uses data—very strong and troubling words at a time when the term “online privacy” seems to be an oxymoron and a recent New York Times article confirms that National Security Agency employees have for more than a decade been working to “foil basic safeguards of privacy” on the Internet.

The Wikipedia Klout article appears to provide a balanced introduction to Klout, beginning with a description of the methodology used to produce a score, continuing with a summary of criticism leveled against that methodology, and concluding with a series of references for anyone interested in knowing more about the service and how it works.

What strikes me based on the experiences I’ve had is that Klout appears to play upon its users’ anxieties and insecurities. It starts with an appealing offer to help determine how much online influence we have (or, in a more worrisome way, how ineffective our online efforts might be in reaching those important to us), then takes actions that require we provide access to information in other social media accounts if we want our online activity within those accounts to be accurately reflected in our Klout scores—which then raises the question as to why anyone would rely on scores that are admittedly manipulated.

It’s also worth noting that the scoring system itself is not at all intuitive. Its scale of 1 – 100 would, at a glance, seem to imply that a score of 50 would be in the middle of online influence compared to what others have achieved. Online documentation, however, explains that “The average Klout score is around 20 and a [capital-S] Score [sic] of 50 or above puts you in the 95th percentile of scored users.”

Clout is that valuable commodity that we nurture, maintain, and cherish when we provide something grounded in honest and ethical behavior face to face and online—a commodity that increases as our clients, colleagues, and friends share the work we do and the successes we have. Klout-with a-K is what we’re left with when we agree to support a service that deliberately mismeasures and misrepresents online information if we don’t actively agree to facilitate the gathering of online information that has little to do with capital-C Clout—which is why I’ve decided to lose Klout and share this information with those I help in my role as a social media trainer-teacher-learner.


Festina Lente and Social Media: Thinking Before We Post

September 6, 2013

Festina lente, the wonderfully evocative Latin expression commonly translated as “make haste slowly,” is a mantra we need to share with our social media learners who express concerns, in the early stages of their efforts to effectively communicate with the myriad resources available to them, about how to control their online content and presence.

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Festina Lente plaque over gate in Filoli Gardens, south of San Francisco

It’s that bit of guidance that suggests we should think before we act; avoid the “ready, fire, aim” sequence that leads to so many regrets; and temper our obsession to use speed-of-light communication tools in a moment that is almost certain to expand over a much longer period of time than anything we can imagine at the moment we post something online. It’s also a great way to remind them that there really is no absolute control or room for second thoughts once our words are published in the virtual world.

This tantalizingly contradictory guidance to act quickly and with consideration to avoid disasters is certainly not unique to situations in which we post social media comments in haste. We can really only imagine the “what-could-we-have-been-thinking?” recriminations harbored by key players after the existence of the previously-secret White House taping system was revealed and contributed to the end of the Nixon administration. Or after videos of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrikes and photographs of the torture and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib were released.

But those are world-changing revelations, far from the minds of most of us when we decide to “like” something on Facebook, use the “favorite” tool to call attention to a tweet, or post on our social media platform(s) of choice the latest fleeting thought we have before thinking about what a long life that thought may have online. Those of us who attempt to be thoughtful about what we cast out into the virtual world often mistakenly assume that by being diligent about our Facebook privacy settings and using allegedly secure means of online communication, we are establishing some sort of control over who sees what we choose to share online—an idea repeatedly debunked through numerous articles about Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies, the ways other gain access to information we erroneously assume is ours to control, and the ways prospective and current employers as well as school officials review online content for a variety of reasons.

The latest report documenting how little control we have over our online content appears in an extremely detailed New York Times article published today: “N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web.” This is far more than the significant story it appears to be about how National Security Agency employees were building “entry points”—intentional flaws—into the encryption products that were supposed to assure privacy in online communications; it’s also an enormous reminder that regardless of what we do to try to control our online content, there’s someone out there capable of overcoming those controls if the motivation to do so exists.

New_Digital_Age--CoverBut we really don’t even have to dive into the Spy vs. Spy world of surveillance to respond honestly to our learners’ questions about how to approach our online postings and overall presence. Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, in their book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, provide an extreme example of what happens when we post without thinking about potential repercussions: “In February 2012, a young Saudi newspaper columnist named Hamza Kashgari posted an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad on his personal Twitter account,” leading to “thousands of angry responses, death threats and the creation of a Facebook group called ‘The Saudi People Demand Hamza Kashgari’s Execution.’…Despite his immediate apology after the incident and a subsequent August 2012 apology, the Saudi government refused to release him. In the future, it won’t matter whether messages like these are public for six hours or six seconds; they will be preserved as soon as electronic ink hits digital paper. Kashgari’s experience is just one of many sad and cautionary stories” (p. 56). (We can only assume that Kashgari somehow missed reading about Salman Rushdie’s experiences—and wonder why Schmidt and Cohen see this as something that won’t matter “in the future” after documenting that it already occurs.)

Which brings us back to our roles as trainer-teacher-learners helping others to work as effectively as possible online: invoking festina lente as a guiding principle before we post will not give them—or us—the level of control we crave, but it might lead to better experiences overall online—as long as we don’t let it keep us from saying what we and wonderful colleagues like Sarah Hougton know must be said.


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