Using Your Organizational Skills to Change the World Using Social Media

February 6, 2020

There is much more to social media than simply posting and waiting for results. The best efforts—including many of those highlighted in this series of excerpts from and interviews for Change the World Using Social Media (to be published by Rowman & Littlefield later this year—often combine first-rate communication skills online as well as onsite with tremendous organizational skills and organizational development. #BlackLivesMatter without the Black Lives Matter organization would be a far less influential movement than it is. #ClimateStrike, with the Global Climate Strike organization, combined online meeting place and onsite local chapters throughout the world to continue its work to foster positive responses to the global climate crisis, which is also promoted online through #FridaysForFuture and its online map of onsite events. #DACA takes on a real-world physical presence, through the support of more than 1,400 organizations and individuals, in its efforts to support undocumented immigrants who want to continue living in the United States. #MarchForOurLives benefitted and continues to benefit from the deft combination of a broad-based organization designed to reduce gun violence and online posts from organizers and supporters. #MeToo would be much the poorer if it didn’t have the organizational prowess the local and national organizations providing services to survivors of sexual violence and of Tarana Burke’s Just Be Inc., created to support young women of color “with the range of issues teen and pre-teen girls are faced with daily” more than a decade before her #MeToo hashtag went viral. #WomensMarch, with its broad-based network of trainings, programs and events, drives the movement to “harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change,” its website suggests.

The connections between the stories of March for Our Lives and Fridays for Future provide particularly noteworthy examples of how quick, consistent attention to the complementary nature of online and onsite (blended) interactions, and onsite-online organizational skills, led to successes for both groups. The process of creating a strong, sustainable March for Our Lives movement and organization, well documented in Dave Cullen’s book Parkland: Birth of a Movement and Lauren and David Hogg’s book #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line, rose out of the activists’ almost immediate recognition that building a strong organization would be essential to success; they drew upon experienced, knowledgeable supporters to help them after quickly recognizing that they needed to establish a nonprofit foundation to manage the large donations made in support of their efforts. Inspired by March for Our Lives and an earlier protest, in which students stayed away from school to stage a “climate strike” timed to coincide with the opening day of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris, Greta Thunberg began her school strike—an initially solitary effort calling attention to climate change—by standing alone (with a handmade sign in hand) in front of the parliament building in her own country in August 2018. Recognizing that she would need a well-run organization to support her efforts, she established Fridays for Future that month. She continued to combine her onsite efforts with online posts (through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) to call attention to her climate strike—an effort that steadily attracted a growing, yet relatively small group of supporters. The moment of transformation in terms of the amount of attention she was drawing to her cause came when that combined onsite-online effort led her to the opportunity to address members of the United Nations late that year, when she was 15 years old: attention through mainstream media outlets as well as through tremendously larger numbers of responses via Twitter (going from a few thousand responses on Twitter before the UN speech to more than 483,000 mentions by August 2019) allowed her make “an unquestionable impact,” and “nowhere is that more apparent than on social media,” Paul Herrera notes in an article for Maven Road.

But it’s not just about attention and reach; it’s also about the concrete results produced through those well-organized, blended efforts. When you look at what March for Our Lives has helped produce, you see changes in legislation at the state and national levels, growing support nationally for positive actions to reduce violence involving the use of guns, and efforts to register and engage new voters in the electoral process. When you look at Climate Strike, you see that the first sixteen months of activities put Thunberg in conversation with world leaders willing to support positive responses to the effects of climate change and “inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, in what was the largest climate demonstration in human history.” Those marches, executed with a scope and efficiency reminiscent of the Women’s March and March for Our Lives efforts, spurred action by students “in 2,233 cities and towns in 128 countries, with demonstrations held from Australia to India, the UK and the US.”

At the heart of all this is community—onsite, online, and at the level of the blended efforts so frequently apparent to you as engage in your own world-changing efforts and as you follow the work of those you admire for their world-changing actions.

Tips designed to create, nurture, and sustain these blended communities include establishing organizational plans—with strong mission, vision, and value statements—that help keep community efforts focused and measurable in terms of achievements vs. goals that remain unreached. They include a commitment to building relationships that allow your colleagues and supporters to see themselves as your partners in creating the change you are proposing to make. They are centered around a commitment and ability to tell your story briefly and engagingly through all means available to you onsite and online—in ways that are personal and invitational rather than coldly factual and distant. They are built upon an understanding that change—small-scale as well as large-scale—is a step-by-step process that requires building upon the successes you achieve and that are not derailed by the inevitable setbacks, opposition, and even harassment you and your colleagues will face. They include a commitment to learning from others—those who support you as well as those who oppose what you are attempting to accomplish—with a well-maintained commitment to empathy so you can understand why others might not be as enamored of what you are attempting to do as you are, and they require a strong commitment to frequently thanking those who support you and doing everything you can to keep those supporters informed, involved, and energized—actions that take you far beyond any mistaken belief that social media is a magic bullet that, once fired, resolves everything you and members of your community are attempting to resolve.   

N.B. — Paul has completed his manuscript for Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the 22nd in a series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Facing Online Harassment While Changing the World

January 29, 2020

When you think about the stories you have heard or read regarding online harassment—including trolling—through social media, you can easily make the mistake of thinking it won’t affect you. You might even unconsciously—as I have occasionally and unexpectedly found myself doing—mistakenly assume that those who are on the receiving end of trolling and other forms of online harassment are only the highly-visible world-changers taking controversial stands (as if that somehow fully explains why they are being harassed).

If you follow social media at all, you know that many people—those affiliated with Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and Me Too, for example—have been subjected to trolling and other forms of harassment that are vicious, tenacious, threatening, and, at times, emotionally overwhelming. It interferes with their ability to continue or complete their work. It leaves them emotionally drained and feeling isolated. And it takes a toll on those around them, including family, friends, co-workers, and employers.

What you might have missed is the fact that plenty of others who are attempting to foster positive change in their communities through what they see as routine, uncontroversial actions have been equally traumatized by those who oppose them or simply take pleasure in provoking strong emotional responses among those they perceive to be weak, appropriate targets to torment. A study released by ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) in October 2019 suggests that more than a third of all Americans have “experienced severe online harassment”—which means that you don’t have to look very far to find someone who has had this experience (if it hasn’t already happened to you). And if you are at all confused by what a troll is and what behavior helps you identify a troll, you’ll find Todd Clarke’s list of “5 Signs You’re Dealing With a Troll” helpful in making that identification: “1) They’ll try to make you angry. 2) They act entitled. 3) They exaggerate. 4) They make it persona. 5) They often can’t spell.”

One of the most surprising set of targets I have encountered included several librarians who were simply doing what librarians do: fostering positive change within their communities by responding to the needs of library users and library colleagues through the creation and posting of resources to help them find information they need. (I first heard their stories while attending the panel discussion “Bullying, Trolling, and Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting Our Advocacy and Public Discourse Around Diversity and Social Justice” at the 2018 American Library Association annual conference, in New Orleans.) Two of the librarians had received an American Library Association 2017 Diversity Research Grant for a project to be called “Minority Student Experiences with Racial Microaggressions in the Academic Library”; the study was designed to use “surveys and focus groups to garner further insight into the specific experiences surrounding racial microaggressions directed at racial and ethnic minority students in the context of accessing library spaces and services on campus,” but was abandoned “[b]ecause of the level of harassment” directed at one of the librarians. Another of the librarians had tried to explain to colleagues, through a relatively brief (nine-paragraph) blog posting, what she called “race fatigue”—the “physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro-and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people”—in an effort to make her colleagues aware of the situation and in the hope that something positive would come from recognition and discussion of that situation. A fourth librarian—working in a college library—had published an online document designed to “provide general information about anti-oppression, diversity, and inclusion as well as information and resources for the social justice issues key to current dialogues” within the college community.

When the reaction of those who wanted to torment each of the librarians began to hit, several of the recipients of trolling and other forms of online harassment were stunned and transformed by what they experienced, they said. They were “doxxed”—their contact and other personal information (e.g., email addresses, home addresses, and home phone numbers) were widely disseminated online—as part of a campaign to not only discredit them but also to interfere with the work they were doing. And, in some ways, it worked. At least one of them asked her employers to remove her contact information from her university’s website—a process that took far longer than expected because no one seemed to be prepared for the trauma that the librarian was experiencing as a result of a weeks-long barrage of threats and hate mail, nor seemed quite sure of how to respond expeditiously to the request. A few of the librarians sought help from a variety of sources, including members of police departments, but found that support was lacking because no actual crimes had been committed by those threatening (rather than actually committing) acts of violence against the librarians and their families.

A fifth librarian (who was originally scheduled to be part of a panel discussion I attended, but ended up telling her story online after she was unable to attend the conference) offered a bit of positive news: her employer was behind her all the way from the time the harassment began.

“Thankfully, and much to my honest surprise, my employer had my back,” she wrote in a piece posted on Medium.

What all of this suggests is that in preparing for that awful moment when—not if—you are on the receiving end of trolling or other forms of online harassment, you need not be or feel as if you are alone; there are steps you can take to lessen the trauma and frustration harassment is designed to provoke; and you can draw upon your community of support to help you through the experience in ways that allow you to continue engaging in positive actions to help change your world.   

N.B. — Paul has completed his manuscript for Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the 21st in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Changing the World Through Blogging

September 21, 2018

If you have the mistaken impression that you can’t blog, you might want to check out Hannah Alper’s “Call Me Hannah” blog for inspiration. Starting it when she was nine years old and driven by a desire to be involved in promoting positive change in the environment, this extraordinary Canadian—who is 15 years old at the time of this writing—found her voice, her audience, and an opportunity to grow in ways that continue to have an impact through her work as an “activist, blogger, motivational speaker, and author.”

Alper stands out as a wonderful example of someone whose blogging and other social media endeavors are part of an overall toolkit that helps her reach her audience in world-changing ways. Building upon the success of her blog, she has published a book (Momentus: Small Acts, Big Change) comprised of interviews with other activists. She gains further attention for the causes she promotes by doing interviews for print publications and television stations. She travels as a presenter as well as someone who documents the changes she is promoting. Through all of these efforts, she conducts herself in ways that channel the attention she is receiving into attention and information about the causes she supports.

There are obvious elements to notice in her blog. She consistently displays a simple, effective use of language. She projects a sincere approach to the topics she tackles as her interests continue to evolve. She includes engaging photographs that help establish a persona that flows through all her work. Most importantly, she provides consistent calls to action so readers know they are being invited to do more than consume what she writes, and she responds to the comments they post; they are her partners in trying to create positive change in a world about which they care deeply.

Tracing the ever-evolving arc of her work is easy, given the record of those interests she continues to explore through her blog. One of her earliest pieces, “Be More Eco-Friendly for $10 and 10 Minutes,” documents the efforts she made with her mother to create recycling bins in their home to reduce the amount of garbage they were adding to local landfills, and even this early post—written when she was nine—reached out to readers with the hope that “you might try this too” and an invitation to those readers to share their own ideas about recycling. Within a few years, she was advocating for positive responses to bullying and actively involved in other WE Movement initiatives that are community-based, national, and global in their reach while also continuing to advocate for small actions that contribute to large-scale environmental change through recycling, composting, and even engaging in impromptu efforts to pick up trash from her local schoolyard. That September 20, 2015 post on her blog continued to feature encouragement to her readers—“I always say little things add up to make a big difference”—along with simple, concrete actions her readers could take if they, too, wanted to be part of the effort to make communities cleaner. Her most recent posts have covered themes as varied as the March for Our Lives activities in March 2018, the continuing decline of global bee populations, mental health issues (particularly in terms of how they affect people within her own peer group), and using social media in advocacy.

What remains most striking in her writing and serves as a tremendous reminder to you about an approach you can pursue in your own blogging for social change, however, is her willingness to be inspiringly transparent. A piece published last week, for example, reads as a from-the-heart admission that while she loves what she does and remains in awe of many of the people she continues to meet through her work, it isn’t easy and it does take a toll. In that “It’s Not Always Sunshine and Rainbows” post, she reflects on how she is “often mocked and put down” by classmates; how the negative comments make her question her choices and lower her self-esteem; and how the work she has chosen to pursue causes her to “miss out on everyday things like clubs and student council.” And, as usual, she concludes with the suggestion that her readers—her fellow travelers on the journey she (and you) have obviously chosen to take—remember why they have chosen that particular journey—“and then, keep going.”

This, then, is part of the power of blogging to change the world. It provides you with a chance to compose your thoughts before sharing them with members and prospective members of your community of support. It provides for plenty of opportunities for engagement if you are willing to court and respond to comments from members of your community. It allows you to build a body of work to which you can return as your own interests develop. It can be a key pathway to telling your story. After all, as so many writers have said, there are times when if you want to read something, you have to write it yourself—and then hope that it leads to the small-, medium-, and large-scale changes you are attempting to foster.

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


Changing the World Through #NeverAgain

July 30, 2018

When we look at what has happened in the five months that have passed since the shooting of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took place in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day earlier this year, we’re left with a clear-cut vision of the difference a few people can make in promoting positive change out of the worst of circumstances.

If the situation had played out differently, David Hogg and his sister Lauren would not have survived the shooting, and we would not have the short, gripping first-hand account of the shooting and its aftermath they provide though #Never Again: A New Generation Draws the Line, recently published by Random House.

The basic details have been abundantly covered: 17 students and others on campus that day were killed by a former student. An Instagram video taken and posted by a student and numerous text messages provided some of the earliest, most graphic images and descriptions of what was taking place. The survivors immediately began asking what they could do to help stop the cycle of violence involving shootings on school campuses, followed by meaningless expressions of sorrow and prayer, followed by inaction, and then followed by more shootings. David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and other Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) students began meeting within days to create a plan of action, which led to their formation of Never Again MSD (also known as #NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough); spawned the global March for Our Lives movement that helped organize events in more than 850 cities worldwide the following month; and has also spawned the Vote for Our Lives movement currently mobilizing young (prospective) voters across the United States in an effort to respond positively to a situation that they—and many of us—feel is completely intolerable and could more effectively be addressed than it has up to this point.

The human part of the story comes through loudly and clearly in the book, as this excerpt (written by Lauren) shows: On the night of the day that the Parkland shooting took place, “I basically passed out. I couldn’t physically stay awake. The same thing happened the next night and the next night and on like that for weeks. During the day I’d have to take naps, then I’d pass out at eight or nine every night and wake up in the middle of the night, so I’d start the next day exhausted again. It’s still hard for me to get a normal night’s sleep. So many of the kids at my school are like that. I never thought trauma could take that kind of toll, but it does” (p. 68).

Many have expressed shocking cruel and brutal disbelief in online posts that students as young as these writer-activists are could help mobilize and inspire the level of action they have already inspired through social media platforms and other resources—boycotts that caused “big companies from Delta Airlines to Hertz” to distance themselves from the NRA; gun-control legislation in New York, Vermont, (Deerfield) Illinois, Florida, and Maryland; and those marches themselves (pp. 124-126): “Then we left Dr. Phil and went home with friends to our old neighborhood, and I had to go to sleep again because I was falling asleep even in the car. The next morning, really early, something like four a.m., my phone started buzzing and buzzing,” Lauren writes (p. 81). “I finally got up and looked at Instagram to see why people were on there, and I saw all these white supremacists and neo-Nazis saying horrible stuff on my Instagram account, like You’re going to hell, you’re an actress, your whole family is going to hell. There was one that read, Your whole school is not real, you’re all actors. I thought that was just so bizarre that someone would even think that. My whole school?”

The narrative throughout the book responds to that disbelief. David describe how what they learned at home from their father (a retired FBI agent) about remaining as calm as possible under the most trying of circumstances helped carry them through the moments during which the shooting was occurring. David also writes about how his experience gathering and posting news reports through coursework he was completing led him to actually take videos of himself describing what was occurring and sending those for posting before that initial day of horror was over. Both acknowledge the positive impact their instructors and coursework had in preparing them for their transition from learner to activist—a much-needed tribute to what is good in our educational system at a time when so many critics complain bitterly about how ineffectual that system is. And they explicitly acknowledge how that magnificent community of learning pulled together in ways that brought friends together to apply what they had learned so they could attempt to change a world that so clearly is far from the world of their dreams.

March for Our Lives, San Francisco (3/24/18)

The #NeverForget chapter at the end of the book provides a resource we would do well to read and reread on a regular basis if we do not want to lose sight of the human tragedy at the heart of this political movement: a list of some of the people who “have been killed in gun violence” since 1999, along with brief, often-poignant descriptions of those who are no longer with us. It’s difficult to imagine being able to read those descriptions without feeling a tremendous sense of loss and a desire to be part of the community attempting to respond positively to those losses with more than expressions of sorrow and prayer.

What we’re left with at the end of the final chapter is an inspiring call to action that again circles back to the importance of a well-functioning educational system that prepares our learners/youngest citizens to use all the resources available to them to not surrender to despair: “We learned to love people for what they are instead of hating them for what they’re not. And like the namesake of our high school—Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who changed her world by a full-on engagement with it, every day, as a journalist, a suffragette, and conservationist—we are learning to change the world by presuming that we can” (p. 141).

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


Changing the World Through Imagery: Snapchat, Instagram, and Flickr

July 19, 2018

Ephemeral moments, briefly captured and briefly shared through imagery, are at the heart of Snapchat—a social media platform used by nearly 75 percent of teens in America, a Pew Research Center report released in May 2018 suggests; it is a tool that is designed to playfully combine text captions and imagery through a here today, gone tomorrow approach. What you post there is generally meant to last no longer than 24 hours before disappearing. The tremendously world-changing impact a Snapchat post can have, however, became clear in early 2018, when a teenaged Snapchat user captured the horrendous moments of the mass shooting of students, by a former student, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

This was a snap that did not—and will not—disappear. Copied and reposted online and included in mainstream media coverage of the tragedy, it has taken on a life of its own; was part of a student-driven online social media presence that helped spur the March for Our Lives (#MarchForOurLives) protest movement that has attracted participation from students and adults in more than 800 cities worldwide and its companion initiative, Vote for Our Lives (#VoteForOurLives); and, within one month of the shooting, had produced gun-control legislation in Oregon and Florida unlike any that previously came out of years of fruitless conversations between those in favor of somehow limiting access to guns and those who firmly believe that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution provides absolute, uncontrolled access to guns.

Watching that snap or looking at March for Our Lives images on the Instagram and Flickr  photo-sharing sites takes you to the heart of one of the most divisive debates in America today. You don’t just see people affected by an issue seeking some sort of positive resolution: you see the debate itself playing out in sometimes spiteful, vicious comments between those who find themselves on opposite sides of a debate that was producing few concrete results—until that snap went viral, the students became advocates with often very sophisticated approaches to the social (and mainstream) media tools available to them, and those students joined the voices of those insisting that “enough is enough” and that a positive response to the most awful of situations had to come sooner than later.

The fact that Snapchat was the initial vehicle for providing painfully jarringly intimate glimpses into another tragedy unfolding was probably something that those creating Snapchat could never have predicted when they created a platform for capturing and briefly disseminating ephemeral moments.

“I don’t think [Facebook Co-founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer] Mark Zuckerberg ever dreamed that Facebook would be involved in presidential election scandals and the fake-news cycle. Nor do I think that Snapchat leadership pictured teens snapping violent and traumatic injury in the midst of a horrific crisis,” Samantha Becker, the independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, says. “It’s not necessarily something you envision from the get-go, but it makes sense that social networks would be effective vehicles for spreading news, exposing real-life events in progress, etc. But there can definitely be backlash. I’m thinking about the Logan Paul YouTube scandal from a couple months ago, where he showed footage from a suicide. People are rightfully concerned that social media can glamorize the tragic. It’s a very delicate balance and there is a fine line between sharing something that spurs positive action vs. negative reactions. The in-situ experience of social media means that people aren’t always thinking before they post—and they can be greatly penalized for that or end up inspiring the wrong kind of action.

“I don’t have a solution for how and where to draw the line, but we could use more guidance around that and more ways to educate forthcoming generations and provide proper digital literacy training.”

Briefly tracing the early, rapid growth of #MarchForOurLives provides a strong reminder that specific social media platforms do not operate in a vacuum; they are part of an overall combination of traditional and relatively new media formats available to those who want to take the small- and large-scale steps that can lead to changing the world. #MarchForOurLives at least in part grew rapidly because those Snapchat images inspired action in a variety of ways: through mainstream and cable news programs; postings on other social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and YouTube; fundraising efforts coordinated by the nonprofit March for Our Lives Action Fund and others; and the personalization of the story through Parkland student-activists including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. In fact, it is the personalization of that message through the voices of Gonzalez, Hogg, and others that draw us and inspire us to action through the power of storytelling—through Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and book-length explorations that bring these stories to people who might otherwise be overwhelmed and be unable to see that the road from observer to activist can be traveled in many different ways and in relatively short periods of time. Hogg and his sister Lauren appear to understand this implicitly: less than six months after the shooting in Parkland, they were able to publish #NeverAgain, a call to action published by Random House Trade Paperbacks.

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


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