Changing the World With Jeff Merrell (Part 2 of 2)

March 19, 2018

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Jeff Merrell, Associate Director of Northwestern University’s Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change, 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.

 

Jeff Merrell

In a world where employers encourage employees to be available around the clock via the use of mobile devices, is the old rule of thumb “don’t talk politics at work” even a realistic approach anymore, given that lines between personal and professional activities are being inadvertently erased–through actions rather than by design?

Ah. There’s the $1,000,000,000 question.

Look, for me, it starts and ends with the organizational culture. I would not attempt to have “let’s talk social issues” discussions on a large scale if my company or organization did not do that naturally, in other forms. I am going back to my blog post rant a bit here, but I think some things like #MeToo, news around things like Charlottesville, can inspire some short-term discussions of topics within an organization’s online spaces. Maybe it allows people to—in a tiny way—share something that they’ve wanted to say. I’ve heard examples of this. But, for longer term impact, I think organizations need to think about how they “talk” about these issues routinely, in hybrid ways, where the online conversations are extensions or variations of what happens in other ways.

If your organizational culture isn’t strong enough to handle that, or your organizational philosophy does not incorporate some strong element of social impact, then you are not going to get very far.

It’s. Not. About. Social media.

Thanks. That’s really helping me to clarify something I’ve been exploring through these interviews: the impact that social activism through efforts including #MeToo have in settings far beyond what those involved may have originally thought would occur. I’m finding that few people are looking at the professional social media tools, e.g., LinkedIn, Slack, and Yammer, as means to foster social change. Thoughts on how those might fit in to what you just said in terms of conversations among our professional colleagues onsite as well as online?

Well, let’s start with LinkedIn. LinkedIn is about your “brand.” So right there, you are screwed unless you as an individual are seeking to be branded as social activist. But I would suspect—maybe I am wrong—that someone with that mindset would find LinkedIn just not a fit. It’s about people trying to create professional brand in the traditional corporate model.

Slack and Yammer, and similar, allow more co-construction of “space.” A group of social activists, within an organization, could easily start up a Slack community of trusted peers etc., set norms for participation, and maybe have a go of it.

But again, if the organizational culture is not accepting, respecting of that kind of conversation, then it will likely just be some dark secret thread. Where there is hope is when these spaces become places where people might be able to explore difficult topics and the organization is OK with that.

About halfway through the “There is hope in pushing a conversation” section of your “Revisiting: A critical pedagogy for organizational learning?” post, you talk about a “kind of collision between the ‘outside’ social world and internal organizational world…” Have you seen positive change result among those with whom you work as a result of the interactions taking place in the layered communities you mentioned earlier in this conversation?

Let me start over with a couple of examples.

Two of the most powerful “open” discussions we’ve had within our community (so…open to the entire community, but not open to the public) have been about 1) Being a Muslim—visiting student—in the U.S. and 2) the challenges of being a female in tech.

In both cases, these are very strong, female leaders who opened these discussions. And each was spurred by some outside event. Each also said—they would not write what they wrote anywhere else than within the community we created. And each, also, were very savvy social media users—blogging, on Twitter, etc.

And the discussion threads—and related conversations outside of the online space—I found productive for the community as a whole. That was also the general sense of the leaders in this program, and from what I could gather, the community itself,

Positive change coming from it? Not sure I can point to the lives of Muslim students being any “safer” or that women in tech are better off now. But there is a history here that now proves and demonstrates that our [learning] community—MSLOC—can take on these topics and explore them and learn from them.

That sort of takes us into the area of the same blog post that discusses “intentionally subverting the norm” as a way of fostering change. Any additional guidance you would offer readers in terms of the impacts that approach can have within organizations as well as onsite and online communities?

Yes, this is an interesting question. I recognize that there is some “power” at play here in what I am about to write, but I think a key is calling out (in a positive way) when “subverting the norm” happens. So, say I am a community manager or a leader and recognize that some set of voices are challenging our assumptions, but the challenge is productive in some way. For me, a key is just calling that out: Hey, this is great! We may not agree on all of it, but we love the critical thinking. And maybe engage in some true active listening—online or off—that results in some change in practices or routines.

I see those moments in facilitating classes. So, my perspective comes from that. If I am doing my job well, I am recognizing and encouraging multiple voices to be heard and to challenge assumptions.

How can you foster trust and safety in online environments when incivility is rampant?

Within organizations, don’t hire people who are incivil. 🙂

I say that half-jokingly. But it gets to my culture bit. If you bring in people who want to be civil participants, and you create a culture that allows for all voices to be heard and respected, then you’ve got a chance. But if all you are about is brand, making as much profit as possible by taking advantage of employees or customers, and beating the competition by any means possible, you’re hosed.

 N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Winter/Spring 2019. This is the eleventh in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.

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Changing the World With Samantha Adams Becker (Part 2 of 2)

February 10, 2018

This is the second half of an interview conducted with Samantha Adams Becker, President at SAB Creative & Consulting and former New Media Consortium Publications & Communications Senior Director, for my book Change the World Using Social Media (Rowman & Littlefield; projected publication date is autumn 2018). Part 1 of this interview is accessible on “Building Creative Bridges” through this link. The entire interview was conducted online using a shared Google Doc, and has been lightly edited.

What major differences (positive and negative)—if any—do you see between your use of Twitter and Facebook?

I think I’m far more liberal in terms of what I share on Twitter. I view it as more of platform for experiments and iteration of thoughts. That’s interesting because my twitter profile is public while my Facebook one is private. You’d think I’d be more discerning about sharing in a public platform but that’s the exact principle that makes me more prone to share on Twitter. It’s a public, come-as-you-are community. Things move so fast that typos are par for the course.

[#covfefe]

LOL

On Facebook, because it’s private, I’m specifically friends with people who have requested a friendship or whose friendship I have requested. It’s more personal in that regard, so my posts are generally about my personal life—photos of my baby, my dog, my vacation. And I try not to post too many times per day out of fear of saturating people’s newsfeeds. Social media politeness! On Twitter, as I mentioned above, it’s not uncommon to tweet five times in a row in the span of a couple minutes—which makes it far more conversational.

And I think that’s the gist—to me, Facebook is more of a one-way street for personal use whereas Twitter is a vibrant continuous conversation!

What is one strikingly positive example of a way that you’ve used or seen Twitter used to promote social change?

The #MeToo movement is an obvious, but powerful, one. Suddenly, people who were scared to share something deeply personal were empowered to tell their stories because other people were doing it. I don’t think that movement could have spread as rapidly on any other platform because of continuous conversation factor. There’s Snapchat, Instagram, and new social platforms emerging all the time, but Twitter has remained loyal to the idea of words. And in spite of the growth of videos and infographics, etc. words. Are. Still. Powerful currency.

Tips to readers of this book who are interested in knowing how to most effectively use Twitter to facilitate social change?

Start by following people you are genuinely interested in. Some percentage of those people will follow you back and become part of your community.

Don’t just tweet how you are feeling, what you believe, etc.—pay attention to what other people are saying and doing. It’s a two-way street. You’d never have a conversation with a friend that’s just you sharing about your life; you’d ask questions and you’d listen to their responses thoughtfully.

If you’re interested in a subject, a simple Internet search of what related hashtags are popular will open up a whole world to you to learn more on that subject. And, if you use those hashtags in your own tweets, they (and you!) become more discoverable.

Anything else I haven’t asked that you think we should be discussing in terms of introducing Twitter for social change to the readers of this book?

Nobody likes an egghead. [The egg icon is the default image accompanying a new account until a user provides a customized image, so the egg suggests a new, inexperienced user to those familiar with Twitter.] Add a real profile photo!

Also, if you’re just starting out on Twitter as an individual or a business, do not purchase followers. You may get a lot of followers, but will they really be interested and prone to act on your calls to action? Relevance is key. You want to surround yourself with people relevant to your work life/personal life etc. Authenticity! Quality over quantity, every time.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Winter/Spring 2019. This is the eighth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress. 


Changing the World Through Twitter

February 5, 2018

If you want to viscerally understand the power of Twitter, think of the global impact two small words (“Me too”) and their variations in languages other than English have had. Capturing an enormous emotionally nuanced message (we all know someone affected by sexual harassment and/or assault, so what are we going to do about it?), those two words have been repeated countless times to inspire positive action by men and women using Twitter and other social media platforms after actress Alyssa Milano used them in a tweet on October 15, 2017: “Suggested by a friend: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’”

Milano quickly achieved her goal of increasing awareness regarding sexual harassment and assault: the hashtag is drawing attention to the often dramatically different reactions people have to the allegations and reality of sexual harassment at local, regional, national, and international levels; I was among those made even more painfully aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault than we already were; and it has drawn me—and many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues—into efforts to shine a spotlight on it and combat it at whatever level we can—via social media, through face-to-face conversations, and through support for actions that can decrease the presence of harassment and assault whenever we see opportunities to do so.

Let’s be clear about the role Twitter and other social media platforms played in what has, through the use of the #MeToo hashtag, become another highly visible and extended global conversation (and sometimes bitter argument) about sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The conversation did not start with the breaking of a significant news story on Twitter, nor did the hashtag #MeToo become a widely-recognized unifying call to action the same day it was created. (The hashtag was first used by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006.) Stories about sexual harassment and abuse in a variety of settings including workplaces, schools and universities, and religious organizations have been published and discussed for several decades by those who accept the veracity of the allegations and want to make positive changes as well as by those who deny the allegations and object to what they see as exaggerations or outright falsehoods. Attitudes and disagreements about sexual harassment and sexual abuse were clearly on display during the 2106 presidential campaign in the United States when a recording capturing Donald Trump boasting, in 2005, of his ability to harass and assault women were widely disseminated through traditional and social media outlets.

The #MeToo conversation expanded rapidly after articles published in The New York Times (October 5, 2017) and The New Yorker (October 10, 2017) documented gut-wrenching allegations that Miramax entertainment company and The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein had engaged in sexual harassment and sexual abuse involving dozens of women in the film industry for at least two decades. Reading the first lengthy and well-documented story in The New York Times that October morning left me disgusted and heart-sick; I found it difficult to even finish reading the lengthy article as I thought about this latest set of allegations showing how someone in a position of power could take advantage of people perceived to have less—or no—voice than those who were making their lives miserable.

Absorbing the numerous follow-up reports about Weinstein and many others became even more emotionally challenging when women—lots of women, far beyond the boundaries of the entertainment industry scandals documented in The New York Times and The New Yorker—began using #MeToo to acknowledge themselves as recipients of unwanted sexual attention by friends, acquaintances, employers, workplace colleagues, or complete strangers. I was absolutely stunned by the large number of women I knew who eloquently joined the conversation through short #MeToo posts. And that’s one of the many ways in which the power of Twitter and other social media tools becomes apparent: what at one time would have been stories about someone else continually become stories about those I know and love and care for—because Twitter and other social media platforms provide a way for voices that might otherwise not have been heard to be heard in ways that inspire people to work together to actively promote the changes they want to see to create the world of their dreams. What might at one time have been stories told within small, isolated groups of people or discussed in local communities became stories shared globally—and very quickly.

“The #MeToo movement is an obvious, but powerful, one [an example of Twitter used to effectively promote social change],” Samantha Becker, the independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, observes. “Suddenly, people who were scared to share something deeply personal were empowered to tell their stories because other people were doing it. I don’t think that movement could have spread as rapidly on any other platform because of [the] continuous-conversation factor. There’s Snapchat, Instagram, and new social platforms emerging all the time, but Twitter has remained loyal to the idea of words. And in spite of the growth of videos and infographics, etc. Words. Are. Still. Powerful currency.”

Shining a social media spotlight on those situations you want to change is often seen as positive even in the worst of situations; it is, therefore, well worth noting that the same shining spotlight, used with less-than-honorable intentions, can cause tremendous grief for those unfairly at the center of that spotlight—a theme I will explore fully in a later chapter of Change the World. Using Twitter and other social media platforms carries tremendous responsibility—a responsibility that often is inadvertently or intentionally overlooked by users. As you consider incorporating—or further incorporating—Twitter into your social media toolkit, you would do well to follow advice I frequently give: think before you post. If you are in doubt as to whether your tweet meets the highest, most positive ethical standards to which you subscribe, don’t post. Tweets and other posts can wait; once they are out there, they are impossible to undo.

There is obviously plenty to be done with Twitter to positively change your world; it begins with using it to give voice to those—you and many others—whose voices are not often enough clearly heard. There are plenty of examples, from some of the hashtags (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter, #DACA, #Dreamers, #Ferguson, #LoveWins, #MAGA/MakeAmericaGreatAgain, #OccupyWallStreet, and #ParisAccord) I mentioned in a previous post, of the impact a well-designed and well-used hashtag can have. Whether you agree or disagree with the goals implicit in the movements represented by those hashtags, you can easily recognize that their effective use is part of contemporary social and political discourse—a resource not to be ignored by anyone involved in activism.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Winter/Spring 2019. This is the sixth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


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