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.
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 Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the fourth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress. The next post will include the second half of this interview.