ShapingEDU Unconference 2020: Taking It All Online During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Pt. 2 of 2)

March 26, 2020

An innocuous little note at the bottom of the “living” online agenda for the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month proved, in retrospect, to be one of the most prescient and useful comments anyone could have injected into the planning process: “While the start and end tines each day will not change, all activity times are fluid/subject to change…because it’s an unconference.”

The two previous ShapingEDU unconferences (in 2018 and 2019) had been tremendous examples of what can happen when a blended (onsite-online) community of learning meets face to face on an annual basis with an understanding that the agenda—and the Unconference itself—is subject to change in any way that fosters positive conversation and action. (As I noted in the first of these two sets of Unconference reflections, the 2018 Unconference produced a framework—10 Actions to Shape the Future of Learning—for action and archived materials, including graphic facilitator Karina Branson’s visual representations of what occurred there; the 2019 Unconference produced an online 18-page communique of “actionable ideas and strategies that can humanize learning, promote greater access to and equity in learning experiences, better connect education to the future workforce and world, and nurture highly collaborative communities of practice” that continues to be shared globally.) The overall structure of both events—an clear, concise statement of purpose provided the framework for discussion, planning, and implementation; the flexibility of the living agenda allowed and encouraged participants to alter the agenda at any time during which it became apparent that changes would produce greater results than the previous version of the agenda nurtured—fostered the perfect response to the swift transformations that literally took place overnight during the event this year. It also suggests a framework for trainer-teacher-learners to emulate as we move forward in designing and facilitating the best possible learning opportunities for those we serve.

The key moment in the ShapingEDU community’s response to the spread of the coronavirus occurred at the end of the first full day of onsite-online activities. Unconference organizers, responding to the fear that airlines might soon be cancelling flights and leave onsite participants separated from their families, made what was for them a very difficult decision: cancelling the onsite portion of the Unconference and simultaneously moving the mostly-onsite event completely online.

More importantly, they used every avenue available to quickly disseminate news of the decision and provide clear instructions on how we would continue during the second day of the two-day event. There were face-to-face conversations in the lobby of the hotel where many of us were staying. There was an email message sent to all participants. There were posts in the ShapingEDU Unconference Slack channel. To say it as bluntly as possible: there was complete transparency about what was happening and there was a magnificent effort to convey the news in the most positive way possible.

It’s well worth sharing a slightly-edited version of the note that was drafted by Samantha Becker, who serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference, and that went out to all of us:

“Dear Dreamers, Doers and Drivers:

“Thank you so much for your brilliant participation and rallying today to advance some awesome and actionable outputs to better education. You made it insightful and you made it fun. You have truly embraced the spirit of the unconference!

“We have made a decision to pivot to online-only activities tomorrow, beginning again in our Zoom room [the link was shared here to make it easy for attendees to continue participating] at 9am AZ time / 12pm Eastern US Time. This was a very difficult decision to make, and one that has been made to take every precaution for our community, given the updates unfolding around us in real-time. Those here in person that wish to take earlier flights can.

“That said, we except a robust online program tomorrow, kicking off at 9am with a special talk from Adobe’s Todd Taylor on digital and creative fluency. Our graphic facilitator Karina Branson will be online and making her graphics all digital! Watch us flex. :wink:

The goal tomorrow online is take all the actionable ideas and products we came up with in our neighborhood working sessions, narrow them down and start firming up concrete plans for the ShapingEDU community to weigh in on. Even if you couldn’t make today or only part of today, you can jump in tomorrow and contribute in a major way.

Zoom Room: [again, the link was provided]  (9am – 1pm AZ / 12pm – 4pm Eastern US)

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. The Slack workspace has been lively and we’ll pick our conversations back up there in the #unconference2020 channel.”

Reading that note can’t help but leave us with an appreciation for how quickly, effectively, and positively Samantha and other Unconference organizers (with input from available attendees) made and publicized the transformation. We can’t help but notice how effectively they used every resource available to them. And, above all, we have to acknowledge how well-prepared (through its consistent exploration and use of online communication tools) community members were for this massive shift in plans—the same sort of massive shift that is occurring in training-teaching-learning worldwide.

Visual Summary, by Karina Branson (ConverSketch), of Virtual Planning Session

The result was that when we reconvened (online) the following morning, most of us were present. Ready to work. And deeply appreciative for the creative, playful way with which the change was managed. One of the first spur-of-the-moment adaptations came from Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Acknowledging that this was a group that thrived on collegiality and effective use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, she encouraged all of us to activate the webcams on our laptops so we could produce a global wave. And even for those of us who found our webcams choosing that moment to malfunction, the gesture was a success. We waved. We laughed. And then we got down to business, putting the technology in the background and bringing the interactions into the foreground to produce a set of proposals for projects the community will consider pursuing as a result of the time we spent together at ShapingEDU 2020.

ShapingEDU 2020 Virtual Wave

So, let’s hear it for flexible/adaptable communities of learning and all that their members do to make them successful through an approach of considering everyone a co-conspirator in the training-teaching-learning-doing process. A willingness to work with technology that sometimes produces spectacular results and sometimes leaves us frustrated by short-term failures. And living agendas that are created with an understanding that “all activity times are fluid/subject to change”…because that’s one of many approaches we can take to produce first-rate learning opportunities and the results they can produce.

N.B.: Trainer-teacher-learners worldwide are creating and sharing magnificent resources to help colleagues make the transition from onsite to online learning. Among those are Cindy Huggett’s “Virtual Presenter’s Guide to Using Zoom Meeting Tools” and the numerous suggestions posted in the Facebook  Pandemic Pedagogy group. If you want to share your own resources, please don’t hesitate to respond to this post via a comment.


ShapingEDU Unconference 2020: On Learning, Pandemics, and Rapid Adaptability (Pt. 1 of 2)

March 25, 2020

While trainer-teacher-learners globally are struggling to adapt to a rapidly-changing learning environment created as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, examples of communities of learning adapting quickly through positive actions are abundant. It’s fascinating to watch—and participate in the growth of—global networks including the Facebook Pandemic Pedagogy group which, as of today, has more than 26,000 members online creating/sharing/absorbing information, resources, questions, and ideas regarding the large-scale, blink-of-an-eye movement from onsite instruction to online learning opportunities. It’s exciting to be part of smaller communities of learning, including Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training group centered around his biweekly podcast exploring training-teaching-learning-doing in libraries across the United States, as they create and facilitate informal online community discussions via Zoom and numerous other videoconferencing tools as a way of keeping up, staying socially connected in a time of social distancing, and doing what it they do best: promoting the best possible approaches to fostering positive learning experiences for those who rely on them for support.

In the midst of all this, the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month stands out as a stunningly successful example of how those of us comfortable with and experienced in working in blended (onsite/online) environments are well-positioned to pivot on a very small (digital) dime when necessary. More importantly, it may be useful example/case study for trainer-teacher-learner-doers globally not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but during any period during which our approach to the work we do has to change as fast as the world around us is changing.

The third annual Unconference was planned, over a months-long period of time, as an onsite gathering (in Tempe, Arizona) with the potential for some online interactions for those community members unable to attend onsite. It was scheduled to begin onsite with an opening reception on the evening of March 11 and conclude around noon on March 13. Registration—by invitation only—peaked at nearly 220 participants in the days before the event was scheduled to begin. But when coronavirus concerns increased in late February and early March, cancellations accelerated; by the time participants began arriving in Tempe, there had been more than 50 cancellations, and the opening night reception had fewer than 50 people in attendance.

What could have been a deal- (or Unconference-) breaker simply became a challenge in adaptability for those onsite as well as for those online. Onsite participants doubled down on our efforts to draw our online colleagues into the conversations via Twitter, via the Unconference live feed (via Zoom) that was already in place, and through quick adaptations in the way onsite sessions were managed.

It’s important to acknowledge that quite a bit goes into creating a community and an event as flexible/adaptable, focused, innovative, and productive as the ShapingEDU community and Unconference have proved to be during their first couple of years of operations. This is not something that we master and implement overnight. It starts with a shared vision: in this case, a commitment “to assemble a diverse collection of dreamers, doers, and drivers who believe that we can collectively shape a rich and impactful future for the application of emerging technologies to the design of learning and learners over the next chapter of the digital age” [the quote is from the invitation to attend the first Unconference, held in April 2018]. It grows through the work of first-rate planners and facilitators with a talent for including, at every possible opportunity, all interested community members in the actual planning process through numerous tools including a “living” online agenda. It is supported year-round through formal and informal online interactions, including webinars focused on specific elements of the overall ShapingEDU initiative and online publications that serve as resources for trainer-teacher-learner-doers worldwide. And, most importantly of all, it is grounded in a commitment to maintain a positive approach—particularly in times of adversity.

The community and its annual unconferences are seamlessly interwoven: the onsite interactions support the year-round online interactions, and the online interactions and projects fuel the onsite gatherings. ShapingEDU as an initiative and a community, furthermore, thrives through a combination of cherishing and promoting dreaming as well as doing—there is plenty of room within this community for those who love contemplating big ideas and those who want to get something done. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of the ShapingEDU community is that the dreamers are also drivers and doers who are not at all satisfied with coming up with ideas and then leaving the development and implementation to someone else. It’s a community that values and seeks and produces results. (The 2018 Unconference produced a framework—10 Actions to Shape the Future of Learning—for action and archived materials, including graphic facilitator Karina Branson’s visual representations of what occurred there; the 2019 Unconference produced an online 18-page communique of “actionable ideas and strategies that can humanize learning, promote greater access to and equity in learning experiences, better connect education to the future workforce and world, and nurture highly collaborative communities of practice” that has been shared globally.)  

Acknowledging everyone involved in the development of the community and the unconferences would invariably result in an unbearably long post here on Building Creative Bridges and inadvertently leaving someone out, but a few key players are well worth mentioning as resources to anyone interested in knowing more about how to replicate its early successes. There is Lev Gonick, Arizona State University chief information officer and a founding force behind ShapingEDU. There is Samantha Becker, a cherished long-time colleague and collaborator who, as community manager for ShapingEDU, serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference. And there is Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Working alongside them physically and virtually are the volunteers who take bite-sized pieces of the overall initiative and work toward transforming dreams into positive, meaningful, measurable results.

What Lev and Sam and Laura nurture was clearly visible onsite. Because we are used to blended onsite-online interactions, it wasn’t much of a stretch for us to integrate our online colleagues into our activities on the first full day the 2020 Unconference. And when it became clear that the much lower-than-expected number of online participants was going to radically curtail the effectiveness of the breakout sessions we had planned for each group pursuing a part of the overall ShapingEDU framework, we quickly merged some of the groups with overlapping areas of interest and expertise to create more dynamic conversations, then further improvised by fully integrating what had initially been envisioned as conversations divided between onsite and online groups—which meant, for example, that my colleague Kim Flintoff (working from Australia) and I quickly snagged a room with projection and audio/loudspeaker capabilities—so we could hook my laptop up to those systems; the result was that we co-facilitated a session that extended from our room in Tempe all the way to Kim’s home on the other side of the world—and also drew in a couple of other onsite facilitators and a few online participants into the same highly productive completely blended session. One of the most rewarding signs of success came when we stopped paying attention to the technology that was making the session possible and focused on the results we were hoping to produce.

Just when all of us at the Unconference thought we had pushed our ability to adapt to its limit, another unexpected twist occurred—at the end of our first full day together: the increasing fear of cancelled flights home because of the then not-yet-implemented shelter-in-place orders that started going into effect less than a week later in parts of the United States drove the unexpected decision to move everything online overnight. Which meant that almost everyone had to scramble to rebook flights. Cancel their overnight reservations at the conference hotel. Scramble to pack everything that had been brought to the conference. And take actions that would have us all back together the following morning for Day 2 of what was about to become a completely virtual conference—with just a handful of us continuing to work together (in the Unconference online environment) from the dining room of the Unconference hotel.

Next: Going Online to Continue Dreaming, Driving, and Doing


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.


Shaping Education Unconference 2018: The End is the Beginning (Pt. 4 of 4)

May 3, 2018

I’ve always appreciated a thought I’ve found in the work of a variety of writers I admire—the end is the beginning—so it was wonderful to find that the formal end of the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona late last week immediately initiated series of new beginnings that are continuing to unfold as I write this piece nearly seven days later.

It was an inspiring, transformative day and a half of presentations, discussions, and planning by teacher-trainer-learner-dreamer-doers from several different countries on a few continents, preceded by an informal evening reception to initiate the entire gathering arranged by Arizona State University Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick with the assistance of Samantha Adams Becker and many others. It immediately produced many productive conversations and initial plans for action. It extended beyond its formal conclusion through a couple of post-Unconference sessions that expanded the group of participants to include members of the Arizona State University community. And, in a stunningly quick follow-up, those involved with organizing the Unconference announced, within days, that as many materials and resources as could be gathered had already been posted on a publicly-accessible website—a site, which in essence, provides a virtual Unconference experience for anyone interested in participating asynchronously. More importantly, the website creates an additional avenue to assure that what happened in Arizona won’t stay in Arizona.

It was—and is—dreaming, doing, and driving at a global level. And it is, in essence, a wonderful example of a high-end blended (onsite-online), synchronous-asynchronous experience at its best, with the possibility of rhizomatically-growing conversations and actions that, if successful, could lead to positive changes that will benefit the global community that previously was drawn together and served very well by the New Media Consortium (NMC). The Unconference is simply the latest wonderful manifestation of that community, in a post-NMC environment, seeking familiar as well as new places (onsite as well as online) to continue the work it does so well—in long-term NMC partner organizations including EDUCAUSE and CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) as well as community member-generated groups including the Slack Beyond the Horizon community which has spawned FOEcast (Future of Education forecast) for those who did not want to lose the global community of teacher-trainer-learner-doers NMC had so effectively nurtured across a variety of sectors in our lifelong-learning environment. There is also a newly-formed LinkedIn group created expressly to continue Unconference conversations regarding the present and future of micro-credentialing not only in higher education but also in many other parts of our lifelong learning sandbox—and many other offshoots that will gain more of our attention in the weeks and months to come as dreams begin to be transformed into actions.

Lev himself, in an email message to the 129 of us who participated onsite in Tempe and Scottsdale last week, does a great job of setting the context for anyone interested in knowing what the website offers:

“Our minds are still racing with all the ideas and insights you contributed on shaping the future of learning in the digital age. It’s amazing what can transpire when a collection of diverse perspectives are in the same place at the same time. Thanks for coming with an open mind, ready to share your knowledge, dreams, and concerns.

“As you know, our talented graphic facilitator Karina Branson of ConverSketch created visual representations of the Unconference discussions as they unfolded. Additionally, lightning talk speakers presented their big ideas and questions. All of these materials, from Karina’s visuals to the slide decks, are available on a special website we’ve created for this community:

The site also includes a link to the Twitter feed produced through #ShapingEdu hashtag which many of us used to extend the conversations beyond the physical walls of the Unconference meeting room and the outside-the-room conversations that continued in restaurants, the hotel lobby, the hotel parking lot, and numerous other locations so that conference “participants” included many colleagues who weren’t physically with us but, in a very real blended-world-sort-of-way, very much with us; accessing and adding to that Twitter conversation was just one of the numerous ways in which the Unconference can be said to have already taken on a extended life far beyond the short period of time during which we were interacting face to face.

­­And, in what can be seen as a commitment to leave no Unconference stone unturned, the website organizers have even added a “Media and Blog Reflections” section that, as I write this, includes a few of the articles that are already available from participants and will, without doubt, include many more that are either freshly-posted or on their way to being posted. (Karina herself has an interesting set of insights, on her own blog, about into how graphic facilitation primed the pump for many of the productive conversations that began during the opening reception.)

We have a lot of work ahead of us. And we know that those who were skeptical of and/or critical of what the New Media Consortium and its numerous partners and community members produced, will probably be equally critical and skeptical of what the Unconference dreamers and members of our extended global community of learning are in the early stages of pursuing. But our openly-expressed desire to be inclusive and transparent in our work—in this lovely, dynamic, innovative community of Edunauts in higher education, the kindergarden-through-12th-grade sector, community colleges and vocational schools, museums, libraries, and workplace learning and performance committed to supporting lifelong learning at its best—means we look forward to working with you and anyone else interested in being actively engaged in the process of dreaming, doing, and driving that was so wonderfully visible at the Arizona State University Unconference last week.

N.B. — This is the fourth of four sets of reflections inspired by the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in April 2018.


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 2020. This is the sixth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Changing the World Through Facebook

January 15, 2018

When Klaus Schwertner (Managing Director of Caritas in the Archdiocese of Vienna) posted a lovely photograph on Facebook to celebrate the first birth of the year in Vienna earlier this month, he could have had no idea that his sweetly-intended routine action would attract thousands of comments and become the subject of an article in The New York Times within a few days.

There was nothing inherently alarming about that photograph; it showed a young husband and wife, with their newborn baby girl, shortly after the child was born. It was, for me, no different and no less heart-warming than any other “New Year’s Baby” photo published in newspapers around the world during the past several decades or posted on Facebook or any other social media platform during the past several years.

This one, however, caused enough of a reaction to inspire Melissa Eddy to write the article that appeared in print and online editions of the newspaper on January 4—because the parents and child are Muslims, and the smiling mother in the photograph is wearing a pink scarf. A version of the article in a print edition carried a headline capturing the initial shockingly brutal nature of many of the negative responses: “Vienna Welcomes 2018 Baby With Online Hate and Racism”; the online version that was also available as I was reading the print edition that morning included a more balanced, positive headline: “Vienna ‘New Year’s Baby’ Greeted First With Hate, Then Hearts.”

Those joining the online conversation extended the conversation beyond Facebook, into Twitter, and the hashtag #GegenHassImNetz (AgainstHateOnTheNet) helped bring many of the online participants together, but the controversy didn’t stop there. Schwertner’s updates included a post expressing astonishment that someone at Facebook had taken down his original post about the birth—in which he playfully called for a “rain of flowers” to commemorate the birth. His follow-up post publicly asked Facebook Chairman/CEO Mark Zuckerberg for an explanation for the disappearance of the now-controversial post, and asked for helping in restoring the post to Schwertner’s Facebook timeline—an action that was taken later that day, to Schwertner’s obvious delight.

“When you share something with the world, you’re sharing it with a lot of people who don’t think the way you do—who have different upbringings, values, and perspectives. If you believe in something, know that others believe in the opposite just as vehemently,” Samantha Becker, an independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, noted during an interview we did earlier today. “There is still a lot of blind hate, and you have to separate the downright hateful reactions that have no basis. At the same time, the situations like the one you described…serve as an important reminder that though there has been a lot of social progress, we still have a long way to go. These kinds of incidents should incite more action towards positive change. Sadly, nothing brings people together like tragedy. It takes people’s hope for change and inspires them to make it a reality, in service of helping people they care about who have been impacted.”

There are numerous elements worth examining here to better understand the power of incorporating Facebook into efforts to foster small- and large-scale positive changes through the use of social media. First and foremost is a recognition of how quickly even the most innocuous posts on Facebook can become a central part of your responses to an issue you are interested in pursuing, e.g., the global effort to combat hate speech and bullying in public discourse by moving it into the context of #GegenHassImNetz. A second, nearly-as-important element, is acceptance of the fact that what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook: my own awareness of the reaction to Schwertner’s post didn’t come via social media: it was a result of reading a copy of a print edition of The New York Times on January 4, 2018; feeling a mixture of amazement and horror as I read the language used against the parents and the child herself (solely because they were perceived to be different than those posting those hateful comments); using a mobile device I had with me to locate Schwertner’s Facebook account and use Google Translate to examine the source material; my discovery of the #GegenHassImNetz hashtag (mentioned in the newspaper article) and my subsequent exploration of the it to locate and read some of the positive comments posted on Twitter with that hashtag; and a quick decision to take positive action by posting a link to the article, along with an expression of support for Schwertner, the parents, and the child, on my own Facebook account to draw my own friends and colleagues into what had become a global conversation.

None of that, however, takes full advantage of the potential power of social media if we ignore the social aspect of Facebook and other social media platforms. I decided to pursue the social side by sending a “friend” request to Schwertner as a way of reaching out to him to express support and determine whether he would be willing to discuss the situation for inclusion in this book. I’m hoping that our eventual connection will be yet another example of how social media creates fruitful opportunities to produce positive change that would not otherwise be available to us

Equally important is a third element built into any attempt to use Facebook or other social media channels to nurture social change: there is no guarantee that we are reaching those we are attempting to reach. We often have far less control and far less reach than is apparent. The removal of Schwertner’s post reminds us that we cannot completely determine which of our online efforts remains accessible to those we want to reach, and the dissemination of Schwertner’s subsequent messages hides a common problem encountered in posting on Facebook: the algorithms that determine who sees a post often result in those posts reaching far fewer members of an intended audience than expected.

Love it or hate it—and my colleagues and I often find ourselves having both reactions—there is no denying that Facebook is a potentially powerful tool anyone interested in fostering positive social change has to understand at some level. As Tim O’Reilly notes in his book WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, “…Facebook is the defining company of the social era…it has challenged Google as the master of collective intelligence, uncovering an alternate routing system by which content is discovered and shared.”

That’s a tool that cannot and will not be ignored.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


Changing Ourselves as We Try to Change the World Through Social Media

January 2, 2018

Change often starts small, with the most simple, innocuous of acts. For some of us, it was our reaction to the news that a Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, DeRay Mckesson, had driven from Minneapolis to Ferguson to witness and document what was happening in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson Police Department in 2014. We had been reading about shootings of fellow citizens who were African-Americans—by members of our police departments, by private citizens who felt threatened by the presence of a young men like Trayvon Martin because those citizens were Black. We were—and continue to be—increasingly horrified by what we were and are seeing in “post-racial” America.

DeRay Mckesson, from Wikimedia Commons

When McKesson began reporting from Ferguson, via Twitter, we recognized that something had changed significantly. In addition to all the other forms of media that provided first-rate, reliable information about critically important issues we were facing, we now had an ever-increasing level of access to and involvement in defining, reacting to, and seeking information about and solutions to those issues. This was raw and visceral—far beyond the polished, often pseudo-objective reporting that comes from our cherished mainstream-media representatives. We were experiencing and willingly joining multi-level, non-curated, expansive reports and conversations and calls to action through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, and other online resources. Social media was not completely replacing one-way broadcast media including newspaper, radio, and television as important, significant, much-needed primary sources of information; those resources remain the meat and potatoes of information-gathering at a time when we struggle to distinguish between fake news and reliable reporting. On the other hand, social media tools were increasingly adding an important, dynamic, potentially world-changing element to our conversations and our perceptions about our world, how we interact with it, and how we might attempt to change it in positive ways.

Those already familiar with Twitter and other social media platforms need only glance at the most cursory list of the hashtags to become aware of the scope of our conversations and the way that the use of hashtags is making action-based conversation easier for even the most inexperienced of activists:

#BlackLivesMatter, #Brexit, #BringBackOurGirls, #DACA, #Dreamers, #Ferguson, #GunSense, #HealthReform, #MeToo, #NODAPL, #NotOneMore, #NotInOurName, #OccupyWallStreet, #ParisAccord

Let us make no mistake about it: This is a deeply personal, highly transformative level of change to some of us. It began changing the way we used and viewed social media tools including Facebook and Twitter. We began initiating conversations that we previously thought of as being too risky for online conversations; our shift came out of a decision that avoiding those online conversations that exposed and forced us to confront some of our deepest differences was far more risky than not exposing and confronting them. We openly reached out to friends and colleagues whose experiences and political beliefs differed tremendously from our own. We sought to listen, to learn, to find common ground, and to attempt to produce positive change in response to the difficult and often painful challenges that so often seemed to irrevocably separate us.

At times, our tongue-in-cheek approach (e.g., my own promotion and use of the hashtag #MakeAmericaCivilAgain in response to the disgustingly uncivil nature of discourse that was on full display during the Presidential election campaign in 2016) produced surprisingly encouraging results: colleagues from all walks of life found common ground in the idea that promoting civility in our interactions would be a great first step in trying to address some of our most wicked problems. We also realized that incorporating humor into our discussion was an important element in trying to re-civilize our exchanges.

We are drawn into these conversations, and we are engaged by small- and large-scale desires to positively respond to the challenges we face, because we all are potential activists. The use of social media tools is one of many resources we have in our personal and collaborative toolkits; the people I am interviewing for my book Change the World Using Social Media know and understand this because they use social media nearly every day.

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

Some (e.g., Samantha Adams Becker, Maurice Coleman, David Lee King, and Jonathan Nalder) have been friends and colleagues for many years and are people who, before they agreed to be interviewed for this book, did not overtly identify themselves as activists. The fact that, as librarians, educators, and writers, they foster social change at small- and large-scale levels through their activity in a variety of social media platforms, will, I hope, encourage you to see that you don’t need to be famous or have thousands of followers in your social media accounts to be able to contribute to positive change in the communities you serve. Others (e.g., Cayden Mak, Elizabeth Myers, and Camila Mariño Venegas) have titles and responsibilities that put them at the heart of facilitating positive change within their communities; they are people I met through the use of social media and other online resources as I was seeking activists from a variety of backgrounds so I could provide examples of effective use of social media in a variety of environments and involving a wide range of issues attracting the effort of activists fostering positive social change.

Regardless of your current use of social media and your reach in promoting change, you can easily find plenty of examples via social media platforms themselves to help you see how social media, as part of your overall activist’s toolkit, can provide opportunities for conversation, planning, collaboration, and action that will bring you and others closer to riding waves of change rather than being drowned by them. You can also easily find plenty of examples of how some of our most creative colleagues using social media remain committed to honestly and openly cultivating a sense of trust and engagement with their online and onsite collaborators and those they serve.

“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,” 18 Million Rising Executive Director Cayden Mak said during our initial interview for Change the World Using Social Media. “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.” 

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the second in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


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