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 Fall 2018. 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 Jeff Merrell (Part 1 of 2)

March 19, 2018

This is the first 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

Let’s start with an attempt to set context: can you provide a brief summary of the enterprise technology and organizational learning course you’re currently facilitating or simply cut and paste the course description into this document here?

Let me do both.

http://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/masters-learning-and-organizational-change/designing-for-organizational-effectiveness-certification/creating-and-sharing-knowledge.html

This course explores enterprise social networking technology and its impact on organizational knowledge and organizational learning in the workplace. The course will introduce theory, concepts and frameworks to help you understand knowledge sharing and learning within communities and networks of practitioners, the unique attributes of social networking technology as it applies to organizations, and current uses of network technology to change the way people work or learn (i.e., crowdsourcing and personal learning networks). Finally, you will learn to apply course concepts through prototyping, class projects and business cases.

Topics

  1. Social-practice perspectives of organizational knowledge and learning
  2. Enterprise social networking technologies
  3. Communities and networks in organizations
  4. Innovative models (MOOCs, communities, personal learning networks, crowdsourcing, narrating-your-work)
  5. Prototyping new models
  6. Assessing opportunities for new digital solutions to organizational challenges
  7. Aligning digital solutions to strategic organizational challenges

My own words here:

Our M.S. program, for the past 6+ years, has used Jive as our “learning” platform. We intentionally tried to create more of a workplace feel for our program, rather than using an academic LMS [learning management system]. Jive is an enterprise social network platform that allow us to have dialogue and interactions within courses—privately—and across our entire community of learners, faculty, staff, and alumni. All within one space—and it very much looks like a corporate social intranet.

So, in my course, I have the advantage of leveraging our platform to talk about the issues of enterprise social media. But we also look at things like Yammer, Slack, and, sometimes, other platforms—Chatter—to get a sense of what the field looks like.

But at the end of the day, the course focuses on how enterprise social media and people co-construct/co-constitute the environment. We’re not techno-determinists.

A phrase you just used—“across our entire community of learners, faculty, staff and alum”–perfectly captures what has been so attractive to me in all the work I’ve seen you do since we first met in a MOOC several years ago. Is there a strong sense in your course community that the classroom is the entire world since you so frequently engage participation that encourages collaboration between those enrolled in a course and those who are practitioners, participating with you and your learners through social media?

I think what student come away with, appreciating—I hope!!—are the “layers” of community and networks created by different levels of privacy. So, our class group—community—of maybe 25 to 30 people is only visible to those enrolled in the course. We work hard to create a safe learning space there. The next layer above that is the MS Learning and Organizational Change “community”—some 250 to 300 people. And then, finally, the outside world—Twitter, etc.

What we look at is: What does it feel like to exist across those communities? And why is that important to understand?

The conversation tend to get at safety, trust—“knowing people,” as in close social ties. Keep in mind that all of our students meet face to face as well, so they do know each other.

But for anyone leading in today’s organizations, my bias is that it is important to understand these layers of privacy and community and how that impacts experience.

Remembering that readers of this book are people interested in better understanding how to use social media to foster social change, what specific guidance would you offer them in the following areas: What does it feel like to exist across those communities? And why is that important to understand?

Persistence and visibility—two of the affordances of enterprise social media—scare people, especially in a professional setting. In smaller-scale communities, with a community manager or facilitator who maybe speaks the professional language of the community, you can begin to create a safe place to share. You can create norms that—hopefully—prevent and mitigate the risk of unproductive comments.

But that does not mean that the culture you create in that smaller community necessarily translates to something more public. The more visibility, the more people just freak out, or self-monitor what they do or do not say.

So, if my goal is to have open discussions about critical, tough issues—and I want a variety of voices to be truly heard—don’t assume that because people are open in one tight community that they would be willing to say the same elsewhere. We have amazing, sensitive conversations in our class groups. They rarely “leak out” to the larger community, even when we nudge students to do so. It’s a difficult trick.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the tenth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Changing the World Through LinkedIn and Collaborative Online Tools

March 18, 2018

Shortly before the devastating recession of 2008 began, I accepted invitations from two business associates to join LinkedIn—the social media tool designed to help business colleagues stay in touch with each other and with those who might be able to provide job and other business opportunities. As the recession deepened in 2009 and my work and flow of income diminished to a trickle, I became more committed to staying in touch with a variety of colleagues and potential clients through updates I posted on LinkedIn—which, at the time, was the only social media tool I was exploring and using.

My posts on that account—generally no more than five each week, and sometimes none at all because I didn’t post anything unless I thought it would be of interest or use to those in my slowly growing LinkedIn network—were always very focused. I would share links to articles and other resources my colleagues and prospective clients might not otherwise see. I posted brief (Twitter-length) updates documenting the efforts I was making with colleagues on a board of directors engaged in what was ultimately a successful effort to help a struggling chapter of what was then ASTD (the American Society for Training and Development) and later became ATD (the Association for Talent Development) survive and once again begin to thrive. I occasionally posted summaries of what I was learning and doing as a volunteer in the marketing department of the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco. There were also posts leading to articles and other resources I was devouring while completing work on my Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree through an online program at the University of North Texas.

About halfway through 2009—a period of time when my income had dwindled to a trickle and prospects for new contract work were non-existent—I started hearing comments from friends and colleagues who, with the words “You seem to be everywhere these days,” made me realize I still very much had a presence in my business communities even though I wasn’t seeing much in the way of cash flow or new contract work. Curious about the disparity between the reality of my situation and the comments I was hearing, I started asking people to define what “being everywhere” meant to them. The unanticipated answer, of course, was that those LinkedIn posts about the volunteer work I was doing to support major local community groups and the consistent sharing of resources my friends and business colleagues valued left them with the (incorrect) impression that I was weathering the recession well.

Recognizing the value of being actively, positively present on LinkedIn and continuing to contribute to my various overlapping and increasingly well-integrated communities—business, volunteer, learning, and social—helped me to focus even more on remaining engaged at a time when engagement felt almost completely futile. I spent at least an hour each week looking for ways to make my own LinkedIn account a valuable resource to anyone who spent time looking at it—beefing up sections with links to articles I was writing; reviews of books of interest to those to whom I was connected in LinkedIn; and links to slide decks others could use or adapt in their own work.

The combination of remaining tremendously active as a community volunteer throughout 2009, completing work on that MLIS degree, and sharing highlights of what I was doing led, unexpectedly, to an entirely new (paid) business opportunity in early 2010: becoming part of a team of trainers who, for six months, traveled throughout Northern California helping hospice workers learn to use software on mobile devices to more efficiently serve their patients. This, in turn, led to projects that introduced me to collaborative social media tools including Yammer and, more recently, Slack (Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge) and Trello—tools designed to facilitate blended conversations that help bring projects to fruition.

In thinking about how LinkedIn can be an important, productive, and often-overlooked element in our toolkits to foster positive social change, I keep returning to the idea that LinkedIn as well as Yammer, Slack, and many other social media collaboration/project-management tools are seen primarily as business resources—tools that can be and occasionally are used by activists, but seldom seem to be to the full extent possible. A fabulous comprehensive paper written in 2012 by Andrew M. Calkins and published in 2013 as a Julie Belle White-Newman MAOL Leadership Award winner at St. Catherine University, “LinkedIn: Key Principles and Best Practices for Online Networking  Advocacy by Nonprofit Organizations,” leads me to believe that little has changed over the past six years in terms of LinkedIn making the transition from being a potentially rewarding resource to becoming a resource widely used by those committed to fostering positive change in their communities.

With a bit of creativity and effort, I suspect we can better take advantage of the potential of LinkedIn, combined with many other social media collaboration/project-management tools, to better reach and engage members of our professional/business communities into our efforts to help change the world.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the ninth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


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 Fall 2018. This is the eighth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress. 


Changing the World With Samantha Adams Becker (Part 1 of 2)

February 9, 2018

This is the first 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). The interview was conducted online using a shared Google Doc, and has been lightly edited. The interview began with an exercise that involved jotting down as many words that came to mind after hearing the word “Twitter.”

Obvious things I see as I have all three [of our interview] transcripts in front of me: “sharing” and “networking” came up in all three—no surprises there. Anything stand out to you as you look at your responses to “Twitter?”

I think the idea of continuous conversation and PD [personal development] jump out the most—plus the “unedited” version of Twitter, because it’s a very “respond in the moment” platform.

Let’s go with three themes you mentioned, one at a time: “heart,” “continuous conversation,” and “professional development.” How does Twitter suggest “heart” to you?

Twitter features the heart button, which is the equivalent of “like” on Facebook and LinkedIn. However, in Facebook it seems more common to “like” something rather than share it; whereas on Twitter, sharing (or re-tweeting) appears to be more common. It’s an important distinction that a user makes deciding whether to simply “heart” something vs. re-tweet it. Re-tweeting essentially means you are agreeing with it or find enough merit in it to share it with your own community (unless you add a comment clarifying your own stance). So, offering up a “heart” is like saying, “I like your idea enough to say that I do, but not enough to expose my whole following to it.” It’s very interesting social-psychologically.

Thanks; sort of like second-class social, isn’t it…As for “continuous conversation”: initial thoughts behind that one?

Yes, I think Twitter—more so than any other social media platform—allows for continuous conversation. If one of your Facebook friends made 10 posts per day, you might find that a bit excessive. However, you may find it completely acceptable that a friend tweets 10 times in a day. That reaction alone points to Twitter as a much more embraced conversation/sharing platform. Not only can a discussion continue between multiple users, but you can continue your own conversation. That is to say, if you tweet an article about artificial intelligence in education, and then you go to a workshop on that subject the next day, you’re able to follow up with your reactions and opinions using a specific hashtag.

Perhaps most essentially, a conversation you may have started in person can continue on Twitter. This seems to be very popular at conferences where you may have a brief encounter with a person who winds up being a lifelong friend because you’re able to transition your connection to Twitter and respond to each other’s Tweets.

That very much parallels a theme I’m already exploring in the first-draft-in-progress: the value and inherently unique nature of conversation onlinewhat has become a “moment” that extends over days, weeks, months, even years as a strange variation of a “moment.” You seeing extended conversations like those and, if so, how is that changing the way you view the concepts of time and conversation?

I love the way you are interpreting a “moment.” Twitter now has a moments feature that allows you to add a series of tweets or photos that represents a moment in your life.

Now, a conversation doesn’t have to take place in real-time to be considered deep and meaningful; it can stretch on for our entire lives. I think about the “moment” I met my husband—online. Granted, it was a specific online dating platform, but our correspondence was through a series of messages before we met in person. I’d say that’s a 21st-century way to describe the “moment” you meet someone, but I also liken it to earlier centuries where people wrote to each other via snail-mail back and forth, and maybe saw each other once [a year] or every few years. Twitter is like that, but responses can instantaneous—if the user sees fit. A user can be inspired by a tweet and meditate on it for an evening or a few days before responding, and that is perfectly acceptable within the frame of a conversation.

I see extended conversations take place all the time, oftentimes organized by hashtags. I think this is what Tweet-Ups are essentially—scheduled conversations (or unscheduled) that are continued once a week, once a month, etc.

[here’s a link to the article that initiated that thought process a few years ago among a few of us in #etmooc [the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course in early 2013]: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1023/2022]

Very cool!

And it actually initiated an ongoing conversation I’ve had in bits and pieces with the authors over the past few years; I was just in touch again with one of them in Novemberjust before I was doing a blended-learning presentation in Los Angeles. A very long, wonderfully extended moment that hasn’t yet ended!

Going back to what you said in the penultimate full paragraph you wrote: what does that suggest in terms of how we can use Twitter (and other social media tools) to promote positive social change? [the one that starts with “Now, a conversation doesn’t have to take place in real-time to be considered deep and meaningful”]

Twitter enables positive social changes by transcending the necessity of a specific time and place. A conversation about climate change, for example, may begin between two people. Another person sees the tweet and then joins. And then another. And then another. The people are geographically dispersed and may not be using Twitter at the exact same time but, because Twitter sparks continuous conversation, people can join on their own time whenever they have something to contribute. And the asynchronous nature of it doesn’t detract from the subject matter or substance of it. In fact, pausing to think deeply about something before joining in is an important part of change.

When Paolo Gerbaudo wrote his wonderful book Tweets and the Streets in 2012, he pretty much saw social media (Facebook and Twitter, in particular) as prequels to social changethat’s where the organizing took placebut the real action was on the streets. Your last comments make me think you and I are on the same page in thinking that social change can actually take place as much online as in the streetssay, through the NMC [New Media Consortium] and #etmooc, for example, where we have spread ideas that filter into online as well as online learning spaces. Thoughts?

It’s not just the concept of a conversation that has evolved, but also the concept of the streets. Think about it—if conference organizers are savvy enough to encourage Twitter backchannels as an essential part of conference participation to extend organic hallway conversations, than that’s the concept of an online hallway.

A street may not be a private or more intimate conversation the way a hallway one may be, but, instead, a giant public space for conversation and action.

At the NMC [which closed upon entering bankruptcy proceedings in December 2017], we were good at carrying forward conversations from face-to-face and virtual events on Twitter. Our goal was to always extend the rich discussions that took place at a set event and ensure that they did not exist within a vacuum. You didn’t have to be physically present to “be present.”

We came up with the Horizon hashtag (#NMChz) as a way for people to respond to Horizon Reports—but also share articles, stories, projects, etc. that were Horizon-worthy. Twitter can take a static report and allow the related discussions to continue year-round. Horizon Street! Population: Whoever wants to be there.

“Horizon Street” is gorgeous! And I agree that the hashtag was part of the experience. Instead of leaving conferences and feeling depressed by impending separations, I always left with a sense of anticipation that the conversations were continuing. I’m struggling to train myself, at this point, that #NMChz is no longer open to through traffic and continuing conversationbut appreciation that #BeyondTheHorizon is a wonderful replacement road that is well on its way to bridging the gap. OK, enough with the road metaphors…for a moment. Let’s hit the third of the three topics you mentioned earlier: professional development. Care to pick up right where you left off and wrap together social media, Twitter, “moments,” and professional development into an operatic grand finale?

It’s true—all these features are connected, and they can add up to one hell of a professional development experience. I think some people may still envision professional development as something that takes place in a room—workshop or boot-camp style—that you or the institution has to invest in. But the integration of formal and informal learning has opened up the idea of personal development to be much more fluid and open to each user’s interpretation. If you feel an experience has enriched your professional life and given you new tools, skills, or knowledge to improve your own work and work environment, then why not call it professional development?

Twitter conversations and moments are ripe for professional development opportunities—the hard part is often the lack of organization and ability to archive. We’re even seeing helpful tools like Storify—that helped create something linear and meaningful from tweets—disappear.

That being said, following specific users, hashtags, lists, etc can be part of a user’s professional development strategy. It’s very much connected with the notion of a personal learning network (PLN) where there is a fixed or expanding community of peers and leaders where you teach other things.

I, for example, love to see what articles my Twitter friends in #edtech share. Just clicking on the links to three to five articles per day and reading them helps expand my own vision and ideas. Even if I don’t agree with an article or a theme, it generates new ideas and new knowledge in me. It seems so basic, but it’s like show and tell. I’m learning something new about a subject as well as how the sharer views it.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the seventh 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.

 


Changing the World With Cayden Mak (Part 2 of 2)

January 23, 2018

This is the second 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.

Broadcast vs. engagement: what would you suggest to those who still see social media as a broadcast medium rather than as a way to engage others in reaching shared goals?

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

The answer to this one is in some ways similar to the one above [at the end of part one of this interview]—there’s a thing about moving your social at the pace of ordinary people. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things you can do to run a tight ship, but at its core you need to be approachable and responsive to the people who are excited about the work you’re doing. Knowing how to route inquiries, for instance, is really important. And making sure responses to those inquiries have a real human touch makes a difference.

Early on, we also adopted a policy where staff would respond to questions and critiques on our Facebook page as themselves. This was easier five years ago before Gamergate and the rise of alt-right trolling, but it really put a human face to the ideas we were sharing and fostered a culture of inquiry on our page. Which you don’t see a lot—and I think people were pleasantly surprised to get a response to their questions from a real human being, not a brand or whatever.

We’re trying to figure out other ways to do this, because I think people’s expectations are constantly changing.

In terms of figuring out new ways to approach what you’re doing on social media: any innovations you’re exploring that you’re particularly excited about?

Well, for one thing we know that young folks are leaving Facebook in droves, so trying to follow them where they’re going is going to be an imminent challenge. We aren’t ready to leave Facebook behind, because its network effects are real and powerful.

Another challenge that has emerged is what a toxic swamp Twitter has become. I personally have had a Twitter account for nearly a decade and I used to actually make friends and stuff on there—now it’s very professionalized, partially because it’s so filled with awful trolls, Nazis, and misogynists. Twitter continues to be a dominant platform for real-time conversation and breaking news, so again, it’s hard to leave it behind.

We’re trying to think of ways to reach people that are a little more in our control, as well. I’m looking forward to doing a pilot of a podcast next year that will be an advice podcast (but not necessarily a personal advice podcast. We’re working on the concept, anyway). It came from the experience of having members ask us to go into more detail about our reasoning on campaigns, and realizing that we need an outlet for that. Again, I think its tone is going to be very personal—like talking to a friend about their political beliefs rather than talking to [This American Life Host/Producer] Ira Glass about his political beliefs. I also want it to be about how to navigate the social challenges of being a person who is involved in social movements for the long term—things like when the work interferes with a friendship, how to care for yourself to avoid burnout, how to preserve a collective memory of a moment in movement history—that kind of thing.

That raises a question I was already going to ask: what emotional toll does all of this take on you and your staff?

Oh, man; it’s hard. It’s super-exhausting to be in a news moment. And when your staff is predominantly people who are personally targeted by the state and by trolls, it’s really hard to keep an even keel. We have a section in our employee handbook about digital and operational security that includes what to do in a crisis—with a big emphasis on allowing people time to walk away. We talk really openly about the cost of this work with each other. I really recommend the book Trauma Stewardship to anybody doing political or movement work on social media—it’s all about how secondary trauma and witnessing trauma can be triggering and impacts your own internal ecosystem, and how to manage that when we are in caring professions, and I think organizing is a caring profession. It’s been very helpful to a lot of our team who are resistant to the idea that they should care for themselves while they do this work.

The past five years have been really rough in terms of the rise of targeted harassment on social media. I really came up in the gaming community and while I never was super close to the epicenter of Gamergate, I think it had a really chilling effect on what a lot of people are willing to be candid about online. Knowing what folks like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian went through—and continue to go through because they have the gall to be outspoken women—is a reminder of how critical it is to keep showing up online.

Gamergate was also a rehearsal for the so-called alt-right trolling we saw during the 2016 election cycle. Targeting Muslims, trans women, undocumented people—a lot of the darlings of the new reactionary right have taken the Gamergate playbook and started to use legit-seeming media and public appearances to do that kind of thing. I worry all the time about the safety of my staff, and we take digital security very seriously. My nightmare as an executive director would be having one of my team members doxed. But again, I think that this points to why I think online organizing is no different than offline organizing—we’re building trust together so we can take risks. And it’s easy to understate the risk you take speaking out online these days. There are often very real material consequences to this stuff.

Whose use of social media for social change do you admire?

I really love the work that Mijente is doing—especially because their online presence is backed up with in-person organizing, especially in the borderlands. They are sassy, thoughtful, earnest, and fun. (http://mijente.net/) They also have a deep analysis of social issues that they are not shy about sharing.

Some of the individuals I think are doing a great job are Linda Sarsour,

Any resources (e.g., books, podcasts, websites) you would highly recommend to anyone interested in using social media to foster movement-building?

I’ve found the research that Upworthy shared a couple years ago to actually be really helpful in thinking about how to approach the nuts and bolts. The annoying “write 25 headlines” thing they do is actually very effective—it gets the ideas out there and generates conversation in a team about what makes good copy and why.

For digital security stuff, I highly recommend the work of Equality Labs—very oriented towards social movements and very practical. https://www.equalitylabs.org/

I also really encourage people who do this work to dig a little deeper and start building an analysis of the attention economy. Some people doing great research on this are the folks at Data & Society, who work on current issues and publish white papers regularly.

In terms of books, I actually think learning about the history of the internet and the ideology that underlies design to be very valuable. Reading theorists ranging from Yochai Benkler to Theodor Adorno have been really useful in developing an understanding and an analysis—I believe that the tools we use are political and being able to critique them thoughtfully helps figure out how to use the tools in ways that are not oppressive.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the fifth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Changing the World With Cayden Mak (Part 1 of 2)

January 22, 2018

This is the first of a two-part interview conducted with Cayden Mak, Executive Director of 18 Million Rising, for my book Change the World Using Social Media (Rowman & Littlefield; projected publication date is autumn 2018). The interview was conducted online using a shared Google Doc, and has been lightly edited.

In the next two minutes, type in any words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the term “social media.” Don’t try to overthink it, and don’t try to filter. We’re just trying to get some vocabulary on the table and see where it takes us in our overall conversation today.

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

A lot of my thinking about social media is informed by the way I see it influencing the economy—a lot of the big social media companies are these firms that started with a vague idea that they wanted to build something to connect people, and as they struggle to figure out how to make money, their technology becomes more and more coercive. I think that’s a big challenge because they do have some value and have been helpful in a variety of contexts—like bringing social movements from different corners of society into the attention of “the mainstream” —but they’re building this hyper-surveilled social space that is also completely enclosed. it feels like there’s no such thing as the commons anymore, and that’s partially because social media has become the biggest “third space” for most young people. I think it’s a problem also because they have taken up so much bandwidth (literally and figuratively) that they have become the whole Internet for some people. I think that’s scary, especially in light of our current debate about net neutrality—we’re stuck on the ISP level and need to also talk about the platform/gateway/software level.

Social media is powerful because of its network effects, but I worry about monopolization, or even just dependence on a corporate platform to communicate as an individual or small group online.

In the next two minutes, type in any words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the term “social change.” Don’t try to overthink it, and don’t try to filter. We’re just trying to get some vocabulary on the table and see where it takes us in our overall conversation today.

I don’t necessarily ascribe the term “social change” to my work. It feels a little flat, and lacks a little detail. I assume most people use the term “social change” to talk about ostensibly progressive policy changes, or popular opinion changes, but one of the things I think it lacks is the how. Especially working in technology, you see a lot of people use it to mean a lot of different things.

To me, it seems like kind of a catch-all, and as a result, I like to talk more about movement-building. I think that social change can include a lot of things beyond that—such as policy changes at any level of government, or things like representations of different social groups in popular media. What it doesn’t necessarily point at that I think is really important is a people-powered model of change. It seems to me that one of the places I get stuck on the term is that I often see leaders use it to wave away concerns that they aren’t taking leadership from the grassroots, which is, of course, really hard; I guess the term just feels super general to me and doesn’t necessarily speak to the tactics, strategies, or values that drive and create the change.

You have an incredible breadth of experience listed on your [18Millionrising.org] About page. Let’s take any aspect of that description and run with your own thoughts on how one important aspect of your experience reflects the ways in which social media promote what you’re trying to achieve.

I think a good place to start is when we started 18MR five years ago. There are a lot of organizations in the field of “online organizing” or whatever you want to call it, and we saw that there were some models available to us. What we decided right off the bat is that we didn’t want to make any assumptions about who our constituency was, and what they need out of an organization like ours. I think that if you talk to a lot of the people who founded sister organizations—like Color of Change—[you will find] they were really thinking along these lines, too. The majority of preexisting online organizing groups had lists that are (and often continue to be) overwhelmingly white and middle-aged. We were particularly interested in building an organization that is driven by the needs and interests of young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and since there was no good information out there about what this group of people did or liked online, we had to kind of make it up as we went along.

I started out managing our social media as a part-time contractor, and I had been doing strategic communications (although I wouldn’t necessarily call it that then) for this New York State student movement group that I helped found, New York Students Rising. With that group, since there were basically no expectations (read: funders), we were able to be incredibly incisive and kind of push the envelope in our online communications, which was an amazing environment to learn in. One of the lessons that taught me was that people, especially young people who have a sense of their own marginalization in our society, are really hungry for outlets that speak their language. This was really before Buzzfeed, Mic, and other outlets like that got big.

So, I took a lot of that ethic to 18MR. I think it’s not a coincidence that our staff still tends to be highly educated—not just in a book/academic way—but many of them, past and present, have been schooled so to speak in the history of social movements and stuff like that. That kind of expertise allows us to speak from a very genuine place—I think the voice an­­d the tone that we built was intentionally comradely in that way because we share a set of cultural references, but we’re interested in bringing more people on board with those cultural references. I think it’s been a careful effort to ensure that we both demonstrate our expertise while making that accessible to people.

The thing that this process taught me is the importance of trust. With other organizing formations I was a part of at the time, we were building trust in order to do high-stakes things like shutting down New York State Assembly meetings and risking arrest in order to highlight hypocrisy in the university system. Online, there isn’t necessarily a sense that there are high-risk actions to take. However, I think online organizers often do themselves a disservice when they emphasize that their tools and platforms make social action “easy” or “simple.” Because the whole point of organizing, to me, whether it’s online or off, is to build trust among a group of people in order for them to take calculated risks towards a goal.

That’s important because I think that’s something that we can and should build online. Especially with the rise of more many-to-many social media tools. I really don’t think about our social media pages as tools for broadcasting our work—they’re first and foremost places we go to listen to what our members think about the work we’re doing. Building the audience we have on social media platforms has been challenging because of that—we aren’t going to crack the code of virality and also get the kind of deep organizing conversations that we want to get at the same time, or with the same content. So, balancing on that knife’s blade is really important—you need the more viral content to get your work in front of new people, but you need the deep, genuine, well-thought-out stuff to build that trust and that relationship with people, so that then you can go and ask them to join you in taking action on things.

Let’s go down two roads of what you just wrote (and I’ll leave space beneath each for your comments):

Trust and engagement are clearly essential in movement-building online. Care to offer tips to readers of this book?

There are a couple tips and a couple challenges I can offer. I definitely don’t think I have all the answers, and since platforms are constantly changing the terms of engagement, these are as general as I can make them.

First, this is somewhere [that] building a style guide is really important. We have a style guide that talks not just about aesthetics and design choices but also about who we are as an organization. It talks about our values and where we see ourselves in the grander scheme of people-of-color led social movements. And it also talks about affect—how people should feel when they interact with us online. Between those three things, we have a pretty good road map for everything from how to write copy for sharing our campaigns on Facebook to how to live-tweet the Oscars.

The second tip is to not try to be someone you’re not. It sounds really basic but it’s actually very hard, because in some ways the social media popularity contest is about performing an identity on the internet. But finding ways to genuinely be who you are while connecting with people is critical.

Now, for some sticky problems:

One sticky problem is that the metrics that outsiders use to measure our success are the same measures that the powerhouses of the attention economy use to measure their success. So, things like reach, post engagements, stuff like that. I think the struggle here is that we can get really caught up in these sort of things that seem to show how wide our reach is—but they can’t and don’t measure how deep our connections are. I haven’t yet figured out what good alternative metrics look like, but I do know that sometimes a measure of trust is how many people come to you with their problems. This sounds challenging (and it is, because you always have limited resources) but to me having people approach you on social media and say, “This thing is messed up in my community, how can you help me?” is a very powerful measure of that trust.

The other big sticky problem is that the very personal style that we developed can be very draining on your social team (or you, if you’re a one-person show). Popularity online can often turn into problematic cult of personality type dynamics, and those don’t really help anybody in the long run. One thing I’ve found to help here, and again I don’t think this is the only approach, is to have a system that you use to deal with times when you screw up. Being transparent about culpability when mistakes are made is really rare and very refreshing for online audiences—they respond well to times when we have, for instance, made a misstep in sharing content that is actually harmful in a way that we didn’t realize. But apologizing, taking responsibility, and then never doing it again (the hard part!) is a good reminder to both you and your constituency that you’re just people, doing your best. And it’s often an opportunity for a good conversation and deep political education, which is hard because of the pace of social.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the fourth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress. The next post will include the second half of this interview.


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