Claremont McKenna College: How you will change the world with social networking

Delivered on Oct 26, 2011 at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum at CMC. Thanks to Audrey Bilger at the Center for Writing and Public Discourse for inviting me! Video coming soon.

So, here we are, all geared up to learn a little bit about social media tonight. In fact, we are going to solve all of your problems, and the world’s problems, with social media. Tonight! I also want to tell you that I had most of a nice, neat talk prepared for you, but then I went and dinner with some CMC students last night. They were so interesting, and insightful, that I realized I had to rewrite my whole talk. We’re going to cover a lot of ground tonight, but hopefully that’ll inspire some good discussion in the Q&A. I’m going to hit on some broad themes and then go in deep for wherever yous want to go in deep. Sound good?

First, lemme tell you a little bit about myself– I’ve been a nerd my whole life, got my first computer in 1982, when I was eight. Yes, I’m that grrl. I have a sort of colorful academic and work history; I have an honors degree in linguistics and cognitive science, and I’ve worked in finance, telecommunications and advertising. Eight years ago, I decided to bust out on my own, and I became a consultant. I work with progressive media and advocacy organizations, helping them figure out what they should be doing online to accomplish their goals. When social technologies started to explode, I started doing workshops and boot camps to help groups and organizations understand just how critical they were going to be to survive and thrive in the next world order, and that culminated into me writing a book, “Share This!” which came out last year. Since then, I continue to consult and teach, and I travel around giving talks like this. All the examples I’m going to give are from the progressive world.

Your turn!

Let’s find out who’s in the room, shall we?

Who uses Twitter? How often?

Who uses Facebook? How often?

Where my LinkedIn folks at?

Anyone blog regularly? What about Flickr, YouTube, etc?

What kinds of things are you working on? What are you studying? What jobs do you have? What do you want to accomplish in the world? Why did you come here? What are the things you have to know before you leave this room?

First, I want to cover a little bit of how this works. I think there’s probably a broad misconception amongst people who don’t use these tools, or use them regularly, that they are just another media tool focused on broadcasting information. But! That couldn’t be further from the truth! In the traditional media world, the work there was about casting a wide net — if I get on a broadcast of 2 million viewers, maybe I can rope 2,000 of them into the work that I’m doing. Wide net, small return of fishes. The wider the net, though, the more chance for more fishes.

Social media is almost the opposite of the wide net– casting widely is sort of considered anti-social behavior. The idea is, instead of trying to get to 2 milllion while hoping that 2,000 care, to seek out and develop a relationship with each of those 2,000 people. You do this by being, what? Social! Human. The analogy I like to use in workshops: think of social media as an ad-hoc, informal get together whose attendees are constantly moving and shifting around the room. And just as you wouldn’t walk into a party, get up on a chair, and start yelling at everyone who can hear you that you’re awesome, you shouldn’t do that here, either.

So, that being said– that it’s more important for both people and organizations alike to act like humans on social media — let me also share a little known fact: sharing what you had for breakfast actually has the potential to change the world.

I want to start with one of my favorite examples. This is a tweet tweet from the blogger Womanist Musings:

Just getting in from spending the day outside with the family. The unhusband is about to once again burn dinner though he calls it bbq

Did this particular tweet change anyone’s life in any dramatic way? No. But if I keep following her, over time, I read more and more of these small updates, and I start to get a picture of who she is, what she cares about and what her life is like.

This is what Clive Thompson called “ambient awareness” of one another– each one of those updates is like a point in a pointillist painting. On their own, they don’t mean that much. But take a step back, and together, they make a huge portrait of a life shared. Through that sharing, we are becoming passively aware of one another’s existence. And through our own sharing,  we infuse the very public conversations we’re having with our values, our experiences, and our versions of the story. That’s a radical change from the way things have been operating for the last few millennia, where public discourse and mediated conversations were controlled by gatekeepers with God knows what for agendas. Here’s our chance to say: No, this is what it’s like to be a person in these shoes.

Sure sure, that’s nice. But what’s really the big deal behind that?

Well, it gets better. When we start to become aware of one another, we start to care what happens: we develop more and more empathetic responses to each other. Why is empathy important?  It’s the opposite of apathy. It is what will take us out of the isolation and othering that has been plaguing our culture for too long. It will overload us with human experiences, joyous and devastating, but it will make us human again. We beat down the doors of the powerful and demand to be heard in new ways. We find each other and say either overtly or covertly: “You are not alone.”

We like to think that Darwin is king when it comes to our evolution as species– survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, I got mine. But in reality, neuroscience shows us that we’re actually hardwired to empathize with one another. There’s a really cool TED talk about this–just go to and look for “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons are subsets of other more main neurons that fire when we see another person doing a particular action. Part of our brain actually puts itself in the other person’s place and sends signals and messages to the rest of the body based on that empathetic experience. IT’S THE COOLEST THING EVER.

I come from the world of activism. I’m not just talking about the kind of activism that’s presently associated with the Occupy movement, or even the Arab Spring. We tend to think of activism as being people with signs, and then political or corporate leaders who either deal with those people or ignore them. Activism makes us think of policy and legislation and elections. But politics, and the activism associated with it, is much more than that.

“Politics” is not just about candidates, elections, and ballot initiatives. Politics is the art and science of influencing or changing any kind of power relationship: the cultural norms by which we act; the laws that govern us; the expectations we experience based on our gender, race, class, sexuality, abilities, and more. When I talk about political work, I’m talking about challenging and radically redefining those power relationships.

I’m going to Columbia in a few weeks to talk to a class about public policy, law, journalism and social media. No pressure, right? (For those of you that might be familiar with her work, it’s Patricia Williams‘ class, so there’s this extra dose of OMG.) I was really grateful for the invite, but then I finally, somewhat sheepishly, said to the woman organizing the panel, “Um, most of my work doesn’t actually deal with policy and law. I’m sort of a culture change kinda grrl.”

One of my co-panelists, a friend of mine, Kai Wright (who’s the editor of, said that we should talk about the intertwining nature of culture change and policy work. Two great tastes that go great together, right? In other words, you can’t have one without the other. And social media offers us a great set of tools for working on both.

A favorite example of mine is a campaign that I worked on last year. It was for Exhale, a nonprofit organization which provides the first and only nonjudgmental national, multilingual after-abortion talkline. That’s a mouthful.

Here’s the story: Exhale had the opportunity to partner with MTV on an abortion special. It would seem that after a couple years of “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” MTV finally realized that since 37% of teen pregnancies end in abortion, it was high time they show young women having abortions. Exhale was called in at first to perhaps provide women who would be willing to go on this show, and then they had the chance to help shape how the topic was presented to viewers.

What we wanted to do online was create a space where people could tell the women that chose to go on the show, and by extension, all women who have had abortions, that they are loved. Exhale calls their movement “pro-voice,” and I learned something very powerful through their pro-voice work. They’ve figured out that political rhetoric, of all kinds, has the potential to really shut women down. But by giving women a rhetoric-free space to speak, they’ve been able to tap into a level of support for women that is truly rare, and manifests in profound ways.

They wanted to extend this work further, with what became our “16 & Loved” campaign. There’s a full case study on my website about it, but the gist was that we created a website where people could share messages of love for the women involved in the show, or any woman who had had an abortion, and political messages would not be allowed.  Here’s what we told people:

Only messages of love and support will be approved. No politics, blaming, judging, shaming or name-calling. This is a place to support for women who have had an abortion, speaking from our own experience. It’s not a place to try to influence others’ beliefs, values, or actions.

We got several hundred messages in total, and only about 3-5 of them were anti-choice people. Many of the submissions had messages of pro-choice advocacy in them, and we wrote back to their authors, asking them to reconsider some of their language. Many of them did.

I could sit here and rattle off a whole bunch of numbers about website hits, or mentions on Twitter, or how the Facebook fan page exploded. But numbers don’t mean much of anything. They don’t. What mattered in the end were messages like this one, from Tenell:

Today I found these videos on MTV and at first I didn’t even know what to think. I had an abortion myself at 16 and for just over two years I have tried to hide the pain that came along with my decision. I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a boy who was unfaithful and was not there for me. If it was not for my family, I would not be here today. I did not want to have an abortion, but I was out of school at the time and I knew that down the road it would be the right decision. I went through with it and tried so hard to hide it from my life. Over the two years that followed, I was very sad and ashamed of what I did. Watching these videos makes me remember what I have been through and how strong I am today. Thank you for these videos… Thank you for reminding me that I am not a bad person and that I am not alone. Thank you.


I watched the show last night and I have to say I am so amazed and inspired by these girls for being able to not feel ashamed and embarassed of their choice! I watched, crying, wishing that I had someone to really talk to about my abortion! I have not even been able to tell my own mother! It has been several years – yet I still feel the weight of the choice I made! Although I know it was the best choice for me and my daughter that I did have at the time, there is such a stigma attached and even though it was just a “bunch of cells” at the time, I still felt much like Markai – it was still a part of me – and no one else would understand except the mother who had to endure it! So thanks for your voice – I know now I am not alone in my feelings and a little of my shame is gone!

And there are hundreds more like those. We directly had a hand in making women’s lives a little tiny bit better, by letting them know that they are loved. And in the end, we are able to take a topic that is so incredibly polarizing, that has the ability to shut the ears AND mouths of everyone participating, and carve out a space where understanding could start to happen. It’s in those spaces that ultimately change starts to work, that policy can take shape and that movements can be made concrete.

I want to talk for a minute about common misperceptions on the demographics of social media.

What percentage of Twitter users are under 24, do you think? Answer: 18%

What was the fastest growing demographic on Facebook last year? Women over 55

Who is more likely to be an American Twitter user– a white person online, an African-American person online, or an Asian-American person online? African American

The age stuff really blows my mind sometimes. When I’m working with clients or doing a workshop, the thing that I hear most is that an organization wants to get an intern or a “young person” to handle their social media, because they think “the young people” have it all wrapped up in a bag on how to work this stuff. And I’m always like, “Hey now, slow down there, Chuckles.”

While people under 25 may not be the most prolific users of social media right now, they might have some of the best understandings of privacy when it comes to life online. People under 25 are more likely than those older than them to have changed their privacy settings on Facebook, for example — often because they’ve already seen or experienced themselves the many, many ways that sharing online can also wreak havoc on one’s personal life.

Let’s stay with this for a second– let’s talk about privacy. As a culture, we have this very mistaken notion about privacy, that it’s some sort of binary: this is public, this is private, and never the twain shall meet. But in reality, our understanding of privacy is much more complicated than that: we tell some friends some things, some things we would never tell our mothers, other things we want the whole world to know about, and still others, god help us if our bosses ever found out about them. That’s always been true, but these moments with social media might be the first time we’re really seeing or understanding that.

To be clear: privacy is not dead. Being online and sharing on social media does not mean throwing open the curtains and baring yourself to the world. Some people might take it that way, and choose to do that, but it’s certainly not expected. Anyone who tells you that privacy is dead is speaking from a very privileged place in the world. They are wrong.

They have the luxury, for example, of not having their lives risked when a social service comes out with a new feature. It sounds extreme, but this was exactly the case with Google Buzz a few years ago. Anyone remember that? One of the features, without a lot of explanation or user consent, shared content via Google Reader with a user’s most contacted person in Gmail. A woman posting at a blog called Fugitivus put together a well known rant on how unbelievably messed up this was–one being that one of her most contacted people was her abusive ex-husband.

Unfortunately, the tools we have right now don’t totally respect the nuance of privacy, and what we want to be public. (On a side note, researcher danah boyd also argues that there’s another level, the difference between making information publicly available, and publicizing it.) I often describe where we are with social networking tools as if we just invented the wheel. Here’s this amazing thing! It’s gonna change everything! It’s amazing! But we don’t have axles yet, or even if we did, steering, etc. We’re just at the very beginning.

So, being aware that privacy matters, and that it’s complicated, is actually a good thing. This ultimately works to your benefit. Privacy concerns should not scare you away from participating in social media, because it’s going to matter both for your professional lives, as well as changing the world.

On the professional side of things, increasingly our careers are dependent on three things: reputation, referral and recommendation. Our relationships matter more now than where we went to school, or even in some cases, what we studied. (Hello, did I mention that I have a degree in linguistics and cog sci!) You know the old phrase, “It’s who you know?” Ridiculously true.

Social media tools provide us with a way to do effective relationship management. That’s true for the personal side of things, as well as the professional side. Through these tools, we have direct access to loci of power and influence that we previously either had to be born into, or had to go to Harvard to get into. I don’t want to pretend that it’s a silver bullet of egalitarian rule out there, but being able to participate in conversations with our peers and our leaders can make all the difference in what paths we might end up taking. I’m not talking about shamelessly foisting yourself on them, but engaging in conversations that matter to you.

But even more than that, it’s critical for you to be out there painting your portraits of yourselves and how you want to be represented online. Ten years ago, when you looked up a business online, for example, it used to be sort of okay that they didn’t have a website. Now, if you look up a business, it’s bizarre if they don’t have a website, or some Yelp reviews, or *something* representing who they are. That’s becoming increasingly true for individuals, too. (I always Google guys before I go out with them. I’m so that grrl.) People that want to work with you–whether that’s an employer, a grad school, collaborators, clients, what-have-you, want to know what you’re making of yourself in the world.

They’re increasingly using online tools to help them make those assessments. That can feel scary, from the very silly (what will they think of all those picture of my dog) to the very real (will a conservative law firm hire a lesbian for a leadership position). No one has figured out what the right balance is, and I often get asked, “But I don’t know if a future employer is going to frown on what my political opinions are.” A very privileged answer to that would be, “Do you want to work for someone who wouldn’t hire you simply because of your politics?” Not everyone has that luxury, for sure.

In the big picture, I think those cases will be few and far between, and will even decrease over time. With the sea of information about everyone becoming available, it’ll be less stigmatized to have more parts of our personalities showing–kind of like having a tattoo. Fifty years ago, having a tattoo meant something very specific about who you were in the world. Now, not so much. Our multi-faceted, human selves are becoming more acceptable through the use of social media. We’re still at a difficult juncture, but I see things getting better.

Ultimately what is critical is that you are doing your best to shape how you appear in the online space. Make no mistake: you will be appearing online one way or another. It’s up to you to provide whatever information you can to most accurately represent what you want to be public-facing. Even if that’s to show that you are largely a very private person who doesn’t share a lot of intimate details about your life, that’s okay! You still need to have representation there.

The other, more political reason for you to be participating and shaping online is that social media, in many ways, function as our new public squares. There are multiple squares, holding millions of conversations, but this is where a huge amount of public discourse is happening. That discourse is ultimately where the seeds of culture change, and policy work, are being planted. In those conversations that are happening. If you’re not in there, inserting your values, your experiences and your stories into those conversations, they WILL go on without you. Decisions will get made without the benefit of your experience. This is especially critical for people who have traditionally not been part of the conversation: women, people of color, queer and trans folk, poor people. We need you in there, giving us all the benefit of your experience, where you are willing and or able.

We held earlier today a workshop on editing the Wikipedia. How many people have looked something up on the Wikipedia? How many people have edited it? Ah-ha. Do you consider the Wikipedia a de facto standard of information now? Sure, it’s problematic. But mostly, what’s in Wikipedia is accepted as a standard now. Do you know who the majority of people editing the Wikipedia are? Over 80 percent of them are young, single largely white men who don’t have kids. That’s who’s creating our collective history. There’s nothing wrong with being a young single white guy, trust me — it’s just that most of the world isn’t comprised of that demographic. We need to make sure that what we document as truth represents as many of us as possible.

It stinks that those public spaces are corporately owned, by the way. I’m not just speaking from the usual lefty stance of “Everything corporations do is dumb” point of view, either. I believe it’s dangerous for the future of free speech to have a privately owned corporation control the public square. I’m not proposing nationalizing Twitter, mind you. What I do advocate for is the development and adoption of what we refer to as open web standards. Right now, Twitter and Facebook can’t really share things with one another besides cross-posting your status updates. You can sort of go through different hacks to get your relationships transposed from one service or another, but these are complicated and often fail in multiple regards. What having open standards would do is make things function more say, like email. If I have a hotmail address, and you have a gmail address, I don’t have to download a plugin or go through an eight-step import process to be able to email you. It just works. That’s because email was designed (incidentally, eons ago in a non-corporate environment) to be open, and to work across mutliple domains, with multiple platforms. We don’t have that with social networking right now, and increasingly we’re seeing the pain of it. If a service up and disappears (as several social services like bookmarking and event services), we are left in the lurch.

Additionally, corporations are taking on their own interpretations of what constitutes free speech, and what might inspire violence. Facebook, for example, is willing to take down pages about Nazism and Neo-nazism. But they are unwilling to take down pages that promote sexual violence, saying, Just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.” I don’t want to play oppression olympics here and argue which type of page is worse. (Still, WTF, Facebook?) But the larger picture means that Facebook gets to decide what’s okay and what’s not okay. NOT OKAY.

Still, until we get that stuff sorted out, this is simply where things are happening when it comes to online discourse and social change. There are lots and lots of examples of organizations and people who are using online tools in very traditional ways– petitions, call your senator, donate now, and the like — but I’ve always been much more interested in the campaigns and movements that surprise us by using the tools in unexpected ways, because they tend to teach us a little bit more about our humanity.

With the rise of bullying online (I refuse to call anything “cyber-” anymore), we’ve seen in the last few years, a tragic increase in suicides by LGBT youth. Any suicide will cut you right to the core, but to hear about a kid killing themselves for being persecuted about who they love, that’s just so deeply painful, for so many people. Now, to address this problem, there could have been (and actually have been) any number of traditional awareness-raising and outreach campaigns. You can have celebrities doing 15-second spots on TV saying that it’s not okay to bully someone. You can have the suicide lines ramping up their advertising and community outreach. But there was another campaign that took hold of our consciousness around LGBT youth suicides. Dan Savage, a nationally syndicated advice columnist, asked his readers to create videos and upload them to YouTube. He asked people to be willing to tell their own stories of being bullied, and surviving, and going on to live happy and healthy lives. He wanted to find a way to tell these kids: It gets better.

Before you knew it, the target=”_blank” href””>It Gets Better campaign was on fire. Thousands of videos have been uploaded, a website launched, a book deal made, and so much more. Celebrities, queer and straight, started sharing their own videos, and not even in the “it’s the chic do-gooder thing to do” way, but in a very authentic, I have been there way. One of the most powerful videos for me was Tim Gunn’s. You know him, right? The “make it work” guy from Project Runway?He made a video and told the world that when he was 17, he tried to kill himself. He goes on to point out resources that are available, and all those good things, but he reminds the viewers at the end, simply: It will get better.

There are a million ways to address this issue. Or any issue. But having real people tell authentic, meaningful stories can infect us, and spark entire movements. You know what project is doing this really well right now? Have you seenthe tumblr blog for We Are the 99%? Who knows what that is? Alright, so you’ve got the whole Occupy Wall Street and the other associated occupations happening. Part of the movement is illustrating what life is like for the majority of Americans. You could do this in a lot of ways. You could send out an investigative reporter and pick a family, and tell their story. You could ask people to write out their stories and send them in somewhere. Or, you could ask people to hold up a sign that has your “brand” — We Are the 99% —  and tell their story however they see fit.

There are hundreds of photos on this blog, more each day — what is it about this? People see each other in these stories. They see the authentic experience of life represented in the photograph, and they feel compelled to share their own. It becomes this — what’s the opposite of a vicious cycle? — where trust breeds sharing personal stories, which breeds more trust. The people participating ultimately have a more emotional relationship to the content, and thus the movement itself.

Occupy is obviously an interesting phenomenon, and we can talk more in the Q&A if you want about specifics in how technology is being used there. But one of the ideas coming out of it, and also the Arab Spring, is the idea of leaderless movements. I actually think that’s a misnomer– I think we should be calling these things leader-ful movements, because it’s not that no one is a leader: it’s that everyone is a leader.

Leadership is drastically changing, and for the better. Leaders are no longer necessary figureheads to represent movements and ultimately be coopted. My friend Micah Sifry said it best on Twitter, when referring to the Egyptian revolution, “[There is] >no such thing as a ‘leaderless movement.’ Today’s leaders are network weavers, however, not charismatic figureheads.” Your job, as a leader–because if you’re here, boom, automatic, you’re a leader now, you have no choice, I hereby bless you as a leader–your job is not to be out front. Your job is to piece together data, stories and people to build your work, whether that’s an organization or a whole movement. This is network weaving, and this is the future.

Network weaving becomes critical in non-tangible ways, as well. I was moderating a panel about influence at SXSW this year, and we got to talking about numbers and reputation. I told this story I heard from these guys that wrote a book called “–Building Web Reputation Systems.” One of their conclusions from their 10 or so years of work was that if you show people their karma, they totally abuse it. I could tell you a really amusing story about Mafias running around the online version of The Sims, but I’ll spare you. Just trust me. But, if you hid users’ karma, they acted like good social citizens, like they didn’t know if they were going to get into heaven or not, so they better be good. Fascinating.

That led to a discussion on Twitter later about follower counts. I put it out there: What if we didn’t know our follower and friend/fan counts? What if we didn’t know how many people retweeted us or liked us, like if it just stopped after 3 or something? How would we measure success? How would we measure popularity?

I put this question to my influence panel, and the answer that Jean Russell–she’s @nurturegirl on twitter–gave was genius. She said that she measures how good she’s doing, how compelling her work is, by how often people want to introduce her to new people. If they’re demanding it–”You have to meet so and so, you have so much in common, your work totally overlaps in great ways”–if they’re scrambling to put her in touch with who they think are the right people, she knows she’s on the right track. When those kinds of reactions dry up–when her network stops growing, so to speak–she knows she’s missing something.

Your network is the most critical component of your own future, and of the future of the world. Ultimately, these tools are called “social” media because that’s what they are: social. They are intended to remind us of our humanity in all of our messy, disjointed glory. Despite our fascination with slick toys and shiny new things, there is one thing that remains (and will remain) common to all of us: we’re still big irrational piles guts and brains who don’t want to be alone in the world. Social networking offers us a way out of that loneliness that haunts us all just a little bit– and if we’re in there, together, sharing what we can and building community, then yes, we’re going to change the world.

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