PdF 2010: Can the Internet Fix Politics? Sharing Is Daring.

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Can the Internet fix politics?


Thank you, good night!

OK, just kidding. There’s a slightly longer answer here, but the basic idea is the same. The Internet won’t fix politics. But we, using the Internet and other tools at our disposal, can fix a lot of things, including politics.

A lot of the time in the world many of us run in, we fetishize technology. We love the hype of the next big thing—and especially being the person to discover it. We love wielding our geeky knowledge over campaigns and influencing culture. But sometimes we forget that tech is just the means, never the ends.

When people ask about my new book, Share This! (which you can conveniently purchase out in the lobby), one of the first things they mention are tools – what should I be doing for my organization now, what’s the latest thing, what shouldn’t I miss. Sure, you need to familiarize yourselves with all kinds of tactics and strategies – but that’s just trees in the forest.

Let’s be clear about what politics are. “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.

That’s an unfortunate thing that I see when I look at how the Internet has been used thus far to “fix” politics—I’m not sure many people are that interested in this giant redefinition. Many people are angling to scramble to the top of whatever their hierarchy is and take power. Fewer seem to be interested in doing the work of dismantling the hierarchy to begin with, and to me, that’s where the real disruptive potential of the Internet lies.

We’re living like fish in water on the Internet right now: We don’t know, or we’re not willing to recognize, that we’re soaking in the same social structures we’ve been living with for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. We’re porting our understanding of the offline world—with all our prejudices, biases, and hierarchies—onto the blank canvas of the Internet. But all we can see is the blank canvas; we remain convinced that the Internet is a pure meritocracy and that if you just work hard enough, you’ll succeed at whatever it is that you’re trying to do. We’ve got to interrupt this pattern now, with conscious effort and action.


Well, my personal tech fetish is working with social networks (Did I mention I just wrote a book about this?), so I’m going to lay out three quick—and  and easy steps to smashing the paradigm in the seven minutes I have left. Ready

First: be authentic.

Yes, I know, this is a super smarmy word being thrown around by social media “gurus” and “ninjas.”

But let me show you why being authentic online is key. Let’s take this 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 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—

we create pointillist paintings of ourselves with what we choose to share, and 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.

[SLIDE 10]
Next: diversify and cross-pollinate. This is a big one: you need to find people who don’t look like you, don’t necessarily think like you, and don’t come from the same places that you do. Creating a thrivable ecosystem—whether that’s an organization or a whole society—is like the evolution of a species. If you have a bunch of the same DNA mixing together, the species mutates poorly and eventually dies off. But bring in variety—new strains of DNA—and you create a stronger species. It’s no different in idea generation. You get a bunch of the same people talking to each other and making the rules for a few millennia, and eventually you’re going to end up with a lack of meaningful advancement.

We need you to be aware of the privilege you bring to the table – whether that’s your race, gender or your tech privilege – and make sure you’re using it responsibly and thoughtfully. Diversity is a strategic imperative for achieving collective goals. As diversity scholar Roosevelt Thomas notes, we all make better decisions—as individuals and as a society—when we account for differences and tensions.

[SLIDE 11]
Number three! Embrace empathy. Remember that pointillist painting we talked about? This is where the real shift happens. When we participate in each others’ lives, both actively and passively, we create empathy. Empathy is critical to any kind of social change movement; it is the opposite of apathy.

[SLIDE 12]
The trust we create with one another on social networks is what fuels the empathetic response we have to one another, even if we don’t know each other that well. That trust-created empathy is what will lead us away from the isolation, and thus apathy, that we’ve experienced as a culture in the last century’s focus on mass communications and market demographics… siloing people and separating them. These technologies are all about connecting, engaging, sharing.

Lemme tell you a story.

[SLIDE 13]
In the summer of 2009, a private country club in Philadelphia banned a group of African-American children from swimming in its pool, despite the fact that the kids’ camp had paid for their swimming privileges. The director of the country club published a statement saying that they were afraid the kids would “change the complexion of the pool.” Yeah, he actually said that.

When I heard about the incident, I signed petitions, I passed the info along on Twitter and Facebook, and I talked about it with my friends, both online and off. But the more interesting thing that happened was when people started to share stories on social networks about the first time they had been discriminated against. It was story after story after story, and I was blown away by it.

I realized that without social media, I probably never would have heard those stories. I wouldn’t have found myself in a large group of people of color sharing these stories, and if I had, my whiteness would have changed the dynamic of that storytelling. It allowed the people doing the sharing to accomplish whatever their goals were—catharsis, outrage, teaching, what have you—and it allowed me to be a voyeur into that process. No one shared for the benefit of my privilege, but they allowed me to benefit from it.

It didn’t change the A-to-B action that I took in this case, but it gave me a far deeper, more emotional understanding of what it means to be racist in America. And since then, when I’ve witnessed racism, my commitment to confronting it as a systemic, structural problem has grown exponentially.

[SLIDE 14]
This wouldn’t have happened in isolation. We need each other to produce results. As we start to explore with social media, we have the potential to deepen our understanding of one another’s life experiences, and in turn, ourselves. We are confronting a tremendous opportunity to bring in voices previously marginalized or dismissed when it comes to shaping public conversations. But change won’t happen on its own… it requires you to show up, and to participate.

[SLIDE 15]
The Internet will not fix politics. We will.

Thank you!

3 Responses to “PdF 2010: Can the Internet Fix Politics? Sharing Is Daring.”

  1. [...] Read the text and see the slides at the full presentation page. [...]

  2. [...] of ecosystems and social spaces, so I support it wholeheartedly. As I’ve said in my book and recent talks: This is a big one: you need to find people who don’t look like you, don’t necessarily [...]

  3. [...] to do with law at all. I want to clarify this because it also explains how I approach politics. As I said in my talk at PdF this year: Let’s be clear about what politics are. “Politics” is not just about candidates, elections, [...]

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