WAM!NYC Closing Keynote: The Future! (rough, unedited crib notes)

(This talk was the closing keynote for the WAM!It Yourself conference in NYC.)

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I really struggled when I was putting this talk together. Not that that was last night, late, or anything. No no. But what I struggled with had a couple of layers to it. One, I know many of you. And you know me, and my work, so it’s not like I can just roll in and play my greatest hits. You want something new and meaty, I think. The other part of it is, since I know you, I know you’re all badasses. You’re wicked smart, you’re very savvy about most of this stuff with media and gender justice and even technology these days. You don’t need me anymore! Which is a good thing. But it also means I’ve got to find more interesting, compelling things to say. So when I was working on this, I started asking some questions. What do women right here, right now, need to know about media and the future?

So, I’m gonna cheat a little and play Donahue for a second. I want to hear about how your day went. What’s one brand new thing that you learned today? Something that you never thought of, never heard of, anything.

This past year has been pretty astounding when it comes to media and information. And it’s been a pretty wild ride for feminists and womanists to negotiate, take charge, and move through. Some of my favorite highlights:

  • Julian Assange reveals not just his own douchebaggery, but the pervasive douchebaggery of patriarchy everywhere, especially in homegrown US progressivism. My goodness, that period from December till sometime in February was a hot mess, wasn’t it?
  • You of course also had the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—and now across the entire Middle East—that women have played a huge part in.
  • There was Wisconsin, ongoing Prop 8 madness, all kinds of legislative silliness. Not the least of which is HR3, the Republican-led effort to first redefine rape and THEN limit access to abortion.

Then you had the smaller wins, the little bits of culture change that didn’t necessarily get crazy amounts of attention outside of certain circles, but nonetheless make people’s lives a little different, a little better, a little easier.

One of those moments for me came through a campaign that I worked on in December, that a few of you in this room had a hand in supporting. It was for Exhale, a nonprofit organization which provides the first and only nonjudgmental national, multilingual after-abortion talkline. That’s a mouthful. Who knows about Exhale and the campaign we put together late last year?

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:

Let’s make sure these brave young women feel our unconditional love and support. Consider these questions and then share your words of inspiration […]:

  • Knowing that these young women are sharing a very personal experience in a very public way, what do you want to validate & affirm?
  • What will you do to show your love for a woman in your life who has had an abortion?

Submissions, and comments on posts, will be moderated. 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. More on why later. 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, it feels very good to know that I am not alone and will never be. My mom and I have never been closer and I graduated from high school on time and now I am living for me with my current boyfriend, who is my best friend. He supports what I had to do and wouldn’t change me for anything, and after watching these videos, I know I wouldn’t change anything either. I think about what I had to go through everyday, but I know I made the right decision for me at that time. Thank you for reminding me that I am not a bad person and that I am not alone. Thank you.

Stephanie:

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.

So tell me: do we really care what the metrics are? Or are you, like me, overwhelmed with the sense that we made some women’s lives a tiny bit better?

How did we do that?

We told stories. Then we listened to others’ stories. Then we told some more.

Back in the day—all you second wavers, big shout out here—they used to do consciousness raising groups as part of feminist organizing. Not that they weren’t without problems (they marginalized queer women’s voices and the voices of women of color, for starters), but despite those complications, a singular message started to form: I am not alone. This is systemic. I’m not crazy.

On a side note, I’ve been known to call the WAM! listserv the “Dear Lord, I’m not crazy” list. It was there before social media became more mainstream, and there is the same thread of sharing outrage and triumph that binds us.

When we participate in these kinds of authentic activities—when we share with one another, we do more than just “get the word out” about things that we care about. We reject prescribed identities and say “this is what it’s like to be a person in these shoes.” 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.”

Many of you have heard me say this before, but I think it bears repeating. The main product of all this sharing is that we create empathy. Empathy is the opposite of apathy: it is when we don’t just recognize that other people have feelings, but when we actually share in the emotions of those around us. Studies have shown that when we’re participating on social networks, for example, oxytocin is released in our brains. That’s the hormone that’s responsible for feelings of affection and bonding… and yes, digital interactions can inspire that.

There’s a another supremely wild thing that happens: Did you know that empathy is, at least in part, built into us neurologically? Yes, indeed!

There’s a really cool TED talk about this—just go to TED.com 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 empathy. The bottom line is that *yes*, we are *wired* to do this.

So if we’re hardwired to feel this way about one another, our stories can activate that hardwiring. 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 called “social technologies” for a reason: they are about connecting, engaging, sharing.

Your presence is required in this work: we need you here in the online social space. But change won’t happen on its own… it requires you to show up, and to participate. Tech will not solve our problems. We will solve our problems, using technology.

If you choose to sit this one out, though, there’s a ripple effect caused by your void. Because you’re not contributing to the larger, very public conversations about what’s happening in the world and how problems should be solved, the conversation will go on without you. Others will be defining and directing the conversation, and making decisions, without the benefit of your experiences and knowledge. Y’know, like what’s been going on for most of us for the last few thousand years.

I don’t want that to keep happening, and I suspect that you don’t either. The good news? So far, so good—we are starting to take the necessary steps to infuse public dialogue with what matters to us.

Make no mistake, there are clearly people who are threatened by this. When you hear stories about the death of media and the death of privacy and the death of lots of things, you are hearing people who are lamenting the loss of control and power. I don’t want to take away from the journalists, especially those in this room, that are struggling to make a living in the brave new digital future. We haven’t figured that out yet, and it’s an incredibly painful moment we’re living through.

I’m talking more on a macro level. I remember a discussion on “On the Media” from last summer with Yochai Benkler—he’s a wicked smart guy who wrote an incredibly dense but fantastic book called the “Wealth of Networks.” Brooke Gladstone was asking him about the concept of the lost of the public square with the decline of mainstream media, and his answer was brilliant.

“What are we lamenting? Are we lamenting the decline of a shared culture that’s relatively dominated by a small number of people who can decide what everyone needs to know? That’s not obviously a state that we have to yearn for.”

What happens when many people—especially women, of many races and classes, many sexualities—decide what everyone needs to know? You have a cacophony, sure, but we’re working on both our technological and human filters for that. Besides cacophony, you get shining moments of storytelling pushing through the noise and reaching people who need to be reached.

There were two more campaigns, again spearheaded by women right here in this room, that really made me step back and marvel at the resilience and resourcefulness of women online. The first was #mooreandme. Who knows what this one was about?

OK, the recap there. Michael Moore is that lovable lefty rabble rouser, who’s also kind of a dumbass. On the Keith Olbermann show, he publicly dismissed and ridiculed the women who are accusing Julian Assange of sexual assault. Dear sweet Lord, I thought my eye twitch would never go away, especially when the progressive left-o-sphere, led by many of the dudely and privileged persuasion, didn’t really take issue with this.

But, Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown teamed up with WAM!’s own Jaclyn Friedman, and Kate Harding, to kick Twitter into high gear and demand an apology from Moore. Using the hashtag #mooreandme – everyone know what a hashtag is? – thousands of tweets telling stories of rape, real rape, because all rape is real rape, could be heard. It blossomed. Moore never came right out an apologized, but he sort of mealy-mouthed his way through an interview with Rachel Maddow.

Then Naomi Wolf had to comment. Oh, Naomi. Naomi, Naomi, Naomi. Why, sister? Why? Wolf decided to school us all about what was “real rape”, or as Whoopi Goldberg appallingly called it, “rape rape”—thankfully, Jaclyn went on Democracy Now! and schooled Naomi, and we started to see conversations everywhere happening.

Now, traditionally speaking, what did this campaign accomplish? No laws were passed, no real apologies were made (I’m sorry, Olbermann, but pulling a “sorry you were offended” apology does not count), Assange’s case wasn’t necessarily affected. All things that traditionally we might have required to declare campaign success. But how many women felt a little less crazy? A little less alone in their outrage? On top of that, I have no doubt that the Maddow interview with Moore happened because of this campaign. If we had just let it go, as we’re often told to do, we wouldn’t have had any of this.

But on the anecdotal side, too, I wanted to share a little success story—and I don’t think I’m the only one that had this experience in the fallout of the Assange nuttiness. I truly don’t. But I was on vacation in February, having dinner with a group of people that I didn’t know. Along came an Assange discussion. I tell you, I was like [slo-mo], “Nnnnnooooooo!” It started out horribly. I mean, think of every terrible thing that somebody could say, and it was being said at this table—by both men and women, of multiple nationalities and ethnicities. But thanks to the #mooreandme campaign, I was armed and ready. I answered multiple claims: Consent is not a light switch, All rape is rape. Etc. By the end of the discussion, the tone of the discussion had completely changed, and everyone was either nodding their head in agreement with me, or giving me the “huh, never thought about that” look. The French guy next to me actually said, “I really never thought about consent and rape that way before. Thank you for explaining it to me. I see it completely differently now and agree with you.” I know for a fact that I couldn’t have held my ground if my Twitter feed had not been bombed with talking points for the weeks before.

And it wouldn’t be a good campaign if we couldn’t find some humor, either. During one of Wolf’s interviews, I think it was on the BBC, we were all on Twitter talking about her crazy talking points. It gave me the idea to create a Bullshit Bingo card with them all, and I started taking solicitations. You can still download it from my site—it has squares like, “dating police,” “if you’ve followed my work,” “Reporting you’ve been raped has serious consequences,” and “Wait, what’s cisgender?” Bonus round: Who remembers why the Free Space was 23? (Answer: That’s the number of years Wolf claims to have been working with rape survivors.)

Or more recently, the #dearjohn campaign? God, I feel like I’m doing a roast of 2011’s Batshit Anti-Woman Moments. John Boehner introduces legislation to the House that would redefine rape and eliminate funding for abortion. Because we live in Bizarro world, of course, where this might even be a possibility… like we’re seeing in South Dakota, and elsewhere. A response could have been created in any number of ways. Email campaigns (hello, MoveOn), petitions, what have you. But Sady came back with another hashtag campaign, along with Amanda Marcotte, and punked it down. The rape language has now been removed. The bill itself is still sitting there going through the House.

The common thread in all of these stories: women being mad as hell and not taking it anymore, and then telling their stories. Bringing themselves together to create fluid, ad-hoc movements that can be assembled and disassembled at will to support, reinforce and cross-pollinate. Underneath all that is a little bit of magic: part authenticity, part audacity, part tactical, part tenacity. If any of those were missing, we would have failed in that mission to make someone else feel a little bit better, a little less alone in the world.

Lest you think this is about preaching to the choir (which I’m a big fan of, btw—I for one think we have a fabulous effing choir), it’s important to note that according to a Pew study, people who participate on social networks have discussion circles that are 20% more diverse than people who don’t. Twitter users are more likely to be active in their offline communities that people who aren’t on Twitter. Equity—more than just diversity—doesn’t automatically happen online (in fact, the reverse regularly happens), but if we’re conscious and intentioned about where we put ourselves and who we’re talking to, we can bridge gaps with our stories that might not have ever been crossed. I truly believe that. I know I’m a glass-half-full kinda grrl, but I have faith in you to do the right thing.

So: what do you need to know going forward? The obvious, in case it isn’t clear, is that your story matters. You need, for all of our sake, to be telling it. How you choose to do that is going to be up to you, so let me offer a bit of advice.

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 movement. This is network weaving, and this is the future. (If you want to learn more about network weaving, check out the work of the spectacular June Holley and Valdis Krebs.)

Network weaving becomes critical in non-tangible ways, as well. I was moderating a panel about influence at SXSW a couple weeks ago (with some fabulous ladies—Twanna Hines, Andrea Miller, Cheryl Contee, and Jean Russell), 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.

I want you to do this going forward, with all that great stuff that you’ve had your eyes opened to today, with all the new people you met today, or the friends that you reconnected with. Your job, from here on out, dear leaders, is to make sure that you’re doing work that excites you and therefore excites others into expanding your network, AND to expand the networks of others. It’s not easy. And it’s not tangible. But it’s the dirty secret movement that’s going to get us somewhere.

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