Talk: How Sharing and Storytelling Will Change the World

Talk: How Sharing and Storytelling Will Change the World

On Saturday, I gave the closing keynote talk at Organizing 2.0 here in NYC, a one-day conference designed to bring together labor folks, community organizers and netroots people to work on strategies for integrating online and offline organizing. A fun time was had by all! Here’s the video (thank you, Sum of Change!), and below are my notes from the talk.

I'm gonna start off by telling you a little story from the spring that I wrote about in my book, "Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking." It comes out in June 2010.

It's a Saturday afternoon, Easter weekend, Passover is going on, things are pretty quiet in the world online and off. A lotta digitally-oriented people, when they're bored, will do things like Google themselves and check website stats and whatnot. Authors tend to go to Amazon and check their sales ranks. Now, the sales rank is not just about how many books they've sold, it's also the key to the whole Amazon system. If you don't have a sales rank for your book or product, you don't turn up in search results on the site, for example.

Well, that Saturday afternoon, some authors were surprised to find that they no longer had sales ranks on their books, and that suddenly their books weren't appearing in search results. Murmurs began on Twitter as authors posted their findings here and there, and consumers started posting about failed searches. Someone started using a hashtag to express their extreme dissatisfaction. Who knows what a hashtag is? [If you want to learn more about the power — and fun — of hashtags, go watch Baratunde Thurston's video, "There's A #Hashtag For That."]

That hashtag was #AmazonFAIL. ("fail" is a really fun snarky catchall word for "this sucks" events.) Because of that, people participating were able to track all of the related posts about Amazon. Within a few hours, enough information had been gathered to show the types of books that were being flagged: LGBT, feminist, and disability themed sex-positive books. They mysteriously received an "adult" flag while heteronormative sexual books, like Playboy calendars, and anti-gay screeds, remained untouched.

The flames fanned higher, and soon various "web celebrities" took up the cause, using their social capital and influence to share stories about books that were being, in effect, digitally banned. Not long after, several newspapers caught wind of the firestorm… the LA Times blogged the de-ranking Sunday.

The mob stormed the castle all day Sunday. By later that night — Easter Sunday, no less — Amazon was forced to make a statement in response. A spokesperson told Publisher's Weekly that the de-ranking problem was a "glitch," and that Amazon was looking into it.

Now, imagine the same scenario just 10 years ago. Amazon, even then, was a popular online retailer with a good amount of credibility. If a huge swath of books had been removed from the site in 1999, how would people have protested? It would have been through angry emails to the corporate offices. Perhaps op-eds might have been pitched to various newspapers, and over several days and weeks various civil rights groups might have gotten involved somehow. In short, everyday people would have had to rely on a slow-moving hierarchical system with lots of gatekeepers along the way deciding if this was a worthwhile issue.

Instead, in 2009, these voices slipped into the consciousness of the web, created a campaign without any organization or funding, and forced Amazon to respond within 12 hours. And to ice that cake, the mainstream media played catch-up in the following days, hoping to catch the scraps of the story. [Postscript was that Amazon said it was Amazon France's fault; they were updating the catalog over the weekend and accidentally flagged all these books. Which to me sounds a lot like "oh you guys, I totally have a girlfriend, she just lives in FRANCE." But whatever. I digress.]

You've learned about a ton of new tactics and strategies today. But one of the biggest things to understand is that something very fundamental has not changed at all about organizing. Before any organizing happens, online or offline, before you get your phonebanking, your petitions, your door-knocking, your lobby days, your email campaigns, your anything– change starts with stories. Our stories. Storytelling has been the most powerful building block for social change since the beginning of time… think about how long we've been sitting around the campfire! What these tools that you've spent all day hashing out do is give us unprecedented power to share our stories to many more people than we could have imagined.

What happens when you tell stories? Two very magical things: you build trust with other people in your network, and from there you build empathy. It's very important to note that I'm not talking about sympathy. Sympathy is where you feel bad for someone who's had something bad happen to them. Empathy is where you actually share in the emotions that other people have and express. It's a powerful, deeply primal experience.

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.

Your presence is required in this work: we need you here in the online social space. Desperately. 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. 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 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.

Here's the thing: Creating a just society is sort of like the evolution of 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.

It's time to bring fresh life into the conversations that we're having about social change, and sharing our stories are our strongest bets for doing so.

I think we can change the traditional power dynamics. In fact, I think you will change the traditional power dynamics. But it's not all shiny happy rainbows and butterflies, though.

We're living like fish in the water on the Internet right now: we don't know, or we're not willing to recognize, that we're soaking the 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. Especially in spaces that are focused on relationships and social features, we have to be aware of this. Research like that of noted tech rockstar danah boyd shows that people self-segregate online–white people hang out with white people online, even tho, for example a Pew study showed that an African-American online is more likely to use Twitter than a white person online. A Harvard study showed us that men are twice as more likely to follow another man on Twitter, etc., even tho women make up more than have of all social networks' memberships. We've got to interrupt this pattern now, with conscious effort and action.

This is where the storytelling comes in. Lemme tell you another.

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. Capturing the public’s tremendous shock and outrage, comedian Elon James White, host of the popular web series “This Week in Blackness,” opened an episode with the words: "Hi, I'm broadcasting live from 1952…"

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. As the dialogue continued, people started to share stories on social networks about the first time they had been discriminated against. I read story after unfiltered, unedited story, written by friends and people I barely knew. Each time, the stories were devastating; so was the fact that I hadn't heard them before.

I realized that without social media, I probably never would have heard those stories. Or, I might have heard one of them, isolated from others. Being white, I have never been the victim of racism, and since many of my friends are white, they haven't either. Prior to social media, I mostly likely wouldn't have ended up in the company of a group of people of color sharing their childhood discrimination stories so openly and honestly.

Social networks offer a huge potential for overlap between groups of people. Even though humans will always be drawn to others that they think are like them in one way or another, sharing powerful stories with one other has the potential to reach across social boundaries and create new kinds of safe spaces.

So yeah, we'll always look for people who are like us, but we'll never be able to isolate ourselves completely from those who are different from us. Social media tools make it easier than ever to dip in and out of social circles. In that space of relatively pressure-free exploration is where the overlap can start to occur.

In the case of sharing stories of childhood discrimination, there was an assumed level of safety through the trust and empathy we had established with one another. I trusted the people I follow on Twitter, and in turn, they trusted me to listen.

I received an education that day. It's one thing to read stories in the newspaper and get upset; it's an entirely different, deeper experience to read friends and colleagues sharing intimate, painful, raw moments in real time. Those shared moments left me feeling not just more passionate about addressing racism, but also more willing to hear what’s being said when I need to listen.

Change does not, and will not, happen in isolation or on an individual basis… 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. Telling our stories in real, authentic ways becomes critical to moving others toward progress and change.

So! To sum up some takeaways for you all:

  1. Organizers: you are not reaching everyone if you are just going to the most popular social network of the moment.
  2. Don't forget that you bring bias to the table. When you enter a space that doesn't have formal structure, like a lot of the Internet, our own biases will take over.
  3. Your stories matter. The stories of your community members matter even more. I hereby knight you with an ambassadorship to a more democratic future. Do you choose to accept this mission?

Thank you!