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Social networking will change the world

SocialnetworkingFacebook, Twitter and other forms of social networking are tools we can use to make the world a more fair and just place – but only if we widen our networks and allow the voices of marginalised people to come through. Deanna Zandt provides some strategies on how to be a useful agent of change.

14 November 2010

No doubt about it, social networks have landed in our culture, and they’re planning to stay a while.

During late 2008 and early 2009, Facebook doubled in size, growing from 100 million registered users to 200 million in eight months, and then added another 150 million users by early 2010.

Twitter’s popularity skyrocketed during most of 2009, jumping from 4.5 million visitors to more than 20 million.

And yet, for all those impressive numbers, and for all the horn-tootin’ that happens about the disruptive and democratizing potential of the internet, we’re still seeing the Big Important Conversations being dominated by the same old, same old.

Despite the fact that women, for example, make up over half of the active users on most social networking sites, we still usually see men served up as the expert voices on social networks, on blogs, and in mainstream media.

Or, even though African-Americans who are online are more likely to be users of Twitter than white people who are online, white people are given the role of experts for speaking at conferences, on top 10 lists, and more.

In 2009, for example, Europe’s top web conference, LeWeb, had mind-bogglingly few speakers who were women (just 5%) or people of color (under 10%).

We’re asked to listen to the same voices that got us to where we are today, socially and culturally; and often when there’s homogeneity in the experts’ background, there’s also a lack of ideological diversity.

Structural, societal forces that keep diverse voices separate from one another are pressing down on us as participants and reinforcing existing hierarchies.

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

A November 2009 Pew Internet & American Life study showed, for example, that people who use a social networking service have networks that are about 20% more diverse than people who don’t use the Internet at all.

By being connected to different types of people with whom we share our stories, we’re setting the stage for a fundamental shift in how we make change.

I think we can change the traditional power dynamics. In fact, I think you will change the traditional power dynamics.

A tremendous amount of potential for Internet culture exists, but it’s just now being realized. I hear what you’re saying:

“I remember 1995, too! That’s when everyone said the Internet was this big democracy, and the whole ‘No one knows you’re a dog online’ stuff. But that didn’t happen, did it?”

No, not yet.

As Karen Carpenter once sang, “We’ve only just begun.”

Sharing is daring

The ease with which we share information—responsibly and thoughtfully, of course—enables us to move on social justice issues at speeds that were previously unimaginable.

That speed, combined with the bias that each of us brings to the table, and our own fears and hesitancy, can come with traps—both perceived and real.

Maneuvering around old-style thinking that can keep us out of conversations that desperately need us—and can unintentionally marginalize others—is critical to ensuring that we connect with one another in ways that will support changing the world.

Free-for-all organizing, and the secret tyrants we all are

One weekend in April 2009, removed 58,000 books from its sales ranking system, effectively removing these books from the website. Most contained feminist, LGBT, and sexpositive content; they mysteriously received an “adult” flag while heteronormative sexual products, like Playboy calendars and antigay screeds, remained untouched.

Murmurs began on Twitter. Authors were confused when their books could no longer be found, and consumers started posting about failed searches. Through the use of a hashtag (in this case, #AmazonFAIL), participants 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.

The flames were 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 Los Angeles Times blogged the de-ranking that Sunday evening—Easter Sunday, as it happened.

By later that night, Amazon couldn’t help but make a statement in response. A spokesperson told Publishers 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 e-mails to the corporate offices. Op-eds might have been pitched to various newspapers, and over several days and weeks, various civil rights groups might have gotten involved.

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 24 hours.

And to ice that cake, the mainstream media played catch-up in the following days, scrambling for scraps of the story. Score a big one for social networks!

Before we think that this success story proves we’ve mastered the art of instant, free-for-all organizing, let’s remember that we’ve been down a somewhat similar road before, and we learned some lessons that can carry over to social networks and social media.

Endeavors organized on the fly, without constraints or guidelines that organizations bring—like the Amazon uproar, in which no advocacy group orchestrated any of the actions that were taken—often ignore or silence voices that must be part of the conversations and movements we’re creating.

Take the consciousness raising of the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though women’s groups often illuminated a path toward activism and organizing, these groups also marginalized the voices and experiences of women of color and queer women.

Let me give you a brief rundown of what happened: Feminists decided that the societal structures in place were largely restrictive and oppressive to women. Therefore, the best way to break free was to organize without formal hierarchies and leaders, which were considered the source of the oppression.

Funny thing: When you remove explicit structure from a group—leaders, hierarchies, process—it turns out that implicit structure arises.

What do I mean by implicit? Well, people’s personal biases, for starters. Sticking with our historical study, many of these groups organized around the concerns of mainly white, middle-class, straight women, choosing (either consciously or unconsciously) not to include other voices.

When implicit structure takes over—for example, the idea that we are all equal on the Internet and it’s completely up-byour-bootstraps—we run the risk of entering a series of vicious cycles that prevent fundamental, systemic change from emerging.

By pretending that these implicit biases don’t exist or don’t matter, we ignore the voices of those most affected by the issues we care about, and we reinforce the very power structures that we seek to break down.

In a critical 1970 paper, feminist scholar and author Jo Freeman labeled this phenomenon of marginalizing minority-represented voices “the tyranny of structurelessness”.

This means that to strive for a “structureless” group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “valuefree” social science or a “free” economy. A “laissez-faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez-faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. . . . Thus “structurelessness” becomes a way of masking power.

Because of the social stratification that currently exists online, we are seeing the repercussions of digital structurelessness manifest in many ways.

Our tendency to congregate around like-minded folk is understandable and very human, but it can be dangerous when organizing around issues for change. I’m not advocating reaching out to opposing viewpoints at every juncture; I’m recommending making sure that a number of diverse perspectives are in the echo chambers we’re creating.

In many cases, we need to look hard at who is most affected by the issues we’re working on and ensure that they’re being heard.

People with any kind of privilege—social, economic, even technological—tend to believe that the work they are doing on behalf of those with less privilege is helpful, because they know better. Thinking you know better doesn’t win change, it wins you an ego trip.

In fall 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a health care reform bill that included an amendment, sponsored by conservative Democrat Bart Stupak, containing the most restrictive legislation on reproductive rights in over 40 years.

On social networks, women expressed their outrage at having been “thrown under the bus” in favor of pushing through the reform. Some men were sympathetic to the pain that women were expressing, but many sought to explain why the amendment was passed, how they were sure it wouldn’t pass the Senate, and other legislative nuances of the situation.

Instead of expressing empathetic outrage, they chose to teach women what they felt must not be clear about the situation—which only intensified women’s alienation from the process, and their overall shock and disillusionment.

Engaging with, listening to, and hearing people who have different backgrounds from yours starts a fundamental process for change, and social networks hold a lot of promise for making the networks we belong to more diverse.

How do we engage with diverse groups of people in online public spaces? The power law tells us that those with the largest audiences will continue to build their audiences exponentially.

The sneak attack, though, is that we’re not talking just about audience size; we’re talking about multiple conversations, and effective ones at that.

In order to have those effective conversations, though, we have to chart a course of action to acknowledge our biases, so then we can start reaching out and connecting with people who don’t share our same points of reference.

To be clear, we won’t ever eliminate our biases. But we can begin to be explicit about what we learn about ourselves and our social spheres when bias rears its ugly head.

Social technology researcher danah boyd suggests a series of questions for that explicit discovery process:

“None of us is going to be unbiased. There is no way to be unbiased. The question is: Can you account for your biases? Can you recognize when they get in the way? Can you open up a dialogue, even if it makes you uncomfortable, with people who aren’t like you?”

Opening ourselves up to that process and beginning to break out of the way we’ve been thinking about how we assume the world operates (simply because it’s operated like that for a long time) is crucial.

We need to listen as selflessly as possible to what others are sharing and make sure that we’re not perpetuating restrictive social structures.

It’s important to start by recognizing what it feels like when you’ve been triggered to react, as many people who practice meditation do. For me, I can feel my chest tighten and my ears burn, as if I’ve been deeply wronged in some way.

Before I react outwardly to that feeling, I try to step outside of it and observe it. Then I always seem to remember something my mom asked us when we were kids and were caught making fun of or picking on someone else:

“How would you feel if that were you?”

It makes me realize that often those moments are not about me at all—they are about larger injustices that I have a role in changing or stopping altogether, and it’s my job to fi gure out how to do that. Addressing one’s biases is a deeply uncomfortable process.

There, I’ve said it. It’s hard, and it requires a lot of psychological work that nobody wants to deal with. Because really, no one wants to feel like or be called a bigot, right? Or at least, most sane people don’t want to.

How to be a useful agent of change

None of us are off the hook here, folks—regardless of whether you’re a liberal blogger writing tirelessly about health care reform, a person of color working for racial justice in media, a feminist advocating for reproductive freedom, or a queer activist lobbying for marriage rights.

Yes, you get good karma for doing that work, and you’re a better person for it (that’s your gold star for today!). But none of us are above anyone else in this big-picture struggle.

Don’t assume that your status in one arena you are passionate about somehow makes you invulnerable to having privilege, and bias, in others.

You’ve got to take your blinders off if we’re going to have half a chance with this.

The first step is to recognize that we have a problem. Say this out loud: “Hi, my name is and I have many biases.”

Step two: Listen to the people around you. The best defense is not a good offense; it’s checking your ego and listening to what others are saying without assuming you’re in the right.

Meeting people where they are is critical to the process.

You can’t force anyone to see your point of view, but making the effort to engage from a common-ground starting point can make all the difference in the world.

Social media consultant and political blogger Cheryl Contee, partner and cofounder of Fission Strategy, points to President Barack Obama’s background bridging experiences while growing up in both black and white worlds as an example of fi nding common ground in action.

“He had to learn to seamlessly create relationships with different kinds of people,” says Contee. “That skill is necessary online.”

Our goodwill and intentions are not enough; in the work of ambassadorship, we have to recognize that other people’s perceptions of us are valid based on their own experiences. When we meet people there, the sharing we do has a greater chance of building bonds between allies.

Step three: Remember that eliminating oppression is good for everybody. As W. F. Hightower, the father of my favorite populist pundit, Jim Hightower, likes to say, “Everyone does better when everyone does better.”

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.

Social media and social networks provide us with the tools to accomplish a whole lot. Once you’ve completed your threestep process, it’s time to sign yourself up as an ambassador to

a social sphere that has nothing to do with your identity or what privilege you bring to the table.

It’ll be very Stranger in a Strange Land for you, trust me. If you’re white, find people of color to follow on Twitter. Straight? Look at fan pages and groups of different LGBTQQI groups on Facebook.

It’s important for people of all stripes and places to engage with those who are different from themselves, but to be blunt, it’s extra important for those who are a couple of notches up on the hierarchy to go through this exercise.

Remember, you’re not there as part of some sociology experiment, but because you get that progress is possible only when we participate.

A crucial part of cross-pollination exercises is realizing that your role as ambassador is not to defend your position in the food chain.

That’s where a lot of us get into trouble—I know I have. Your job is to recognize what privilege you bring—whether it’s your gender, your class, your race, your sexuality, etc.—and figure out how best you can use it to enable justice for people who don’t share your privilege.

Jessica Hoffman, editor of make/shift magazine, pithily captured our collective responsibility toengage in self-reflection in an article she wrote about a white feminist’s role in other social justice movements:

“Inexperienced because of privilege, we hadn’t thought well on our feet, and we’d been in a certain denial about how bad things might get; we’d been pissed and well meaning, but not useful [emphasis mine].”

It’s the job of all of us to be useful.

ShareThisThis is an edited extract from Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking by Deanna Zandt, published by Berrett Koehler and reproduced here with the publisher’s permission.

Deanna Zandt is a media technologist and consultant to key progressive media organizations including AlterNet and Jim Hightower’s Hightower Lowdown, and is a Research Fellow at the Center for Social Media at American University.

Deanna specializes in social media, is a leading expert in women and technology, and is a frequent guest on CNN International, BBC Radio, Fox News and more. She works with groups to create and implement effective web strategies toward organizational goals of civic engagement and empowerment, and uses her background in linguistics, advertising, telecommunications and finance to complement her technical expertise.

In January 2009, Deanna was chosen as a fellow for the Progressive Women’s Voices program at the Women’s Media Center. She also serves as a technology advisor to a number of organizations, including Feministing, The Girls & Boys Projects and Women Action & The Media. She is on the board of the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank and home for media and activism.

In addition to her technology work, Deanna writes and illustrates graphic stories and comics, and volunteers with dog rescue organization Rat Terrier ResQ.

For more information on Deanna, visit her website.

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