Something afoot circa 2004

Came across an 2004-era page of mine (the Baby Theo home­page) via an Archive​.org search today. Here was a descrip­tion on the sidebar:

This web­site is part of a infor­mal emerg­ing net­work of Friends that are reach­ing across our insti­tu­tion­al bound­aries to engage with our faith and with each oth­er. The “min­istry of the writ­ten word” has often sparked gen­er­a­tional renew­al among Friends and there’s some­thing afoot in all these com­ments and linkbacks. There are lots of poten­tial projects that can be launched over the new few years (books, work­shops, con­fer­ences, etc) so if you like the direc­tion of this site and the ques­tions it’s ask­ing, please con­sid­er a dona­tion to the non​vi​o​lence​.org site.

Gladwell and strong tie social media networks

A lot of peo­ple, include Jeanne Burns over on Quak­erquak­er, are talk­ing about Mal­colm Gladwell’s lat­est New York­er arti­cle, “Small Change: Why the Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tweet­ed”.

Mal­colm Gladwell’s modus operan­di is to make out­ra­geous­ly counter-intuitive claims that peo­ple will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s mag­a­zine, books and bobble-head like­ness­es. I find him lik­able and divert­ing but don’t take his claims very seri­ous­ly. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Ander­son, his some­times spar­ring part­ner, which isn’t sur­pris­ing as they work for the same mag­a­zine empire, Conde Nast Pub­li­ca­tions.

In his arti­cle, Glad­well takes a lot of pot­shots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, anoth­er New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetor­i­cal straw­man now, claim­ing Shirky’s book “Here Comes Every­body” is the “bible of social-media move­ment.” Read­ing Glad­well, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talk­ers (just get­ting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafe­te­ria would be a good start).

Gladwell’s cer­tain­ly right in that most of what pass­es for activism on Twit­ter and Face­book is ridicu­lous. Click­ing a “Like” but­ton or chang­ing your pro­file image green doesn’t do much. He makes an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “weak ties” (Face­book “friends” who aren’t friends; Twit­ter cam­paigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civ­il Rights move­ment as a strong-tie phe­nom­e­non: the peo­ple who put them­selves on the line tend­ed to be those with close friends also putting them­selves on the line.

What Glad­well miss­es is strong-tie orga­niz­ing going on in social media. A lot of what’s hap­pen­ing over on Quak­erQuak­er is pret­ty strong-tie – it’s trans­lat­ing to work­shops, arti­cles, and is just one of a num­ber of impor­tant net­works that are form­ing. Peo­ple are find­ing each oth­er and mak­ing real con­nec­tions that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online orga­nizes cre­ates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right cir­cum­stances they can feed into each oth­er, with each com­po­nent mag­ni­fy­ing the other’s reach.

One exam­ple of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quak­er blog­gers came togeth­er to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kid­nap­ping. It didn’t have any effect on the kid­nap­pers, obvi­ous­ly, but we did reach a lot of peo­ple who were curi­ous why a Friend might choose such a per­son­al­ly dan­ger­ous form of Chris­t­ian wit­ness. This was all done by inter-related groups of peo­ple with no bud­get and no orga­ni­za­tion­al chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.

A more recent exam­ple I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has orga­nized against dioce­san attempts to shut it down: a core group of lead­ers have emerged; they share pow­er, divide up roles and have been wag­ing an orga­nized cam­paign for about 2.5 years now. One ele­ment of this work has been the Savest​marys​.org blog. The website’s only impor­tant because it’s been part of a real-world social net­work but it’s had an influ­ence that’s gone far beyond the hand­ful of peo­ple who write for it. One of the more sur­pris­ing audi­ences have been the many staff at the Dioce­san head­quar­ters who vis­it every day – a small group has tak­en over quite a bit of men­tal space over there!

It’s been inter­est­ing for me to com­pare Quak­erQuak­er with an ear­li­er peace project of mine, Non​vi​o​lence​.org, which ran for thir­teen years start­ing in 1995. In many ways it was the big­ger site: a larg­er audi­ence, with a wider base of inter­est. It was a pop­u­lar site, with many vis­its and a fair­ly active bul­letin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn work­shop or con­fer­ences. There’s no “move­ment” asso­ci­at­ed with it. Dona­tions were min­i­mal and I nev­er felt the sup­port struc­ture that I have now with my Quak­er work.

Non​vi​o​lence​.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” net­work. QuakerQuaker’s net­work is stronger for two rea­sons that I can iden­ti­fy. The obvi­ous one is that it’s built atop the orga­niz­ing iden­ti­ty of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more direct­ly to its par­tic­i­pants, ask­ing them to share their lives and offer­ing real-world oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­ac­tion. So much of my blog­ging on Non​vi​o​lence​.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the sit­u­a­tion in Bosnia – that just doesn’t pro­vide the same kind of imme­di­ate per­son­al entre.

Mal­colm Glad­well min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship struc­ture of activist orga­ni­za­tions, where lead­er­ship and pow­er is in con­stant flux. He like­wise min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship of social media net­works. Yes, any­one can pub­lish but we all have dif­fer­ent lev­els of vis­i­bil­i­ty and influ­ence and there is a fil­ter­ing effect. I have twenty-five years of orga­nized activism under my belt and fif­teen years of online orga­niz­ing and while the tech­nol­o­gy is very dif­fer­ent, a lot of the social dynam­ics are remark­ably similar.

Glad­well is an hired employ­ee in one of the largest media com­pa­nies in the world. It’s a very struc­tured life: he’s got edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, copy­ed­i­tors, proof­read­ers. He’s a cog in a com­pa­ny with $5 bil­lion in annu­al rev­enue. It’s not real­ly sur­pris­ing that he doesn’t have much direct expe­ri­ence with effec­tive social net­works. It’s hard to see how social media is com­ple­ment­ing real world grass­roots net­works from the 40th floor of a mid-town Man­hat­tan skyscraper.

Relat­ed Reading:

Shuttering up Non​vi​o​lence​.org

In a move sure to be a sur­prise no one, I’m shut­ter­ing up my Non​vi​o​lence​.org site. Sure it’s a great domain, sure it still gets more traf­fic than all of my oth­er sites com­bined, but I just don’t have the time to keep it going in any kind of coher­ent way. It’s always sur­prised me that I could nev­er get sub­stan­tive finan­cial sup­port for a project that has reached mil­lions. It seems par­tic­u­lar­ly iron­ic to shut it down in the midst of one of the longest wars in U.S. history.

For those want­i­ng good activist news, the Dave the Quak­er Agi­ta­tor is always on top of cur­rent events and the Fel­low­ship of Reconciliation’s new’ish group blog at FOR​Peace​.net is a great addi­tion to the peace blog­ging scene. Archive posts from Non​vi​o​lence​.org have been migrat­ed here to the Ranter.

Sexual assaults on campus then and now

Back in the late 1980s when I was a Vil­lano­va Uni­ver­si­ty under­grad, sex­u­al assault didn’t hap­pen. True story.

It will sur­prise no one to learn that I co-edited an alter­na­tive, “under­ground” week­ly junior and senior year. We called it the VACUUM, a name whose acronym changed every issue. Read­ing about an ear­ly “date rape” study in my fem­i­nist stud­ies class I extrap­o­lat­ed how many rapes should rea­son­ably be expect­ed to occur on a cam­pus of Villanova’s size. I added a few anec­dotes from my all-male dorm expe­ri­ence and pub­lished it in the VACUUM. A short while lat­er some friends of mine who edit­ed the offi­cial stu­dent paper picked up the sto­ry and even cit­ed an anony­mous quo­ta­tion from me in what is prob­a­bly the only offi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion of the VACUUM’s exis­tence in the V.U. archives.

Right around this time a female stu­dent brought her alle­ga­tions of an on-campus sex­u­al assault to the local police. Cam­pus offi­cials feigned sur­prise and pro­vid­ed the local media with par­rot­ed quotes: “In all my xyz years work­ing here I have nev­er ever heard of an alle­ga­tion of rape.” Chief of Secu­ri­ty, Dean of Stu­dents, etc., all deliv­ered the same line, clear­ly coached by a pub­lic rela­tions team, with only the years changed to reflect their cam­pus tenure. Thou­sands of stu­dents, dozens of years, hun­dreds of frat par­ties, tanker-fulls of cheap beer and not a hint of impropriety.
Last night I chanced on my alma mater’s web­site and saw a link right there on the home­page to an arti­cle mys­te­ri­ous titled Recent Cam­pus Inci­dent (gener­ic URL, prob­a­bly designed to dis­ap­pear soon). It doc­u­ment­ed an alleged assault on a female stu­dent by three mem­bers of the foot­ball team last month. The announce­ment reports that the Uni­ver­si­ty found them in vio­la­tion of the campus’s Code of Con­duct and “rescind­ed the admis­sion of the three young men.”

A Google News search turns up that this has been exten­sive­ly cov­ered by the media with almost 500 hits. The Del­co Times reports that the 1990 Clery Act and its amend­ments have made uni­ver­si­ty cover-ups ille­gal and required reports and spe­cif­ic pro­to­cols for respond­ing to cam­pus crimes. The cur­rent media spot­light and long-standing fed­er­al laws cer­tain­ly account for much of Villanova’s 2007 enlight­en­ment. What­ev­er the source of change, it’s nice to see. Even three play­ers from the beloved foot­ball team can get the boot (sor­ry, have their admis­sions rescind­ed) for crim­i­nal behav­ior. Bet­ter still, the uni­ver­si­ty can fess up to the crime and take some respon­si­bil­i­ty. The times, they have a’ changed.

Sheehan thoughs over on Non​vi​o​lence​.org

Just a lit­tle note to every­one that I’ve blogged a cou­ple of posts over on Non​vi​o​lence​.org. They’re both based on “peace mom” Cindy Sheeran’s “res­ig­na­tion” from the peace move­ment yesterday.
It’s all a bit strange to see this from a long-time peace activist per­spec­tive. The move­ment that Sheehan’s talk­ing about and now cri­tiquing is not move­ment I’ve worked with for the last fifteen-plus years. The orga­ni­za­tions I’ve known have all been housed in crum­bling build­ings, with too-old car­pets and fur­ni­ture lift­ed as often as not from going out of busi­ness sales. Money’s tight and careers poten­tial­ly sac­ri­ficed to help build a world of shar­ing, car­ing and understanding.
The move­ment Shee­han talks about is fueled by mil­lions of dol­lars of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party-related mon­ey, with cam­paigns designed to mesh well with Par­ty goals via the so-called “527 groups”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/527_group and oth­er indi­rect mech­a­nisms. Big Media likes to crown these orga­ni­za­tions as _the_ anti­war move­ment, but as Shee­han and Amy Good­man dis­cuss in today’s “Democ­ra­cy Now interview”:http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07%2F05%2F30%2F1343232, cor­po­rate media will end up with much of the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars can­di­dates are now rais­ing. Shee­han makes an impas­sioned plea for peo­ple to sup­port those grass­roots cam­paigns that aren’t sup­port­ed by the “peace move­ment” but this rein­forces the notion that its the mon­eyed inter­ests that make up the move­ment. I’m sure she knows bet­ter but it’s hard to work for so long and to make so many sac­ri­fices and still be so casu­al­ly dis­missed – not just me but thou­sands of com­mit­ted activists I’ve known over the years.
There are a few peace orga­ni­za­tions in that hap­py medi­um between toad­y­ing and pover­ty (nice car­pets, souls still intact) but it mys­ti­fies me why there isn’t a broad­er base of sup­port for grass­roots activism. I myself decid­ed to leave pro­fes­sion­al peace work almost a decade ago after the my Non​vi​o​lence​.org project raised such piti­ful sums. At some point I decid­ed to stop whin­ing about this phe­nom­e­non and just look for better-paying employ­ment else­where but it still fas­ci­nates me from a soci­o­log­i­cal perspective.