It seems a lot of conversations I’m in these days, on social media and IRL revolve around how we should be responding to Trump’s election. I know there’s a certain danger in being too deterministic, but a lot of answers seem to match where individuals are in the vulnerability scale. Some are counseling patience: let’s see how it goes after the inauguration. Maybe we don’t know the real Donald Trump.
Well, I think we do know the real Trump by now, but what I don’t think we know is the actual flavor of a Trump presidency. Have we ever seen a president elect who was so thin on actual policy? Trump rode his lack of policy experience to victory, of course, citing his independence from the people who govern as one of his chief qualifications. But it’s also his personality: on the campaign trail and in his famous 3am tweets from the toilet he often contradicted himself.
He’s a man of high-concept ideas, not detailed policy. This means the actual policies – and the governance we should and shouldn’t worry about – will depend disproportionately on the people he hires. Right now it seems like he’s trolling lobbyists and a handful of neocon dinosaurs that started the Iraq War on forged documents. He’s bringing the alligators in to “drain the swamp” and in the last 24 hours they’ve already signaled that a lot of key campaign pledges are open for reconsideration. How much we have to worry – and just what we have to worry about – will be clearer as his team assembles.
So we’ve been asked to write a “synchroblog” organized by Quaker Voluntary Service. It is a weekday and there are work deadlines looming for me (there are always deadlines looming) so my participation may be spotty but I’ll give it a shot.
The topic of this particular synchroblog is Friends and social media and in the invite we were asked to riff on comparisons with early Friends’s pamphleteering and the web as the new printing press. I’m spotty on the details of the various pamphlet wars of early Friends but the web-as-printing-press is a familiar theme.
I first mangled the metaphors of web as printing press nineteen years ago. That summer I started my first new media project to get pacifist writings online. The metaphors I used seem as funny now as they were awkward then, but give me a break: Mark Zuckerberg was a fifth grader hacking Ataris and even the word “weblog” was a couple of years away. I described my project as “web typesetting for the movement by the movement” and one of my selling points is that I had done the same work in the print world.
Fractured as my metaphors were, online media was more like publishing then that it is now. Putting an essay online required technical skills and comparatively high equipment costs. The consistent arc of consumer technology has been to make posting ever easier and cheaper and that has moved the bar of quality (raised or lowered depending on how you see it)
Back in the mid-1990s I remember joking snarkily with friends that we’d all someday have blogs devoted to pictures of our cats and kids – the humor in our barbs came from the ridiculousness that someone would go to the time and expense to build a site so ephemeral and non-serious. You’d have to take a picture, develop the film, digitally scan it in, touch it up with a prohibitively expensive image software, use an FTP program to upload it to a web server and then write raw HTML to make a web page of it. But the joke was on us. In 2014, if my 2yo daughter puts something goofy on her head, I pull out the always-with-me phone, snap a picture, add a funny caption and filter, tag it, and send it to a page which is effectively a photoblog of her life.
The ease of posting has spawned an internet culture that’s creatively bizarre and wonderful. With the changes the printing press metaphor has become less useful, or at least more constrained. There are Friends who’s intentionality and effort make them internet publishers (I myself work for Friends Journal). But most of our online activity is more like water cooler chitchat.
So the question I have is this: are there ways Friends should behave online. If we are to “let our lives preach,” as the much-quoted George Fox snippet says, what’s our online style? Do we have anything to learn from earlier times of pamphleteering? And what about the media we’re using, especially as we learn more about electronic surveillance and its widespread use both here at home and in totalitarian regimes?
Last Sunday I have a presentation to Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting’s adult First-day school class about “Sharing the Good News with Social Media.” As I prepared I found I was less and less interested in the techniques of Facebook, etc., than I was in how outreach has historically worked for Friends.
For an early, short, period Quakers were so in-your-face and notorious that they could draw a crowd just by walking a few miles up the road to the next town. More recently, we’ve attracted newcomers as much by the example of our lives than by any outreach campaign. When I talk to adult newcomers, they often cite some Quaker example in their lives – a favorite teacher or delightfully eccentric aunt.
People can sense when there’s something of greater life in the way we approach our work, friendships, and families. Let me be the first in line to say I’m horribly imperfect. But there are Quaker techniques and values and folkways that are guides to genuinely good ways to live in the world. There’s nothing exclusively Quaker about them (indeed, most come from careful reading of the Gospels and Paul’s letters), but they are tools our religious community has emphasized and into which we’ve helped each other live more fully.
In the last fifteen years, the ways Friends are known has undergone a radical transformation. The Internet has made us incredibly easy to find and research. This is a mixed blessing as it means others are defining who we are. Careful corporate discernment conducted through long-developed techniques of Quaker process are no match for the “edit” button in Wikipedia or some commercial site with good page rank.
That said, I think people still are discovering Friends through personal examples. George Fox told us to be patterns and examples in the world and to answer that of God in everyone. A lot of our exampling and answering today is going to be on the threaded comments of Facebook and Twitter. What will they find? Do we use Facebook like everyone else, trolling, spamming, engaging in flame wars, focusing on ourselves? Or do Quaker folkways still apply. Here are some questions that I regularly wrestle with:
When I use social media, am I being open, public, and transparent?
Am I careful to share that which is good and eternal rather than titillating for its own sake?
Do I remember that the Good News is simply something we borrow to share and that the Inward Christ needs to do the final delivery into hearts?
Do I pray for those I disagree with? Do I practice holding my tongue when my motivation is anger or jealousy?
What struggles do others face? What might be our online folkways?
It's free, open Mondays, and is self-guided and thus needs no reservations. No cameras allowed though so little in the way of social media to come of it. What was most surprising is how empty the shop floor was--much of it is automated, with robots to move the heavy coils and conveyor belts to shuttle the coins in-progress. Every once in awhile you'd see someone walking across the floor, opening a machine up and adjusting something but it seemed like almost a lonely job. #g+
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A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fascinating early look-back at the relationship between social media and the largely-nonviolent revolution in Egypt written by David D Kirkpatrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumultuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak is finally out. Most of the quotes and inside knowlege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, who became an activist in 2005.
Lesson One: Years in the Making
The Times starts off by pointing out that the “bloggers lead the way” and that the “Egyptian revolt was years in the making.” It’s important to remember that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Bloggers have been active for years: leading, learning, making mistakes and collecting knowledge. Many of the first round of bloggers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effectively neutralized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legally recognized opposition parties.” “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said one blogger. A lesson we might draw for that is that blogging isn’t necessarily a stepping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The culture of blogs and mainstream movements are not always compatible.
Lesson Two: Share Your Experiences
The Egyptian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The context was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent.” Still, it was important to share tips: “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” a blogger recalled. Some of the tips were exceedingly practical (how to avert tear gas – brought lemons, onions and vinegar, apparently) and others more social (sharing torture experiences). Lesson: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.
One of the interesting sidelights was how the teachings of American nonviolence strategist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Serbian youth movement had based their rebellion on his tactics and the Egyptians followed their lead, with exiled organizers setting up a website (warning: annoying sound) compiling Sharp’s strategies:
For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.
As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tickles me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egyptian protests. America really can export democracy sometimes!
Lesson Three: Be Relentless in Confronting Lies
The Times reports that Maher “took special aim at the distortions of the official media.” He told them that when people “distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact checking role. People turn to independent sources when they sense a propaganda machine. The creator of a Facebook site was a Google marketing executive working on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and newspaper articles [and] repeatedly hammered home a simple message.”
Lesson Four: Don’t Wait for Those Supposed To Do This Work
Most of this social media was created by students for goodness sake and it all relied on essentially-free services. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Muslim Brotherhood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scrambled not knowing what to do as protests erupted in the major cities. Eventually the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full organization followed suit but it was not the leaders in any of this.
When we’re talking about popular organizating, money and established credentials aren’t always an advantage. What’s interesting to learn with the Egypt protests is that the generation leading it doesn’t seem to have as strict a religious worldview as its parents. This came out most dramatically in the images of Christian Egyptians protecting their Muslim brothers in Tahir Square during times of prayer. This is having ramification in copycat protests in Tehran. Iranian leaders tried to paint the Egyptian students as heirs to their own Islamic revolution but it seems practical considerations are more important than setting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one – protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood might well take over from Egypt protesters now that Mubarak is out).
On a personal note…
It’s interesting to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s campaign has mimicked some of the features of the Egyptian protests. Their blog has been pretty relentless in exposing the lies. It’s attracted far more media attention than the professionally-staffed Diocesan press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talking with churches in other regions to compare tactics and anticipate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of seven churches nationwide with round-the-clock vigils but it’s the only one with a strong social media component. It’s average age is probably a generation or two younger than the other vigils which gives it a certain frank style that’s not found elsewhere. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is exploding now with arrests of recent Diocesan officials and revelations from the District Attoreny that dozens of priests with “credible accusations” of pedophilia are still ministering around kids and while church closings and the pedophilia scandals are not officially connected, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admitting that they arise from a shared Diocesan culture of money and cover-ups. Again, “repeatingly hammering home a simple message” is a good strategy.
Blogging among Friends is very important. There are not a lot of Quakers. We’re spread out across the world. Blogging opens up dialogues that just wouldn’t happen otherwise. While I laid down my blog, “The Quaker Dharma,” a few years ago, and my thinking on some issues has evolved since then, I’m clear that blogging is what allowed me to give voice to my call. It helped open some of the doors that led me to work for Pendle Hill and, now by extension, FGC. A lot of cutting edge Quaker thought is being shared through blogs.
I thought it might be useful to fill in a little bit of this story. If you go reading through the back comments on Barry’s blog you’ll see it’s a time machine into the early Quaker blogging community. I first posted about his blog in February of 2005 with Quaker Dharma: Let the Light Shine and I highlighted him regularly (March, April, June) until the proto-QuakerQuaker “Blog Watch” started running. There I featured him twice that June and twice more in August, the most active period of his blogging.
It’s nostalgic to look through the commenters: Joe G., Peterson Toscano, Mitchell Santine Gould, Dave Carl, Barbara Q, Robin M, Brandice (Quaker Monkey), Eric Muhr, Nancy A… There were some good discussions. Barry’s most exuberant post was Let’s Begin, and LizOpp and I especially labored with him to ground what was a very clear and obvious leading by hooking up with other Friends locally and nationally who were interested in these efforts. I offered my help in hooking him up with FGC and he wrote back “If you know people at other Quaker organizations that you wish me to speak to and coördinate with or possibly work for, I will.”
And that’s what I did. My supervisor, FGC Development head Michael Wajda, was planning a trip to Texas and I started talking up Barry Crossno. I had a hunch they’d like each other. I told Michael that Barry had a lot of experience and a very clear leading but needed to spend some time growing as a Quaker – an incubation period, if you will, among grounded Friends. In the first part of the FGC interview he movingly talks about the grounding his time at Pendle Hill has given him.
In October 2006 he announced he was closing a blog that had become largely dormant. It’s worth quoting that first formal goodbye:
I want to thank those of you who chose to actively participate. I learned a lot through our exchanges and I think there were many people who benefited from many of the posts you left. On a purely personal note, I learned that it’s good to temper my need to GO DO NOW. Some of you really helped mentor me concerning effectively listening to guidance and helping me understand that acting locally may be better than trying to take on the whole world at once.
I also want to share that I met some people and made contacts through this process that have opened tremendous doors for me and my ability to put myself in service to others. For this I am deeply grateful. I feel sure that some of these ties will live on past the closing of the Quaker Dharma.
Those of you familiar with pieces like The Lost Quaker Generation and Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style know I’ve long been worried that we’ve not doing a good job identifying, supporting and retaining visionary new Friends. Around 2004 I stopped complaining (mostly) and just started looking for others who also held this concern. The online organizing has spilled over into real world conferences and workshops and is much bigger than one website or small group. Now we see “graduates” of this network starting to take on real-world responsibilities.
Barry’s a bright guy with a strong leading and a healthy ambition. He would have certainly made something of himself without the blogs and the “doors” opened up by myself and others. But it would have certainly taken him longer to crack the Philadelphia scene and I think it very likely that FGC would have announced a different General Secretary this week if it weren’t for the blogs.
QuakerQuaker almost certainly has more future General Secretaries in its membership rolls. But it would be a shame to focus on that or to imply that the pinnacle of a Quaker leading is moving to Philadelphia. Many parts of the Quaker world are already too enthralled by it’s staff lists. What we need is to extend a culture of everyday Friends ready to boldly exclaim the Good News – to love God and their neighbor and to leap with joy by the presence of the Inward Christ. Friends’ culture shouldn’t focus on staffing, flashy programs or fundraising hype. At the end of the day, spiritual outreach is a one-on-one activity. It’s people spending the time to find one another, share their spiritual journey and share opportunities to grow in their faith.
QuakerQuaker has evolved a lot since 2005. It now has a team of editors, discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter streams, and the site itself reaches over 100,000 readers a year. But it’s still about finding each other and encouraging each other. I think we’ve proven that these overlapping, distributed, largely-unfunded online initiatives can play a critical outreach role for the Society of Friends. What would it look like for the “old style” Quaker organizations to start supporting independent Quaker social media? And how could our networks reinvigorate cash-strapped Quaker organizations with fresh faces and new models of communication? Those are questions for another post.
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 Savestmarys.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, Nonviolence.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.
Nonviolence.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 Nonviolence.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.
Make the Revolution from Anil Dash: “People who want to see marches in the streets are often unwilling to admit that those marches just don’t produce much in the way of results in America in 2010.”
Over the last few years we’ve focused on email lists. We all have big email lists – tens of thousands of users, segmented all sorts of different ways. We send out dozens of emails a week and they end up seeming not spam.
A new era is coming with social media. A big change is Facebook Pages. These are geared toward advertisers although you don’t need to have a Facebook advertising campaign to use them. In March 2009, Facebook redesigned Pages to act much more like typical user profiles: there’s a wall, there’s an activity stream, and you can associate different applications with them.
Two things about Pages are exciting. One is the activity stream. People who sign up as “fans” of your Page see what you’re putting out in their individual stream. They’ll log into Facebook and see that messages like “Jen just got engaged!” or “Joe is having a bad hair day” and that your organization is having some great event coming up this weekend. You’re seen in the association of happy news from their friends. It’s different from a spammish email because it’s coming in with the context of their friends, which is very powerful for publicity.
The other nice thing about Facebook Pages is that they’re public. A lot of portions of Facebook aren’t but making Pages public means you can point to them from your website or other social media campaigns.
I think Facebook fan groups are going to be the new email list. They are the way we’ll be able to reach out to people. I’m very excited about this because there’s all sorts of easy multimedia possibilities. You can integrate with Youtube, with Twitter, with podcasts, etc., embedded for fans of your Facebook page to see as it’s happening. This is much more exciting than some of the emails that we send out. They are also more interactive because fans can post things on your fan walls so you can have conversations on your sites.
Intimate, immediate, engaging
What the smart nonprofits are going to be doing is a lot of posting in a style that’s authentic and intimate and less worried about being slick than we’ve typically been.
What I would love to see nonprofits doing is to get serious about video. I’m not talking about fancy video, hauling in videographers for six months shooting a three minute slick commercial. Get an inexpensitve video recorder and start doing five minute interviews with the people your organization serves. This will differ depending on your organization’s focus. One advantage to simple videos is that you can convince even the busiest of your interviewees to take out a few minutes. You make these videos and post them to Youtube, Vimeo or directly to Facebook video. It doesn’t matter where they hosted but you’ll have to make sure they’re embedded on your Facebook fan page.
Building our Facebook Fan Page
How to direct? You can direct in the emails you’re sending out or through other sources. Twitter is a great way of directing people to what’s happening: you send out a 140-character “tweet” with an interesting tease about the video you’ve produced and a link to the Facebook fan page.
The whole goal is to get Facebook fans. Once you’re in as a fan, you show up in their activity streams. All the fans get to see the events you’re organizing, the videos. If you have extra tickets to an upcoming event, post about it because people will see it immediately. It’s a wonderful way to reach people quickly in a way that’s not as intrusive as email (I suspect a lot of younger users are actually checking their Facebook homepage more often than their emails!).
The New Nonprofit Outreach
I’d love to see a lot more of these intimate, almost home-made videos going up on Facebook fan pages and using fan pages as a way of connecting with people. We can think of these as the new email list.
I would strongly encourage nonprofits to use all of these these media to reinforce their message and to find new ways to reach their audiences in a much more engaging, intimate way.