Posted on Friday, August 6th, 2010 at 11:27 am
Author: Sarah Jaffe
Social media isn’t going away anytime soon. Facebook and Twitter, blogging and the latest Google app are here to stay, it seems. But aside from giving us new ways to socialize, can these new communication methods give us new tools to create positive social change? Deanna Zandt thinks so.
A longtime technologist and activist, Zandt has written a book, Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, available now from Berrett-Koehler, to explain how sharing bits of ourselves online is going to change the world. She spoke with GlobalComment about her book, our shifting relationship to property, the news, friendships, and more.
Sarah Jaffe: Do you think “sharing” online is changing our relationship, not just to media, but to property? We share music, stories, files, but are we changing how we think about ownership?
Deanna Zandt: One can only hope, haha. Certainly digitizing a good chunk of our knowledge has caused us to noodle around with ownership. It reminds me a little bit about comparisons between cultures that are oral (meaning, for example, their histories and news are all carried via word of mouth) and cultures that are literate (meaning, they write them down and that’s considered the gold standard). What we’re seeing with our changing notions of sharing and ownership might be a new hybrid of orality and literacy. (Incidentally, the name of a very cool nerdy book by William Ong.)
SJ: I find myself more comfortable with getting digital files of music, not needing the physical object, or getting books from the library instead of buying more of them. It seems that information is becoming a shared resource again, rather than something we compete for…you think?
SJ: Many of the people who’ve told me they were uncomfortable with Twitter or other social media have been straight white guys–they seem to be the most uncomfortable with the idea that they might “do it wrong.” I wonder if it has something to do with losing a layer of privilege.
DZ: I think it does, but I also think that part of that prescribed identity is to do everything right all the time. It’s the Manly Way (™)! Certainly women, people of color, queer folk, etc., aren’t allowed to mess up in our culture, but there’s something to American masculinity that requires immediate technical performance knowledge. I also think that brand of masculinity doesn’t teach dudes to connect with others on a primal, emotional level that well, which social media obviously requires and facilitates. Their fear may be an expression of their discomfort with not relating well to others.
SJ: You compare social networking to consciousness-raising groups in the book; I think that’s a great point and it shows how we can both combine our experiences to realize something is systemic–and find out about experiences that are completely foreign to us. Of course that creates tension, when say the person you haven’t talked to since high school who adds you on Facebook is massively offended by your political opinions…
DZ: There’s a scholar that I reference in the book, Roosevelt Thomas, another Berrett-Koehler author, who argues that when we account for tension and difference, though, we make better decisions.
SJ: Related to that, do you think the tendency now to use real names and photos adds to or subtracts from the way race and gender privilege creates hierarchies online and off?
DZ: Using our real identities can help destroy prescribed identities, which in turn totally messes with hierarchy. How often do you hear women who’ve been writing under gender ambiguous names report back that when they post their picture, people say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were a woman!”
SJ: When you’re anonymous on the Internet, you can leave your body and the attendant expectations behind. As soon as you put your real name on something, all the perceptions that people have of your gender, nationality, etc. pop up. Add a picture, and race comes in there too. I’ve often joked about blogging something at the groupblog I am part of under one of the guys’ names just to see if I would get the same treatment from male commenters as I do when I’m out and proud as a woman. Do you see a way in which anonymity helped break certain barriers, help people get heard? (I’m thinking of when blogger Digby was outed as a woman, particularly.)
DZ: Yeah, Digby, and the Copyblogger writer both, in the case of gender.
I don’t think anonymity — with all its benefits and drawbacks — can or should go away anytime soon. When I talk about anonymity in the book, it’s to show that we don’t *have* to hide ourselves online in the ways we did five or ten years ago.
SJ: You discuss the way social networks contribute to maintenance of weak ties, but do you have some thoughts on how they can also turn weak ties into stronger ones?
DZ: Absolutely! There’s a section in the book where I talk about how social networks allow for identity authentication or verification. The story I use is how I got to know Leif Utne via social networks; when we met up for coffee one time, it was completely natural and normal, even though we’d only met one other time in person. It happens often now, the more we swim in online social networks.
SJ: Have you had experiences where because of social networking you’ve found yourself feeling closer to people you know online than people from “real life” (meatspace!)?
DZ: Sure. I have a client in Germany, @cathesaurus, who I feel is a good friend but whom I’ve never met in person. She knows more about parts of my life from the last few months than some of my colleagues who know me from the offline world, simply because we’ve worked so closely on projects that personal things come up in the fray of getting stuff done.
SJ: You spoke about “slacktivism” and the way we can think that we’ve done our piece signing a petition online and forget about the real-world component. I see this as an offshoot of so-called identity politics–I identify myself as part of this cause, so I forget sometimes that I have to do things for it as well. Social media can aggravate this tendency with its “profiles” full of lists of interests and causes…
DZ: It definitely can. One of the things we have to remember is that we haven’t perfected the tools yet. It’s not like this is exactly how social networking is going to work from now until The End of Time (thank God). And that’s actually the big secret opportunity: if we’re in there participating, we have the ability to influence how the tools will keep shaping up. But if we’re not taking part, the conversations will go on without us.
As far as slacktivism goes, one word of advice from the book: Don’t make it so easy for your community to get their badge of honor. Let them say that they support you or whatever, but make them earn anything more than that.
SJ: Related to slacktivism, I joke sometimes that it feels like some people just add me on Facebook as part of a “human stamp collection.”
SJ: What do you think about the impact of social media on the blogosphere? Has it affected the way comment threads and other communities work–do we tweet about something or share it on Facebook and comment there instead?
DZ: Well, it’s becoming another part of the ecosystem. I imagine that the largest phenomenon is that people who would have never left a comment before (perhaps in part due to the toxic nature of many commenting communities) are sharing their thoughts with their own networks on Twitter and Facebook. It’s safer, for one, and they likely get more out of it on a human level.
SJ: That’s a great point as well–commenter communities were certainly not the best places for productive conversations, and the option of anonymity there certainly contributes to the drive-by-asshole phenomenon. Like I mentioned above, the people who know you personally might get offended at your beliefs, but they know you at least to some degree.
DZ: The other thing I mention in the book is that using our own faces as our icons aids in facilitating better conversation, p.96:
The use of these authentic personal markers, says Kevin Marks, V.P. of Web Services at BT, “taps into deep mental structures that we all have to looks for faces and associate the information we receive with people we decide to trust, through what we feel about them.” We’re able to add at least a couple of the missing physiological cues discussed in chapter 4, which builds our trust in and empathy for one another.
Here’s the post where Kevin (who’s completely awesome) talks about this— Twitter as phatic communication.
SJ: Do you think the blurring of lines between different forms of personal communication online (email/email lists/Twitter/Facebook etc.) contributed to the fallout we saw with Dave Weigel’s resignation from the Washington Post?
DZ: The “fallout” was a loaded bunch of BS, in my opinion. It’s a new version of a Red Scare, very McCarthyian in its ways. People can choose to take away from it what they want. I choose to stand by my assertions that making more parts of ourselves– our opinions, especially– can only bring us closer to an authentic life.
Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, recently said on NPR that there was no such thing, ever, as objective journalism. I agree with this. What he, and many others, are saying now is that these social technologies are giving rise to a new form of transparent journalism. And that will be incredibly powerful stuff.
SJ: Finally, why is it, do you think, that there’s such a reaction against the idea of “personal branding” on certain social networks, when that’s what’s encouraged so often by employers (and the shift to a freelance economy where selling yourself is often necessary)?
DZ:“Personal branding” feels inauthentic to us, and rightly so. What I have in the book about personal branding sort of sums it up neatly:
“People shouldn’t be acting more like brands,” [author Tara Hunt] said. “We’re humans! Instead of having a personal brand, why not just have a personality?” I couldn’t agree more. Remember that not only is sharing authentically what will win people over to your charming personality, but it’s also what’s going to change the world. Do we want to create “brands” out of each other or share our true selves?
That said, it’s certainly OK to pick the areas of expertise that you want to focus on to build your professional presence– just make sure it’s you that you’re sharing, not a branded version of you.
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