The Key to Saving the World in the Era of Social Media May Be Real Human Connection
Facebook recently celebrated its 15th birthday.
In those fifteen short years, Facebook and other social media platforms have transformed the way we we communicate, the ways we share, and the way we learn. They’ve also transformed the way we organize.
Social media is the foundation upon which the Women’s March, Student Walkouts, and many more of the biggest mobilizations of the past five years were built. It’s become the backbone of rapid response organizations and given fledgling organizations the reach to turn small actions into game-changing interventions.
Strategic digital integration has yielded some of the most people-powered campaigns in recent memory, like the Bernie 2016 campaign, which harnessed over 400,000 volunteers and is quickly becoming the model for the modern-day political campaign. And still our understanding of possibilities of the impact that can be achieved by properly harnessing this technology is only in its infancy.
Social media is here to stay. That’s why organizations and campaigners are fastidiously tracking social metrics. Likes, shares, comments, reach — we’re measuring it all and charting our progress as we watch out networks grow.
Yet, among all the benchmarks organizations and non-profits rigorously capture from week to week, most aren’t tracking our digital programs’ impact on what is potentially the most important and powerful metric of all — the number of human connections they create.
To be fair, this isn’t exactly what social media was designed to do. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others aren’t built to foster deep human connections; they’re built to maximize our time on their platforms. Social media uses notifications to trigger the release of dopamine to fool our brains into thinking we are making meaningful connections and keep us on their sites. Our brains think this is making us happy which is why we keep coming back for more but it’s actually making us miserable. One study found that the more people use Facebook the less happy they were about their lives both in the day to day and overall.
Our social media usage at best leaves us emotionally overwhelmed and settling for shallow likes in lieu of real connection and, at worst, creates a petri dish for isolation, depression, and extremism.
It’s a crisis that is having a serious and real impact on our society. But, as is always true with organizing, where there is crisis there is opportunity: because of the psychological wasteland created by social media people are hungrier than ever for connection, and human connection, it so happens, is a critical engine for social change.
As organizers we have an incredible opportunity to fill this void and change the world for the better in the process.
Social connections drive active engagement in social justice issues
Relationships matter. The connections people make can have an incredible impact on their views, beliefs, and actions.
A 2009 study examining the motivations that drive people to become activists found that community and connection shape political beliefs. Researcher Ziad Munson found that 47% of activists at the frontline of the pro-life movement were either pro-choice or indifferent to issues of abortion when they joined the movement and furthermore, that their beliefs were transformed by their relationships with pro-lifers.
Harhrie Han, a social researcher, sums up how the desire for community contributed to the pro-life activation neatly in her 2017 New York Times piece (emphasis mine):
“They attended because a friend asked them, they had just joined a new church, or they retired and had more free time. They stayed, however, because at these events, they found things we all want: friends, responsibility, a sense that what they are doing matters.
Through their experiences with pro-life groups in their community their views on the issue transformed, and so did their ideas of themselves as activists”
The participants in Munson’s study built relationships that made them feel supported, purposeful, and actualized — meeting the needs at the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy. These needs are so core and motivating that once met by the pro-life community participants shifted their ideology and actions to deepen and maintain their bonds.
While the prospect of pro-choice sympathizers transforming into pro-life crusaders is worrying to many, this is actually good news for campaigners. These base needs — friends, responsibility, a sense that what they are doing matters — are things social justice organizers working to transform the world for the better can provide. It is well within the reach of movements organizations to meet these needs through their issue work.
Doing this also has another positive outcome: It can create a new generation of activists who are engaged in our organizations for the long-haul.
Han’s research in “How Organizations Develop Activists” points to evidence that social relationships facilitate long-term investment. Han found that meaningful roles and connections, as opposed to transactional relationships where organizations solely ask members to giving money or fill out an action alerts, or do an isolated task, kept newly activated individuals engaged for a significantly longer period of time and supported them to step into leadership.
Anyone who has been a part of an organization or movement for justice can also, anecdotally, attest to this. Every collaboration, friendship, and movement-baby is evidence of the power of social relationships in the organizing world. In 2011 when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was in full swing in New York City, people returned to, or slept in, Liberty Square day after day in grueling conditions and constant threat of arrest not because they were being counted as a statistic, or asked to contribute pocket change, but because they were meeting new, engaged, passionate people who wanted to try to change the world. I know that’s why, despite the chaos and confusion and drum circles, I kept returning. For the first time in my life I was meeting other young people who were as outraged about wealth inequality as I was and who were determined to do something about it. Finally, I wasn’t alone.
The relationships I formed at Occupy continue to be some of the most important connections of my organizing career and are a key part of why I remain active in this work to this day. That’s what relationships are good for; they support us to keep coming back to fight for justice another day.
Active engagement changes how society feels about social justice issues
Keeping organizations or movements staffed is not the only positive outcome of continued engagement, it also turns out that continued active engagement is a key component in what shifts what is societally possible.
Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist now at the Harvard Kennedy School, found in her break-through research that it takes 3.5% of a population engaged in sustained nonviolent resistance to win social change. Just a small proportion of the overall population taking visible action is all it takes to sway the feelings of the population at large, topple dictatorships, and transform political conditions — and in many cases that transformation can happen with even less than 3.5% of the population.
If we study polling on public sentiment from our own movement history we can see that this holds true in our past. In moments where there were high degrees of public action, the Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968), The Rodney King protests (1992), and the protests in the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman (2013) were all followed by spikes in public concern about racism.
This trend has continued and advanced with the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives.
Visible public action can prioritize what issues are front and center in society. If organizations want to affect what is politically possible they must have leaders taking bold action; and, again, nothing will keep those leaders engaged and energized like real social relationships.
Relationships are a critical metric for impact: If we build human connections, we can create leaders who want to take action, and shift public opinion and win the future we deserve.
It’s time for our organizations and movements to prioritize cultivating relationships
This means we need to invest in fostering and cultivating human connection at scale.
We cannot just run campaigns online, and we cannot just run campaigns online and offline — we must draw new people from online and offline into relationships and meaningful roles that built capacity for our issue or movement.
The key skills of digital campaigners — writing powerful and impactful messaging, jumping on a rapid response moment, quickly rolling out a strategy — are not the same skills as creating relationships and connections en mass. Yes, we can invest in new technology to help facilitate connection and interaction, but tech alone will not forge meaningful connections.
Organizations must hire people who can not just individually organize membership, but construct spaces to build meaningful relationships at scale. These people are often facilitators and trainers who are practiced at intentionally designing spaces to cultivate connection.
Organizations must engineer new infrastructure to create relationships at scale. It’s not enough to engage members solely with action alerts and donation opportunities, we must include opportunities for purposeful engagement, leadership development, and the cultivation of social relationships that are powered by people and — critically — can meet the size of our digital reach.
In my opinion, no one has done this better than Dani Moscovitch, the Training Director for IfNotNow, a decentralized movement of young Jews calling on American Jewish institutions to end support of the Israeli occupation and promote freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians. In just three short years Moscovitch has created a scalable, transformational training program that has reached over two thousand people and brought hundreds of new leaders into her movement. The training program, which is now decentralized and driven by hundreds of volunteers all over the country, has been such a success that it has even converted intended disruptors of IfNotNow into full time movement leaders (a positive reversal of the above anti-choice example).
When I asked Dani what makes the training program so transformational, she noted that an essential part of what the training program facilitates is the transformation of individual alienation into collective action and community.
The program brings together young Jewish Americans who all too frequently feel personally estranged from their own Jewish identity because of the violence in Israel and Palestine. Together in the training space, these young people grapple with and come to understand the interconnectedness of the fight against anti-semitism, and Palestinian liberation.
This emotional component is essential. In Moscovitch’s own works, “What makes [the training] special is we bring people into the container [of the training] and engage them, first and foremost, from the vantage point of their heart.”
After an orientation to the movement strategy and theory of change, leaders emerge from the training ready to take on the establishment and claim their identify as part of a new generation of Jewish leadership. They are energized and feel supported to fight for the liberation of Palestinians and their own community, and they feel and know they can win.
And IfNotNow is winning. They are in the process of creating the very intervention in the status quo they set out to, and it is in large part because of the leaders they cultivated.
The intention, strategy, and craft of IfNotNow is nothing to shortchange — their leadership systematically designed their culture, strategy and goals for nearly a year before their launch — But a critical engine of their movement is human connection. IfNotNow has built the infrastructure to convert their likes, comments, and reach into real relationship and power. They demonstrate a model for how harnessing people’s need for meaningful connection can benefit every social justice cause in this country.
Building and scaling structures to support emotional connections is not easy, but it’s not impossible and there are institutions that can help.
Momentum a movement incubator, trains campaigners and helps organizations engineer structures to support opportunities for meaningful mass participation to yield social impact. Momentum trains organizers how to use scalable training, coaching, and leadership development in combination with digital strategy to bring hundreds of new leaders into membership. Its teachings are currently employed by IfNotNow, Movimiento Cosecha, and the Sunrise Movement to change the terms of the debate.
Interested organizers can find the 2019 training schedule here.
For more brass tacks support with implementation, Training for Change has courses on facilitating and building relationships and PowerLabs helps organizations harness technology to create community online and off.
However we approach it, we’ve never been more able to facilitate real human connection at scale than we are now and it is urgent that we begin to prioritize this in our work.
In 15 short years, Facebook has swiftly eroded and undermined our faith in our institutions and each other — and the toxicity is only growing. The most powerful thing we can do right now to combat this is shore up our relationships and welcome people into healthy communities. Only real social cohesion can fend off the digital misinformation that is rapidly unwinding the fabric of our society. Social movements can use this crisis to build something much more powerful than just a buffer against fake news — they can build purpose-driven communities that might just save the world.