Human Rights, On Story, Personal

Navigating Complex Messaging and Content Plans for Issue-oriented Campaigns

For The University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program, I recently completed an extensive transmedia content plan for our Leadership through Communities and Networks course final project.  The project parameters were seemingly quite broad, asking participants to “create, and present an original work that reflects your professional ambitions and relates to a field within Communications.” The intentionally broad parameters were set to help us define our creative voice within the context of a professional community, an important aspect of success within a creative field. After overcoming creative agoraphobia (in itself a worthy exercise), I found direction in the desire to merge past and present, melding my prior experience in working for non-profits with the current impetus to harness digital media strategies in the shaping of a non-profit communication strategy.

I currently work as a media producer for the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, and chose to create a transmedia content plan for the international justice work we’re conducting at the Center.  Although the Center’s work in El Salvador began several years ago, in November we launched the public-facing Unfinished Sentences component of the project. The work of the Center supports recent momentum around Salvadoran efforts for justice following the atrocities of the armed conflict from 1980-1992, while the campaign aims “ encourage public participation in support of human rights in El Salvador.”

Essentially the problem we’re trying to solve in this case is: how do we engage a wider audience in an important issue that seems far away in time and place? One step further, how can current communication technology be utilized to best explain a complex issue and encourage public participation?

Due to the recent launch and current lack of resources, we’ve taken a relatively uni-platform approach to the work since November. The Leadership and Communities class provided the perfect opportunity for me to test newly-learned techniques to craft, and potentially execute, a comprehensive multi-platform content strategy.

The complexity of El Salvador’s history and current efforts toward justice is reason enough to deter people from engaging in the campaign, and/or consuming content. As a result, experimenting (ethically) with storytelling techniques becomes of paramount importance. Constructing the content strategy for this campaign did reveal a significant amount of insight in the process, so I’m including a list of five developing principles the effort has helped form toward navigating issue-advocacy in a networked world.

1) Accessibility: unfortunately not everyone cares about your mission or thinks it’s important.

In my close to ten years in working with non-profits, I’ve spoken with many passionate and wonderful individuals who focus on issue advocacy. Through this work I’ve noticed many people, over time, begin to communicate the details of their work in a way that reduces accessibility to the issue. The combination of passion, experience, and proximity to the issue creates a sense of urgency and nuanced knowledge that serves to segment the individual or organization from the general public. While this serves to advance the work—refinement and nuance are welcomed natural developments to any field—communicators in their respective fields interested in growing a community of action-takers must constantly re-evaluate message through the lens of someone who doesn’t think your mission is very important.

2) Simplicity, then drillability.

Only tell one story at a time, and provide multiple channels of accessibility so media consumers who are interested can choose their level of complexity. Providing a simplified, accessible, version of a complex narrative is important in drawing a larger audience into the issue; however, it’s important that this simplified narrative offers channels to fully understand the issue’s complexity of the issue, or run the risk discrediting the effort.  Sam Gregory from the acclaimed human rights media organization WITNESS, in his assessment of the successes and failures of the Kony 2012 campaign, refers to this important aspect of the issue representation as “moving to drillability alongside spreadability” (Kony 2012 through a Prism Advocacy Practices and Trends). The Kony 2012 campaign was highly effective in spreadability, though it lacked sufficient ways for viewers to dig deeper into the issue, or properly represent Ugandan voices, to name a few. In the current case of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, restructuring the complex front messaging to follow this principle could result in greater mass appeal.

3) Use content more strategically instead of producing more content.

A wealth of perspectives exists within singular subjects in combination with the abundance of social platforms, provides a natural way to seek out and divide “drillable” areas of content over various platforms.  Instead of trying to over-produce new content, think about how a story could unfold utilizing the strengths of a specific platform (Flickr vs Soundcloud vs. Pinterest, for example).

4) Provide concrete actions that strongly correlate to the narrative advocated by the campaign.

Human rights videos should provide a way for viewers to take action on the campaign. Gregory argues that “[the viewer’ s] realistic option to exercise agency should not just be an add-on action at the end of a video but a response that makes sense based on the narrative journey they’ve gone through while engaging with the media.” (2012)

One of the reasons why the Kony 2012 campaign was so successful was the actionable component of the campaign was closely tied to the narrative journey in which the film took viewers. In other words, asking viewers to share a video was directly tied to the filmmaker’s narrative of the Internet’s potential in effecting change (Gregory 2012). This notion had me examining gaps between the messaging and “Take Action” components of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, and re-envisioning how we could best create an effective space for action.

5) Not everything is an emergency. When an issue demands long-term engagement, consider supplementary content and a change in visual and communication style to coincide with narrative arcs.

About once or week, I receive a notice from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that comes off as some sort of crisis—Special interests are taking over! Debilitating defeats require immediate action! The Republicans are turning into flesh eating bacteria!  I find a similar style of messaging in emails I receive from SumofUs, CARE, the National Resources Defense Council and many others. Communicating urgency and crisis might work for short-term actions, but extending this style to long-term engagement results in issue-fatigue. Campaigns could benefit in taking cues from storytelling techniques and thinking about their issue-advocacy as a narrative arc with peaks and valleys, cautiously and respectfully including supplementary content. In the Unfinished Sentences example, oral histories about human rights violations distributed one-month, supplemented by cultural offerings, such as stories about community traditions or regional music, could reduce issue-fatigue and maintain an audience’s attention long-term. Fostering an emotional connection with a wider audience will require content that speaks to dynamism and diversity of an audience’s interests, plus that more authentically represents the spectrum led by the community we represent through our storytelling.

The influence of mass communication on activism is age-old, however the intersection of digital media technologies with activism is relatively new, and constantly being re-defined. The debate around the terminology alone—Storytelling for change, Transmedia Storytelling for Good, Digital Activism, Cyberactivism, Online Activism, Transmedia Activism—hints at the level of ambiguity found in this work: I hope continued work on this project will lead to additional discoveries.

Have any stories or issue-campaigns inspired you to take action in some form, no matter how simple? What about the messaging motivated you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


Experimenting with Timelapse: Network and Community Map

For an exercise in examining social networks and communities, I shied away from using visualization software and opted instead go analog with dye-filled cups. I love digital media, but practicing the craft means I often work at my computer until I see blurry. Manipulating the cups (relationships) provided a much needed return to 3D physical visualization. This physicality was again revealed in an interesting statistic I found while analyzing my Facebook and Linked In connections: 97% of my social networks began with a face-to face interaction. This timelapse was my first take on the exploration of shifting relationships and the variables of physicality, proximity, relevance, and size. The attempt truly makes me want to geek out on data visualization.

By the way, if you do want to analyze your networks and make some techno-maps using digital tools, I’ve been hearing good things about the open source data visualization software Gelphi.

Take a macro look at your communities and social networks, digitally or analog, and share with me if you find any interesting themes.

Books, Personal

Be the Change We Want to See… in Our Networks?

In continuation of a discussion on the intersection of leadership and communication, our class at UW is reading Adam Grant’s popular Give and Take, a critique on how our individual actions influence our success. Grant places individuals within three categories, “givers, takers, or matchers,” describing them by the way each interacts with others in personal and professional relationships, while challenging common behavioral patterns around reciprocity and competition that guide our social interactions. As a whole, Grant’s text creates compelling reasons to ditch societal tropes like the Golden Rule for new ways of operating that focus primarily on giving.

I found, on the individual level, one of Grant’s strongest arguments for a “giver” is the “norm of added value” their unbounded giving can manifest: each time an individual engages in an act of giving within their network, that individual therefore encourages a culture of greater giving within their network. I found Grant’s words to place Gandhi’s omnipresent “Be the change you want to see in the world,” within the context of business-oriented professionals and their associated networks. Who wouldn’t want to help create a culture of giving?

One test I often put forward for sweeping ethical principals, and to those that proselytize them, is the accessibility test: how much of the advocated theory applies to individuals in a variety of situations, locations, industries, and financial situations? Many of Grant’s suggestions and case studies are geared toward giving in a networked professional world, even citing examples of Adam Rifkin’s writing of 256 recommendations on LinkedIn as giver behavior (and it is). Even though Grant strongly advocates “creating value for others” as essential to giver mechanics, which has wide applicability across many segments of society, Grant’s case studies and examples lose broader applicability. In other words, the text often comes across as very white-man person business “professional” while his principles do not.

Despite some drawbacks, I fundamentally enjoyed the thought-provoking and reflective read. I found Grant to blend core philosophies of Buddhism, such as the importance of giving without any expectation of reward, within language of the corporate world and its incessant emphasis on success. Although here again the blend felt a little disheartening at times (Do we need to think about our giving as having tangible benefit that manifest themselves in material gains for everyone, even if it’s not self-motivated?), overall Grant created a text for a business-driven society that defines success on some tangible material progress; any movement toward collectivism is progress in my mind.

Would you define yourself as a giver, taker, or matcher (or other) in the workplace? How does your perspective apply to your daily communication?


On Creative Process

I was recently asked to reflect on my creative process in an exercise called a “scratching” (a la Twyla Tharp’s recommendation in The Creative Habit).  My take on scratching, and not the type requiring vinyl and Technics is: what you to do clear your mind so interesting ideas fill the void. Something you fall back on when you’re forced to be creative, need to be creative.

Somewhat elusive, I find setting the stage for “spontaneous creativity” results from several processes in succession.  First, the tried and true, I clear my head. A more inviting mind provides the mental space to start part II, behaviors that fire me up to feel creative. Lastly, I get started with the making. A great mass of inertia from the weight of our daily lives requires much energy and focus to overcome, so the process of movement takes dedication. What these actions look like,of course, will be different for everyone.

As part of the first step I need to set a disciplined slot of free time. Disciplined and free, under normal human circumstances, don’t belong together, but in juggling work, grad school, babies,.and kittens, scheduled free time is part of the creative package, or it rarely happens. I’ll say to myself, “No matter what comes up you will not miss that dance class on Tuesday.” And this leads me to the activity that clears my head the most…

Movement. Jogging works a little, as does yoga, but what works the best by far is dance. (I’m suddenly remembering the iconic line from Dazed and Confused while writing this) Give me a salsa class, an uncomfortable improv where I’m forced to stare someone in the eye for five minutes while dancing Riverdance, african, pole dancing (haven’t tried it yet, but want to), or hip hop class–any movement where I feel simultaneously old and spinally-liberated and my mind will clear. I’m way too busy trying to move 175 lbs. of flesh weighted down by Pho and IPAs to care about anything else in the world for 90 minutes.

Lately I’ve been dancing at Velocity Dance Center, a studio in Seattle upon which I can’t heap enough praises. Their instructors are phenomenal, and their classes strike a perfect balance between challenging and emancipating. As part of this scratching exercise, I went to Velocity’s Bottom Heavy Funk class last Tuesday where I tried to dance like one of Beyonce’s back up dancers to Partition, a bass heavy track off of her December digital release.  I pray no one actually recorded me, but the video of the talented Yanis Marshall and his crew teaching a class in the Ukraine sums up my intention:

This usually leaves me feeling pretty (and?) creative.

The next step I take to encourage visual thinking is not nearly as eventful, but just as insightful. I browse photography and graphic design magazines at bookstores and look at the minute details of a piece or technique that catch my eye. Also, browsing Asian grocery stores tends to leave the same graphic impression: with cute seaweed, taro bun, and soy milk packages abound, I’m ready to go home and create something round and happy.

Like most people, I’m assuming, the part that most often holds me up is the actual act of starting a project. The lesson that has been long in the making, the one I still need to remind myself of often is: just start. It seems simple, but it’s rather profound. Stop thinking and start working. If you’re working on a writing project, sit down and start writing or typing, even if it’s I can’t think of anything to say right now. If it’s a portfolio, start placing a few of your favorite images into a spread. For a video, shoot something outside of your apartment. Start with some concept, or a basic building block, no matter how silly it might seem, as your project will quickly evolve.

More than anything, I find the most inspiration and excitement in the moments above, or others, when I’m not judging myself, allowing ridiculousness and lightheartedness to take over, even if just for a moment. This is difficult practice. And that’s where I see these types of activities to be most effective. Go scratch yourself some Beyonce in your bedroom, paint a still life, put on that bright kitty print shirt on a grey day, or emulate your favorite graf stencil with a can of spray paint out on the sidewalk (on a piece of paper, of course…outside for the fresh air). Just be more fearless with your badass self. Let the creativity follow.

How do you feel inspired on a time crunch?


Big Data and Monetized Liberation

Petabytes of blog data has been created over the past couple of year with the buzz about Big Data. It’s almost enough to make me go off-the-grid, spin a homegrown hemp sack and communicate solely via morse code. However, given the power of Big Data, linked databases and predictive analysis, chances are Google has already known this for some time, and any decision I make on said choice of a solar cells and hemp agriculture materials will be heavily influenced by information I’ve already received via targeting marketing. So I’m going to stick with this blog until I finish this degree and figure out how to better fly under the radar.

Then last Saturday, as part of a formal debate, I was placed on the “pro” team in favor of the more generalized use of consumer and citizen data– for targeted marketing and predictive analysis, for Facebook’s liberal use of consumer data, even for widespread NSA surveillance as a necessary part of their anti-terrorism program. As one who reads blogs such as the Moneyless Manifesto, with serious contemplation, the assignment was indigestion-inducing.

However, in my fictitious process of defending NSA profiling, I facetiously argued that greater intrusion into our lives could spur greater civic engagement and self-creativity, like the swine flu spurs unfettered media reaction, even if the engagement would be reactive instead of proactive. I may have smirked when I suggested this phenomena, but the smirk yielded to momentary pause, then scrutiny. Could the unprecedented use of consumer data truly foster unparalleled individual oversight into use of our data? Will the skyrocketing value of the data we create champion a highly astute consumer behavior steward? Recent attention created by people such Federico Zannier, who is currently selling 50-days worth of his private data in a Kickstarter Campaign, may speak to this impending change.

It’s practically cliche to lament how technological advancements outpace change in our democratic institutions. Creation, it seems, moves exponentially quicker than regulation and interpretation. The lag between the two– institutional response and technology– creates opportunity for abuse and erosion of privacy, transparency, independence, the type of abuses we’re witnessing now by the NSA and Facebook (I hope this is a grossly unfair comparison in the same sentence). Clearly Big Data has the potential to be a dangerously unethical force in our lives. A common example of this threat is the potential intersection of consumer behavior data with health insurance data: if our lifestyle choices are made available, how does predictive analysis factor into health insurance coverage or rates?

I find comfort, however, in the belief that our underlying democratic values have not changed, but have strengthened.  Sure, distraction is at an all time high, but truth, transparency, and trust are also in high demand in this age of easy digital manipulation and dissemination. How we give shape to this value system in an era of wearable electronics, abundant data, and the internet of everything, is up to us.

The proliferation of Big Data will require an unprecedented level of media literacy and citizen engagement in order to keep Big Data “clean” : discovering patterns in disease, creating sustainable cities, and improving efficiency across thousands of products and processes. This type of successful citizen oversight will require continued educational and institutional emphasis on technical knowledge, data and policy analysis, and when necessary, advocating for accountability and change–new hallmarks for a successful techno-democracy. Though I mockingly associated data surveillance as driver of a stronger democracy in last Saturday’s debate, as digital technology becomes more embedded in our lives, and the potential for abuse of that data grows stronger, we must all become guardians of our own domain (literally).The push for matching technology to the open, democratic values fostered by connectivity could very well result in more robust and intelligent citizen engagement, or in Zannier’s case, monetized liberation.

On Story, Personal

From Spotted Owls to Memes

Wireless networks. Social networks. Network TV. Neural networks. Some of us think of networks every day; while others just think about them when we look up our neighbor’s wireless network names. Networked thinking, however, according to Brett Friedman, adjunct professor for the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program and Chief Creative Officer at Rainspark Labs, is more than just thinking about the hardware and physicality of connections. Mastering our behavior, in terms of networked thinking, will be essential to professional success, and making sense of our world.

As an undergrad in New Orleans, LA, studying the ecological sciences, discussions of connectivity in natural systems was par for the course. I still recall a professor commenting on the hullabaloo created by the logging industry and various opponents to proposed logging restrictions within the habitat of the Northwest Spotted Owl. “It’s not about a single species, but the complex set of interactions, both micro and macro, that a single species represents.” According to the tenets of ecology, enormous organic variability springs forth from a fixed set of rules, a hunt to peel away structure from the seemingly unstructured.

I find it serendipitous then, under the shadow of some of the same trees populated by the Spotted Owl, to discuss today’s evolution of communication in terms of networked relationships. Friedman quotes Kevin Kelley, in New Rules to the New Economy, in defining a network as organic behavior in a technical matrix.  Our communication networks, an extension of physical relationships (and as produced by living humans, biological) theoretically operate according to principles that govern networked biological behavior.  Within the seemingly endless variety of content we produce, proponents of network theory argue that success in this realm, or the ability to be “seen” by others en masse, depends on mastering this information flow.

While the search for this “Google Maps” of the Universe, or universal structure, is nothing new, the enormous amounts of data generated by our connected world has unleashed tremendous new insight into the dynamics of systems and human relationships. This potential power of networks is animated brilliantly in this production by Manuel Lima of Cognitive Media, a fellow at RSA (The Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce).

I’m still trying to determine where I stand with network theory providing a unifying theory of structure; It’s odd for me to equate nutrient cycling with, let’s say, how open letters to Miley Cyrus circulate on the web. Yet, I like the implications of this line of thought. Taking this back once again to our relationship with our natural environment, much of the popular face of the environmental movement has historically focused on preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving nature. This has evolved to preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving ourselves. I’d like to fantasize this Miley nutrient cycling brings us one step closer to a “post-environmental world”, one where we view all human behavior as fully governed by natural systems, fundamentally interconnected on all levels, from fluffy viral pop culture memes, to biological connections that foster conservation.

Will our love and obsession with creating, consuming, and distributing media lead us to look deeper into systems overall, or just become more of a distraction? Of course participation in a system doesn’t necessarily generate insight applicable to a wider world, in the way depositing money at my bank doesn’t do much to help me understand financial systems. But understanding how a meme spreads between populations, for example, and its associated network behavior could help change-makers better in building campaigns that lead to more lasting change. The Spotted Owls of today and tomorrow might thank us for it.

If you have any thoughts on how modern communication resemble natural systems, or could benefit conservation, I’d love to hear them!


On Story, Personal

Presentation Reflection #1

The University of Washington’s first stimulating Comm Lead class, from the Community and Networks series,  offered a significant sampling of the modern communication infrastructure. To further employ the analogy, new roads and highways came in the form of Hanson Hosein’s presentations on current trends and changes; transportation analysis and design through Lisa Coutu’s presentation on communication theory; driver education through McGarrity’s dynamic presentation on public speaking;  and the possibilities of new infrastructure to realize destinations through Sandra Jackson-Dumont’s proposition for a new communication system to re-define the Seattle Art Museum.

One of the most exciting implications of our current Storyteller Uprising, as Hanson describes is the tight overlay of new communication strategies with alterations in actual business models–organizational infrastructures cannot support the influence of customer networks without significantly changing the way business services are delivered. Throughout the day, Dave Gray’s Connected Company was brought to life in examples with Starbucks, Lifewise Health Insurance, and Ford.  Speaking to the rise of storytelling and related community-networks, Hanson highlighted a quote from Adobe’s Quaterly Trends, March 2013,  denoting, “[T]he top three priorities for 2013 tell the story of how companies are aiming to build emotional ties that contribute to the bottom line.”

As a communications aficionado, this statement intrigues me; as a human being concerned with truth, transparency, and authenticity, I hesitate at this statement of corporate intention. What is the human capacity for a more targeted emotional tug and pull? What new level of media literacy will consumers need to develop to see through this new delivery of emotion-driven content? Given the potential for greater distrust to develop over time in an emotionally competitive mediascape, how will these narratives affect interpersonal communication?

Where pitfalls persists, so does opportunity. I have overwhelming faith in the public to hold corporations to entirely new standards of truth, transparency, and authenticity, driven by communities created through digital engagement. Storytelling, after all, connects most effectively not when it’s a blind appeal to emotion, but emotion founded upon a value system truly supported by its representative culture. The success of Cain’s Arcade, and the resulting ascendency of its related Imagination Foundation, overwhelmingly speaks to the alignment of value with emotion-driven storytelling.

It’s a fascinating time for the intersection of media and it’s ability to drive business and organizational programming. If you have any additional thoughts on the intersection, I’d love to hear from you.


No fresh meat this time

In just one day, I’ll begin my first class in The University of Washington’s Communication Leadership Program.  This time around, as well-seasoned Master’s candidate, I won’t be scouring campus bars as an ingredient in the freshmen “freshmeat” tour. Instead, this time I’ll be fostering conversation on the intersection of strategic communication, storytelling, multimedia journalism, and community engagement. Times have changed indeed, hopefully for the better. Even though I’m childless and have no current vacation plans,  I see parallels to a recent comment a friend made, “I yearn for the days when my Facebook feed contained everyone’s embarrassing party pictures…now it’s a bunch of babies and vacations.”  Well, I like babies, as long as they’re on skateboards with Go Pros strapped to them.