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The value of protests in the algorithm age

Protests

Protests have an important place in global history, from Gandhi’s Salt March to The March on Washington and MLK’s famed speech. Selma — “The Bridge” — is essentially a protest, and that drove American history forward too (and provided a connection point between Obama and those who came before him). The broader point? Protests are important. They are influential and valuable, and as Aziz Ansari noted in his Saturday Night Live monologue this weekend, most change doesn’t come from one man (i.e. a President or leader). Change comes from groups of people getting aggravated or annoyed about things, which often happens in the form of protests.

We’ve now ideally established that protests are meaningful and relevant. But the contextual nature of them is changing with technology and human nature, and I think that needs to be considered a little bit. Let’s do that now.

Protests and algorithms 

We live in an age of algorithms right now. That’s hard to deny. Much of what you get shown about people you know is the result of algorithms. I don’t know if I can make this any clearer, but let’s try a story.

I personally don’t like Facebook that much and often find it depressing, but I realize a lot of people are on there — and very often. Recently, I use it more as a way to build up my freelance business. As a result, I interact with a lot of marketing peeps and “thought leaders” on there. Because of that approach, some of my real friends slide down my algorithm. I’ve got friends in NYC named Molly and Edwin. They had a kid a few months back. Because I consciously engage with people who might hire me via Facebook, I see less and less posts about this kid — even though his parents are my friends, and these potential clients are not. This is a peril of capitalism, yes. But it also explains how algorithms are dictating our world and what we get to “see.”

[Tweet “How we get, and see, information needs to change how we think about protests and organizing.”]

Algorithms work because they re-enforce what you already like and believe, which helps companies sell you crap. It also makes you want to keep coming back, because you’re feeling good about the stuff you see. (Mostly.) In short: algorithms basically feed your posts to like-minded individuals, because that’s how they work. It’s how they benefit their creators. This has implications for protests.

How?

This is what a lot of people do, honestly. They share a photo on Instagram from a march — like the women’s marches this weekend. The photo is funny, and/or maybe some of your other friends are in it. You hit “like.” Maybe you even comment.

A lot of people stop there. They think that action — hitting “like” or sharing the photo — is the protest. That’s “fighting Trump” or “fighting this other ill.” This is, unfortunately, not right.

First off, hitting “like” on anything is the most passive action of the modern age. At this point, it means next to nothing.

Secondly, these Instagram protest pictures are being served up to people who feel the same way as you in probably 80 percent of instances. Again, that’s how algorithms work. So rather than being an active part of protests, you’re just underscoring the beliefs of like-minded people.

That’s not actually how change happens. Change happens as a result of agitation, and it happens because people learn about positions opposite of their own. That’s why how to convince someone (of anything) might well be the currency of the modern age.

But I went to the march. You didn’t. So why are you writing this?

Going to the march is great. Being a part of history is great. But what I’m saying is that documenting it on social media and thinking that’s the be-all and end-all is wrong.

So what would be right?

Take the next step. Those would include:

  • Gather emails of people you meet at protests and create a group thread
  • Give money to a cause you respect and fear for
  • Work on a city council or state assembly election
  • Create a newsletter
  • Code a platform where people can meet up and organize/discuss more easily
  • Join a young professional group
  • Talk to your kids about what’s happening and why, even if they can’t yet understand
  • Create coffee learning sessions in your community

These things go one beyond. They make the protests themselves more valuable, because the core issue of the protests lives on beyond the 29 likes it got on Instagram.

A quick note on attention spans

Attention spans are dropping left and right, especially in America. Social media is to blame for some of this, yes. But go into most offices in America and ask people “How are you doing?” The common response is “Busy busy busy!” Lots of stress and “no time for that!” moments out there. Social media plays into that, because if we post a comment or heart something, it feels like we did our part quickly and easily. But some fights are bigger, and require more. These fights are not as conducive to social media. Social media can be a great way to bring people together, but you need to go 1-2 steps beyond simply that.

The protests-meetings parallel

Look, protests are different from meetings — although I bet 1 in every 2 professionals would want to protest meetings if they could. But in the age of algorithms, they are similar in one way.

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Most meetings are a joke. People fart around the real issue, talk over each other, say the same shit, and nothing is accomplished. No action items are anywhere in sight. 72 hours later, that meeting was “tree falls in a forest.” It meant nothing.

Well, if you approach protests as “Look at my sign on Insta, it killed it on likes!,” that’s the same thing as a bad meeting. It’s just a turd in time. Doesn’t ultimately mean or accomplish anything.

As I said above, change comes from conflict, and conflict comes from agitation with some degree of organizational aptitude behind it. This is why most companies only use “change management” if their revenues are tanking. They hadn’t thought about it before, and now it’s punching them in the mouth. Before that, they were just a bunch of like-minded drones saying the same stuff all day. Now they’re scrambling.

If you truly want to “fight” in the age of algorithms and personal bubbles, it requires going 1-2 steps beyond the easiest thing you can do. Organize. Talk. Build. Join. Grow. These things will get you fighting. Your Instagram pictures of protests are just a snapshot in time.

 

Ted Bauer

4 Comments

  1. Damn you Ted! I was just about to write almost the exact same observations on my blog. Now you’ve scuppered me. Good work buddie! Now what was that quote about great minds? 😉

    • Hahahaha. I’ve come up with a topic for your blog, as an aside. Hopefully will get to it today after some target-chasing.

  2. Protest is necessary at times, but the culture of protest can be self-defeating…For example, I remember one time I attended a public meeting which was a step in the process of the state of Indiana issuing an environmental permit to a venture planning to build a fertilizer plant near Rockport, IN. The reason I attended the meeting was as a favor to a friend in China who was working with China Development Bank, which was to provide commercial financing for the venture. The underwriting committee wanted to determine whether they were interested in moving forward on the project, so my friend asked me to observe the meeting and write a report for him to submit to underwriting.

    At the public meeting, representatives of Valley Watch (an environmental watchdog organization) and the Sierra Club were protesting the venture. I approached the protesters to get a copy of their research reports to submit to underwriting. The protesters became very demanding that I provide names and contact information so they could protest to the bank. I told them that I hadn’t been authorized to provide information, but that I could present their reports to underwriting who would decide whether to proceed with financing the venture. I told them that their best chance to influence the outcome was to share their data. (If the data was half as damning as they suggested, it would be unlikely that the underwriters would consent to financing the venture.) However, the protesters didn’t want to make a rational argument to the bank through channels. They simply wanted to protest, and they refused to share their data with me. (Lacking a clear reason not to proceed, the bank underwriters ended up approving the financing.)

    I come from a sales background, and part of my methodology is to figure out how to get things done in a variety of scenarios. It is not always clear who the decision-makers are in a given situation (sometimes even the decision-makers themselves get confused about that.) There are always internal and external factors like contracts, budgets, regulatory issues, etc. to consider, and making things happen can require research and diplomacy. Salesmen could picket outside their prospect’s office buildings, demanding that they purchase their product, but they don’t because that’s not how it’s done. Protest has its place, but it is not a panacea. It can be effective, but it can also work against the agenda of the protesters, as happened in my example above.

  3. As a programmer who does Unix, C, JAVA, LISP and a host of other primordial soups, you’ve got it, here’s what you might add, A.I. Is the real game changer and rearranger.

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