[This presentation was posted in three pieces. Section markers appear at the breaks as there were sometimes brief gaps between them.]
Malia Lazu: So, I’m going to talk a little bit about what I’ve been studying at MIT, and also on how I’ve come to that place and then the outcomes. I’m a community organizer. Two of my dear mentors are in this room with Kenny and Naj. And I came to organizing work because I believe in our liberation. And seeing that little boy saying how great—I just…it just sort of sent home for me what it is that we’re doing.
But after fifteen of years of community organizing, I became tired. I became tired of banging my head against the wall. I became tired of knocking on the same doors and either seeing the same people or different people. But I really just felt like I was in this cycle of faux liberation, where I would feel a victory, and the victory was probably formed around the RFP for the grant that we needed to get in order to do our work. And so all of it sort of felt inauthentic to me.
And at the same time, a lot of my network are in the entertainment field, and in marketing and advertising. And so they were using technology to reach their consumers, and it mirrored the work that I wanted to do. So they were working for Hennessy or whatever, and they would go into Roxbury and they would have a billboard that they could project on the Ferdinand Building that would get you to text back to tell them how you like to drink your Hennessy. And they would get your cell phone number, and you would get a little coupon texted to your phone, helping you get some Hennessy and maybe you know, some Coke or however you like to drink it.
And so I’m looking at this technology and [raises hand] I’m like, “I want their billboard. But I want it to ask about freedom! And then how do I get those phone numbers?” So I’m watching my friends who are using this technology, and who corporations are just throwing money at, right? They’re, “Yeah yeah yeah, develop more. We need to get in people’s cell phones. Develop more.” So they’re developing this technology, right. Corporations and marketing is using this technology. They’re reaching our kids, because we’re Facebook-connected all the time, we don’t care, we just want free stuff. We’re going, “Oh, I’ll text it. I’ll do this—” So we’re doing all of that.
And meanwhile I’m knocking on a goddamn door with a fucking clipboard. Okay?
Najma Nazy’at: [offscreen] Proud of it.
Lazu: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. You’ve got a cell phone now, Naj. So I’m not exactly going to let you get away with that.
And so I just became very frustrated, because I felt like not only was I watching the tools I need be developed and be effectively used in our community— Pepsi does this amazingly well. Whether any of you guys tried to get $25,000 from the Pepsi Challenge, or whether you tried to get $1 million by submitting a commercial, Pepsi has been able to do this model really really well. And I was becoming very frustrated.
And one of the things that was really frustrating to me was even within my own organizing community, it was very difficult to get people to see that this technology was useful. And while we all understood Big Brother, and we all understand COINTELPRO, and this is very real, this isn’t faux, we were sort of letting that stop us from from doing our work.
And at the time I was working for an old-school activist elder by the name of Harry Belafonte, and one of the things that I found out in his story was his psychiatrist was COINTELPRO. And for about thirty years, he was laying on a couch— I say that to say it made me realize that I’m worried about this [holds up an iPad] and about them tapping into this, but if they want to get me, they’ll just get my therapist. And you know, she hasn’t been able to raise her rates for me for years because she’s quite expensive. So I’m sure they could buy her off pretty easily. And it just put it in context for me, around what we’re denying ourselves because of something of a real fear—that is still going to be real whether we use technology or not.
So I felt the need to start pushing back on some of our organizers and being like, “Well hold on. Did we feel this way about the telephone?” Because, that’s what this is. [holds up iPad again] What did we do as organizers when we invented and then we started using the printing press? That was a great tool for us. It was really helpful. The telephone: great tool, very helpful.
So again, if we keep it in line with that history, we just see that this is the next thing. Not only is this the next thing, but it’s actually created in a way—as Fox just so amazingly showed us—that reduces if not removes a majority of barriers of entry. I mean, this just drops the the barriers to what used to prevent us from participating. So even the culture of it, right? I mean, folks love open source who are in this field. They like to share, and they have a totally different view on it. And so I wanted to study more about that and really apply my community organizing lens to it. And so I accepted a Mel King fellowship at MIT in DUSP. And being an organizer, I immediately went over to the Media Lab and tried to organize some scientists in the Media Lab.
And I started with a very small goal. I’m of the belief that in…years…in the future, however long or short that might be, political parties are no longer going to exist. And the reason why I believe that is because I think they play the same role as book publishers, as music publishers… They play a relationship role, and they play a bridge role. Which no longer really needs to exist, once we figure out how to use technology to answer that in the same way music publishing and book publishing have done.
When you look at models like the Tea Party, which is one of the models that I studied, what you see is that what made the Tea Party vibrant besides their very strong shared ideology was that they could take advantage of their loose ties. They could take advantage of their fourth, fifth, degrees of separation through technology. So if I’m a Tea Party member, I can find other people quite easily that I might not have thought because I wouldn’t have known they were Tea Party. I wouldn’t know that they’re some fascist crazy person. I just knew them as my neighbor. But now I know that we can do a fundraiser together and come up with some ideas. And so I wanted to study that, primarily because I do believe that that’s what we’re going to see in the future with political parties.
And also I wanted to find a way to stop the voter registration pimping that happens to our community every election. And I hate the VAN. I come out of electoral organizing. And what frustrated me every year was first of all that our data was some of the most hard-to-reach, so it should have been the most fuckin’ expensive, okay? And what they would do is they would come to us every year, and what would they offer us, $5 a voter reg card. And we would go back to the same communities that we know— We don’t need a voter file because we’re in the community, so we know. I don’t need Najma’s voter reg card, I just need to know that Najma can vote this election. And then I can turn around.
So I had this fantasy in my mind that we could create some form of technology that would allow organizers to literally create a living list. So rather than us being pimped out every even year, to sell our data at $5 a voter reg card, where again we’ve been talking to the people every day so they just give us something. You know, we have to do it all over again in August to make that grant cycle—
Audience 1: Could you explain a little bit about how that works? The $5 a reg card—
Lazu: Yes, the “they,” right? The they is DC. So, the they is…you know, like right now for Obama 2008 he spent $700 million. A good chunk of that was on media. And I would say probably a hundred and some change was in the field. The way they organize and do turnout to “communities of color” because our voter file, our list of registered voters is always bad—it’s about 13–15% accurate because we migrate, we move…
So, they go to community-based organizations within inner cities and they ask them to register their membership and then turn in their voter reg cards to DC. And that’s what van is, the Voter Activation Network. And they won’t touch it again. They won’t touch our community again for another two years, and then they have to go back.
And so it was a power setup that just pissed me off, you know what I mean? It was this thing where it was like we actually are holding on to these…like, we have the best resources. We have your base. For Democrats, and I mean that in the most nonpartisan, whatever, way. I’m not promoting anything. But you know, so we have your base. And your base is hard to reach, and your base doesn’t trust you. We have trust. We have your base. And we know how to reach your base. So we should definitely be not just getting paid $5 a voter reg card.
…then we could actually commoditize our data, and just sell it back to you and tell you that you can use it X amount of times. It really opens up possibilities for us to be in control of our information and our data. And for community-based organizers to be in control of our data. Because what makes organizers so powerful is that they can map out an entire community, right. You sit down with a good organizer and they can map out an entire community and tell you about the last twenty years. It’s all up here. And so when you lose an organizer, it…we’re not taking advantage of our organizers the way we should be is I guess what I’m trying to say.
So that’s why I get started. I could actually talk about that forever, but I’m not going to talk about that. But that’s how I got to MIT, to really try to figure out how we can get in front of the eight ball with this technology. And what I’ve realized, and I’m just going to throw out a few themes, is that as Fox was saying, this mirrors our society. The social media, the Internet, doesn’t necessarily bring up the best parts of us. So if your society is segregated, it’ll probably be segregated. If your society is racist, it’ll probably be racist.
The huge white flight that happened in MySpace to Facebook is an example of this. So, Facebook has—and I don’t know if it’s currently true now, Fox may be able to tell me—but there was a while where Facebook and MySpace had the same amount of users. But Facebook was like, “Oh, Facebook’s the shit. It’s growing, it’s amazing.” And it was. But MySpace was still very much active. But when you heard people talking about MySpace, they would say things like “it’s the ghetto,” “it’s for the child molesters.” No, it just didn’t reach a tipping point with edu, right, or with “colleges.” Because Facebook was started at Harvard, the way back to its tipping point was it went from Harvard to Ivy Leagues to edus, then to the public. So that’s why it didn’t have supposed child molesters or whatever, although hmm. (Penn State.) So it doesn’t fix racism, it definitely continues to mirror our— We make it what it is.
And in certain ways it could potentially make us more invisible. And I think exactly what I was seeing with Fox— I had to take a picture of that chart because that chart will be shown, that we’re thirty points dumber than the French. That that’s the type of stuff that you realize and see what happens. So now I can be a white woman in my avatar. So what happens with that?
And so we started having them organize with their cell phones. And within two weeks of going out to get people to sign up for the talent show, they had signed up 432 people. Now, any organizer knows if you send out a kid with a clipboard, you will not get those numbers, right. You will not get those numbers, not even if you send out me and Naj together. Naj is like, “Give me a challenge.”
So what you saw was that this technology, people like using it. A lot of the kids said that they felt very comfortable. As a matter of fact, one of the kids, when we showed them— And this is very basic. This isn’t anywhere near what Fox was talking about. But when we showed them the shortcode they were like, “Oh! This is what HOT 97 has. We have what HOT 97—” And there was a very novelty moment to it, which I think is also very important in the selling of this.
And so as we were going around doing these experiments to see if organizers could actually use cell phone and other type of technology to better organize, we realized a few things. And the first is that technology currently removes our barriers to creating media. And what that means is that we can create our own shows, we can create our own commercials. I can create a commercial to send specifically to Naj, to tell her to come and meet me at a place. If we think of how we can run with a YouTube, or a Vimeo, or an Instagram, or any of these technologies, we’re able to produce with them, which I think is is very important.
The second thing is that it removes barriers to distribution. So while you can create a shortcode and you can own one privately, you can also just go to an open source network, and even though it’ll have a little advertisement on it, you can get your own “text [bedway?] to 70376.” You can get your own. And so you can start distributing whatever you want. Your flyers, your manifesto… You can start distributing that far and wide without the cost of printing, without the cost of going into a recording studio, without the cost of— It completely removes those types of barriers.
Now, the final thing that we discovered, which is what’s most exciting thing me as an organizer, is that it’s almost an authentic catcher. So if you actually don’t have networks, this technology will not work. Because if people actually don’t trust you; and they don’t see you as a tastemaker; if you’re not somehow in relation with them whether that’s second, third, or fourth…if you don’t feel that trust, you’re not going to open it. You’re not going to respond. You’re not going to watch the YouTube video. And you might not go from the YouTube video to the web site. So what you see is an organization like the Design Studio, like BYOP, would actually be able to get as much activity on their site as the national NAACP. And that’s because they have actual relationships here in Boston. They have actual numbers of people who will pass it on, who will mention it [?], moreso than a lot of these national groups that actually hold this space for data gathering within our community. And so for me, I became very excited about that because of my frustration that I was feeling at the state of community organizing.
So I guess I’ll end… Well, actually there’s a couple other things that I want to talk about before I put out my call. And that is one of the most impressive things I think we do as a community is that we emerge. We evolve and we emerge. Like Fox was saying, we’re consistently changing. We’re consistently evolving. And we, I think, do it spectacularly well within our communities, and we’re going to continue. So one of the things that danah boyd, who is a sociologist scientist at Microsoft said, that it was actually the black community that kept the smartphone alive because of our use of the Sidekick. So while everyone else wanted Razr flip phones, we had Sidekicks.
So we’re early adapters, right. And this creates a space to allow us to emerge nationwide if not worldwide. And this last thing that you show, brother, I was like imagine if we could do this. Imagine if we could do this for Cincinnati, for Cleveland, for Detroit, for LA—for the jungle LA versus west Hollywood, right. We could do a whole lot of stuff, and again, we don’t need to go into a studio. We can create this technology within our house, within our home. And I think that that’s also philosophically a theme that we want to remember.
So I say all that to say that at the end of the day we are moving into a technologically-based society. And we are moving more and more into a mobile society. So what companies like Cisco Systems are working on right now—and it’s already here but it was new to me—is bring your own device. So you see it in the commercials where the guy who goes from watching the TV to watching a thing to watching his phone to—. Soon, that’s how you’re going to be operating and it’s really just going to be one device that you take around, it becomes your computer and becomes your phone—
Audience 2: Say that more. I don’t get that, bring your own device.
Lazu: So, you know how now you have a laptop, you have a cell phone, you have a tablet? It’s all going to become a little smaller than this [holds up iPad] and it’s going to be all in one. And it’s going to be able to do everything. So you’ll be able to put it in a docking station and have it be your computer when you go to work—
Audience 2: Oh, shit.
Lazu: And the reason I know a little bit more about this is because my stepfather is an engineer at Cisco. So years and years ago he was telling me about that we’re going to be able to watch each other when we call each other on the phone. And I was like, “Whatever, can I just get a pager?” Because that was the technology— Like, literally he was opening up the Cisco office in Hawaii and I was like, “Whatever. Can I get a pager? Whatever, phone. Whatever.” But now when he talks, I’m like, “Tell me more, Bob. Tell me more.”
So does that make sense, Kenny, about bring your own device? It makes everything interchangeable, and it’s going to be a lot easier in that way.
I did a talk at MIT called “Technologists are From Mars and Organizers are From Venus”, and the reason why I use that metaphor is because the great thing about that book is that it insinuates or it hints at the fact that we do want to find a way to get along. And I think organizers and technologists have a lot more in common than we actually realize. And if we could find ways to explore what they’re thinking about and how they’re thinking about it… But also to help them explore the human condition in the way we know it as community organizers. Things that will be created will be absolutely amazing. And it will also allow us to do our work in a much deeper and still very authentic way. Thank you.
A blog post about this presentation at the DS4SI site.
Malia published “Technology Builders are from Mars. Community Builders are from Venus”, notes from her talk at the 2010 Future of News and Civic Media Conference at the MIT CoLab Radio blog
danah boyd, “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook” (2011); via her papers index