It’s been a rough couple of weeks in DC. I couldn’t get away from reports of Kavanaugh’s nomination, sexual assault accusation, appalling performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the list continues. Then came the commentary and analysis, in which each expert offered wildly opposing viewpoints of the impact of this Supreme Court appointee. Moderate voices were absent in the news while only extreme opinions warning of pending doom pervaded. There’s a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and utter disbelief that has overcome me, so much so, I googled “how to overthrow the government.” I wondered, can we, would we, should we?
After finishing the Herman and Chomsky reading on propaganda, I felt even more dismayed, reading the accounts of how and why the media’s propaganda machine began. As I browsed techniques to overthrow governments, I came across a site hailing from the 90’s filled with one man’s ramblings of the failings of the United States government. An idea of his stood out to me that served as my muse for this project. Three-quarters of the way down the page he urges people to burn their census in protest of abuse of judicial powers. Interesting… I thought.
So, I created these two illustrations.
The first one promotes burning the census to protest crimes against democracy while the second one promotes the importance of taking the census. The “Fourth Branch of Government,” sponsoring the resist illustration is a recognizable institution to independent political idealists, while the #ImIN illustration uses the bureau’s mission statement to evoke a sense of trust. Both illustrations imply two opposing views pitting “us” against “them.” As an act of protest, burning the census will symbolize one’s disgust with the government’s abuse of powers. More subtly, the #ImIN campaign is apparent you are either in or out exploiting people’s sense of duty. Both illustrations are patriotic in tone as citizens are called to exercise their right to protest or responsibility to their community, as an American.
These illustrations qualify as propaganda using emotional tactics to catch people’s attention and address their needs of social belonging. The first illustration is spreading an idea harmful to the establishment, giving a directive to get people to act out their grievances. The second illustration represents a form of social control and appeals to people’s sense of the greater good.
As I finish this assignment and reflect on the messages we receive, I am reminded of when I turned 30. I went through a rough period. I call it the “bullshit” phase. It’s when you start seeing how entrenched you are in the “bullshit” of life. I lost trust in the people around me and questioned every piece of information that came my way. It forced me to reconsider my values, habits, and my associations. The “grey area” of life cut through my idealism and hasn’t stopped pushing apart the black and white extremes since.
From this experience, I gained a perceptive mind, able to discern bullshit from authenticity in others and even within myself. I am cautious with what I read, conscious of who owns the message I am consuming. Each time I’m faced with something in that grey area I sit in awe of how complex these systems are, how insurmountable they feel, and have many more questions than when I began.
*For those interested, overthrowing the government is NOT an option. Run for office instead!
“Conversation has the power to change hearts and minds.” Larry Kramer & Howard Schultz- Why Race Together, Medium (2015)
As the nation focused its attention to police killings of Black men in 2015, following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Larry Kramer, publisher of USA Today felt a “responsibility to act” (Kramer & Schultz, 2015). Schultz met with board members, executives, and employees to explore ways Starbucks, in partnership with USA Today, could acknowledge the rising racial tensions and start a national conversation. Kramer and Schultz envisioned a year-long project to stimulate conversation and positive action. #RaceTogether emerged as a platform to spark dialogue on the value of diversity resulting in people nurturing empathy for others with the aim to create a more compassionate world.
“To ignore, dismiss or fail to productively engage our differences is to stifle our collective potential. Diversity of thought and skills lead to more creative ideas and higher performance.” Larry Kramer & Howard Schultz- Why Race Together, Medium (2015)
On March 20, 2 million copies of a special #RaceTogether section in USA Today was published and available at Starbucks stores. Starbucks baristas plastered #RaceTogether on cups along with conversation prompts meant to assist people in negotiating race conversations. This message was spread across channels to maximize Starbucks customers’ experiences with the brand message. (Humphreys, 2016). Schultz and Kramer penned an article on Medium decrying a responsibility to act in the midst of rising racial tensions stemming from unconscious biases. Humphreys (2016) states “in a competitive landscape, companies are eager to provide information as well as emotional and symbolic appeals to self-image and social belonging” (p. 189). The authors’ eagerness to foster social belonging made evident in their declaration to “create a more empathetic inclusive society, one conversation at a time” (Kramer & Schultz, 2015).
Initial reaction and evaluations of the campaign were mixed. In a New York Times article, Dean Crutchfield, senior vice president of Sterling Brands predicted #RaceTogether, if successful, had the potential to solidify Starbucks notoriety as a “purpose-driven” brand (Ember, 2015). Jeetendr Sehdev of the University of Southern California said it was an attempt for Starbucks to “break away from its competitors” and increase brand awareness (Ember, 2015). Jim Stengel, former chief marketing officer at Proctor & Gamble, questioned the success of such conversations with baristas as customers were usually focused on simply getting their coffee and getting out of there as fast as they can.
Riku Sen, executive director for Race Forward, felt the companies were overreaching and questioned the barista’s training preparedness to facilitate such conversations. “I think there are some missing pieces for the plan,” he said (Ember, 2015). The #RaceTogether initiative was meant to “stimulate conversation, compassion, and action around race in America” (Kramer & Schultz, 2015). But despite the good intentions (yet naïve ambitions) of Kramer and Schultz couldn’t shield #RaceTogether from these missing pieces, and the social media public made certain they’d never forget their oversight. The campaign was quickly met with “unleashed widespread vitriol and derision” (Ember, 2015). Reactions ranged from mock videos of interactions with baristas to a barrage of threatening online attacks of executives, causing one executive, Corey duBrowa, senior vice president for global communications, to delete his twitter account (Ember, 2015).
What Went Wrong
Within 48 hours of the #RaceTogether campaign’s start, Starbucks received 2.5 billion impressions, most of which were made with raised eyebrows. As the campaign came under fire, Schultz released a statement to employees admitting he didn’t expect “universal praise” (Morrison, 2015). #RaceTogether exposed a disconnection between the public’s and Starbucks’ executive’s views of the company. In those initial meetings with Schultz, some employees voiced discomfort with the optics of the campaign suggesting the company would benefit more working on diversity initiatives internally (Eater, 2015) eluding to the contrast between white homogenous leadership and minority workforce. Akin to seeding, Starbucks baristas made to prompt their customers to engage in race conversations was received as inauthentic (Humphreys, 2016). Critical of the company’s engagement, customer’s negative responses revealed a sense that Starbucks “jumped the shark” as the basis for the campaign clashed with the fundamental purpose of business–the bottom line.
Christine Dorn of Networked Insights studied the public’s responses to the #RaceTogether campaign. Dorn discovered while mentions on social media about Starbucks increased 266 percent on March 17, one-third of those mentions were negative, and 7 percent were positive. By the next day, increased conversations spiked to 408 percent, with 62 percent of posts categorized as negative (Morrison, 2015). When voices of detractors began to outshine the original intent of the campaign the brand dangerously veered off message and went on the defensive. Without a plan on how to counter negative attention, the good intentions of the #RaceTogether message were lost.
Unfortunately, Starbucks’ corporate identity remains compromised as executives never addressed the company’s internal struggles with unconscious bias and diversity since the #RaceTogether campaign in 2015. Earlier this year, Starbucks came under fire again for an employee calling to police on two patrons sitting in the café resulting in their arrest. #RaceTogether remerged on social media feeds as people criticized the organization for failing again to lead with integrity. The first #RaceTogether gaffe informs the organization’s corporate reputation and reestablishes the organization’s insensitivity.
DeMers (2017) recognized the trend toward brands communicating directly with customers increase as a feature of the social media landscape through 2017. As more companies seek to initiate these personalized interactions, the failure of #RaceTogether and other social media campaigns will serve as warning posts for brands to proceed with caution. While it is worth investing in thoughtful ways to engage with your customers and cultivate meaningful relationships, social media campaigns that connect brands to sensitive social issues demand delicate attention. the results of these efforts not only have an impact in the present, but can also reinforce a negative corporate persona in the future.
How does one find an online persona? Through the Googles of course! In my search, I came across a 2015 TIME magazine article of the 30 Most Influential People on the Internet and was ‘virtually’ introduced to Tyler Oakley. In the article, TIME reported his influence as an LGBTQ+ rights activist and accomplishment in converting 6.5 million subscribers into “real-world success” (Time, 2015) as evidence of his online reach. Within a few clicks, I discovered not only is Oakley an activist for queer rights, but he’s raised over a million dollars for the Trevor Project, a group that creates awareness about LGBTQ+ suicide rates and provides services for queer youth in crisis. This signaled to me he had some significant pull with his followers and I was intrigued to know more about Oakley’s transformation.
Meet Tyler Oakley (if you haven’t already)
Tyler Oakley’s rise to social media fame began with a YouTube channel he started in his freshman year of college in 2007. His first video, Raindrops, is genuine and sincere. Oakley is merely describing the day, walking to class in the rain reflecting on his thoughts. Other early videos include 10 Things and Unashamed and Unafraid. In the former, he reveals his hopes and dreams while in the latter he reveals a personal struggle. Oakley begins his vlogging journey with a healthy dose of self-disclosure creating a foundation for interpersonal relationships to form between him and his audience (Humphreys, 2016).
Among these early videos, Tyler Oakley produces a PSA on hate speech, while campy in production value is cutting edge for its time. When Oakley began his vlog in 2007, California was a year shy of the passing of Proposition 8 making same-sex marriage illegal and the country was four years away from the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) by soon-to-be President Barack Obama. The nation was grappling with gays and lesbians no longer accepting their identities to be kept a secret and turning up the fight towards equal rights. Put in this context, Oakley’s voice helped steer a new wave in the gay rights movement and the inclusion of people who identify as gender queer. Undoubtedly, society has come a long way in the march towards equity in the ten years that Oakley has been recording his journey.
From Vlogger to Activist
In his videos, Tyler Oakley freely shares his opinion on a variety of topics no matter how mundane or complex. The content of his videos strikes a good balance between presenting an ideal self while revealing vulnerabilities of character. Oakley benefits from this display of uncontrived authenticity and creates genuine connections with viewers. According to Humphreys (2016), self-presentation theory says we present to a “perceived audience,” (p. 85). Dramaturgical theory of self adds onto self-presentation theory the idea of assuming a specific role online (Humphreys, 2016). Within his presentation and production of the videos, Oakley consciously edits and refines each one and doesn’t hide the quick cuts. Viewers notice these cues as evidence of his edits (presentation of ideal self), but factor in this honesty to his likability as he embraces his persona as a feminine gay male.
What’s impressive is how Tyler Oakley has transformed his persona on YouTube to the forefront of a movement culminating into an 8-part series on the LGBTQ+ community called Chosen Family he produced. The series chronicles the experiences of people in the queer community through various themes such as homelessness, health and wellness, and history. I admire what Oakley has achieved leveraging his persona to become a champion for the LGBTQ+ community. With ten-years-worth of videos on YouTube, one can experience Oakley’s use shift from an individualistic centered gratification, using the platform as a communication tool between friends, more towards harnessing the power of social media to advocate for social change.
Mid-Life Online Crisis?
Over the decade Tyler Oakley’s produced these videos, he’s used honesty, humor, and his passion to connect with his audience. As a result, his viewers witnessed the birth of a single voice, someone keeping in touch with friends, mature into full-blown rights activist, serving as a voice for many.
But as Tyler Oakley’s good works multiply, so does his reach toward to exemplification, showing off his integrity and morality aimed at gaining dedication from viewers (Cunningham, 2014). While Oakley manages his impression, he is vulnerable to “feel pressured to present a self that is consistent with existing reputations or likely future actions” (Cunningham, 2014, p. 571). This thought brings me back to this latest video where Oakley admittedly feels undecided in what his next move in life should be. I wonder if this is evidence of Oakley struggling with having to live up to his past accomplishments and if he’d ever be comfortable stepping away from the limelight. If this is the case, was he authentic is his presentation of self or did he carefully build and craft a “socially acceptable self” falling victim to the demands of “strategic self-presentation” (Cunningham, 2014, p. 883)?
Cunningham, C. (2014). Social networking and impression management: Self-presentation in the digital age. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Humphreys, A. (2016). Social media: Enduring principles. New York: Oxford University Press.
TIME (2015, March 5). The 30 Most Influential People on the Internet. Retrieved from http://time.com/3732203/the-30-most-influential-people-on-the-internet/
Old enough to remember life without cell phones, I remember seeing a TV commercial for digital mobile phones that enabled you to take a call wherever you were. I distinctly remember watching one ad where a man at the bottom of a waterfall answered a call from his wristwatch. As a proud member of Generation X, I remember wondering why anyone would want to get a phone call while they were outside (especially on an exotic expedition like this guy)? For many of us then, phones belonged inside and at home. When people went out, they were simply “not home” or unavailable. (GASP!)
Back then, even answering the phone was risky. We didn’t know who was calling before picking up the line until the early 90’s when caller ID devices were invented. Once we could see who was calling, we “pretended we weren’t home” and didn’t answer if we didn’t want to speak to that person. Try pretending not being home with your cell phone. It just isn’t as risqué like the good ol’ days.
Every year a new digital device is introduced, and I return to the bewilderment I had as a child as these technologies blur the boundaries of our outside and inside worlds. This is especially true for activity trackers. On the outside, trackers signify to others our goals and values to live a healthy and active lifestyle. On the inside, trackers count our steps, measure our heart rate, how fast we move, and track our sleep. On the outside, wearing an activity tracker seems more helpful than harmless. On the inside, as with any compilation of personal data, one must consider the full implications of security and use of their information.
Photo by Geert Pieters on Unsplash
The Intersection of Health Monitoring and Fitness
Monitoring and tracking health isn’t a new technology in itself. In medicine, health practitioners learned to diagnose illness by monitoring bowel movements, the color of a person’s eyes, and the characteristics of people’s hair and nails. Eventually, machines were invented to measure vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure. Lab specialists conduct blood tests to evaluate how well the organs of the body are working.
When modernization took off in the early 20th century, people became concerned with fitness as physical labor became more mechanized and demanded less human energy. This lack of physical activity was warned to produce “defects of structure” within the body. Soon, home work-out devices were created and the pursuit of fitness shifted to an after-work-hours activity (Millington, 2018).
In the 70’s and 80’s, the VCR conveniently distributed images of the ideal body and ways to achieve it to households across America. Gyms were erected, containing the latest and greatest in treadmills, stationary bikes, and weight machines, promising a work out tailored to each individuals’ fitness levels. By the turn of this century, personalization of one’s health and fitness evolved once more, and activity trackers emerged onto the scene providing motivation and the ability to monitor one’s vitals without a visit to the doctor.
Vulnerabilities in Personalization & Empowerment
Several technologies enable activity trackers to collect data including a pedometer, accelerometer, polygraph, GPS, and motion sensors (Axworthy, 2017). Paired with gamification features and social networking, activity trackers were solidified into our everyday practices by the late 2000’s. Even if one doesn’t own a Fitbit, UP, or Withings, phones are equipped with apps that automatically track our daily movements.
App designers compete to design the best UI to keep users engaged. Users dial in calorie and exercise goals, and in return activity trackers collect data for feedback to empower the user to meet their goals. A small study conducted by Rowe-Roberts, Cercos, and Mueller (2014) concluded that trackers successfully improved physical activity in high-risk populations despite a 60% drop off of participants by the end of the study.
But, there’s a dark side to all of this personalization. When personal data is collected, vulnerabilities in the technology can be exploited. Companies often buy and sell user data in order to create personalized digital profiles. Evidence of such personalization occurs each time a person reads an article online as the ads directly reflect their specific profile. With no laws to protect the data activity trackers collect, wearing an activity tracker begs the questions, what data is considered health data and who owns the data? Is this data protected like other health information under HIPPA? Can anyone buy or sell your data for profit?
Politics Changes Everything
Within a flash, the decision to don a harmless activity tracker becomes a decision of surrendering power and authority. Winner (1986) defined politics as the interplay of power and authority in human relationships and within the theory of technological politics urged people to question the meaning behind the characteristics of objects. Relationships people have with their activity trackers vacillate between liberation and repression. Individuals are liberated to take control and improve their health, but at the same time repressed by the device as it dictates their daily decisions and behavior. Based on the tracker’s numbers, one might take a longer path to work, or make dietary decisions, while others report feeling pressured and guilted by their trackers and disregard the choice to not wear one (Cooray and Duus, 2015).
Postman (1993) pointed out that “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias,” and an ability to reconstruct our world. Already, insurance companies have integrated the use of activity trackers into wellness programs providing cash incentives and discounts for healthy stats. But, how soon until the data is used to prove a pre-existing condition or alert insurance companies to personalize your policy based on your bad habits? What kind of effect will this have on applying for disability insurance? The consequences are endless unless we start asking these questions now, reclaim our value for liberty as a society, and hold all companies accountable when they violate our privacy.
Activity tracking technology is changing rapidly, and what we know as trackers today will soon become woven into the very fabric of our clothing (Cooray and Duus, 2015). Fortunately, users still have a chance to shape how this technology will benefit us and instill protections from exploitation. Each new technology comes with the capacity to influence significant change in how we live. One must search beyond the surface and ask themselves who stands to benefit. These shiny new objects not only have the power to make people rush in line to be the first to own one but influence our behaviors and decision making and ultimately change societal structures we take for granted.
Axworthy, J. (2017). Revealed: The origins of your fitness tracker’s tech. Retrieved from https://www.wareable.com/fitness-trackers/the-origins-of-the-fitness-tracker-1234
Cooray, M., & Duus, R. (2015). How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/how-we-discovered-the-dark-side-of-wearable-fitness-trackers-43363
How fitness trackers can improve your health. (2015, December). Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-fitness-trackers-can-improve-your-health
Millington, B. (2018). A brief history of fitness technology. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2018-01-history-technology.html
Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.
Rowe-Roberts, D., Cercos, R., & Mueller, F. (2014). Preliminary results from a study of the
Impact of digital activity trackers on health risk status. Investing in E-Health: People, Knowledge and Technology for a Healthy Future, 143-148. doi:10.3233/978-1-61499-427-5.
Winner, L. (1986). Do artifacts have politics. The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology (pp. 19-39). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Social justice is embedded in the curriculum at Gonzaga. The coursework is designed to expand people’s worldviews and develop a tolerance for others’ opinions. We are lead through experiences that challenge our beliefs with a grounding in trusting in the basic goodness of people. Through developing this tolerance, interdependence becomes visible, and no longer does one’s work revolve around one’s needs. It transcends. And whether one is Catholic, Mormon, a Buddhist, or a Christian, the lesson of interdependence teaches a humility that calls for one’s service to others. This is what I believe makes a Gonzaga education special. It took me traveling 2,348.7 miles and some reflection to realize this.
Most of my educational experience has been far from traditional. After high school, I went to community college for as long as it would have taken to get a bachelor’s degree. Once I decided what I wanted to do with my life it was off to art school–where there were no dorms, cafeteria, intramural sports, career services, or frankly sense of community. When I entered the workforce, I began to see my limitations and sought professional development opportunities every chance I could get. A third of the way into my career, I experimented with a stint in AmeriCorps to diversify my skills and break into the communication profession. Through these experiences, I diversified my skills and value I bring to organizations, and most importantly I became a dedicated lifelong learner. With this mindset, I decided to go back to school and get my master’s degree online at Gonzaga University.
As an online student, I honestly didn’t know what made a Gonzaga education special at first. After finishing a few classes, I learned I was missing some support and resources offered to students on campus such as tutoring in writing. I missed the sense of camaraderie and interacting with my peers and teachers in real time where conversations happen quicker and offer valuable feedback and perspective. My overall impression was souring the more I felt alone in these challenges. As the practicum dates approached, imagining myself on campus was daunting. I feared I would not make connections and feel like an outsider.
Landing in Spokane and walking Gonzaga’s campus, I felt comforted as though I was becoming a part of a caring community. Over the course of three days, our professors not only guided us through the coursework but showed a genuine interest to learn from us as much as we sought to learn from them. This reminded me of the school I work for and the faculty’s commitment to social and emotional learning alongside academics. My fear of feeling like an outsider diminished by the end of the third day. I was having dinner and drinks with new friends when my vision for why I was ‘here’ became clear.
We were a diverse group breaking bread. Everyone was welcome as we respectfully shared our thoughts and opinions. Through hearing my fellow students share their stories, I realized I was far from alone in my journey. We were facing much of the same challenges. We all craved to connect and express why we thought what we were doing was important. Our voices, filled with passion, reminded me of an experience and it was then that I had found the words that describe my experience with Gonzaga and Jesuit education.
There are moments in life where you are no longer in control. You start to feel a part of a larger force, something unexplainable and powerful. Almost 10 years ago was my first experience with this feeling, and since then it has shown up in some of the most unexpected places reminding me of the fragility of life. Once I stopped focusing on whether or not I would fit in, I was able to see what bound us together. What brought us to Gonzaga and to that table.
We shared this same humbling experience of working for something bigger than ourselves in which what we did was no longer for ourselves, but for the betterment of others. We each had a genuine desire to leave the world a tenth of a better place than the way we had found it. Some people call this feeling God. Others say it is the Universe, and some have no explanation other than it makes them feel good. Undoubtedly, this feeling resonates throughout the Gonzaga campus and is what attracts the type of students who proudly call themselves a Zag. This type of education equips us with the tools we need to be discerning in what we pursue. We come away with standing strong and steadfast; committed to spreading this sense of responsibility for others and the desire to serve.