Monday, October 17, 2016

The highs and lows of social media, as experienced through the issue I care most about

Social media is an interesting beast, most particularly for how each form appeals and responds to users in entirely different ways. This is fascinating stuff for us communications types.
     I’ve found kindred spirits on all three of the platforms I like best – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But they’re not the same kindred spirits. The people I want to know and connect with on one platform are not the same ones I want to connect with on others. The feel of each platform and the reasons for using them are so very different.
    Facebook, for instance, is the place where I’m most likely to connect with my real friends and family. It’s where I share photos of my grandkids, keep up-to-date on which of my acquaintances or cousins or whoever has gone travelling in Italy, had an injury, lost somebody close to them, taken their dog walking someplace cool, and so on – kind of like a virtual coffee shop for catching up with pals across time and distance on a personal level.
    What it’s significantly less good for, however, is for engaging people on the issue I care most about. I can draw 200 or more “likes” for a particularly charming photo of a dog we’re looking after or a new profile picture, but my posts about sex workers’ rights – the issue I feel most passionately about these days – routinely fare very poorly. I have a few Facebook friends who share my passion and can be counted on to like and share my sex-work-related posts, but essentially I’m preaching to the choir.
    A very small choir.
    I’m guessing my inability to connect around sex work on Facebook is because on that medium, I mostly interact with people I actually know, or we at least move in similar social circles. But while we may know each other in real life, that clearly doesn't mean that we share the same philosophies or passions. So do I give up trying to get the people I know on Facebook to care about sex workers' rights, or stubbornly keep posting in the hopes that eventually some will? The big question.
    I resisted Twitter for a long time, unconvinced that I needed a whole lot of 140-character thoughts from random people cluttering up my day. Oh, how wrong I was. Twitter is now a favourite of mine.
From a staying-current perspective, it’s much like having hundreds of people out scouring the planet on your behalf for interesting news and developments (presuming you’re following the right people and organizations). The hashtag system also means you can easily find the latest tweets pertinent to the issues you care about.
    Few of the people I’m friends with on Facebook appear to be active on Twitter, so I’ve found a whole other community there - one that stretches around the world, loves a good debate over tough issues, and interacts with other members of their “community” based on the issues they tweet about rather than any personal connection.
    Because the Twitter connection is around issues rather than friendship, I decided from the start that I would concentrate on tweeting about sex workers’ rights. I jump in on other issues every now and again, but I’d say that 90 per cent of my Twitter use is related to sex workers’ rights. Twitter has turned out to be totally amazing for connecting to like-minded souls on that issue.
    Yes, it does pose that preaching-to-the-choir problem. But on the upside, being among an entire world of people who think like me on this one keeps me hopeful and engaged on those dark days when you think, good grief, why can’t people get this? My fellow tweeters also keep me so clued-in on everything that’s happening around the world for sex workers’ rights that it makes me a much better informed activist and advocate for the rare times when I can actually catch the ear of the uninterested and possibly hostile majority.
    Would I post a grandchild photo on Twitter, or a pretty scene from my morning walk? Nope. I doubt that any of my Twitter followers give a hoot about how many grandchildren I have, and they definitely don’t want to see what I had for lunch yesterday. But I feel the same way about those I follow, too, so it all works out nicely. We don’t want to be friends, we want to be comrades in arms.
    Then there’s Instagram. I resisted this one for even longer, but this year decided I wanted to see how non-profit organizations were using it.  I quickly became an enthusiast of the form for personal use, though remain skeptical of its effectiveness for non-profits unless they’re skilled at telling their stories via powerful photos with very few words. (Humans of New York style.)
    But as a medium for sharing photos of the weird, wonderful and breathtaking scenes one might see in the course of an ordinary day, it’s really fun.
    Once again, I’ve found myself resistant to automatically following the same people I’m connected to on Facebook, as much as Instagram encourages me to do so. I don’t want to repeat my Facebook experience; I’m looking for something different from Instagram.  That said, I’ve sometimes seen a totally different side to some Facebook friends who I now follow on Instagram, and who also get that there are distinct reasons for choosing one or the other medium.
    Wearing my strategic-communications hat, this is what it all comes down to for me:

  • Use Facebook to connect with real friends and allies in warm and fuzzy ways, but don’t count on it to drive issues forward or effectively challenge societal assumptions. Useful for calling out people to events, but I suspect you are still only calling out to the people who probably would have come anyway. As an aside, I also wouldn’t advise using Facebook as your main news platform, because people use the craziest sources and are very lax in checking whether the stories they share are real and recent, or six years old and virtually fiction
  • Use Twitter to find great news from around the world that you care about by following people and organizations that know how to find legitimate and dependable sources. Pick an issue or theme that you want to specialize in so that people interested in the same things can follow you, and be equally stringent about your own sources. Find the hot hashtags for your issue and use them religiously to build followers
  • Use Instagram to share interesting photos with other people who also like looking at and sharing interesting photos. Sure, you can use the medium to share personal photos with your family and friends, but for broader use remember that you’re going to be up against a world of staggeringly compelling photos if you hope to get noticed.
  • If aiming to raise awareness for a cause or issue via Instagram, ditch the inspirational memes and follow the lead of the Humans of New York project, which in my mind leads the micro-story format with their brilliant photos and minimal writing.
  • Write blogs when you really need to say something. Not only do blogs give you more room and create a permanent, searchable space for your thoughts, they provide those all-important links for sharing on all your other social-media platforms. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Squeeze 'em until it hurts: The hostile takeover of the average air traveller experience

     I love almost everything about a life with lots of travel in it. But the modern-day airport and flying experience is one notable exception.
     I’m just back from flights in and out of Orlando, Florida, where I went for two weeks to visit family. I've been travelling quite a bit these past five years, and what becomes clearer with each passing flight is that the air industry service model is to slowly increase our suffering to the point that we'll pay them to make it stop.
    While I admire how the industry whips us around the world with impressive efficiency, its view of us as widgets to be profited from rather than flesh-and-blood customers is becoming increasingly transparent.
     I get that it’s a tough management challenge to safely move so many people to so many destinations every day. Some 3.5 billion travellers passed through the world’s airports in 2015. But that hardly justifies a business model built on the concept of deliberately eroding basic customer service so that your customers eventually feel miserable enough to pay for what they once got for free.
     Whether it’s about shivering in a sub-zero economy cabin or paying $25 each way just to check your only bag, I can’t shake this feeling that rather than being motivated by the desire to provide me with the optimal customer experience, what actually motivates the industry is discovering new ways to make me into a more efficient and profitable widget. Even the once largely democratic act of boarding the plane has been turned into a profit-making vehicle, with the industry constantly introducing new ways to lure travellers into paying to jump the line.
     A quick review of the typical airport experience based on my August 29 and September 12 flights, to make my case:
·        Uncomfortable seats. Your butt’s going to hurt, your legs are going to twitch, and your arms are going to cramp from trying to keep yourself from touching the passenger next to you. Unless you’re willing to pay for a better seat – what we long-time flyers used to know as “normal” leg room has now become a premium to be paid for – expect to feel cramped, jostled, and forced into unpleasant intimacies with strangers. If money’s no object, you might buy yourself one of those really great seats that the rest of us can only gaze upon longingly on the way to steerage, where everybody enjoys roomy lazy-boys and quaffs free booze and warm almonds. But most of us non-rich people tend to opt for the suffering. Yes, theatres and arenas also charge a price for premium seats, but for me it’s the physical discomfort of the cheap seats that really distinguishes the airline industry in this category.

·         Unfair baggage policies. Once, you could check two bags for free. Then one. Now, none. I just paid $50 so that my one bag could accompany me to Orlando and back. And then you sit in the cabin watching people stuffing increasingly enormous and ludicrous “carry-on” bags into those weary looking overhead bins, and a thinking person such as myself just might go, hey, WTF, does the industry truly not see how unpleasant they’re making it for us just to carry our stuff while we travel?

·         Food. Not even a decade ago, the airline industries fed you a meal at mealtime. It wasn’t a particularly terrific meal, but it was OK, and even came with a little bottle of wine if it was dinner. Oh, I laugh ruefully at the memory. Most of the airlines won’t even toss you a bag of bad pretzels anymore without charging, and those little bottles of wine are now $7. Not surprisingly, travellers responded by buying their own food in the airport to bring on the plane, but I now see that airport vendors have rather strangely countered this development by jacking up the price on anything that can be carried easily on a plane. I realized during this trip that at $12 and $14, airport sandwiches are now so costly that it makes more sense to buy a $7 sandwich on the plane. How clever – they've made me into a widget who will not only buy a $7 chicken wrap on the plane, but feel grateful for the chance. I wouldn’t want to suggest collusion between the airport and the airlines, but it sure looks that way from a customer perspective.

·         Security lineups. I know, we’ve all got a million anecdotes about this one, but it’s the big picture that gets me (that and the crazy lineups that screw up everything about the airport experience, including how much time you have to buy an exploitively priced sandwich). I mean, look at us: Taking off our shoes, belts and jackets; worrying whether we’ve got any trace of metal somewhere on our person; extracting our laptops to put them in bins; carrying only teeny-tiny bottles of creams and lotions in our carry-ons; shuffling through the naked x-ray machine without a word of complaint. Complaint, after all, just might get you sent into the back room with the scary looking dude wearing the latex gloves. It’s gotten so unpleasant that I’m now exploring the various pre-approved options for passing through security – which, of course, I will have to pay for. I can practically feel the industry using our largely baseless fears of security risks to reshape us as compliant widgets happy to pay for premium services if it means we get to skip at least some of the waits and humiliation.

·         In-flight entertainment. Let’s just say I was overjoyed to discover free movies and TV on both Air Canada flights to and from Toronto on my way south, but that’s not a common experience. I don’t want to romanticize the days when small, bad TVs dropped from the plane ceiling and you watched whatever the airline was showing that day, but there are fewer and fewer flights that provide any entertainment at all unless you pay for it. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, because bringing a good book is still free, but it still exemplifies the way airlines have found ways to package basic customer service as something you now have to pay for.

·         Cold. Freezing, freezing cold. The guy across the aisle from me was wearing one of those “slankets” yesterday to ward off the sub-zero chill and I was dead-envious. Sure, it’s minus-59 C. outside at 35,000 feet (Really. I saw it on the free TV screen.) but you can bet those high rollers in the comfy seats aren’t having to wrap themselves in fleece. Should you want one of those thin, small blankets of unpleasant material that the airlines used to provide for free, you now have to pay for it.

     I could go on. If there isn’t already a business-economics case study on the airline industry’s mastery at wringing profit out of what was once basic customer service, there ought to be. It’s not only a triumph of capitalism, it’s an example of how an industry can deliberately worsen the experience for their customers and not only get them to go along with it, but happily paying to stop the torment.
     Pack your slankets and homemade sandwiches, kids. They’re taking us for a ride. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Cranky in Paradise: How life in a fairly perfect place makes us angry

     I felt a quick flash of annoyance during a swim this past weekend at Thetis Lake when a group of young people on a raft of floaties cranked up their music a little too much. I then felt an immediate and sobering flash of alarm that a bunch of mild-mannered young people having a little fun in the sun had annoyed me.
     Could it be that Cranky Capital Regionite Syndrome is already upon me, a mere three months after arriving back on the Island? Please say it ain’t so.
     That pervasive air of easy annoyability that has always characterized CCRS in the region has been wonderful to get away from these last four and a half years in Central America. I thought I’d put it away forever at this point, but now I see that it has just been lying in wait for me back on the Island.
     It’s all got me thinking hard about what that cultural state of annoyance is really about. Why is it that I never got jangled by all the unpredictable happenings of daily life in Central America –noise, smells, traffic, gaping holes in the sidewalk, garbage, a constant sense that any crazy thing could happen at any moment – yet I come back here and find myself bugged by minor stuff?
     I’m not alone. I see motorists yelling out the window at each other over perceived infractions that not only didn’t cause an accident, but probably wouldn’t have even if imagined through to their low-impact conclusion. I see genuine fear in dog owners’ eyes when their unleashed dogs come bounding toward me and their owners brace for yet another tight-lipped lecture about leash laws and controlling your animal.
     What is it about this place? Why does it feel like we're looking for reasons to be angry at someone for something? My sense of it is that we have expectations of how our perfect day will go, and any breach in the plan feels like a personal affront. We’ve come to believe that with enough regulation, rule and law, citizens can be guaranteed a day where nothing untoward happens to them.
     Everybody’s going to drive exactly right. All bylaws will be observed. No dog poo will adhere to your shoe. The peaceful day at the lake you’re imagining will proceed exactly as you had hoped, and never mind that all the other people sharing the rocks with you have arrived at the same lake on the same day with completely different expectations of how the day will go.
      I guess with the bar set that high, we’re bound to end up cranky when life gets in the way of our elevated expectations for our day. Evidence of our pissed-offedness is everywhere: We shake our fists; bristle at our neighbour’s poor boulevard management; rap loudly on the hoods of cars stopped too close to a crosswalk; make angry phone calls to whatever regulatory body we think should be doing something.
     In countries like Honduras and Nicaragua, where my spouse and I have been doing long-term volunteer stints with Cuso International, there’s so little regulation that all bets of a perfect day are completely off. You don’t even bother thinking that way. You just step out the door and try to stay prepared for what might happen next. I’m not suggesting a war-zone scene or anything truly dangerous, just an environment that laughs at anyone’s expectations of a managed experience.
     The Victoria experience imagines that through regulation and law, we can control the environment to create a pleasant space for all, where unpleasant surprises are kept to a minimum. I think of it as a very European way of doing things. (I particularly appreciate such an ordered culture whenever I go bike-riding, an activity so risky in Central America that I wouldn’t dream of doing it there.)
     In Central America, it’s the environment that’s in control. You enter it knowing that you are about to have whatever experience it’s delivering that day, and that your wish to have a managed experience is neither here nor there.
     You’re going to walk past speakers so loud and distorted they’ll make your ears hurt. You’re going to step in garbage. You’re going to enter every crosswalk knowing it represents nothing more than white lines painted on pavement. You just have to hope that everything turns out OK, but there’s no saying that it will. (Guess that’s why religion is popular in such cultures.)
     And so you relax, genuinely relax, because you know there’s nothing you can do about any of it. Far from feeling hopeless, it feels freeing. You let go of every expectation and just go where the day takes you. A dozen things happen on your daily walk to work that would annoy the hell out of you back in Victoria, but you carry on without a flinch.
     I’m not saying that their way is better than ours. I do like that cars stop for me here in Victoria, and that green space is everywhere. I like not seeing garbage in the street. I like not having to dodge motorcycles driving down the sidewalk, or eye up every building I walk past for the possibility of a rusty metal pole sticking out of it at head height. I like knowing that if I wanted to, I could buy a small house on a quiet street with no fear that a five-storey, all-night disco might open next door in the following month.
    That probably means I’m not yet a full-on libertarian. But please, please, save me from CCRS. I don’t want to be that boring old lady railing against noisy kids at the lake and unleashed dogs on my street. I pledge here and now to stand on guard against any creeping sense of entitlement, to reject the (admittedly alluring) notion that the world ought to mould itself to my needs. Yes, my body is living in Victoria right now, but I will fight to keep my spirit Central American.
     Party on, gentle Thetis teens.

Friday, July 22, 2016

On the road again: My writing goes wandering

Delighted to have my writing appearing on other sites every now and then, the most recent examples being in the online B.C. newspaper The Tyee and as a guest blogger on the web site Naked Truth run by self-described "anarchist stripper mom" Annie Temple.

Hope you'll check them out! The piece I wrote for The Tyee grew out of some conversations I had this week about my own experiences with the people who these days reveal themselves as nasty internet trolls, like the kind who have shouted down actor Leslie Jones with the worst racist, misogynist, super-ugly stuff.

And the piece at Naked Truth builds on an earlier blog post I did about the deliberate campaign to silence adult sex workers by building a myth of trafficking and exploitation around them.

As you'll see in my piece - and I've included all my sources at the bottom of the piece to encourage readers to see a little more clearly - trafficking is being manipulated into a far bigger issue than it actually is. This is not being done as a means to draw scant public attention to an important issue, but rather as a political campaign against adult, consenting sex workers that's high on emotion and really low on fact.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

When good words go bad: The usurping of trafficking as a weapon against sex workers

Were I a cartoon character, I expect I'd have big red flags and maybe some small explosions coming out of my head these days after reading the Ontario government's news release this week about its big new anti-trafficking initiative.

I'm all for ending trafficking, of course. But the issue is increasingly emerging as some kind of stealth instrument for attacking people working in the sex industry, so I've learned to read every announcement of new anti-trafficking measures in a state of acute hyper-vigilance for what's really being said.

The Ontario news release offers some worthy examples of what I'm talking about. Scroll down to the "Quick Facts" in the release and you'll see this one:

"In many cases of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, trafficked persons may develop 'trauma bonds' with their traffickers, and may not view themselves as victims. As such, human trafficking is believed to be a vastly underreported crime."

Once upon a time, I would have read a paragraph like that and thought, yeah, that has the ring of truth. But having seen repeatedly just how expertly the movement that hates the existence of sex work uses the hot-button trafficking issue to whip up political support against the adult sex industry, I read it with a whole other set of eyes now. 

Let's consider "trauma bonds," for instance. That's a phrase coined 20 years ago by U.S. author Patrick Carnes to describe people who stay in exploitive relationships even when it's hurting them. It's roughly comparable as a term to Stockholm Syndrome, named for a 1973 bank robbery in Sweden in which several kidnapped bank employees grew emotionally attached to their kidnappers and even rejected help at one point so the kidnappers wouldn't get hurt. 

And yeah, those kinds of things exist. But when you're a jumpy sex-workers' rights type looking for where the next surprise assault is going to come from, you read a paragraph like that and see it as a weapon, the perfect tool for silencing sex workers still in the industry who might have something positive - or at least neutral - to say about their profession. It lays the groundwork to dismiss anything that a sex worker says in defence of the industry or his or her role in it as nothing more than the tragic thinking of someone too bonded to their captors to know how traumatized they are. 

It also lets trafficking be as big a problem as it needs to be for political purposes with no proof required, because we've established that it's "vastly underreported" and thus can't be judged on the seriously skimpy statistics that actually exist. It justifies vast sums and airy-fairy action plans for an issue that in Canada, represents 0.0004 per cent of the crimes reported annually in the country. (Sources here and here, but I did the math.) 

Add this to the fact that trafficking is already a crime in which authorities have the right to deem that you are trafficked even if you disagree, and you can see where this could go - especially in the hands of those who believe their right to loathe that sex work exists trumps the rights of sex workers to safer workplaces and basic rights. 

I browsed a lot of sites yesterday looking for hard facts about trafficking in Canada and the U.S., and came away unsettled by just how little facts there are in any of the discussions. Hyperbole and high emotion are the rule anytime that trafficking gets mentioned. When you get this many police initiatives, community groups, NGOs and government departments dependent on sustaining the trafficking narrative in order to keep the funding coming, the public conversation gets pretty dramatic, stats or not. 

I finally found some real numbers in the U.S. State Department's 2015 report on trafficking, which is way clearer about the figures on trafficking in Canada than anything I ever found among our own government's materials. As of 2015, there have been 85 convictions for trafficking-related crimes in the history of Canada, and one conviction - later overturned - under the Immigration Refugee and Protection Act. (Update as of July 7: Simon Fraser University Professor and researcher Tamara O'Doherty notes that  the majority of those convictions have not used Canada's trafficking laws, but rather the sex-work laws. The old "living off the avails" charge is now being publicly presented as being about trafficking.)

I'm a supporter of genuine initiatives that prevent and stop trafficking. Nobody should be exploited, abused, coerced or taken advantage of. If Canada is truly a "Tier 1" country when it comes to trafficking, let's address that. (Though I struggle to see how you could establish that with the scarce statistics that currently exist.)

But the word is being twisted. It's being stretched far beyond its boundaries to include people who are in no way trafficked, and hammered down tight over sex workers who dare to talk about rights rather than rescue. It has become a morality-based weapon to shut down any public conversation on sex worker rights by setting up workers as traumatized victims too messed up by their "captors" to be worth hearing from. 

Do I sound paranoid? Well, maybe you would be too if you'd seen for yourself just how fast and loose with the facts the anti-sexwork movement is, and how effective they are at convincing decision-makers to do the stupidest, most harmful things in the name of "ending demand" in the sex industry. It's a goal that no country in the world has ever achieved in the history of humanity, and it flies in the face of considerable research establishing decriminalization as the best approach for keeping sex workers safer. But hey, who needs research when you can have rhetoric?

This movement's moral judgment guides public policy around sex work in Canada and the U.S., increasing the risk of workplace violence for tens of thousands of Canadians. It denies them agency. The right to association, and normal interactions with police. Respect. A life without fear of exposure or arrest. Access to the basic tools of civil society such as small-claims court, employment tribunals, and human rights processes. 

So yeah, down with trafficking. But please understand that much of what passes for a discussion on trafficking these days is actually a calculated, highly emotional and very well-funded campaign that aims to make it publicly palatable to silence the voices of anyone in the sex industry who won't play victim. 

Further reading: