*I first published this piece on Beth Kanter’s blog.
“Many times a call has ended without me being able to give a caller something she really wanted. So many of our callers would ask for a resource where they could connect with other women who have experienced abortion, and I had to respond by saying this kind of resource wasn’t available, but it would be great if it was. Regardless of how successful this call was, I always hung up feeling things were incomplete.”
– Danielle Thomas, Exhale Talkline Counselor & Pro-Voice Ambassador
Exhale, an award-winning pro-voice organization based in Oakland, California, provides a one-of-a-kind service for women and men with personal experiences of abortion: our national, multi-lingual post-abortion talkline. Operating for eight years, Exhale’s talkline provides women and men what they are unable to find in their everyday lives: support and respect for their unique abortion experience.
Our callers desire something beyond a comforting place to call. They want to talk with others like themselves, others who have personal experiences with abortion. At first, what they asked for were in-person support groups, and over time, the request turned into something else. Many callers said, “I went online to find others to talk to, but everything I found was really religious or political. Do you know of anything else? Does Exhale offer something?” At the time, we didn’t, and volunteers like Danielle often hung up the phone wishing they could offer more.
Last year, we made a change, and now Exhale counselors answer our talkline callers by saying, “Yes. We do offer something. We built an online community just for you.” Danielle says, “As soon as I let a caller know about the community and how she can access it, the tone of conversation changes immediately. What was once a downbeat way to end a call has become a way to further support a woman during a difficult time.”
By listening to our constituency, we were able to learn something new. Most important, we responded to the information, adapted and made a change.
Certainly, it wasn’t simple or easy, and it has come with enormous challenges for our organization. I want to share with you our challenges and lessons learned about building a private online community and to make a case for private networking as a critical strategy for social change.
Building Private Online Spaces
Once we identified the need (for connection) and a strategy for how to meet it (create an online community), we faced a bigger and more important question: Is it possible to create a supportive, nonjudgmental space online to discuss personal experiences with abortion? As anyone who spends time online knows, conversations about abortion, especially those where a woman’s personal experience is at the center, are likely to be contentious, polarizing, and judgmental. Creating new, more empathetic online conversations about abortion is a major social-change goal for Exhale, and this community space was a way to experiment with the possibilities.
We wondered how we could navigate the current online terrain in order to meet our callers needs and leverage the opportunities that social media has to offer. As Geoff Livingston explains in Why Sex-Ed Remains a Challenge for Social Media, “Openness can actually act as a barrier to communication” for sensitive issues like sex and abortion.
Some of the advice we received from social media evangelists could have been distilled to “Just go for it,” and many either didn’t grasp or didn’t take seriously the personal and professional risks our callers would take by sharing their abortion stories online. Exhale embarked on a rigorous preparation process that went far beyond the technical questions of how and where to build the site. We focused on how to build, engage, moderate, and protect a community space. We set goals for member behavior and quality of interaction, not goals for numbers. We spent months preparing and revising community guidelines with plans for how we would enforce them. We received legal advice and recruited volunteers who were willing to take some risks as our first-ever moderators. We envisioned our community as a college dorm, with members as freshmen, moderators as resident advisors there to keep the peace, and Exhale serving as the architect, janitor, and dean. Exhale would build the community, maintain it, recruit and train the moderators to represent our values, culture and rules, and we’d be responsible for fixing, remodeling, or shutting it down in case of emergency. We fostered an organizational culture that could adapt, change strategy, and refocus moment-by-moment in response to what we discovered and experienced.
We were ready to fail, and in fact, we planned on it. We even set a motto: “fail quickly.” We committed Exhale to the journey (not the product), to address the challenge of safe online spaces about abortion, and we accepted failure as inevitable — even necessary — to our effort.
So far, our experiment has far surpassed our expectations, and failure has not yet been part of our experience, despite our readiness to change course. Members have followed community guidelines and our moderators have maintained a warm, welcoming space. Members share detailed personal stories, ask for and get advice from others, and use supportive, nonjudgmental language when they communicate with each other.
Kristen Schultz Oliver, Exhale’s Director of Programs, and the community manager, detailed our process and experiences in a panel presentation at sex::tech 2010. She also wrote about it on Exhale’s blog.
By now, you may have noticed that I haven’t given you any details about the site: no quotes from members, no screen shots from inside, or even where to find it. Exhale is equally committed to transparency and sharing our lessons learned with community-building as we are to maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of the community we are co-creating with our members.
My hope with this blog post and with future communications about our online community is to be transparent about it without violating the privacy of our members. As Kristen Schultz Oliver said in her presentation at sex::tech, “My litmus test on what I share about the community is to consider what I would say if a community member were present in this audience, or if she were reading a blog post I’ve written about it. How would she feel to hear me say her words out of context or violate the community guidelines we worked so hard to create and enforce?”
Exhale has to walk our talk. This commitment to member privacy is critical for Exhale because we care about building and strengthening trust with our callers and community members. And, as danah boyd, Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said in her plenary on “Privacy and Publicity” at South By Southwest Interactive, “No matter how many times a privileged, straight, white, male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, privacy is not dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline. … Privacy is about having control.”
Exhale has achieved “proof of concept” – it is possible to foster nonjudgmental communication about personal abortion experiences online. Now, we are faced with new challenges. How do we reach and benefit more people without jeopardizing the very thing that makes it work – the private, confidential nature of the community? In fact, if privacy and confidentiality is a defining asset and a major strength of our service, how do we improve these qualities and make them work even better for current and new members? And of course, resource and capacity questions remain, especially now that we know what it takes to maintain the community.
And yet, the technical and organizational challenges are not what we consider our biggest ones. These are solvable. There are precedents and lessons learned from other online communities and strategies with which we can experiment.
Our biggest challenge is one of perceptions; perceptions about the use of social media to discuss and explore stigmatized and conflicted issues by the very people who are impacted by the issues.
Changing Perceptions about the Use of Social Media
Exhale is forging a new path in the intent and use of social media. In this case, we are not encouraging communication and storytelling as an external marketing tool to leverage and capture attention in order to reach new people, raise more money, and galvanize supporters to action. Too often, personal stories are valued only for the capital which they can impart to a cause or how they can be used to please a potential donor by making them feel more engaged. Too often, organizations focus solely on how they can “get more stories” or “get someone to come out” publicly about a stigmatized issue like abortion, with a personally compelling story online, no matter the personal or professional costs to the storyteller. When storytelling through social media is marketing and donor-driven instead of client-centered, it can easily lead to the manipulation of stories and storyteller’s and distracts us from our own social change goals.
Unfortunately, these practices are so prevalent that they have permeated the perception of social media advocacy. Exhale must overcome these perceptions. Rather than invest in efforts to get the hidden voices to “go public,” Exhale is investing in the development of private spaces that build trust and dialogue between those whose lives are lived at the center of our cause.
Exhale is encouraging communication and storytelling for movement building. This movement is, however, building strength and numbers in private. The truth is some stories will only be told in private and not all movements are meant to take place in the public eye. This does not make them less valuable. It may even make them more so. Members and future movement leaders may need privacy, opportunities for authenticity, and safe spaces in which we can become whole and discover our collective strength through our shared vulnerability. Spending private time with others online who “get it” is helping Exhale grow and thrive.
Social change through social media does not require that the most vulnerable among us expose ourselves and our private experiences publicly. Exhale has chosen to use social media to meet the needs of those at the center of injustice; to support our healing and connection in private where we are free to form the community we need away from the prying eyes of those seeking to judge us; and to build our strength so we can leverage our collective power for the social change we need.