Lesson #3: Strong-ties and warm-fuzzy feelings are essential

Editor’s note: To close out Women’s history month we are running this series of guest posts from Emily May and Samuel Carter co-founders of Hollaback as they reflect on taking an idea and moving it to action, the best practices they have learned along the way and documenting for us that feminist history is happening right now

When Malcolm Gladwell wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” in The New Yorker, he argued that the revolution would not happen through social media because the revolution requires “strong ties” and the Internet only facilitated “weak ties.”  There are lots of abstract ways to measure “strong” vs. “weak” ties, but the founders of Hollaback! felt that Gladwell was missing the mark. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s research shows that social media causes the release of oxytocin, which is the hormone that is responsible for feelings of trust, generosity, and connectivity. It is released by mothers holding their babies, people falling in love, and according to Zak, it is the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, societies — and dare we say, movements. This suggests that individuals can form strong, emotional connections over digital networks.

Gladwell didn’t get everything wrong though—movements do require strong-ties. Our “hand them a start up packet and be done with it” model didn’t just fail because it didn’t provide people with enough training, it failed also because it didn’t provide them with community.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you were part of a great team? When everyone was on the same page, working seamlessly to the same incredible goal? Those moments are rare, but when they happen they are the best. We wanted to build Hollaback! with that design in mind—an incredible team that loved each other and were all in it together, fighting for something bigger than ourselves. Releasing oxytocin at every turn.

In March 2011, a prominent journalist and professor in Buenos Aires named Juan Terranova wrote an article on our Buenos Aires Hollaback! site.  He wasn’t a fan; and instead of critiquing it from any reasonable academic or journalistic perspective, he went after our site leader, Inti Maria writing, “I want to break her asshole with my cock.”

His words reverberated across our network.  A collective shock, rage, and concern about Inti Maria’s safety lit our listserve on fire.  Inti Maria left the country to gather her thoughts and ensure her safety, and we started a petition on change.org to get him fired.  Within a few weeks we’d collected 3,500 signatures from 75 countries around the world.  And still, the publication that he wrote for didn’t budge.  So we targeted their advertisers, Fiat and Lacoste, and within two days we’d gathered over 1,500 signatures and both Fiat and Lacoste ended their advertising contracts.  At that point, the main shareholder made the call.  Terranova was fired, and both Terranova and the editor of the magazine wrote a front page apology to Inti Maria.

In his apology, Terranova referred to Hollaback! as a “powerful, well-organized international organization.” At this point, Emily had been on salary as Executive Director for just two months, and we had no additional staff or an office. But as a badass collective of feminist activists with computers, Terranova was right: we were both powerful and well-organized.

Following the ordeal, Inti Maria wrote to the Hollaback! listserve:

The other day I made a comparison to a friend between Hollaback! and a bee hive. I said I felt like a bee because we are organized, strong, active and when we get mad — we act together. He said, “you are a strong bee,” haha. But the point is I feel strong because we are all strong together. Right now it feels like we’re taking down the bear of institutionalized misogynism in the media!

What happened with Terranova reminded us that we were up against some pretty terrifying enemies. Before Terronova we had all suffered through a range of hater comments calling us “fat,” “ugly,” or “just needing to get laid.” They stung. But this was a whole new ballgame. The ordeal inspired the establishment of Hollaback’s culture of support as well as one of our core values: “I’ve Got Your Back.” It reads:

Making revolution isn’t always easy. It’s scary to tell your story, and it’s scary to lead a movement that challenges the status quo. When times get tough, we stand as a united front against the forces that try to pull us apart. We embrace others’ perspectives, see debate as a learning opportunity, and we never, ever get holier-than-thou.

Today, we maintain our community’s solidarity through several outlets, including a listserve and facebook group where we share announcements. The goal of our online communications isn’t just to share resources or best pratices.  It’s to inspire that warm-fuzzy feeling. The feeling of being on an incredible team, the feeling of being understood. Because it is that feeling above all else that makes things happen.

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