Me (far right) and some of my ROI buddies

Described as an “international network of activists and change makers who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens“, the ROI Community is the baby of American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Its aim is to identify and then support and develop young Jewish leaders from around the world who have a vision and a proven track record for creating change in their communities. I’ve spent the past week as one of 150 ROI newbies from around the world who were gathered together for an induction ‘summit’ in Jerusalem and have been reflecting on what I’ve learnt and observed about building a productive and creative network in the digital age.

In person gatherings matter- Taking a step out of the rat race and creating time to reflect and connect with others can feel like a luxury but its fundamental. Shifting perspective and taking the time to have intentional and deep conversations with others provides a level of connection and exploration that is easy to avoid online. There’s a level of responsibility that people feel towards one another through face to face conversation that creates stronger networks and a deeper sense of knowing someone (Levinas was onto something…).

Good tech enhances the potential for connection at events- ROI used the the E-180 Brain Dates platform to enable summit-goers to make the most out of the people around them. Brain dates are targeted meetings based around a series of ‘offers’ and ‘requests’ that people can make on the platform. Its a great way to find out who is at an event with you and to make sure that you aren’t reliant on luck and spontaneous conversation to find those who have overlapping areas of interest or skills. As someone who is not the kind of person who just goes up to random strangers at events I found this a great way to move beyond small talk and have productive and interesting conversations with the people around me.

Even those in the know feel outpaced- We heard a number of times over the week from leaders in the worlds tech and social entrepreneurship. I found it strangely reassuring that even those who have given TED talks, work for google or are on Forbes 30 under 30 lists find the pace of change in the world as frightening as it is exciting!

Content-light programming makes space for great conversations- ROI took much from the principles of unconferencing which can be summed up in the maxim that ‘the sum total of knowledge in the room is greater than that on the stage’. Using open space technology and doing things like flipping panels so that experts sought knowledge from the audience and providing ample time for peer-led sessions created a rich and deep conversation that was led by the interests, knowledge and skills of attendees. Unlike many conferences I’ve been to, I left feeling like I knew the people around me well and that we’d heard more from each other than any speaker talking down to us from a stage.

Online communities need nurturing- ROI understands that online connections can sustain and develop community, but that communities need managing and weaving to maintain their identity and purpose. They do this by providing continued offline opportunities to engage that are woven through the year and through a multitude of social media channels. I’m impressed by the way that livestreaming, carefully curated posting, blogging, webinars, facebook groups and newsletters hold together a large community through the year.

Virtual reality headsets are really cool- Got to play with one of these, it was mind-blowingly awesome.

I’m still a little overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of the experience I had over the last week. The quality of the individuals present, ranging from activists fighting to uncover sexual abuse in their communities, to the creators of the world’s first Yiddish web series, from musicians using EEGs to create guitar beats, to environmentalists singing about poop and people creating communities around baking challah or eating ashkenazi food, was truly extraordinary. It’s also a huge challenge, being part of ROI means having a responsibility to return the investment that The Schusterman Foundation makes in each of us, and that’s daunting.

Civic engagement and technology

Internet feminism is enjoying a bit of a moment (as is internet misogyny, but more on that later…) with bloggers, twitter personalities, facebook groups and online campaigns shaping what is becoming known as feminism’s fourth wave. The growth of this new feminism, which is often strongly intersectional, and therefore part of a broader sub-section of the internet that is rapidly defining identity politics online, is fascinating. On one hand, it has energised and inspired a new generation in non-party political activism and created a strong sense of community and momentum that many young people can struggle to find within their school communities. On the other, the type of discourse that has emerged is often lacking in the nuance that face to face engagement sees and suffers from the soundbite and mob mentality that seems to pervade any mass public online conversation.

This week I read a 6 year old paper about young women and the ‘participatory possibilities of online cultures‘. Written on the cusp of this wave, it observes that “the New technologies facilitate young women’s capacity to play with gender and to resist feminine stereotypes” and I think this is definitely something that has proved to be the case. There is no doubt that the online debate around gendered toys  has impacted on the behaviour of brands and shops and this mass movement is a good example of how online conversations have promoted civic engagement. Other examples might be the campaign to get Jane Austen’s picture on bank notes or more recent projects to challenge school dress codes. As the fly on the wall (and in the phone) Channel 4 documentary ‘teens’ showed recently, engagement in these kinds of online campaigns is not necessarily met with support in the offline spaces teens inhabit but encouragement and mentoring from an online community enables young people to continue to develop a voice and opinions.

Where I think the paper really missed the mark was in its comment that “For young women especially, these activities may provide less intimidating, more familiar modes for doing politics and for acting as citizens.” Whilst its true that it is easier to find like minded individuals online, and that people do definitely develop political voices and find spaces to express them, those spaces are often felt to be in some way unsafe. The last few years have seen prominent feminists hounded off twitter by death and bomb threats, and young women at universities experiencing a surge in ‘lad culture’ on and offline. Much of these negative behaviours are facilitated by the anonymity and often impersonal nature of online interaction.

It’s not just the behaviour of ‘trolls’ that is responsible for this ‘unsafe’ feeling, but rather something that runs deeper and reflects the challenge of 2D interaction with people.The largest student feminist online community (and offshoot of the oxford university ‘zine’ of the same name) has come under constant scrutiny for its development into what is perceived to be a heavily policed and self-censoring space where expression of ideas is often quite aggressively censored, prompting a number of students to publicly remove themselves from it. This criticism is probably true of a number of the fast moving conversations about identity politics online which have quickly developed their own vocabulary. It’s exactly this kind of policing of ideas or that has been blamed in part for the ‘closet tory’ phenomenon at the recent election.

When I think about digital technology and civic engagement I therefore have mixed feelings. On one hand I do think it promotes a stronger sense of participation and momentum around political issues, making the debate accessible and keeping people engaged. On the other I worry about the tone of conversation and the lack of respect that comes along with it, I’m concerned that ‘clicktivism’ can become a substitute for real action, and I think that the nature of politics and civil issues fighting youtube and netflix for screen time potentially creates a paediatric and ‘tweetable’ conversation lacking in necessary nuance.