News Leadership 3.0

April 04, 2012

Faces of Black Men: Blending Pinterest, Tumblr for public engagement on race

By Amy Gahran

Last month, Dori Maynard had just begun experimenting with Pinterest as a way to use images to counter stereotypes. When the shooting death of Trayvon Martin started making national headlines, she decided to combat negative media images of black men by offering a collection of photos of ordinary and extraordinary black men in her life. That caught the attention of Deanna Zandt, who launched a related Tumblr blog where others can contribute images on this theme. A similar project by Colorlines also is helping to bring attention to personal stories of racial profiling.

Here’s how these visually powerful social media tools can work together to help elevate the public conversation on contentious topics…

As president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, Dori Maynard thinks deeply about race, bias, and the media all the time. Here’s how she described her Pinterest board, The Face of Black Men: Neither Super Predator Nor Superhero:

“Somewhere between the inaccurate and distorted media images of the black male super predator and the black male superhero, live the majority of black men. They are fathers, brothers, doctors, bloggers, editors and accountants. Here are only a few in my life. While they are exceptional to me, they are hardly the exception.”

So far, Maynard has posted over 30 photos to this board, each a face with a name and description.

Why Pinterest? “I think it’s a great tool for visual storytelling, and it feels very natural for me to use. All my social media mentors say you should use whatever tool feels right to you,” said Maynard.

“I didn’t know that Pinterest is where you’re supposed to post pictures of pretty things you want,” she quipped.

One of Maynard’s friends whose picture she included on her Pinterest board is George Kelly, online coordinator for the Contra Costa Times. He found his inclusion to be a bit disorienting, but positive.

“I had an out-of-black-body experience,” Kelly said. “I’m not used to looking at collections of people of color, let alone picking myself out of the backdrop. ‘There I am, but what am I doing here?’ Here are men who, merely by living their lives, serve as signposts and guides; here are unique and ordinary people with diverse origins and interests who just happen to have these certain traits in common with me: blackness and maleness.

Kelly said Maynard’s point is well-taken. “I think the project is a strong example of a Web platform’s potential to address issues and redress grievances. One person gets to arrange and display rich, surprising offline connections in an online medium.”

Collaboration and crowdsourcing: Expanding to Tumblr

Maynard wanted other people to be able to join her awareness effort. But she soon learned that one key tradeoff is that so far Pinterest makes it relatively complicated to have more than one person contribute images to a particular board.

But when Deanna Zandt, author of Share This: How you will change the world with social networking, learned of Maynard’s Pinterest board, she immediately saw the potential to open this project up for collaboration by complementing it with a blog on Tumblr.

So Zandt quickly launched The Faces of Black Men on Tumblr. This blog includes a key feature that Pinterest lacks: visitors can submit photos and tell the stories of black men in their lives.

This kind of crowdsourcing is enabled by Tumblr messages, a feature that can be applied to any Tumblr blog. Contributed posts are held for moderation by the blog owner, so they don’t immediately post live on your Tumblr site. This helps deter would-be vandals and trolls, as well as irrelevant contributions.

With Maynard’s blessing, Zandt copied over to the Tumblr blog all of the photos and descriptions from Maynard’s Pinterest board. “That took a little longer than I expected, a couple of hours,” said Zandt. “But if you want to encourage good contributions, it’s really important to show lots of examples of the kinds of contributions you hope people will make.”

Since then other people have contributed their personal photos and stories to the Tumblr blog, such as this family photo from Geoffrey Philp.

Zandt moderates and publishes contributions to the Tumblr blog, and Maynard plans to soon add these crowdsourced photos to her Pinterest board.

Zandt decided to launch the Faces of Black Men Tumblr blog partly due to her success with a similar project she started in February: Planned Parenthood Saved Me—a place for women to share personal stories about the positive difference that services from Planned Parenthood have made in their lives. She launched it just as public outrage was building over the Komen Foundation’s withdrawal of funding for Planned Parenthood. It very quickly attracted over 300 contributions.

Most of those contributions came in during the first three days after the Tumblr launched—and that’s fine. “Tumblr is very much an in-the-moment medium,” said Zandt. “A project like this doesn’t have to require a lot of effort over time to keep up. It can have its moment in the sun, and then remain online as a record.”

Faces of Black Men isn’t the only crowdsourced Tumblr in reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin.

In March, Dominique Apollon, research director for the Applied Research Center (which publishes Colorlines, a daily news site focusing on race) noticed the momentum that Zandt’s Planned Parenthood Saved Me project had quickly built. So he decided to create a similar crowdsourced effort: I Could Be Trayvon—which so far has attracted nearly 30 personal stories.

This Tumblr blog is where people can share their “Trayvon Stories”—personal experience from people of color about times when they were “racially profiled by police or vigilantes, and could have ended up dead after doing nothing more than the everyday activity typical of human beings living in a supposedly free society.”

Colorlines promoted this crowdsourcing project on its main site, and republished Apollon’s personal account of encountering serious danger due to being racially profiled by police—after Apollon first posted the story to the Tumblr blog.

Colorlines publisher Rinku Sen explained that after Apollon presented his Tumblr idea to the Colorlines team, they moved very quickly to put it into action. “We had it up and had the first stories posted to it inside of 36 hours,” she said. “One great thing about Tumblr is that it’s very fast and easy to launch a project like this, and spread the word. Especially with an emerging controversy, speed like that is really important.”

Sen observed that a tool like Tumblr might be less intimidating to people, and thus encourage more contributions than, say, a call for submissions on a regular website. “We wanted to give people who had this experience a place to name it and to tell their story, in a way that doesn’t require them to have a blog or be great writers. This is a platform for everyday people,” she said.

Expanding to other communities, other stories

Since Dori Maynard launched her Pinterest board, she has developed a larger vision.

“I would love to see other people—who represent other ethnicities and communities that experience stereotyping or profiling—to create similar boards and blogs,” she said. “I’d love to see one by and about Asian men, or Hispanic or Native American people.”

“The reason my blog is specifically about black men, and not just more generally about people of color, is that the media narrative around each ethnicity is different. We each have different kinds of stories we can tell to undermine particular stereotypes,” she said.

“Yes, anyone could create this—but I think it’s more effective when it comes organically from within the community.”

Tips

Advice for individuals, organizations or media outlets who want to try a Pinterest/Tumblr crowdsourced project about a specific topic or theme:

1. Post example content first. If you’re soliciting personal stories or any kind of crowdsourced content, the first few posts to your Tumblr should exemplify the kinds of content you hope people will contribute. For instance, if you’re really hoping to get photos with captions, post photos with captions.

2.Write a submission guidelines post. A good example is the submission guidelines from Faces of Black Men. Embed in this post the submission form that you can generation using Tumblr’s message feature. Then add a link to this post in the “description” field for your blog, so it shows up as a consistent navigation link on every page and post in the blog.

Also, Sen recommends: “Keep your instructional language very accessible, easy to understand. Don’t use a lot of computer or social media jargon.”

If you want to have the option to republish selected contributed items to a Pinterest board, or in another media outlet or other channel, your submission guidelines should clearly state that you might do this, so people won’t be surprised if their story gets posted elsewhere.

3. Publicize through social media, and your other media venues. You can promote your project and solicit submissions through your networks on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. Ask your colleagues, friends, and supporters to also promote the project through their networks. You can share links to individual posts as well as publicize the entire project.

But if you also have a website, newspaper, radio show, or other media presence, publicize your project there too via articles, stories, and public service house ads.

If your project includes both a Pinterest board and a Tumblr blog, make sure you publicize both efforts. They offer a different experience, and so can attract difference audiences and engage people in different ways.

4. Be flexible: Roll with what the community wants. With her Planned Parenthood Saved Me Tumblr blog, Zandt originally hoped that women would mostly contribute photos of themselves holding up handwritten signs telling their stories—visual storytelling approach that has become popular with various causes from health insurance to the Occupy movement and more.

However, people mostly contributed text-only posts to the blog. And that was fine, too—because the stories were personal and powerful, and resonated with a wider community. “The community had spoken, that was how they wanted to tell their stories, so we just went with that,” said Zandt.

5. Use web browser bookmarklets for posting. When creating your board and blog, Zandt says it helps to install the PinIt button for Pinterest, and the Share on Tumblr bookmarklet, in your web browser’s toolbar.

Upload each image to Tumblr first. Then view each post individually on Tumblr and click the PinIt button to cross-post that image to your corresponding Pinterest board. It may help to compose the description for each photo in a text file, so you can just copy and paste it into both Tumblr and Pinterest.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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