Social media is just like storytelling, and other lessons learned by a white Catholic girl who spent time tweeting as a Pakistani-American imam
I have a confession to make: I'm not who I say I am.
You may think that I'm a white girl from outside the Pasta Triangle. But like the Gay Girl in Damascus, I have been masquerading as another ... well, actually, as a few other people.
As a journalism student trying to make a buck during the so-called death of print journalism, I decided to intern in public relations. It started as innocent ghost blogging for Rachel Ray. I would write about beach bags and dog friendly recipes for Mom Blogs (aka fine online parenting establishments).
Then in the spring of 2009, I stumbled on an opportunity that would change my life. I interviewed for a public relations position at the Islamic Center at NYU (ICNYU). I bargained for the job since the imam said I was overqualified for the work. I knew very little about Islam but I promised to build up the center's social networking presence and create media platforms that would allow them to more closely connect with the huge community of Muslim college students. I didn't really understand the importance of social media until I worked at the center.
I spent a year at the ICNYU ghost tweeting, writing press releases and doing odd jobs. A few months after I left, I found myself chatting with a Muslim student at an orientation event. It was in the middle of Ramadan, the annual month of fasting, and we were at lunch. I asked her if she was fasting and she confirmed but told me not to worry. She said she had found NYU's Islamic Center on Facebook and was planning to go to iftar, the center's break fast event, that evening. I didn't tell her that I was responsible for the Facebook page. I was proud that I had touched just one person.
Social media allows us to take the most important qualities of community and replicate them online. The ICNYU's Facebook page serves as a resource for Muslim students and allows them to stay connected with their community. Thanks to the Internet, they can learn about upcoming events, sign up for classes or catch up on the imam's podcast khutbahs.
We made for an odd pair: a Catholic Italian white girl and a Pakistani-American imam. But I think we learned a lot from each other. I taught him about Twitter and tried to encourage him to revive his blog. He showed me the day-to-day challenges facing Muslim New Yorkers. Imam Khalid Latif is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Not only does he serve as the executive director and chaplain of the ICNYU but he also is the Muslim chaplain for the NYPD. He works around the clock and is a celebrity in his own right. He recently maxed out on friends on Facebook.
Imam Latif is an amazing storyteller. He is always traveling for speaking engagements and recently was featured on the USA Network's Characters Unite. Working with the imam, I realized social media is just like storytelling. When you are tweeting or blogging, you are trying to shape your message so that it has tension that grabs the reader and connects with them, hoping to resonate somehow.
I had decided that I wanted to work in the public service and cross-cultural communications so my next job was for a small nonprofit called Indego Africa. This group partners with female artisans in Rwanda and helps ensure that their products are fair trade and tries to find long-term solutions for eradicating poverty through these co-ops.
Ghost tweeting for a nonprofit taught me about the importance of building bridges with other organizations and companies. Twitter is not only a conversation with end-users but with future business partners, shareholders and stakeholders. Promoting similar enterprises is just as important, if not more important, than tweeting about your own products. I learned that Twitter is a more complex dialogue than what appears on the surface.
One of the scariest jobs ever is tweeting for an elected official. Even before Weinergate, I understood how a Twitter persona can impact a politician's image. New York City Comptroller John Liu is the first Asian American to be elected to office in the city. Of course, like any elected official, the messages that went out over his Twitter account were carefully crafted and stayed on topic. But one thing that I admired about Comptroller Liu was his constant drive to remain transparent. He wanted to be honest and show the citizens of New York how the city's government really functions. Twitter played a large role in that mission.
There are some remarkable individuals that take it one step further by handling their own Twitter accounts. One of my favorites is Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Booker has a really strong voice that just leaps out of the account. I love his honesty and how he creates a dialogue with his followers by avidly replying to questions.
After the missteps of Anthony Weiner and others, we might need to be a bit more wary of social media. Twitter can be a great source of real-time information, but as a former professor of mine use to say, we, the journalists, are no longer the gate keepers. Social media has ripped the doors off the floodgates and, now sopping wet with information, we can't tell who is who.
So next time a girl from Damascus wants to tell you about the LGBT community in Syria, be more vigilant and check her IP address. You never know who is hiding behind the handle.
Image: Gay Girl in Damascus/Facebook.