OneEleven’s former ED Siri Agrell explains why she’s embracing tech (but not Twitter) in her run for public office

Siri Agrell
Some politicians avoid social media because they don’t know how to use it. Agrell doesn’t think they should use it.

I remember writing a briefing note for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne once, in which I explained to her what a selfie was and how to take one.

That was in 2013, just nine years ago. A lot has changed since then, and social media has become the dominant platform in our lives and politics.

Politicians, like companies and celebrities, now use social media constantly to announce their positions, build their brands, advertise, and collect data. Like many people, they have become dependent on it, using it as the primary way to communicate with the people they serve.

But are we better served?

Last week, I announced that I’m running for Toronto City Council in Parkdale-High Park. Today, I launch my campaign and my full website, built by some great people at Day Shift Digital.

I’ve worked in politics and in tech, as the Executive Director of OneEleven, where I supported the development of amazing technology companies and their teams.

We talk a lot about how Toronto is a great city for tech companies. But how can we use technology—and all the talent that lives here—to help make this city great?

But as a candidate and a councillor, I will not be using Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin. I deactivated my accounts this morning (I was actually never on Facebook and have downloaded my Twitter archive first if anyone wants to see my hot takes on the Raptors) and will keep my Instagram private, so my parents can still see pictures of my kids.

There are some politicians who avoid social media because they don’t know how to use it. I don’t think we should use it.

As I attempt to enter politics myself, it has become clear that we need a major reset in terms of how we communicate with one another, online and off.

Yes, social media platforms have given voice to many and facilitated connections that would have been impossible offline.

But it is also well documented that social media has subjected people to intense vitriol and abuse, with the highest levels of harassment and threats directed towards women, LGBTQ2+, those who aren’t white, and people at all the intersections of those identities.

The failing governance of many of these platforms is also actively contributing to much wider harm, including radicalization, polarization, deteriorating mental health and the undermining of democratic beliefs and institutions.

That doesn’t mean social media platforms can’t change or improve. But I think the best way to bring about those changes is to show them we’re not entirely dependent on their tools. To disrupt and model new things.

It also doesn’t mean I’m not using technology. I’ve worked in tech and am a great believer in its capacity to improve access to information, empower people, and deliver better ways of doing things.

My website will make it easy for people to share information with their friends and neighbours on whatever platform they like, and I hope you will share this article too. I’ll be engaging directly both online and off, through the site, email, text and newsletters, virtual calls and face-to-face interactions and events, where we can actually talk and not just Tweet at each other.

I want to use technology in a way that builds connections and allows people to understand what I’m trying to do, and why. I want to share information about the challenges our neighbourhoods and city face, and talk about the options for solving them and the barriers we’ll have to confront to get there. And I want to hear from people: their priorities, concerns and ideas.

We can do all that without social media and still maintain accountability, accessibility, and transparency. And it probably won’t feel so awful.

I also want to harness the ideas, energy and talent of this city to figure out other ways we can support the open and productive exchange of ideas.

Technology should be used as a tool, not a weapon. I would love my campaign to become a rallying point for the brilliant minds of our city, a way for them to engage in the development of new tools and approaches that bring out the best in us and solve our shared Toronto challenges. I love working with people in the Toronto tech sector because they relentlessly want to fix things and see opportunity everywhere. This is the spirit we should all bring to improving access to city services and making Toronto even better.

I love cities because of the number of people they serve, the complexity of the services they offer and the magic you can find around every corner. I want my ward to be a place where we try new things. And I want my campaign to serve that purpose too.

As Anil Dash wrote recently, this is a moment of possibility for what happens online. The desire for nice things is leading us to create new sites and new approaches where we can better determine our own experience and outcomes.

There was a great piece in MIT Technology Review recently that suggests social media platforms need to be designed more like cities, as “we need to make our online spaces more similar to our offline ones to limit the reach of bad actors and keep people safe.”

We talk a lot about how Toronto is a great city for tech companies. But how can we use technology—and all the talent that lives here—to help make this city great? How can we work together to improve transit and housing affordability, eliminate systemic barriers to opportunity, and make sure Toronto is a fun, exciting, and rewarding place to live. That should be our talent strategy as a city, and as a sector.

When Scott Galloway was in Toronto recording an episode of the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher during Elevate, he suggested that the Canadian government turn off Facebook and see how fast it changed.

So I’m going to give it a try. I’m going to use technology differently. I’m going to connect and engage differently.

Not because I think it will change anyone else, but because I think it will change me. Taking away Twitter as a megaphone will require me to establish more direct relationships and make me a better public servant, which is what politicians are meant to be.

I want people who work in the tech sector to come help. To think about how their skills and their insights could help build better systems, better interfaces, better connections that Toronto residents can use to introduce real change. I want us to look each other in the eye and ask what we could do better, and then build it together.

If we can accomplish that, then maybe we can post a selfie.

Feature image courtesy Mark Goad.

Siri Agrell

Siri Agrell

Siri is the CEO of BetaKit. She is a seasoned Canadian journalist and tech ecosystem leader who has developed a reputation for impact across sectors, with a background of leadership in technology, media and government.

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