KOSTA: Hello everyone and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host Kosta Lucas. And thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s wicked problems and redesign new futures. I know firsthand, we all have so much we can bring to these challenges. So listen in and see where you fit in as we undesign the topic of online accountability of public figures and intentional community building online.
As we grow accustomed to an increasingly digitized world, we too grow accustomed to a greater potential to speak to larger audiences, a greater potential to influence them. While this is by no means a guarantee for everyone who jumps online, we are now at a stage in the life cycle of online life, where a handful of content, creators and influencers have been doing this for the better part of a decade.
However, as the lines between the public and private become blurry, we are faced with new challenges to the way we perceive what is individual and what is communal and the responsibility that attaches to living online in a certain way.
A harmless selfie may say more things about us than we’d like it to, a picture of us with a vaccination on our arm may be received as something more political than we anticipate, sharing a humorous meme may be really tone deaf in the face of mass protests around racial justice. Sharing your experience of racism might not be the content your followers signed up for on your fashion and lifestyle blog. So do we actually expect too much from those who will this supposed influence? And are the rules even the same for everyone?
Helping us untangle this wicked problem is our latest special guest Lillian Ahenkan, otherwise known as FlexMami. Flex is a multidisciplinary millennial making waves in the Australian entertainment industry. She’s an entrepreneur, author of the book, The Success Experiment. DJ, she’s a TV presenter for MTV, model, speaker and host. She’s also a social commentator and media influencer, and she also hosts three podcasts, including Overshare with Mamamia, Bobo and Flex and Whatever I Want. And Flex’s Semi Factual History Lesson. Flex is also passionate about bringing conversations surrounding identity and intersectionality and mental health to mainstream environments.
In our casual but raw conversation, Flex walks us through the journey of her career before being recognized as a public figure or an influencer. Before we then go onto explore what it actually means to be an influential person. And in her case, at what expense this comes with, when she wanted to turn her attention to influence conversations around more serious issues. This then leads us to discuss a trend that longtime creators like her have been turning to in droves, in order to find some semblance of balance. Intentional online community creation. For anyone that’s familiar with Flex’s work, she is unsurprisingly hilariously unapologetic in her opinions, and she offers some blistering takes on this interplay between influencer and audience and where that line is. But as to be expected, we have a ton of fun getting there even when this topic gets serious. So the question we ultimately settle on is, are intentional communities the way of living online in the future?
KOSTA: All right, Flex, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you?
FLEXMAMI: I am sensational. How are you?
KOSTA: Yeah, I’m really well, actually. And I’m even better now that we’re finally got the time to chat. I really appreciate you taking time out of your pretty insane schedule, I imagine, to come and talk to us about essentially existing online. And for us, and particularly in our office, like you represent a really interesting example of that and we’ve crossed paths a couple of times over the last few years and I’ve seen things change and all that stuff. We’re really keen to sort of unpack your journey and look at look at existing online through your eyes as well. So, I mean, as a starting point, how do you describe yourself at the moment and where you’re at?
FLEXMAMI: I try not to.
KOSTA: That’s fair.
FLEXMAMI: It’s convoluted. I usually, I switch it up depending on who I’m talking to and what context is required to make the conversation make sense, but I’m doing quite a few things. So still DJing when I feel like it, still TV hosting, still podcasting. I have two companies, well, three, including myself. So one is FlexMami, which is all the me modifying myself. Then we have Flex Factory, which is the company in which I make these conversation card games. And then the latest one is Future Group Chat, which we’ll talk about more at length.
KOSTA: Ah, I can’t wait.
FLEXMAMI: But it’s an exclusive members only community for young people to talk about conversations that matter to them, emphasis on exclusive.
KOSTA: Yeah. Awesome. Well, that’s something we’re going to touch on as well. Because, can you walk us through your journey? No, I mean, you can hit the sort of the high points or the milestones, right? Like, how do you become to be a person that is suddenly influential online in whatever capacity that you’re comfortable with, but what was your journey? I’m just keen to hear it directly from you.
FLEXMAMI: Super convoluted. I mean, when I was 20, I was working in PR and social media and digital comms. And I almost failed high school and I dropped out of uni twice. So I wasn’t really imagining I’d have a good job, quote unquote. So when I did, I felt really invincible and soon came to find out that PR, although I learned a lot of fantastic skills, it doesn’t suit the way I like to labor. You have to do a lot of behind the scenes work. You can’t really take a lot of the credit for the work that you do. It’s very labor intensive and probably the worst part of it all is that the average person has no idea what a publicist even does. So you are this mysterious figure who just does a bunch of stressful stuff that nobody has context for and therefore cannot validate you for.
So I definitely burnt out a lot in that career. And at that stage I was putting a lot of my value into, or my self worth into my work output. And I thought perhaps I was just missing a bit of perspective and maybe the job wasn’t that terrible, I just didn’t have another thing to entertain me. So at the time I was 20 and all my friends were 20, 21, 22. They were all going out drinking. I don’t drink. So it got boring very quickly to just be in the club at all times. But I enjoyed the environment, I enjoyed dressing up. And at the time I was very, oh, I am still now very work centric. So I figured out, well, I applied to be a door girl, essentially, which was a very simple job. You just look pretty and let people in. And then from there I met a few promoters and helped them with a bit of PR and some business development.
And long story short, I offered myself up to be a DJ for their events, because back in those days I was a door girl from 9:00 PM to 3:00 AM, but we didn’t charge entry until midnight. So I would just stand outside, making small talk. And I asked the venue, if I could go upstairs and DJ they’re like, yeah, fine, whatever you want to do, go for it.
KOSTA: Oh yeah, cool.
FLEXMAMI: So that begun the DJ career. It wasn’t intending to be a career, but I think because I was a club kid, quote, unquote party girl, I was well connected. It suited promoters to book someone like me whose friends would show up to the events that they were hosting. So a couple hours a week turned into 25, 30 hours a week of DJing. And on top of a job that was already burning me out, that didn’t go away. It was too much. And I thought that it would be a good opportunity to take a risk, like who is a DJ full-time? Not many people. And I thought, I’m already in an office job. I could get another one if this doesn’t work out. So I quit and then became a full-time DJ. And that then spiraled into working for MTV and being a TV presenter, and then working at [SBI 00:08:41] at the same time.
FLEXMAMI: And that’s how I kind of pivoted into this public figure role. But it was interesting because you mentioned something about being influential and back in those days, social media mattered as sure seven years ago, it mattered, but not in the way that it matters now. So I was able to have a lot of these great opportunities and not really have that much of a presence online or,
KOSTA: Yeah, sure.
FLEXMAMI: Not much of intentional presence. I just had the same kind of Instagram everybody else had. And I recall feeling very, not even neutral about posting online. I was adverse to it. I couldn’t understand why I needed to tell people what I was doing and where I was going, and for what reason. Just wasn’t my vibe. I’m not a very secretive or mysterious person, but I definitely like to earn my attention. And something about just putting things into the ether, didn’t really align with how I wanted to be seen. So, suddenly being perceived as an influencer before I’d even started influencing, was an odd thing because in a weird way, I could reverse engineer and show up as whoever I wanted to, because it was assumed I already had permission to be there. But then recognizing I couldn’t compete where I didn’t compare.
And back in those days, seven years ago, the Instagram was definitely a flat lays bikini pictures, I don’t know, it was just a very much not me. And I don’t like to be uncomfortable and I don’t like to play losing games. And dressing myself up as a female DJ, I don’t know, it didn’t feel right. So my whole career has just been trying to find different ways to align myself in a way that an audience recognizes, as someone who’s meant to be there, but do it in a way that suits only me. So nobody can turn around and be like, wait a second, is she really meant to be here? It’s like, well, how are you meant to know I’m not doing things that other people are doing in the way that they’re doing them.
KOSTA: Far out, man. Well, you certainly don’t do things by halves. That’s for sure. I mean, like we touched on the word before influencer, influencing. How do you feel about that label? Because I know you’ve commented on it elsewhere, but how do you feel about that word right at this moment?
FLEXMAMI: Right at this moment I’m super indifferent. Before, in the early stages I was so flattered. Like how do you have 2000 followers and be called an influencer? That’s cool. Then it got to a point where it became the bane of my existence because from my perspective, I had achieved so much. I think when I was at peak influencer doing all the influencer things, it might have been four years into my career, which meant that I’d been a TV presenter for four years and a DJ for four years and podcasting for maybe a couple of years. And I’d build a lot of skills in those areas just to have people demean them by referring to me as just an influencer. Because the implication was like, well, you just show up, right? And you look cute and take photos. There’s no skill to that.
FLEXMAMI: And I was like, no, that’s another job, separate to all the other things. And I have those other things, those came prior to being an influencer. And so I felt as though I had to constantly provide context for why I was allowed to be in certain spaces or why I was different. It just felt like I had to prove myself in spaces that I didn’t even want to be a part of anyway. But right now I recognize that being perceived as an influencer gives me so much permission to be and do and scale and up skill, so I just cop it.
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s fair. And I mean, that’s a really interesting point around influencing, carrying the connotation of just showing up and then having to go through the labor of proving while you’re there. And it’s a really flattening label, I guess, too. And like, I’m guilty of using that label in a very derisive way. But I think the thing that is softened my opinion on that, is just understanding that people are curious about people. And people who are doing interesting stuff and giving us an insight into that, we do become attached to as well, for better and for worse. Which I’m sure you’ve probably run the full gamut of experiences in terms of what people make of you as a result of the things that you share or choose not to share.
My question has always been like, when we refer to the term influencer, what is it that we’re influencing? Or what is it that people are influence… I’m not an influencer, are just more like, what are we influencing when we’re talking about influencing? Is it just people to our pages? Is it about turning hearts and minds to a particular issue we care about? Did you go in with a goal to influence anything other than just your enjoyment of your own life, I guess, and maybe your own sort of media presence or whatever it is.
FLEXMAMI: I mean, I always perceived influencing to be an aesthetic first. Because when I was working in social media, a big part of my job was procuring influencers to pitch to the clients we worked with so we could send them free stuff. And we had a quota of hundreds of products to just give to people. And back in those days, you couldn’t really see a lot of people’s analytics. I mean you can’t now. So we had to judge people’s ability to influence purely on vibes. The picture’s crisp enough, are they wearing trendy clothing? Do they seem like they have their finger on the pulse? And if so, therefore one must be an influencer.
So when I started doing influencer work, I definitely had that same mentality. I must show up as an influencer to be perceived as one. It wasn’t until far later on when I started using my voice as a crucial part of my branding that I recognized I had influence far bigger than I would’ve realized, if not for having to control my own narrative and speak candidly about myself for myself. I feel like the people who are actually influential are rarely perceived as such. Like the average person who would be perceived as an influencer, so a pretty, young 20 year old girl who wears trendy clothing. If we’re looking at the functions and the metrics of how we determine her influence, perhaps it’s by the likes or the followers or how recognizable she might be, probably isn’t that influential.
But you have someone who might just be a member of a local community who’s encouraged everyone to start community gardening. They would be super influential. Get a whole block of people to start planting stuff, crazy off the Richter. So it’s really hard to tell. And probably why I become so jaded about the title in itself because I’ve had kind of a full circle moment with the title of influencer where I resented it and I felt indifferent. Then there was a point where I really respected it because I could start to see people for the value they were offering as opposed to extracting from their audiences. And I recognize a lot of influencers maintain the title, because they’re there to extract the value, the perks, the perception, the clout, which is fine, but don’t give value in exchange for that.
And it is in my nature and in my personality type to be very hyper aware of my worth in contrast to myself, but also in others. And also the space I take up, the space I’m entitled to take up, if I’m worth listening to, all these things, just constantly circle around my mind. So when I would watch other people do the job well by the standards that I set, I was like, wow, it is very hard to do what you’re doing and nobody will ever know because you are experiencing something that is not common. It’s not shared. It’ll always exist on the outskirts of understanding. So, good luck.
KOSTA: That’s really, yeah, far out. I love that distinction between sort of the exploitative extractive parts of maybe influence and also the regenerative part or the restorative part, where you are using that influence to rebuild something. And I felt like you were alluding to that a little bit before, when you talked about, when you decided to use your voice to talk about things that really mattered to you. Was there a turning point or was it a lead up? Like, where did you start to sort of take the focus away from, well, I don’t know if this is too simplistic, but where did it stop being about Flex? Just as Flex as like a cool fashion Easter DJ, media entrepreneur, and Flex, the person who cares about racism and mental health and identity and all these sorts of things. Was there a turning point or?
FLEXMAMI: Yeah, it was a very distinct turning point as well. I think once I’d gotten to about three years in my career and realized how sort of inextricable my life, my career and Instagram was, I had a bit of a crisis of self. How could I invest so much time in a space that doesn’t feel like it reflects me. And having these interactions every day with people assuming they have the best idea of who I am because I showed them what I was wearing that day or the lipstick I happened to use. And while I could recognize my nuance and my layers and the complexities of myself, I wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt by my audience. And I was almost relegated to this one dimensional being who only existed to entertain whoever so happened to watch me that day. It felt very like court jester, very “dance monkey, dance”.
And I was like, oh, this is not great. But I didn’t necessarily have the tools within the platform to change anything about it. There were no Instagram stories back then. It was just you, on the feed. And so, it was very competitive. And so, I remember I was DJing this corporate event and I was thinking about how cool it would be to show people what this event was really like. Not just the final, “Here’s my outfit, it went well.” But could I perhaps show them or give myself an opportunity to write a long caption or something. So I went in with the intention to almost write my way through that event. And then I had the weirdest experience where I was DJing at an event, and it was a circular room and I was on a stage on a podium, I guess, in the very middle of the room, about 150 people. So from wherever you were standing in a room, you could see me. I was the center of attention.
And it was a very odd event. It was like a pop culture use event, but only stakeholders were there. So it was very odd. I was like, had to be the youngest person there by at least 30 years. And because it was stakeholders, you couldn’t really tell who was quote, unquote important. But from where I was, I was so far up in the air, maybe like six feet. I don’t know. Didn’t matter to me anyway, until these five really burly guys come barreling in and they’re really drunk. And they’re so entertained by this chick DJ. And they keep yelling and they’re heckling, which I assume they thought was quite flattering. But I was just like, I don’t know if these people are quote, unquote important, am I meant to humor them?
And so, one of these guys had to be like six foot five, really broad, comes running up the stairs. He’s drunk and he’s sloshing around. He’s running up and says, he’s like, “Oh, I really want to see it up close. I want to see what you see.” I’m like, okay, cool. Mind you, there has to be 10 to 12 security guards circling this room. So I’m assuming if this guy isn’t meant to be here, somebody will come and grab him. So he gets to where I am, and anyone who understands DJ equipment, everything is quite precious up there. So already I’m kind of like, whoa, there’s not even space for me. I don’t know if there’s space for both of us. And he makes his way upstairs and he’s puffed out and he puts his arm over my shoulder and kind of uses me as, I guess, a prop to hold himself up because he’s so drunk.
And I’m like looking around and security guards are looking at me and they’re not doing anything. So I’m like, okay, maybe this is chill. I’m not sure. And then he starts almost motioning over to touch something on the decks. I’m like, oh no, you can’t do that. And then I guess my movement shakes him. So he kind of like brings his arm in around my neck, and I’m in a choke hold. And I don’t think he recognizes that he’s putting all his body weight on me. And now he’s got his arm around my neck and I’m like, “What’s happening here? Why wouldn’t anyone say anything?” And so I’m looking around at, and making eyes with security guards who are averting eye contact, who are making it known that they’re not going to help me in this moment.
And I couldn’t recognize if I was over-exaggerating or if I had just like put too much pressure on the interaction because of the color of people in the room. Maybe it was standard. I don’t know. But then he spilled his drink on the deck and he started getting rowdy. His friends were geeing him up and I was like, okay, you know what? You have to get back. And then he does this whole, “Oh, why are you so upset? Why are you so annoyed? I’m just trying to enjoy myself. You’re ruining my night. You’re so lucky you’re up here and not down there. You think you’re better us.” Goes on this whole tirade. I’m like, okay, no, it’s done. Like, you have to get down.
So he leaves. And then I go and call the production assistant. And I say, I’m not comfortable being here because here was a moment where I needed some kind of support and all of your security guards did nothing to help me. I don’t feel safe in this environment. And again, the gas lighting, well, are you sure he was doing anything? And nobody mentioned anything. And if it was really that bad, wouldn’t someone… And I was like, this is… Honestly, it felt like I was in the Twilight zone. I couldn’t imagine. So when I had went home for that day, I remember looking through my camera role, wanting something to post for the event, because there was a social obligation. And I knew I wanted to do something different. So I was like, oh gosh, I’ll tell the story of what happened to me. Maybe that’ll be super engaging.
So obviously I condense it for the Instagram caption and I post it. And it was from memory sentimental and heartfelt and really emotional. And I shit you not, it blew up so many comments, so many likes, but every comment was about my appearance. Oh, you look so beautiful. Where is your bag from? How cool you get to DJ these events. I’m so jealous. What?
KOSTA: What? Sorry, my mouth is agape for those that will not be able to see me, but like that’s hectic.
FLEXMAMI: How bizarre.
KOSTA: I can’t imagine how you felt.
FLEXMAMI: Honest, I did not have the words for it. And it was such a potent moment for introspection at that time because I had to kind of seek and do some self reflection and think, what was I expecting in that moment, why did I do it? What was that contingent on? What was I expecting? How should people have responded? Did I need someone to validate the experience they weren’t there for? It was too much. And so from there, I was like, there clearly is a misunderstanding or people clearly aren’t seeing me as a whole person. I’m existing as a 2d character within their electronic device. I need to shake things up. And so every day I would come on that app and I would find a way to show people more than just the final product.
And it didn’t work for a very long time. Like for the longest time, I would say for about a year. My engagement dropped and people were kind of like, what is with this? Like, why do you always write so many words? And there’s almost always things to say, and I’ve never heard someone talk as much as you and blah, blah, blah. And then it kind of felt like overnight, I think it was, I do remember it was when Instagram brought out stories and they brought out the question function and suddenly it felt like I had the tools to express myself.
I could show you, I didn’t want to be showing final products anyway, so I could show you me getting ready and talking about the events and let you know what I did the day and what I read and what I thought. And I would use the question functions to ask people hypothetical questions. And suddenly I felt as though I was finding my people, but it took a second and it took a while. And I always think of that moment because I would think, if I posted that today in the 2021’s of the world, somebody’s getting fired.
FLEXMAMI: Somebody’s getting canceled.
KOSTA: You would hope so. You’d hope so.
FLEXMAMI: Pedestrian would be calling my phone and being like, Hey, can we just get a, can we get something, can we get a quote? It wouldn’t just exist in this random ecosystem. And we have gone, or I know from my page personally, we have gone into the extreme where every day people expect me to come on there and give them a critical thinking sermon. And kind of call out this person for racism. And, what do think about this and how do I convince my anti-vaxxer parents to get vaccinated? And I’m like, whoa, I just want to share memes sometimes, is that okay with you? Can I laugh today?
KOSTA: You’ve just brought to mind, I still have this meme saved in my phone. My friend sent it to me years ago. It’s of you dancing to Gavin DeGraw in your room. It still cracks me up to this day. It makes me laugh so much. I should put a link to it in the show note.
FLEXMAMI: You absolutely should. And that was a moment of duality for me, because I was like, wow, I’m being backed into a corner. And you have to remember that 2014, 2015, around the time when I was speaking and the question function and Instagram story works, suddenly woke culture became really popular. And tokenism became very appropriate and everybody wanted access to this like Australian but black public figure. And so I was being thrust into all of these spaces and I’d always been opinionated.
But if I recall the kind of person I was when I was 20, opinionated but my priority was my imagination and fantasy. My head was in the clouds, just laughing, having a good time, having to articulate myself in such a structured way and be logical and sensible was definitely a solution to a problem. Having to be able to fend off or having the tools to navigate this environment I suddenly was thrust into that was meant to be lawless until I created structure. And now that structure is being almost cannibalized by whatever is happening in like the greatest fear. It was all too much. I was like, gosh, this.
KOSTA: It sounds like a structure that was being potentially [rejudified 00:27:38] like by people that developed expectations as a result. Even just that image of you in the round, doing the DJ set, being mobbed, having security ignore you. Like that’s such a potent image that seems to be, I’m sure the metaphor of like, I’m assuming that’s probably what it’s like to be on social media. So exposed, like that. Or at least one version of yourself, that people have context about, that they’re then importing onto you in that set. And then you don’t meet those expectations for whatever reason, even if it’s a very good reason and then people lash out and then you know.
FLEXMAMI: A force of the moment.
KOSTA: Yeah, absolutely. And then, the moment you decide to speak your truth, like the things that are true for you and important to you, again, because we’ve met on a couple of projects and one of the things I’ve worked on is creators for change with YouTube. And part of that is about just talking to interested content creators about like, Hey, what do you care about? How do you want to use your platform to talk about these things? One of the conversations we always have is being ready for your audience to respond differently, if it’s something they’re not used to. And that could be such a huge turnoff for people like, “Oh, my likes will drop. My engagement will drop.” But you’re talking about things of importance and you’re talking about things that are important, like important to you as well.
So it’s an inevitable adjustment, I guess, for a lot of people, if that’s where you choose to orient yourself. And then like you said, you stayed the course and then things just kind of kept going on a particular trajectory for you, I guess. That’s a really powerful image and observation there. And then kind of what followed then as a result of those experiences, what kind of came next?
FLEXMAMI: I feel as though when I made that first transition from full-time work into DJing, I felt so invincible. I was like, gosh, nobody said that you could just do these things, that you could want for something, work for something, send an email and it shall happen because you deemed it to be that way. And I definitely rode the higher feeling invincible until it got to a point where I felt like, no, this is not invincibility, babe. You’re just working a lot, really hard, all the time. And you are not working on your skills, you’re working on how to make yourself more accountable to people you don’t know and don’t care about. And they have no ownership over your life, yet yours is so weirdly inextricably tied to theirs in a bizarre kind of way.
And it put me off existing online because I was kind of like, well, so you mean to tell me that everything that I’ve worked towards is so contingent on whether I’m liked in this one platform and not even whether I’m liked, whether or not I fulfill my duty correctly. And I keep telling other content creators, you have to understand that audiences expect things to be entertaining, educational, insightful, that’s it.
KOSTA: All of it.
FLEXMAMI: And so, when we used the DJ event example as an example, when I was there asking for help, it wasn’t entertaining anymore. It wasn’t educational and it wasn’t really insightful. Burly guys are burly guys. And so suddenly everyone’s like, this is not what we asked for. Please resume what you were doing before. And that happens a lot online, a lot of creators simply antidote to this disdain for being a public figure is to be more real, more raw, more honest, but that only increases the stakes for you and increases the expectation for your audience. And so, as someone who was a chronic oversharer online, and I was sharing things I was quite comfortable with sharing, it got to a point where audience was like, well, wait, we want more. We’ve never seen your family before. What about your partners? How much do you make? And I was like, well, I don’t want to share that. Well, why not? You share everything else. You owe it to us. We pay your bills.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure. So people were curious about more, they wanted to know more about your private life.
FLEXMAMI: But not even just curious, felt entitled, were upset, felt hard done by when I recognized that up until this point, I had not established any clear boundaries. I just assumed because it was my private space on a public platform that what I would deem to be the go, was the go. And it wasn’t the case. And it made me start to reflect on what kind of relationship am I building with these people? And for what reason? Because unlike a lot of creators, I didn’t need the following to get the career. I had the career first. So what is this that I’m working towards? A closer relationship with these strangers? No, that’s not quite it. And so when I was trying to reverse engineer the kind of state I’d got myself in, it just dawned on me that the goal post keep moving, right?
Like, if you were a content creator 15 years ago and you made your start on YouTube, you don’t just get to keep that clout because you’ve worked really hard because the landscape keeps evolving and you must evolve with it too. I was like, oh, that’s not what I wanted to do this for. I don’t want to labor that hard. And the life I’m living now or up until a certain point is contradicting how I want to exist. I don’t want to feel accountable to people. I want to be a free spirit creator. And I also want to be compensated for the work that I’m doing. And what I found to be really frustrating is that everybody knows that an influence’s job, loosely or not is to sell stuff or influence you to buy stuff. Whether that’s directly, indirectly, whether that’s a product, a lifestyle, a service, it’s constantly happening. Whether or not you would think it is or not.
But the thing about being an influencer that people like, is that despite them liking you, they still despise the job that you have to do. So here I am trying to cultivate this audience that likes me. So when it comes time to do my job, they’ll support me. It’s not how it works. People hate sponsored content. They hate, hate, hate it. And not only do they hate it, they don’t engage in it. Which means that the brands that have paid me for this privileged spot on my platform, aren’t getting the results that they want. And so every time I’m having to do my job, it becomes a question of like, social expectations, moral expectations, ethical expectations.
And suddenly I’m like, wait, if I worked in retail, I would not be having to make these decisions every single day on whether or not I can check out someone’s groceries for that day. It’s not necessary. And so it got to a point where I’m like, wait, if I was cultivating an audience purely so I could do my job well, and that is hindered by the fact that my audience doesn’t like my job, then what is it that we are doing? What is the point?
KOSTA: Gosh, that’s so circular.
FLEXMAMI: Right. And circular is the theme. It felt like I was constantly having these breakthrough moments that would illuminate my reality, but then would render me almost kind of powerless. Because there were so many dynamics that were controlling my outcome outside of me. Platforms, algorithms, people, expectations, narratives. This felt like too much pressure for what is meant to be the cheat code way of working. What you just be yourself online and get paid. No, no. Even this idea of when I talked previously about having to be the token black person in Australian media, that’s not an easy or enjoyable task. I don’t enjoy doing that, but I can’t almost separate myself from that responsibility. It just is. It goes hand in hand.
And so even with having that kind of responsibility, I’m thinking, wow, today I wanted to get up and just post a meme and now some guys been shot in America. So now my page is full of people re-sharing that content back to me, asking me for my critical thought. And if we can have a moment to unpack what’s happening and how do I… I don’t want to do that with you. And so people are kind of like, it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to do it. I need to learn. I want to be better. I want to be at work. If you don’t help me, I can’t be better. I was like, this is, it’s not happening. And so it’s just not easy. It’s also not that enjoyable.
KOSTA: I mean, I guess that’s a really good sort of segue into the part that I’m really interested in, in your trajectory Flex, which is really about this idea of intentionality and intentional communities online. We’ll get to the sort of the Future Group Chat specifically. But for me that seems to start, I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, obviously. I mean, obviously you kind of launched three podcasts, where you are having very deliberate conversations with people that you respect, have good rapport with about things that matter. So for me, that’s one version of that. Then you’ve got like the ReFlex, the conversation card game, which we love a good conversation card here at work. And like again, that’s about very intentionally making it easy to have conversations with people you care about or want to care about, about things that matter or want to matter as well. So I’ve noticed this sort of shift. I don’t know if this is just a very high level observation, but are those expressions of that intentionality for you?
FLEXMAMI: Absolutely. But they manifested in a way that kind of felt like a fluke. So, I was very much the music pop culture person until I wasn’t. And I think it goes back to what I was speaking about earlier, struggling to not compete where I don’t compare. So I couldn’t be the flat lay bikini, DJ girl. So my unique selling point was the environment I was cultivating, two-way communication with myself and my audience, not been done before. Creating a space where we can learn and have fun and have conversations. And so when I made that shift, I started to recognize that people weren’t coming to the conversations with the tools necessary for me to want to engage with them. So every time we would be talking about what it’s like to be a person of color and we would use very basic terminology, we might talk about being a model minority. We might talk about, whatever it might be. White privilege, white supremacy, covert racism.
It felt like I was doing primary school work being like, okay, well here is the Google search. Here’s what you can read. This is what these words mean. And it felt like everything was backfiring because it was like, oh, there’s so much context that you don’t have for this to be an enjoyable interaction. And I can’t punish you for that lack of context, because it’s not your lived experience to let me provide that context. And so, it happened via Instagram. It was happening with the podcast I had for a couple years called Bobo and flex. And it was me and my co-host Bobo and we would talk about race and identity and psychology and philosophy. And I guess from the people who were consuming that content, they really enjoyed that it wasn’t stuffy and it was easily accessible and that it felt like just two girlies chit-chatting about gossip and psychology.
It was great. It was fun. But again, it felt as though I was fulfilling my need by creating this platform for myself, but I wasn’t able to facilitate it in the way that I had imagined because others didn’t have the tools to join me where I was at. So it shifted, it started as this self-serving practice for me to enjoy the time I was having on the internet, to this very selfless, I’m now a teacher, I’m going to help you. All this emotional labor being exchanged. And it felt like it was worth it because I was like, well, the end goal is that I’m going to help people. And they’re going to help me by helping me cultivate an environment I want to be in. And the thing about that is you can’t control who engages with you at any given time.
So while I’ve done three years of speaking really candidly about these very heavy topics, well, if they get a new follower tomorrow, they’re not going to do the four years journey on their own. They want to start from scratch today. They want to be like, Hey Flex, I saw this really derogatory thing and my boyfriend thinks that all black people are this, but what do you think? And it’s like, oh babe, no, I unfortunately can’t. And there was a time where I had a lot of empathy for these people, but then I thought I’m one person. And again, I want to go back to the point, what is the point? And all these channels were missing the point. I wasn’t able to have these fluid, circular, critical discussions with people because it always relied on me to bring more to the table than was necessary.
I don’t want to have to share personal experiences so you feel as though you’re empowered to have this really surface level conversation with me. Boring. I don’t want to do it. So for me, what I was finding really difficult is how do I create spaces with intentionality, without having it come back to me constantly? Because with this environment I’ve cultivated with my audiences it’s like, it’s parasocial relationships 101. People who follow me are of the belief they know me. They know Flex. They love Flex. She shares so much. We know what she eats, what she watches, what she thinks. We love her. And I respect that. I understand why that’s happening. But I don’t think the average audience member of mine is cognizant of the fact that I don’t know you. I might recognize maybe a hundred usernames. I might have a few conversations that develop into like acquaintanceships perhaps, but of the hundreds of thousands of people, I don’t have that same commitment to you.
And so suddenly, when I’m encouraging intentionality, these people are kind of like, well, we need to do it together. You and I, bestie. And I’m like, no, no, no. Like you’re just,
KOSTA: This isn’t how this works.
FLEXMAMI: It’s not how it works. And suddenly I had to peel back and say, okay, this cannot be two-way in the way that it was before. This has to be one-way, because I can’t live up to these expectations of what you expect from me based on these preconceived ideas and these biases. And obviously all the ways that I unfortunately fed into those narratives for you. I showed up, I responded to comments. I liked your pictures. I made you feel seen, heard and understood, and didn’t really understand the implications of doing so. And so, the decision to really emphasize the intentionality came from the fact that seven, eight years in and I’m still having the issues I was having day one.
In my head, I thought I was making progress and breaking boundaries and shifting expectations. And no, I’m still complaining about the exact same things. And it’s a very disheartening thing to be made aware of. Because in my head, I’m like [inaudible 00:42:25] trajectory. We’re going up and out and things are changing. And it’s like, no things were just rotating. Things were eclipsing, is a moment [inaudible 00:42:32].
KOSTA: Like you said, circular’s the theme. That’s the key motif.
FLEXMAMI: It’s the key motif. And so I remember having this conversation, oddly enough, with my accountant. And she is a great person and we have conversations that aren’t about money quite frequently. And she was like, what is the big picture? And like, the big picture has always been to prioritize enjoyment and have a lust for life and do the things I want to do because I can. And while I think I’ve maintained that in some sense, I don’t do that on a day to day basis. And she said, well, do you think that perhaps it’s because as your business grows, you haven’t found a way to separate yourself from that business. It’s just expected that you add more and you feed in more without separating. And I was like, I don’t understand what you mean. And she was like, is there a possibility that perhaps there is a way that you can provide your audience with this experience, but it doesn’t have to come from you?
And I was like, okay, seed planted. I had an amazing conversation with this girl called Demi. And she runs a podcast and I guess, a podcast and a community called the Millennial Crisis. And she kind of talks millennials through their crisis around career and living a life with purpose. And she said that she noticed that my gift was that I’m able to create community through conversation. And I was like, I do do that. I do that every day. I do that all the time. And she’s like, yeah, you do. And I was like, okay, another seed planted.
And then I remember there was this one time I was having this conversation with someone, a conversation on my Instagram story. And at one point I was like, you know what? I’m done. Halfway through, I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m bored. This is not high level. It’s not feeling like I’m learning anything. I feel like I’m teaching again. And so I just posted on my Instagram and I was like, you know what? I take it back. I’m over this. And people were like, well, what about us? We still want to talk. And we still want to engage. And I was like, yeah, that’s a shame. I don’t want to do that.
KOSTA: Sucks to be you.
FLEXMAMI: It’s like, we all don’t get what we want. And then I thought, well, what if there was a way where I could cultivate an environment where I can be all the topics that I want to discuss, ore there precursors for great conversations that don’t have to stop when I’m done. And it felt like such a light bulb moment because I was like, well, why haven’t I done that before? Why is it so important that I become the thread for all of these things that involve me? And so that brought me to creating Future Group Chat because I think that part of my gripe with what I do on the internet is that I think people understand conceptually that it takes a lot of work to do what I’m doing. So they might say, well, how did you write that book? And host that TV show and do that podcast and start that business? Because I don’t stop.
This is how I did it. It wasn’t like some shortcut, I just kept doing the work and they were like, oh, you give so much to the internet. How is this free? How do I get to speak to you and ask you for advice? And you give it to me, this is priceless. And I was like, put your money where your mouth is. That’s what we need to be doing. Put your money where your mouth is then, because suddenly you have so much value for an experience that you really have no input in. You’re a beneficiary of my suffering. I don’t want to suffer anymore.
FLEXMAMI: I want to be the beneficiary of my labor.
KOSTA: Of course, I was going to say, because it’s labor. It’s not charity. I mean, charity is also labor, but I think, you know what I mean. It’s just like, you are working, at the end of the day, you’re working. And it’s hard to separate conceptually when part of your work is also mining your own personality and your own personal expression. So those boundaries become very blurred between Flex the person, Flex the media entrepreneur, Flex the “agony aunt” we ask questions about to be woke or whatever it is. There are a lot of things to navigate.
In terms of intentional communities folks, like I think… Because originally like the Genesis for this conversation and this topic was actually more around accountability in public spaces, particularly for people of high profile. And I think the question I had regarding intentional communities is, is that a response to some of the unreasonable standards we have of people of public significance or of public note, that creating an intentional community is actually one of the safest ways to exist online for someone with any influence. Is that a fair judgment to make?
FLEXMAMI: Absolutely. The internet has and will continue to be a wayward lawless place and we kind of get caught up in it because for a long time you’re able to kind of recognize that and push it to the side, suppress it because the benefits are so good. You get six figures a year just showing up, you get abuse every now and then, but at least it’s not an office job. And then like, but an office job would be better because I could just go on my little entertainment device, my little phone and not just be berated with thoughts and experiences and abuse or feedback I didn’t ask for or criticism I didn’t want. Or expectations of more stuff that I wasn’t even offering to begin with. And so, I feel like the idea of an intentional community is that every day when I get up and I log in, I have to make a choice to show up as the best version of myself for that day.
I have to bite my tongue, be empathetic, consider that they didn’t mean what they said. And they didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. They didn’t mean to cross a boundary and make so much accommodations for strangers.
KOSTA: Somewhat emotional labor.
FLEXMAMI: Right. How I even choose to be, why I choose to censor my audience from some conversations and expose some to others is all about considering the experience for somebody else. So much intention is involved with even the most minute of tasks that I’ll do on the internet. And I wondered like, what if my audience had a fraction of that responsibility? And you know what, the first time I tried that is when I said to my audience, we’re setting a boundary, everyone. When you ask me for something, you have to say, please, and thank you. When I tell you was World War 3 in my DMs. You’re so entitled. Your audience likes you. They feel comfortable around you. Why are you creating separation? Isn’t the love hard enough?
I would share screenshots. I would obviously take out usernames and things, but I would share screenshots of people being like, I want a house tour. When’s it coming? Or give me the link for that thing. Your book sold out and I want it. Can you send me one? And all of these things, maybe I’m reading them in a tone that isn’t matching their intention. So at the very least, if there’s a please and a thank you, I can assume we’re coming at each other with a bit of mutual respect. So when I would share these screenshots, I would say half of people who responded were offended, were painting me as a villain. People make a little bit of money on the internet, they don’t know how to act anymore. You’ve forgotten where you’ve come from. You’re so entitled. Why don’t you remember? We are the reason you can do this job. You wouldn’t exist without us. And I would share these responses and be like, I shield you from each other. You don’t know the mayhem that happens in my DMs because I will it that way.
I shield your usernames. I make you anonymous because if you had to deal with the way that you treat me, you wouldn’t survive it. And so just asking for a please and a thank you, and having it not be well received. I said, whoa, this is far worse than I imagined. And so every week I’d set a new boundary. I would tell people, I know your favorite influencer is happy with sharing their house. I’m not doing that. You’re not getting a house tour. No, it’s not happening. I’m not responding to people who don’t address me correctly. Who don’t say, please, who don’t say, thank you. Who feel like they’re entitled to my time? And I would say, I’ve been doing that for two years and it’s still not hitting. It’s still not hitting. And I think, what’s that quote? Like the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again.
KOSTA: Expecting the same result.
FLEXMAMI: That’s what it was getting to. I was like, I need to shake it up. I need to change it because people aren’t taking me seriously because I’m putting my foot down and still validating bad behavior by responding, by giving people the time of day. And so I thought to myself, I simply do not have the capacity to keep doing what I’m doing on this platform, but I could do it elsewhere, if certain terms and certain conditions were put in place that made me feel safe. Or at the very least, made it feel worth it. Because I don’t make money by just showing up on the internet. I make money when I do a sponsored post and I do those rarely. So at the very least, I had to explain to people like, I don’t think you understand how I do my job here. And I don’t actually want to talk to you, stranger. I do want to have critical discussion over here. And so if you want to join me great, that’s $10 a month.
And if you don’t have the capacity to pay that fee, that’s fine. You don’t have the capacity to engage with me on a level that you think you’re entitled to. And it was so interesting to see how those who are happy to invest did so without friction. Ran, can I give you more? Can I invest less of your time? Can we do these conversations once a week? Not twice or three times. I respect your time. I respect your energy, I respect your mind. And everybody else, maybe like 70% of my audience who fought tooth and nail against it, are still in that environment where they feel ostracized and segregated and hard done by. But don’t understand still what I’m asking for. And I’m like, well, this works for me. Like you’ve put yourself in that position, it’s no longer me trying to explain and expand and explain. Because I have proof of concept, there are thousands of people over here who understand what’s going on.
KOSTA: Far out, man. You’ve really, you’ve essentially redesigned a space for yourself in a way that, I guess I’ve noticed a shift in a lot of creatives online. Like going behind paywalls and it’s easy to get cynical about that being like, oh. But when you’re used to getting something for free and then suddenly the creators like, actually this is valuable. This is time and expertise. This is a producer and editor, this or that that’s paid. This is me allowing myself to continue to do this. Everyone’s like, oh, but, but, but, but, but, but, all that sort of comes up. It’s actually really refreshing to hear someone in your position being totally okay with not giving people what they want. I know that sounds really basic in some ways, but it’s quite refreshing for you to be like: “Oh cool. You are salty about that. That’s good to know. Anyway, how you doing?”
FLEXMAMI: We’re talking about this over here. We’re dissecting Twilight.
KOSTA: Yeah. Far out. That’s really quite profound, but what does the future of online life look like for you then Flex?
FLEXMAMI: I mean, I’ve been saying for years, I’m trying to log off. I don’t want to be here that badly. But I still feel entitled to all the benefits and I still don’t feel for all the great things that I’ve been given, for all the amazing things I’ve done, I’m still not receiving the same amount of validation socially, monetarily, spiritually, as my peers, who I can see do far less. And so I think I’m still trapped in this frustration of being like, well, when is it my turn in the same way that it’s been your turn, for no reason aside from the fact that you are you and I am me. I think also, I do recognize I’ve got like maybe a couple more years in this online environment, but I don’t want to be a public figure.
I always tell my agent that I don’t want to grow my audience. I’m not trying to be an influencer. I’m trying to make enough money so I can live a life of comfort. So we can buy those properties and log off. I don’t want to be here just forever and ever and ever with that expectation. And it’s really hard to explain that to people who make money off you, because they’re thinking like, wait a second. But if you get to 200,000 followers or 500,000, we can do this and do that. And it’s like, well, you do it. As for me, me and my accounts are looking at numbers. And I’m having to say to myself, well, if I’m offering a service, that’s $10 a month and there are a thousand people signed up or 2000 people, that to me is far more worth my time. I can invest intentionally in that space with those people. Then trying to give every part of my being to appear like I’m more… Like, to do what? I still don’t understand.
And I’m always explaining to my peers and other people in the industry who are kind of like, but you still have so many years new, to do what? I wrote the best selling book. I’ve already been on TV, I’ve done reality TV. I’ve done MTV. I’ve done radio. I’ve done this. How much else do I need to prove myself before you reward me in the way that I feel like I’m entitled to? And so now I’m pivoting away and operating in ecosystems that aren’t contingent on things like Instagram and social media. People are freaking out like, well, what does that mean? I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know what it means for you.
KOSTA: I’ll let you know when I find out.
FLEXMAMI: I understand nobody intends for social media to be toxic. Nobody intends for it to be something that takes more than it gives, but that’s just the nature of it. We aren’t reading think pieces about how social media’s completely healthy and it’s worth all the hours you invest. It’s not what’s happening here. And so I also found that I was getting really tired of lamenting the space and not creating solutions for myself. And I’m a very solutions driven person and I know what I’m after. So why can’t I just build those spaces and exist there on my own? I don’t need to change the industry. I don’t need to bring anyone along me with me, because all I’ve done is just decide for myself what the plan is. And then eventually convince my audience, look, that’s what we’re doing over here. And so if I maintain on that trajectory of deciding for myself, moving with conviction, moving with intention and making sure it’s done in a way that’s sustainable for me, it’s all I need to worry about.
KOSTA: Man. That is amazing. Look, I’m conscious of your time Flex, but that’s been, oh man. I’m really inspired actually by… And I hope this isn’t too…
FLEXMAMI: It’s never too much. Go for it. Too much or too little.
KOSTA: It’s too much until I don’t say please and thank you.
FLEXMAMI: Exactly. That was her breaking point. That’s what people would say though. You know, of all the things you’ve experienced like racial abuse, blah blah, blah, this is the hill you’re dying on, please and thank you? Yeah, it is.
KOSTA: I think that’s fair enough because it’s really not a lot. It’s part of the normal social contract and if that’s really an issue, then we really need to reevaluate why that’s the issue. And I guess I was just going to say, Flex, is what I’m really taking away from this, is this idea about being a full person. And we talk about that in the activism space, in the offline sense a lot, like how are you a full person? How can we be messy and contradictory and still be true to our values and care about the things we care about and get those things wrong from time to time and continue, have a spirit of learning and growth, going forward.
And then I guess the online element of all of that kind of complicates things a bit more where you are so limited to the tools of the platforms that you are on, just like you were limited by the tools of that panoptic on DJ set. You were in a very vulnerable position and the tools that were available to you, weren’t working or they weren’t doing what they were supposed to. And then in the online space, that’s even more, that’s a trickier thing to navigate, but is it fair to say, I’m trying to sort of say this in a way that hopefully is not too simplistic.
But things like agency and just existing for your own sake seem to be a conversation I hear a lot in sort of anti-racism circles. Like where it’s like, just because I’m a woman of color doesn’t mean I have to speak about these issues, but I also can speak about these issues when I feel like it is okay to do so. I’m seeing a lot of parallels between those two different things. Is that a fair sort of comparison to make?
Exactly. It’s taking full agency over the breadth and depth of my character, because for a long time you start to become a caricature of yourself because you’re aware of the optics. I must do, say and be in this way that’s most easily understood or most palatable or most rewarded by these metrics that are so arbitrary that only exist in this very specific environment with these very specific people. Like imagine when I tell my mom that I built a career on Instagram, she’s like, what is that? Who watches you? Why are you talking to strangers? I’m like, I don’t know.
KOSTA: Yeah. But it just kind of worked, until it didn’t.
FLEXMAMI: Exactly. And so, it’s all about agency and duality and reclaiming that in a very staunch way because what I’m finding on the internet is that power is something that’s being wielded really recklessly and we’re not talking about it enough. With the amount of people I interact with, I’m like, oh, you just want some power? You want to know what it feels like? And it’s like, you already have that. So why are you taking mine away to build yours? And so, it’s so funny that we’re talking about that because I remember when I was going to therapy and I was explaining to my therapist how I see myself sometimes and I said, “I feel like I’m in this really beautiful castle. Or I am this beautiful castle on top of a very lush hill and I can be observed from every which way. I don’t limit you or I don’t make it hard for you to see me. All of me. The bad bits, the good bits, you just get to watch.”
And some people want to get close. And they’re kind of like, oh, I can’t really see the gate. Can I come in? Can I come in? I’ll just climb the walls. I’ll just scale it. There’s a moat, I’ll fish in it. And so it’s like, well, you don’t see, I’m making myself so available to you and you just want more and more and more and more. And so my therapist was like, it’s so interesting that you have the grace to view yourself as something visually beautiful or something with depth and character. But then when somebody’s choosing to denigrate that, you’re kind of like observing it. He’s like, well, where is the extra layer of protection? Where are the warriors and the shields? And I’m like, oh, I didn’t think of that.
KOSTA: I didn’t think of that. I was just too busy existing.
FLEXMAMI: Right. And so he said to me, he is like, I think that you have this thought that in order to prove to yourself that you are valuable or worthy, you do hard things publicly so it can’t be disputed. But he’s like, nobody needs to validate that for you. You can just know that for a fact. And so for a lot of my peers who are kind of like, what, you’re stepping away? Like, you don’t want that bag. You don’t want this. You don’t want that. I’m like, I’m pivoting because I don’t want to go to therapy three times a week like you. Okay. I don’t want to be crying every day on close friends being like, it’s so hard. I don’t want that for myself. I want to enjoy it. I want to reap the benefits. I want to almost like reap the benefits of my bounty full harvest, and go.
FLEXMAMI: And that is what I shall do.
KOSTA: That is a perfect note to end on. I’m so grateful for your time. Look, it’s probably a redundant question to ask, but I’m going to do the obligatory thing. People want to follow you and find your work, buy your conversation cards, buy the Success Experiment, join Future Group Chat. Where can they find you?
KOSTA: Awesome. Well, I feel so energized by this conversation, Flex. It’s been such a delight and I don’t know if this is any consolation whatsoever, but obviously I really hope you find whatever it is that you’re looking for, for yourself. But I feel like the benefits and the lessons we have to learn from what you do, they might not show themselves now, but you are laying the groundwork for other people to sort of reclaim that space and agency for themselves and create communities that encourage each other to be healthier and nicer and just more responsible towards one another. I really believe that.
FLEXMAMI: We’re thinking big picture.
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s it. That’s what keeps us going when it all else fails. Well, thank you so much. I’m so grateful for your time. Have an amazing week and stay in touch.
FLEXMAMI: I love it here. Thank you so much.
KOSTA: My pleasure. My pleasure.
KOSTA: You have been listening to Undesign. A series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. And if you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com. Thank you to the talented Jimmie Linvillefor editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guest for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners. For joining us on this journey of discovery and hope, the future needs you. Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify, and wherever else podcasts are available.
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