KOSTA: Hello everyone, and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host, Kosta.
Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s problems and redesign new futures.
I know firsthand we all have so much we can bring to these big challenges, so listen in and see where you fit into the solution as we undesign the concept of social media and using it for social good.
I’m sure we can all think of examples of content creators and influencers that say they want to use their platform for good. But what that good actually is, is not always clear. And we’ve seen a full gamut of responses to social media influencers speaking up about things that matter, and to very mixed results.
I think it’s because we know how easy it is to “brandwagon” onto a social issue. Just look at the responses to #MeToo or BLM [Black Lives Matter]. And we know how easy it is to do something or say something about those things without doing much more.
I think it’s also fair to say that audiences, as we get more comfortable on social media, we’ve become a little bit jaded by this concept of using social influence for social good. I think the elephant in the room here is that being a genuine advocate for social issues, while a good look, doesn’t equal likes, subscribes, and sponsorship, the lifeblood of online content creation culture. In fact, being a genuine advocate for social issues can often equal being bullied off of the platform or worse — real world harm.
The other unarguable fact, I think, is that given the highly divided nature of communities everywhere right now, for a number of reasons, we also know that this need to use our platforms responsibly and more pro-socially is perhaps needed more now than ever. So how do we do it? Or better yet, how the real ones doing it?
In a special episode of Undesign, we are taking a slightly different tack. Joining us for a firsthand account of their journey using social media for social good is Nadir Nahdi. Nadir is the founder of BENI, a multi-platform space for a truly multicultural, pluralist digital community to emerge. BENI is an audiovisual, spiritual feast of personal stories, conversations and cutting-edge creativity.
But, most importantly, despite BENI existing in the ether of the internet, there is a tangible link to the offline worlds of communities whose stories need to be told. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Nadir for years, and I know that he’s not just an extremely talented filmmaker, producer, and presenter, but I also know how committed he has been to putting the “social” back in social media. And he really gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly of trying to do that.
Given his background, the power of social media was a natural tool to be used in his lifelong mission to create community beyond the labels we were born with. But as with any noble endeavor, the challenges seem to outweigh the obvious benefits. So why bother?
This is a deeply personal, introspective chat where some really hard truths emerge. But as is always the case with Nadir, these truths are no excuse for him to give up on his mission. And he generally shares with us his insights on what keeps him going, and how others who are genuine about doing the right thing with their platforms can use their own online spaces to connect their creativity with their authenticity about the things they care about.
KOSTA: All right, Nadir, my dear. Welcome.
NADIR: Yo, Kosta, my boy.
KOSTA: How are you?
NADIR: I’m good. I’m so glad we finally got this happening.
KOSTA: I know, I know. I guess what will be missing is the absolute tech fail yesterday when we tried to make this chat happen. So I’m so glad you stuck with me through all that.
NADIR: Kosta, you’re a man of many things, but definitely not a man of technology. But I still love you.
KOSTA: Absolutely not. Thank you, thank you. And that’s why you’re in my community, because I can rely on you for things like this.
But it’s such a privilege to be able to sit here and talk to you about a topic that I think is close to both of our hearts in very different ways, which is about social media, but more the social side of it. Hopefully, through this chat, we get to unearth what it means to actually use social media socially, and I think you’re an amazing example of that.
NADIR: Thank you. That’s very kind.
KOSTA: Oh no, look, I mean it. We’ve known each other for years, and I’ve seen your work and your transformation.
NADIR: You just couldn’t find anyone else that would spend an hour, an afternoon with you, basically.
KOSTA: There’s no one else I felt comfortable having a meltdown in front of. [laughs] I knew you would accept me for warts and all. This is just what friends do for each other, right?
NADIR: You’re very welcome. [laughs]
KOSTA: Thank you. But, on that idea of friendship and community, I want to start this question off, or this conversation off, with a very simple question (or a simple-sounding question), which is, what does community mean to you?
NADIR: Straight into it. That’s a big question. I think my first glimpse or experience with community was the one I grew up in. And I think explaining the context in which I grew up is super important to give you a better understanding of what shaped my understanding of community growing up.
I am a London boy, born and raised. I am a child of immigrants, but my mother came here when she was one year old from Pakistan. My father came here as a student in university. They met in their 20s, and they stayed here.
It was a time where, in London… Both my parents are Muslim. Growing up in that kind of context, a British-Muslim identity didn’t really exist. My parents are quite prominent community activists themselves. They were part of a group of people who were responsible for, you could say, carving out the British-Muslim identity from the ground up. The community that we had around us were this group of pioneers, prominent people and scholars and teachers and community activists, who helped shape this identity in this community from the ground up.
I was very fortunate to grow up in a community that wasn’t necessarily… They say that it takes a village to raise a child, right? And we have all come from traditional, historical communities from the countries that we have ancestral roots from. But the kind of tribe or the village that they were building in this city far away from home wasn’t necessarily defined by a community, or race, or ethnicity, or even religion in most circumstances. But it was a community shaped and brought together by shared values and ethics and morals.
I had a very unique upbringing and community of people from all over the world and people of different shapes and sizes and colors. It was a very cosmopolitan, eclectic community that I was born and raised in. It wasn’t until I grew up that I started to realize that, actually, this isn’t the norm.
NADIR: The world doesn’t operate in some sort of mono-community where everyone has that experience. You start to interact and be exposed to people who were born and raised in very different communities, with their own traditions and their own idiosyncrasies and their own behaviorisms. Then you start to learn that everybody lives within a certain community that has been defined for them within their relative experience.
Community, and what that is, is very relative to a person’s experience, and who they come from, and the kind of variables that made them who they are.
But for me, community, in a very simple way, is something entirely definable. The community that you decide to live in and with — my mom always said, you build a community you want to be part of. I was very fortunate to have parents who helped shape that around me in a very beautiful way. So the community is what you decide it to be, and that’s how I learned community when I was growing up.
KOSTA: That’s amazing. And that’s something I think we can all relate to, on at least some level. I feel like, in conversations that talk about how divided societies are, or where we’re seeing groups of people behave in certain ways and we make judgments about it, we make assumptions about what communities people belong to. We have a very ethno-racial view of what a community is, but what you’re offering is something much more genuinely multicultural and pluralistic, at the same time.
KOSTA: I just want to circle back to that question. Oh sorry, that comment you made around when you first realized that you weren’t raised in this monoculture. Is that something you can speak on? Was it a positive experience, or was it a negative thing that brought that to your conscience?
NADIR: Just because it was challenging doesn’t necessarily mean it was negative. It was incredibly positive for me, but it had its own challenges, right? All my grandparents are from different countries, so I’m part Indonesia, Kenyan, Pakistani, and Yemeni. So there were lots of these different cultural influences in my life.
London is where my parents met. What happened was, London was this kind of free for all in which my parents had to decide, what was the cultural backdrop in which they would raise their children? And this is where they defined the community that they wanted their children to be part of. So this is what I mean when I say, my parents understood that they had agency to define that.
It was this unprecedented time of first/second-generation migrant culture, where they could either fall back into the safety of those migrant communities, which are actually very closed. Because they’re far away from home, they retreat into what they know a lot tighter. They preserve certain cultural behaviorisms and don’t want to engage with anything outside, to protect what they feel is who they are.
But my parents made a decision, and acted on this decision, to engage with the world around them. They were like, “Our kids are born of something entirely different, so the community needs to be able to be there to raise them, and facilitate them, and nurture them to be ready for the world they’re going to be raised in.” I’m very fortunate and lucky for that.
Was it challenging? Absolutely. I grew up questioning who I was. Firstly, I’m British, but I look nothing like your archetypal British person. So popular culture didn’t really have space for me. But, at the same time, if I would try and find belonging in my cultural ancestry, I was also very different. I was very British.
I was too Eastern to be Eastern, too Western to be Western. You find yourself in this quagmire of uncertainty, trying to figure out, “Is there a space that you belong to?”
Growing up, that wasn’t so clear to me. It wasn’t until later on in life that you start to have the confidence, again, to do the same things that your parents did, which was define the community for yourself as opposed to looking for it elsewhere.
KOSTA: Yeah, right. It’s interesting, because we’re talking about social media, and we’re talking about social and community and then media, which is its own bunch of questions and considerations. It looks very specific in a modern context, which we both live in right now.
Can you explain where using media socially came into the journey for you, through your own formulation of what it means to both be in a community and create a community?
NADIR: Yeah, I think it’s a mixture of nature versus nurture. I think I was very lucky that both my parents were trained journalists. At home, there was an understanding of the media landscape. There was a kind of natural aptitude. I was around a lot of different media, all types of media. My dad ran a publication.
So understanding the importance of stories and narrative in identity-building…. Maybe I didn’t understand it in those words before, but I think I innately had an awareness that media could help shape senses of self.
Then where the nature came in was. I just happened to be born in the time that technology had arrived to entirely disrupt how humans communicate. It was the advent of social media.
I guess I’m the transition generation. I remember the 50k modem, and I remember when it wasn’t quite as easy. I remember not having a mobile phone. Then my generation witnessed that shift into the handheld phone, and now everything was entirely interconnected.
What happened was, I’m witnessing the birth of social media platforms when it was very ad-hoc. There were less regulations.
Communities that were built online were very real. They were very authentic. Companies hadn’t really caught up with the wave of social media. They didn’t understand it, so they didn’t interfere.
It was this really insane journey where you could connect with people, whereas before you felt very isolated. You suddenly had this global audience which you could connect quite intimately with. And things changed every year very quickly, and they continue to in this space.
I think what I realized was, the power of this space was totally by accident. What happened for me was, I was working at the UN in the Middle East for a while. NGOs anywhere are quite like dinosaur organizations in which they catch up to trends very slowly. I had just downloaded Instagram and was enjoying this app, because I was enjoying photography. I was trying to tell them that “Hey, we should start a social media department or something”, but they weren’t very interested.
Anyway, I came out to London. I decided to do my own video. I was like, if they’re not going to allow me to do it, then I’ll do it myself. I did a video, and it was basically a parody of Pharrell’s “Happy” song. I don’t know whether you remember the song.
KOSTA: Yes, I sure do. The 24-hour version? [laughs]
NADIR: I didn’t do the 24-hour version [laughs], but I did do a parody of my own. The idea was to show a reflection of British Muslims at a time that was different and cosmopolitan and the community that I grew up around.
I posted it expecting maybe all my family to see it, so a thousand people maybe. I’ve got a big family, so a thousand would have been expected. You know how brown families are.
I posted it at 7pm that night. It was really low-fi. It took me about a week to make and edit. It was my first video that I ever did ever. Then literally, 12 hours later, at 7 am, it’s got 1.4 million views.
KOSTA: That’s staggering.
NADIR: My phone battery had actually died. It made me realize, “Holy cow, I’m getting interview requests, academic report requests, and people trying to chat to me about it.” It is insane.
From my bedroom, I managed to connect to 1.4 million people worldwide, on shared sentiment. From that moment, I just knew I’m going to leave my job and dedicate my life towards this space in this world.
KOSTA: I’ve heard you share that before, and I’m just so blown away, just by the magnitude of something like that. Do you have any insight into how you managed to get such a huge reach in such a short amount of time? Have you ever looked into how you actually achieved that virality, so to speak? Because it just seems so unbelievable.
NADIR: Looking back, in hindsight, I think I have a bit more understanding of the space to understand the variables that might have led to it. But it was a mixture of things.
One, it was totally unprecedented. This is still a time where YouTube was like the Wild Wild West. The cult of YouTuber didn’t exist. Then that’s how early it was. You could describe it as YouTube 1.0. This is when YouTube was full of cat videos, and it wasn’t really the cultural platform that we understand it today. It was just a mishmash of randomness that existed on YouTube, but it was a very democratic space that anyone could be part of. For that kind of video to be in that space, easily accessible to the world, wherever they may be, was a totally new phenomenon.
Number two, a lot of the people in it were people of my community. Like I told you before, because I had a privileged situation (that my parents were very prominent people in the community), I had access to people who were quite big figures, prominent figures, people of influence (politically, socially, religiously), who I had included in the video. People were very shocked and surprised to see people of this magnitude dancing to a Pharrell “Happy” song.
It just blew their mind that you’d have a sheikh bopping along to a certain song. That was the kind of shock value. If that was to happen now, no one would bat an eyelid. But back then, it was incredibly revolutionary and radical.
Certain things like that helped raise enough eyebrows, and the fact that it was completely new and uncharted territory helped push it all over all over the internet. Then the Iranian people were ringing me. They wanted to do it in Iran, Chicago, and then people were replicating my video around the world.
It was just insane to see how much you can mobilize the world from your bedroom. That was an incredibly liberating thought.
KOSTA: That’s just incredible. It’s interesting, because it sounds like you worked with your offline community to create this content. Then you ended up creating a massive, or at least the potential for a massive online community as well as a result of that.
What was your journey as a result? What follows after that moment? Because I know you’ve had quite a journey. Even just the narrative of the content that you make, or just the focus of your content — I can see a gentle evolution over time.
But I just wanted to know what your take on your own journey is through the social media world? Was it something you went into thinking, “I want to use this to build community”? Or was this more of a “I want to do this because I think it’s cool to do” or “I want to do this because this is just how I want to express myself” or “I want to do this to connect to others”? What were your deep intentions at that moment?
NADIR: I think what we said in the beginning was particularly impactful for me, because that’s exactly what it was — this amalgamation of offline and online. What it was, ultimately, was bringing together all the variables of my life, my community that I was part of, my understanding of the essence of my community and my spirituality, and presenting it in a completely new way. That was the skill, right? There was nothing new about what I was showing. It was only the means in which I was packaging it, which was the social media platform, which was the innovation.
That’s what I’ve come to realize is my USP, to answer your question.
What is my skill in this space is understanding my community and the beauty of it, understanding the essence and what makes it tick in a really wonderful way, and packaging it in the language of the day. And the language of the day is social media. It’s media. It’s how people connect around the world.
My competency and understanding of how to present that information to people who maybe don’t have much access or exposure to these kinds of people, but finding the dots and being able to connect them — that’s the skill.
I think for young people moving forward, it’s about, the beauty of our communities exist.
Everyone is part of a beautiful community in some form. The skill is being able to translate that in a language — a global language, a digital language — to make it more accessible for people who might not have been exposed to it before.
That’s the USP. That’s what we should be investing in is these bridges. I like to think of it as a bridge. You be that bridge that brings the disparate worlds together.
KOSTA: It’s interesting. You’re bringing to mind a conversation I had with another guest who created their own platform for indigenous writers in Australia, in a “pass the mic” kind of format. What he said was just this idea that, actually, there’s a ton that is happening. When you want to talk about indigenous communities, being empowered to create things for themselves or to spotlight their own communities, there’s actually a lot of stuff that’s going on.
It almost sounds like something similar, in that you had a ready-made community — or not ready-made, but you had a community that you’re very entrenched in, immersed in. You told your own story for once, rather than people telling stories about you.
NADIR: Yeah, and I agree. Hearing you say that, it makes me think, “How much of what I do could only I do, because of the unique environment in which I grew up in?” And I’ve been asking myself a lot of these questions. The next question is, “How much of a responsibility, as a result of the privileges that have been afforded to you, do you have to be doing the work that you’re doing?”
I’m very lucky. My parents were community activists. They dedicated their lives to forming a British-Muslim identity in the West, and I grew up as a product of that. So I was exposed to things that, I could argue, the majority of other young people my age weren’t exposed to. That was my privilege. I was exposed to ideas, conversations, people of different inclinations, people of different religions, people of different ways of thinking. This all helped shape me from a very young age.
This experience, actually, has nothing to do with my training, right? My training came from this community that my parents built around me, which in turn enabled me to be doing the work that I did.
So it’s funny, we’re talking about shaping community. But what’s really powerful is understanding how community shapes individuals — to be in the space, to be able to translate and innovate and create.
That’s powerful for me, to understand and acknowledge that I am a product of the people that came before me. So really, the luxuries afforded to me are a result of the sacrifices of the generation that came before me.
KOSTA: Right. That’s powerful. And that’s a big weight, I think, for a young person to carry, right? For better and for worse, that’s a big responsibility to take on — to try and use those privileges, as you say, for the betterment of the people around you and for others that may not have something to call a community.
I guess that’s where social media is supposed to function in that space, right? We talk about social media now. Well, think about the difference in how we talk about social media then and how we talk about social media now. What’s the big difference for you, as someone that’s been on various different platforms, telling different types of stories, working with different types of people? What are the main things that have changed for you on how social media is used for those ends?
NADIR: I think, especially now, we are living in a world where all of us have a certain competency around social media, of varying degrees.
I think what worries me right now, especially living in the West, is that we’re living in an age of post-modernism, where there are no objective truths anymore, where people are being called out left, right, and center. People are afraid to voice true opinions or to share real experiences, because of fear that they might be attacked for it, or fear of retribution or vitriol.
It’s quite a scary space. To be honest with you, I’m not entirely optimistic about where the social media space is right now. That’s just me being real, especially as a practitioner in it. Me myself, as a social media person, I feel scared to share certain opinions. I feel worried to expose certain people to that audience that may or may not love them, or may actually end up attacking them.
It’s tied up to where the world is, as a result, as a whole. It’s increasingly polarized. We’re being pushed in a politically hostile environment. Communities are being further entrenched in their own silos. And social media is feeding that as well.
What I’m feeling is that social media is becoming less of a place of sharing, an authentic place, as opposed to validating already problematic opinions that people might have about one another.
Whereas it used to be a place where communities who might have lived very far from each other can feel like they have bonds and companionship and connection with people, now is becoming a source of — how much can we pull people down, and attack them, and hold people to account without any evidence, or checks and balances, or a means of regulating this jungle that is social media? It’s a scary space.
KOSTA: Hey friends, Kosta here. Sorry to butt in. But in this part, I’m just about to dive into some of Nadir’s amazing work, and I don’t actually end up giving much context. So we thought it’d be worth me jumping in now and bringing you all up to speed by quickly explaining each of the projects I’m referring to.
Firstly, there’s the YouTube Creators for Change program, which is where I met Nadir. This is a global program that was launched by YouTube to encourage and support content creators from around the world to challenge hate speech and bridge digital divides via their YouTube channels, with Nadir’s being BENI.
Through this project, he eventually released a video called “Finding Nenek”, his autobiographical video documentary about connecting with his Indonesian roots by traveling there and learning about his history via his beloved grandmother’s story.
Then there’s the BENI Run Club (the BRC), which is a weekly run club where people get together in the real world and support each other in all of their sweaty vulnerability to push through obstacles and challenges together.
Following this is also The Doppi Project, a project to help people understand the Uyghur and Uzbek culture by getting better acquainted with the skullcap used in each country.
And finally, there is the BENI KARAVANSERAi series, an online conversation series where travelers of all types, including Riz Ahmed of all people, converge in the digital world with others to share stories, ideas, and perspectives learnt on their journeys.
It’s really hard to convey just how beautiful and wonderful these projects are, so I just encourage you to go see them for yourselves via our show notes. Okay, now back to the chat.
KOSTA: Is it fair to say that shift in your own attitude towards social media has resulted in the evolution of your content as well to be where it is right now? If we start from where we met, which was the YouTube Creators for Change campaign — which was still probably more that traditional social media content creation kind of model, where it’s about broadcasting messages we want out there in the world, what we think will make the world a better place. Then you did that beautiful documentary “Finding Nenek”, which was really more of a personal exploration around your own history and understanding the story of the Indonesian side of your family, right?
NADIR: Yeah, it’s really about my Indonesian grandma.
KOSTA: I will put the link in the show notes, because it’s just so exquisite. I love it.
But then, at least for me, as someone that’s followed your stuff for a long time now, you went from telling stories to… I feel like you’ve demonstrated different ways to mobilize people or to create spaces for people to come together using your social media.
You’ve got the BENI Run Club, and you’ve set up very physical ways for people to come together in their locations, to relieve stress, to connect with one another. Again, that’s an offline community that you’ve created.
You’ve got The Doppi Project. That’s a really beautiful project. Again, you’re using that platform to spotlight people who are very marginalized and persecuted right now.
The other example I had was the KARAVANSERAi series, which you had started during lockdown, right? You’re bringing people on, using that beautiful concept of the caravan, a meeting place wherever travelers cross paths, to come together and sit and listen to each other.
For me, I’ve seen that evolution in your content. Was that a very deliberate choice to pivot towards those sorts of content, or was it quite natural for you?
NADIR: I think anyone thinking about community on social media should understand that — and I’m talking from experience, not from a pedestal, because I’m still learning. For me, my own learning has been that this whole space is a journey. It’s a step-by-step process. I’ve always understood the power of community, because I was born and raised in one. My house has always been a center point of offline community, with people coming in and out and offline events, etc.
But I started my online world because I realized that there were people who weren’t privy to the privileges that I might have grown up in — an open, safe, liberal space where people can be who they are and feel safe in it.
So I started telling stories and I was getting frustrated, because a lot of what was existing in the online space was telling people what to do, or criticizing the world as it is, without providing an alternative reality of how things could be. So it’s very easy to deconstruct, but how are we providing examples of communities lived or idealized communities that we want to be in? There were very little examples of that. And that still exists today.
My biggest problem today is that all that exists on social media is people tearing each other apart, or criticizing society as it is right now, without providing alternatives which we can imagine and look forward to or aspire to.
For me, everything that I started with BENI and my own personal work was about, how do we create avant-garde arts, or futurism, or an idealized future to work towards so that young people can start building the waypoints to get out of the darkness they’re living in today, and start aspiring for something a lot more open and meaningful that brings people together?
I’ve never told people what to do or what to think. All I do is share my experience. I show how my family and my community go about doing what we do.
If it doesn’t vibe with you, cool. I’m sure there’s another platform that does. But all I’m going to do is show you how we do our things. Hopefully, if it vibes with you, you’re welcome. The door is open.
With the offline stuff, I started to realize, I now have credibility online. People started to consider me as someone of influence. I had the credibility in the online space. But online community, as good as it is and as beneficial it is, never really replaces the impact that an offline tangible connection has, right?
KOSTA: Yeah, absolutely.
NADIR: As a child of activists, I understand that real work happens on the grassroots, in your community. How could I funnel this online credibility into real-world grassroots activism, without making young people feel like they’re being preached to?
I have this run club, and Kosta mentioned it. Basically, on the outside, it’s a run club. It basically gets people all together on a Wednesday evening at 7pm every week. On the outside, it just looks like people coming together and running. Actually running is an almost inconsequential, insignificant element of the whole experience.
The run is the bait to get young people together to start forging tangible, meaningful relationships with each other. That is vulnerable. When you’re running, the metaphor of a run is that it really attacks you internally, right? You’re sweating. You’re doubting yourself internally. What happens is, as you start to unravel, you start to open up to the people around you, where you start to share in this collective pain of the run, and you create amazing relationships.
As a result, it blossomed. It grew very quickly. The relationships started to get really strong very fast. That was the kind of innovative community, offline gathering that I wanted to experiment with.
There were lots of things that worked about it. And there were lots of things that didn’t work about it, that I learned about it. What I’ve come to learn is that if you have a significant online following, and you use social media as your work, you can leverage it into meaningful offline work.
That, for me, was incredibly liberating, because it felt a lot closer to home, to be able to do these offline events. It was really important for me as well, because it was about creating things that weren’t just about me. How do I leverage this narrative into a bigger picture, a bigger community picture? I always say, whatever I do is an experiment. Some things work about it, some things don’t. But I was very grateful for the whole experience and that learning curve.
KOSTA: Yeah, absolutely. To circle back to your idea of the significance of the run: for me, the thing that comes to idea is when you’re running, you’re actually on a journey of some sort —
KOSTA: — which is the word you used to describe your social media outlook, your orientation. While it’s not about you, it’s very true to you and authentic to your interests or your way of expression.
Which brings me to my next question around some of the challenges you face, not to put you too front and center, but as a lynchpin, as a community mobilizer yourself, using your online platform. How do you navigate the boundaries between you the creator and you the person?
I’ve also seen some of your more recent posts regarding questions about personal life, or your opinions on certain things that are happening in the world and whether you should or shouldn’t share those things. I really respected the fact that you put that out there, where you’re like, “There are certain things about my life that I don’t talk about.” How do you navigate that balance without sacrificing your authenticity?
NADIR: I think what’s deceptive about the online space is that people start to feel like they know you and thus have ownership over you, and they have a right to know everything about your life. If people follow you over a period of three to four years, and you’re sharing parts of your day, even if it’s just 10% of your day, people start to feel like they can carve perspectives on who you are.
I think it’s really important to preserve certain things that are very sacred to you, because not everything should be commodified. There are parts of me which I’m willing to share. But there are parts of me which are for the people closest to me and myself ultimately.
I think delineating that separation has been a learning curve over a period of time. But, ultimately, what I’ve come to learn is that the public space is very fickle. These people aren’t invested in you in the same way that your neighbor is, or somebody who you’d want to raise a family with.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the people who follow me and find my work inspirational. But I don’t know whether these are the same people that are going to be propping me up when my back’s against the wall. If that’s the case, then why share your most intimate parts of yourself with people who perhaps weren’t invested in it in the very beginning, in that depth in the first place?
It’s about preserving certain elements of yourself for your own protection. And really, it’s about protecting yourself from being hurt or being let down by certain people.
This online space is… It’s difficult to talk about, because you talk about it and it sounds like an “oh, first-world problems” kind of thing, right? But by virtue of being someone that people follow and people take interest in, you have a product that not many people have. By virtue of having many followers, or people taking note of what you do and taking interest in it, you also become a target. What happens is, people start to watch your every move, waiting for a moment for you to put a step wrong.
KOSTA: For a gotcha moment.
NADIR: For a gotcha moment. Why? Because there’s nothing we love more than a success story, than someone from the top being torn down.
Your relationship with this space is, you love it and you’re so grateful that people have helped you do what you love, but you’re almost on the precipice of a cliff.
You know at any point someone could throw an accusation. Someone could, I don’t know, misread something. Someone could just not like you for a certain reason. And it’s happened. It’s happened to me.
KOSTA: I was going to say, is that something that you’ve experienced personally?
NADIR: Oh yeah, 100%. I think like 90% of people in this space will experience something along those lines.
Which is why I say to people starting in it, “If you’re going to start in this space, the best preparation you can make for yourself is internally.” It’s about fortitude of the self, and your ego, and all that kind of thing. Why are you doing this in the first place? It’s understanding that some people are not going to like you. If they criticize you, then you have to accept that, and all those kinds of things.
So you learn to do that. What happens is, we call it “hasad” in Arabic or “ayn”, an evil eye. And we believe in it. People will wish less well on you as a result of the position that you might occupy. This isn’t only online either. I witnessed, even with the run club, there were lots of difficulties that arose with it.
This is why community leaders — and I’m sure you witness it, Kosta — you as a community leader will know your intention of wishing the best for this community and trying to give your life to them. But there are people that will always doubt your intention or your methods. What it does is undermine the sacrifice that you have done. It’s hard. It’s hard to brunt that.
But this is why community leaders — and I witnessed this in my own parents — is that community leaders have to have the biggest shoulders, the broadest shoulders. Not only to lumber the future of their community, but also lumber the traumas and the insecurities of the community in which they’re serving, who potentially may be the ones that attack you as well in the future.
That’s what tests your resolve in community activism. I’ve seen it with my father. I blame a lot of my dad’s illnesses to the heartbreak he suffered as a result of the community that he served himself.
As a community leader, you have to shoulder the aspirations of the future, but also understand that this same community that you’re serving might be the people that attack you in the future as well. How are you going to reconcile that?
KOSTA: Which is, I guess, where intent becomes so important, right? Because if your intent really is one of service, and one of selflessness and altruism, or whatever it is, then there is a certain level of accepting a level of risk that is associated with being prominent, trying to steer a conversation that affects lots of people. You do things not for the cookie that you get, but for the effect that it ultimately has in the long term, right?
Some people may not necessarily have that same vision as you, but you’re putting yourself out there to be tested and to be tried. And that’s tough. That takes a lot of resilience.
NADIR: 100%. Or rather, in my learning with what I put out there, it is like, I’m not telling you what to do. I’m not going to be here on my moral high horse and tell anyone what to do, because everyone’s variables are completely unique.
All I’m going to do is share my experience. This is my experience, because no one could no one could criticize my experience, right? Because it’s ultimately the world that I live in. It’s mine, right? So I share stories that are relative to me, and it resonates with people.
But I’m not going to sit here and go on a half-hour tirade about why society is crumbling and who’s failing, and who’s letting us down, and attack, attack, attack. Because that doesn’t provide me an alternative to look forward to. That doesn’t provide a map.
For me, this is where I am frustrated with modern-day activism. What we’ve done is create an industry around activism when really, from what I understood growing up, to be an activist was basically working until your job was obsolete. But what happens now, and this is interesting with social media and the correlation, is that people have built activist platforms on the problem itself.
You’re only being heard and being algorithmically rewarded with engagement as much as the problem exists. As soon as a problem starts to get less, then your engagement drops, so your significance in this space drops.
So, really, how much are we as activists invested in the solving of the problem, to the point where our voice doesn’t need to be heard anymore? If that makes sense, right?
KOSTA: Yeah, absolutely.
NADIR: For me, I’m trying to build a world in which I don’t need to say the things I need to say anymore. Ultimately, that’s why I just want to share my experience and the way that my community operates.
If it resonates with people, and it’s something you want to be part of, welcome. But if it doesn’t, then that’s cool. I’m sure there’s another space that fits your needs. And I’m really happy for you. I want us all to eat. It might not be at my table. But I want us all to eat.
KOSTA: Absolutely. Again, this conversation is such a reflection or a summation of some of the other conversations I’ve had before. It’s just this real sense of space for some and space for all, where sometimes there are certain groups that are dictated by needs to have a space in order to meet those needs together. And then there are times where we are all in this together, and learning how to navigate the place for you and the place with others is really difficult.
Just hearing you say all that, it just reflects back. There’s no guarantee who comes into your space, I guess, with social media, right? Whereas with an offline space, we’re limited by our meat-sack bodies, just the limits of being human and being alive and being blood and water. We can make those calls a bit easier about who people physically are. We can read so much more. In the online space, that’s much harder to control.
Even just my experience of your content is one of “Man, I wish I was hanging out with his family” or “His friends look so cool”. I can understand, for someone else — and I say that as someone that has a very rich social life, a family, amazing friends, very fortunate, people that I’ve known my whole life. Like you — and I think this is where we share affinity, Nads — it’s this idea of not necessarily belonging to the community that we were born into, but the ones that we created for ourselves.
KOSTA: That hasn’t been social media for me, but I still work with a lot of people that use that platform. You’ve been able to use technology and media to at least share that with others, or create some with other people as well.
We’ve just been talking about authenticity and credibility or whatever of the creator. Can you share anything about what you’ve learned over time about your audiences, and how you actually impact them, or their sense of community, or anything like that?
NADIR: By virtue of me sharing my experience, and not moralizing, and not idealizing, and saying this is how it should be — by virtue of just authentically sharing my experience, it shows people that there’s an alternative way of being.
Maybe some people live in some, I don’t know, conservative society. They always thought that this is the way that you do things. Then they see someone that looks like them, and someone who believes in the same things that they believe, doing something in an alternative way that feels more aligned to their innate morals and nature.
What it does is starts to incept the idea in that person, that there is an alternative way of being. That’s enough. That’s all I can hope for, is that people feel that they resonate with a certain lived experience that feels more natural to them.
If they implement that in their life, then I’m happy. But for some people, it might not be applicable. Maybe they live in certain societies where it’s not appropriate, or whatever.
But the majority of the messages I get is that they’re so overjoyed and elated, and they feel so invested in my family, like people who follow me. And I appreciate that so much. That means the world to me.
Why? Because they realize that this is a wholesome, authentic, cosmopolitan, diverse world that we are part of, as a result of the sacrifices from my parents, and my grandparents, and so on. That has culminated into this life that me and my sister are very lucky to be part of.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not perfect at all, by any means. But there are things that make it unique and special, which is the inter-communal relationships, the dependency, and the love shared between everybody, and just the fact that it’s from people of all different races and ethnicities and religions. People see that and have been like, “In a world of such polarized angst and hate, and people so divided and not being able to see outside their own communities, here’s a group of people who seemingly are beyond that.”
I did grow up in that environment, and I’m proud of it. If I want to share it, I will share it. And if people can resonate with it, then I’m very happy about that. And I feel really touched when people invest in our family emotionally in that way. It means a lot to me.
KOSTA: I think what’s clear to people is that your family is important to you. If they’re invested in you, by virtue of that, they’re invested in your family, because of how much you share the lens with them, at least in the last couple of years, and how much you’ve let people into that part of your personal life anyway.
NADIR: I mean, the family is your first community, right? I asked myself, really, how sincere is my effort in the community if I’m not willing to build the building blocks within my own family, which is my first community, right? Ultimately, if your house is dirty, who are you to go outside and start telling people to clean their own houses? Your house better be clean.
For me, making sure that the family unit is strong and healthy and interdependent is crucial, because that filters down to your work in the future. Trying to increase that community bracket to encompass more people — it has to be consistent on every level.
Family is really close to me, and that love trickles out. That compassion at home trickles out to other people, and they feel it. Our house is a family house. But all my friends come here, even when I’m not here, to hang out with my family. They chill out here as if it’s their own place. It’s because the foundations of the home are strong enough to encompass more people, that they feel welcome in it as well, and they can share in that love as well.
Community starts at home. Community and charity starts at home, and it trickles outside of that. That’s been a key learning for me.
KOSTA: As we start to emerge out of this really deep reflection on what it means to be in a community and how the online world shapes that, what’s next for you at the moment?
NADIR: It’s a good question. I really want to give you something really positive and uplifting and inspiring. But what I’m saying is that it might not necessarily be so.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure.
NADIR: Just to be as real to you as possible, I am very concerned. I’m very concerned about where the world is right now, where young people are, and the social media space as a facilitator of a lot of angst, animosity, faux-wokeness, cancel culture, etc, etc. It’s deeply concerning.
I think we’re living in deeply fractured times. Technology has hit a zenith, to the point where it’s further disenfranchising people away from each other.
I can speak for myself, for my own self — I don’t feel as liberated to share on my social media as I would have two or three years ago. I don’t, because I feel like every little thing is being scrutinized to the umpteenth amount. People have lost the ability to be really truly themselves because people don’t think the best of people immediately anymore. It’s “How can I attack someone to validate my own experience?” instead of people in open arms.
So, in this context, what is the future? For me, again, it’s about sharing my unique experience, because no one could criticize me for that. I think, for me personally, I’m starting to realize the value in my community. It’s not the size that matters. It’s the quality of it.
By virtue of social media and how it’s shared online, you can hit scale. So for me, I want to personally focus on a small community that will be around when my kids are born. People who will be the community of my future. Invest in that community, share that experience with people around the world.
If they like it and then they want to be part of it, great. If they want to create little similar things, in the way that we organize little BRCs [BENI Run Clubs] or little get-togethers in their house, then great. Hopefully, I provided a waypoint into how to create this world that we’re also living.
But no way do I want to live in a world that’s moralizing or criticizing. I just want to live in, or start building, an idealized positive world for my kids to be born and raised in. Again, community starts at home. I can share that online to hit scale, and it vibes with people, great. If it doesn’t, then awesome.
KOSTA: It’s still yours.
NADIR: Yeah, exactly.
KOSTA: It’s still yours. It sounds like perhaps one good lesson here is to really understand social media as… Perhaps we need to renegotiate our relationship with social media — instead of one as a destination, but one as a facilitator of experiences, of ideas, of connections with people, right?
It’s inherent in the word media. It’s in the middle. It’s mediating different influences, different parts of society. What you’re saying sounds very much like the focus for you is to use it for its facilitating abilities, to facilitate a future for people to to step into or to inherit, to facilitate ideas of how other people can do something similar in their space.
Just as some closing remarks, what would you say to people that feel like they’re on the start of a content creator’s journey, not just for the clout and the likes, but for wanting to do something productive with their space and wanting to use it for a greater purpose?
NADIR: That’s a great question. And a lot of people ask me this — it’s a lot harder now to start a social media platform than it was a long time ago.
What I would say is that it’s very difficult to not be swayed by what works online and what doesn’t. A lot of people chase the engagement, then the message gets lost. I think what you need to focus on is, really hone in on what your intention is. Why am I getting into this space? Write it on your ceiling. Write it on your wall.
Remind yourself every morning, this is why I got into this space. Create from an authentic space that works with you. Remember that every piece of content has to reflect that original vision.
Where the ingenuity comes and the innovation comes is understanding the landscape. Things are changing, even from when I started. This whole TikTok thing, that’s crazy to me. I don’t understand it.
KOSTA: TikTok is bananas. TikTok is bananas. [laughs] I love watching it. But it is… Yeah, I’m speechless when I think of TikTok.
NADIR: Exactly. And we’re young. We’re still fairly young guys.
KOSTA: Yeah, right?
NADIR: TikTok makes me feel like I’m ancient. So it’s about understanding that every generation has its medium and its methodology.
KOSTA: And it has its own time.
NADIR: Yeah, absolutely. The videos I might have made at my time might not be applicable to today. What you need to do is [figure out your] intention. But also, the excellence comes in your understanding of the methodology of the day, and then connecting those dots.
Like I said about this idea of a bridge, you’re the bridge between intention and meaningfulness and community, with the medium of the day. With my dad, it was publications, and it was newspapers, and all that kind of stuff. With me, it was social media and Instagram and YouTube. For the next generation, you need to understand whatever medium or methodology that it is, and be amazing at it.
Nothing replaces being good at what you do, ultimately. Not to blow my own horn, but my videos were good, right? It resonates with people. If they weren’t as good, I probably wouldn’t have been invited certain places or enjoyed some of the things I’m enjoying today. So you have to be good at what you do, and invest the time in that.
The irony — the last thing I’ll say — is that, in order to build community, you need to be part of a community. I’ve only got anywhere as a result of other people supporting me, facilitating me, people like yourself thinking about me. Who are we to think that we can build community without investing in other people’s ones?
KOSTA: Of course.
NADIR: This is where this idea of co-creation, codependence… But understanding that the pie is big enough for all of us, that every community can thrive in a really meaningful way. I really believe in that, because you get out what you put in, ultimately, right?
I always tell people, don’t invest in the technical skills. They’ll come later. Just put the time in. What you should be investing in is social skills.
Kosta, I met you once, but you felt like a brother immediately.
KOSTA: Yeah, right.
NADIR: Other people you come across — connect with these people meaningfully.
If these people are sharing the same ethos and goals and morals as you, like, preserve these relationships. They’re the best investments you’ll make. Then you’ll see your community thrive as a result of that.
KOSTA: That’s a really beautiful note to end on. It’s a really nice thing to reflect on that.
I’d say even our connection is the epitome of what we want to be able to use social media for, right? Where our relationship is primarily over social media now, as a result of distance. That’s an amazing thing to be able to have. Obviously I look forward to the day where we can be in the same country again, and hopefully that’s sooner rather than later.
KOSTA: But Nads, thank you so much for such, as always, an amazing thought-provoking discussion. I love you so much.
NADIR: I hope so, man. I hope it wasn’t too messy.
KOSTA: Not at all. That was beautiful.
Just for those who don’t know where to find you and have not experienced your amazing content yet, where can people find you?
NADIR: You can find me on on Google, Instagram, if you just write my name “Nadir.Nadhi”. Then all the links will be there on Instagram.
KOSTA: All right. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful rest of your day.
NADIR: Thanks for having me. I appreciate you, Kosta.
KOSTA: You too, man.
KOSTA: You’ve 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. 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 Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests 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.
How can technology be inclusive for everyone, everywhere? Garen Checkley from Next Billion Users, GoogleAvailable Now (Aired July 20, 2021)
Joining Undesign on this special surprise episode to discuss inclusive technology is Garen Checkley, Product Manager at Google's Next Billion Users initiative. Garen shares plenty of insightful stories on Google’s mission to make technology helpful for everyone, everywhere, from their new research on building voice-first products, to an important report on gender equity online. This surprise episode was released to celebrate DrawHistory's sixth birthday, and the enduring role that technology design can play in creating societal change.
How do we move beyond the ‘black tile’ in the fight for racial justice? Fadzi Whande from United Nations High Commissioner for Human RightsAvailable Now (Aired July 20, 2021)
It’s been almost a year since our social media feeds were filled with “black tiles” in response to the death of George Floyd as a result of racially-motivated violence. What did that activism all mean, and what steps can we take to ensure that we don’t just talk about the importance of protesting injustice on the internet, but in the everyday? Joining us on Undesign’s Season 1 finale is our guest, Fadzi Whande. Fadzi is currently the Senior Programme Officer (Diversity and Inclusion Adviser) at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).