The “education” of ‘Mosque’ Social Media Strategist Oz Sultan

Originally Posted on Capital NYC on August 18th, 2010.

At 11:30 p.m. yesterday, Oz Sultan got on the phone, exhausted.

“I’m sorry, I’ve been fasting and it has been a very long day,” Sultan said.

It began when Sultan, the social media consultant hired to help Park51, the Islamic cultural center planned for lower Manhattan, sought to dispute a story in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz citing anonymous sources claiming the project was planning to abandon the controversial site it had planned to develop.

“On a side note, if Haaretz likes publishing fables, perhaps they could go back to the Yiddish ones with parables #welikethosebetter” was the tweet Park51 blasted out to its legion of brand-new followers, eager for chum from the advancing story of the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

The tweet immediately raised hackles: was Park51 now using its tweetstream to make Jewish jokes about an Israeli paper? “Disturbing,” “dismissive” and “snarky,” the project’s tweetstream was called. More locally, Politico’s Ben Smith wrote that “the hyperactive Twitter feed” established the Park51 project “as, if nothing else, a thoroughly New York project.”

Add to that Sultan’s approach, which was deeply rooted in the mores of Twitter even before every mainstream media operation started hitting refresh, using it to direct questions at the Park51 organizers, and quoting and analyzing all of its tweets for their audience, which would have Park51 respond to every single tweet directed at them. “Even with only three people,” Sultan’s tweetstream read at one point.

Scrap that! The organizers have been bombed now for the last 48 hours with tweets and questions of all kinds: a mixture of hate-tweets and serious questions from serious reporters and “you go girl!” affirmations from millenials. And obviously, the tweetstream’s responses were generally considered insufficiently serious in the context of the outlandishly huge story of Park51.

The “fables” post was ultimately removed, and another transmission added yesterday: “Update: We are in the process of introducing a new team and are issuing apologies for any prior tweets that may have caused offense,” as well as, “Note: we will be replacing one of the interns on the park51 account.”

Much has been made about the culture clash between American Muslims and the rest of the country represented by the Cordoba Initiative’s Park51 project. But Sultan’s tweetstream fell into the middle of a series of other culture clashes, too: the clash between New York City and the rest of the country, and between a young generation of digital natives and their elders.

The culture of Twitter is still obscure to most journalists who have recently adopted it as a forum for directing official questions at organizations and individuals, and for reporting and distributing their newsbreaks to colleagues. Most tweets don’t take the form “Ha’aretz: Ground Zero mosque scrapped” so much as “LOL Don Draper is a loser! #madmen #angry.”

A native of the New York social media scene, Sultan treated Park51’s tweetstream as a means of communication with the natives on Twitter, who’d have been able to get the “snark” without blinking, notwithstanding the fact that the tweeting was being done in the name of an institution in the thick of a overheated, international public-relations crisis.

But the positioning of these tweets also reflects the general, easy multiculturalism of Manhattan elites. Just as many private school students of the Upper East Side are already familiar with the Cordoba Initiative from any number of interfaith school field-trips, so Jews, Muslims, Christians and ethnic majorities and minorities trade an easy banter about cultural difference that might be hard for a blogger from Omaha to relate to.

Whichever intern posted the “fables” tweet returned to the well to explain that a Jewish aunt had told a lot of these sorts of parables in his or her youth; true or not, relevant or not, the explanation would likely have been unnecessary for a tweetstream with an exclusively New York audience.

And a local, hip audience is exactly what Sultan thought he was dealing with when he took the job.

FIVE WEEKS AGO, SULTAN WAS PUT IN CHARGE OF FIGURING OUT A SOCIAL media strategy—how to reach out to the local community, and to an extent the project’s thoughtful critics, before the story blew up online—for Park51. But as the Cordoba Initiative’s founder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been overseas for most of the summer, on one of his frequent missions aimed at building bridges between Muslims and Americans, Sultan became an interim spokesman for the understaffed development. He answered questions from the New York Daily News and did a podcast interview with CNN.

“I was brought on five weeks ago to start [putting] together, just basically, social media engagement. It’s super nascent, where we are right now. A blog is launching in a few weeks, and we’re looking for more folks who will write for us.”

Three weeks in, the Park51 stream—run, according to Sultan, by a team of three to four interns—was born.

But it was only during the past week that members of the media and other Twitterers started @’ing them with questions. “We caught on in a five day period,” Sultan said.

The feed includes posts with official statements (“We are working towards our current plan – to build a Muslim modeled YMCA / JCC in LM that serves LM + all NYC”) and links to media reports with shoutouts to some (“Detractors, please pay heed to Keith Olbermann. American Muslims are not the enemy:”) and jeers to others. But the Twitter feed also veered into colorful tones and responses to critics, often including emoticons (^_^) and flippant hashtags (#justsayin, #fail). There are “how exactly should we respond to bigoted and insulting attacks? Hand out cupcakes?” and “Are you suggesting we hug it out?” There’s also this response to @drbaloney: “BTW how about that baloney today, I mean OMG.”

“Anything really serious floats up to me,” Sultan said. He did not reveal the names of his Twitter helpers or where they attend school. “I’m not going to put 20-something kids in the line of fire here.”

The initial goal of the feed, according to Sultan, was to respond to attacks and clear misconceptions. “Let’s try to engage, let’s try to spark the conversations,” he said.

“We started trying to at least have some conversations online but what happened was everything started turning really, really, really negative,” Sultan said. “People are sitting there shoving visceral and vitriol down your throat and, because of the sensitivity of the situation, at the same time, you have to be sensitive to them. It’s like post-modernism in action.

“You know, the reason it became snarky was if you understood the culture of Twitter, it is predominantly millenial and there is so much pop culture idiom and American culture idiom. So if you’re not accustomed to the culture, you won’t understand it. We had people sending us videos of death metal bands talking about ripping us apart and when we posted that the intern would be removed from the team, they said that we were beheading them.”

“We’re trying to build bridges,” Sultan said. “Everything that we’re engaged with is ‘You murderer, you feminine genital mutilator, you satanists, you people who worship the moon.’ And we’re not even allowed to have a little level of Twitter jokiness?”

“We had endeavored to kill them with snark and that typically works on Twitter. What is Twitter besides peoples’ attitude? They’re not tweeting actors. We are [an] apolitical organization, we are a community commuted to educating people, of all types, to what Muslim culture is, what our religion is, what our history actually is without distortion.”

NORMALLY, SULTAN ADVISES BEAUTY, LUXURY and entertainment clients on how to build “fans” with deeper connections to their companies through social media sites. In a June 2008 blog entry, Sultan wrote that “individuals can extend their internet or off-line personas to develop their personal brand, in ways that engage the masses while carrying a distinctly personal message. Your personal style, sensibility and humor as well as cultural constructs are easily parlayed through short posts and messaging. Businesses, as the technology shifts from social acceptance to business productivity could shortcut costly / cumbersome wireless communication, while integrating both web console access of the platform and wireless productivity.”

He’s a light-hearted guy you’d find at most social media mixers in a t-shirt and a blazer who is usually willing to chat you up over cocktails. At the 140 Characters conference in New York in April, Sultan gave a short presentation about the healing power of social media after a death through remembrances on Facebook and MySpace. “Everything that you put out there, it’s got feedback and it’s got legs like it never has before,” he said, dressed in a “Hebrew National” t-shirt and jeans. “This new source-crowded community that we have, kind of consider it your family.”

Sultan previously served as a strategist and technologist for clients including Transworld Entertainment,The Economist and Microsoft products. He grew up Muslim in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Penn., where there were no Muslim schools.

He got his marketing and strategy degree from Duquesne, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, in 1994. He then studied German at the Goethe Institut and linguisitics and economics at the University of Pittsburgh before getting his master’s in information technology and policy from Carniegie Mellon. He worked at several digital consulting firms in New York and is an active member of the local startup scene as co-founder of the NextWeb social media gatherings and Lunch 2.0 meetups.

On the phone last night, Sultan said he had just gotten back from a big meeting at The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in the Bronx, where Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer’s Iftar Dinner was billed as “an opportunity for people of different faiths and backgrounds to come together to share in a memorable celebration of the holy month of Ramadan.”

Sultan said he didn’t think he’d be making too many more television appearances, though. “We’re picking and choosing who we talk to, we want people to understand our message,” he said. He said that going on the Bill O’Reilly show “is not going to benefit us, we’d just get shouted down for an hour.”

“What we are interested in is allowing for a dialogue,” he said. “What we need to fight the good fight. Because everyone involved in this is an American. We love our country.

“We are serving areas that haven’t really been all that populated since 9/11. There’s convenience stores and sex shops and there’s some gentlemen’s clubs, but there’s nothing really of merit down there. Ask anyone who lives down here and you’ll know that whole area of Manhattan shuts down at 8. The only thing that’s open is the Jubilee Food Market.”

“The goal is to educate,” he said. “It’s a Manhattan issue, but it’s also a global issue, to build interfaith and build a community that is already in itself insular to people coming from the outside, to open up and to kind of sort of pick out the bad apples and work with them.”

As for the Twitter feed, @Park51 has turned a corner. Yesterday, Sultan updated the account: “For the past week, we’ve focused on trying to respond to attacks and detractors of our project. what’s become clear is – they won’t listen.” He followed up: “Starting today, we’re going to begin addressing questions regarding park51. We’re open to any sensible discussion.”

Sultan said the Twitter feed will be “restructured” after the lessons they learned. “We found out that people expect some form of journalism on Twitter, some journalism that the Twitterati themselves are not all that accustomed to,” he said. “But this is the thing with Twitter, you try and you learn that’s exactly how we are going about this. There is no tried, tested, hard, fast answers on how to do this.”

Sultan said the job at Park 51 has been a new challenge for him. “Here’s the thing, no one has had a client like this,” he said. “No one.”

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