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The reins: grab them. (An adventure into an unfamiliar world of photography)

Posted: November 18th, 2016 | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

I’m fresh off an unexpected and wonderful road trip.

Six days ago I headed to Yosemite to be an assistant to my incredibly talented photographer friend, Jake Stangel, on an assignment for Travel + Leisure magazine. We spent six days on the road, heading south, via Monterey, through the rugged California coastline.

We drove down the winding curves of Highway 1, soaking up the best vistas, finding the secret hidden-away spots, and seeking out the unknown adventures in California’s Route 1. The feature is months away from being published, so I can’t give too much away about what we found and shot, but I can talk all I want about my own experience.

I’m a nonprofit campaigner. For me, being a photographer’s assistant is akin to a Wall Street trader taking a break from work to be a carpenter. It gave me a taste of a different slice of life. One not too strange when you think about my personal interests (California, camping, adventure), but perhaps a bit strange when you consider that it was a paid job outside of the confines of my CV (so far).

I took the risk, taking unpaid time off my job, because I knew I’d learn a few things. I was right to do that, and I recommend you do the same.

I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky I have a friend that’d even ask me to do such a thing, considering I have no background in photography. I’m lucky that my job affords me the flexibility to take time off with a week or two’s notice. I’m so so lucky that I could say yes to Jake. Not everyone can do that.

I had FOMO, like whoa. I’m deeply knit into my life in San Francisco. I’m grateful for that, because it means that after three years here, I finally have a community that feels to me like home in the way I yearned for the minute I set foot here, lonely and unsure of how I’d make a world that’d hug me as I fell asleep each night.

There are things that happened in San Francisco this week, people I very much wanted to see, money I very much wanted to make, moments I very much did not want to miss. But I took a chance, when Jake asked if I’d be available, and I said “yes, I’ll take a week off of my life to set your aperture, carry your tripod, drive your car, wake up at early hours of the morning, and hunt down the best photogenic vistas we can find together.”

Saying yes meant appreciating that luck, seizing a moment, and taking a step back to appreciate a bigger picture. I asked myself, “What could I learn from a person from a different practice?” And I had no idea. There was no way to know until we actually hit the road.

The number one thing I learned from Jake was patience.

Jake works with film. Real film. You know, the stuff you used to use a decade or two ago, because it was what we had. He works with film by choice, because it can capture so much more than digital, and because it forces a photographer to be all the more diligent, particular, careful and precise with a shot. Jake works in large and medium format film – the kind with negatives much larger than what you find in the analog camera you learned on in high school photography class – the kind that captures the world in actual high resolution. The kind that produces photographs you can step into and discover as if they were real.

How can ocean conservation get more media coverage?

Posted: February 23rd, 2015 | Filed under: oceans, Upwell | No Comments »

I’m tired of seeing bland PR pitches from ocean conservation groups. I want to see more stories, more captivating visuals, and a better understanding of the media landscape and what journalists need in order to cover an important issue.

As one of my departing activities at Upwell, I interviewed Lindsay Abrams, a blogger with Salon, about how we can get more coverage for the ocean, and how conservation groups can better work with journalists.

Read the interview in full.

Hire me!

Posted: January 25th, 2015 | Filed under: climate, fun, lgbt, oceans, self-aggrandization, Upwell | No Comments »

Warning: I use emoticons like <3 in public communications. I’m an unapologetic public advocate for the things that matter to me (e.g., LGBT equality, women’s rights, Earth sustainability), and if that’s a problem for you, you should probably stop reading here.

But if you’ve kept reading, let’s talk. I’m interested in changing the world in unconventional ways. Skillz-wise, I’m good at online communications. I can also write a press release, build a coalition, host an event, and lots of other stuff. I know AP style, correct my friends’ grammar even if they hate it, and I know how to get a journalist interested in a story. I don’t know Java or Javascript (though Code School at nights is totally a thing), but I do know CSS and HTML and I’m good at talking to your developers in a way that doesn’t make them want to smash their forehead into their desk.

What I’m most interested in figuring out is how we can adapt to the ever changing ways of human nature to accelerate social change. I believe, with the right minds at the task, we can approach the speed of technological change, but only if we’re comfortable with uncertainty and are willing to invest in the humans that make the world instead of being obsessed with funding cycles and ROI and KPIs. The world works faster than that and so does my brain.

I’m a very direct person, but my past colleagues will attest, I live up to my ENFP bucket. I’m a team player and think in systems-oriented ways. I’m good at pairing short- and long-term thinking. I like bringing joy to the people around me, whether it’s blasting Beyonce on a deadline or ringing the cowbell for every interim list item done rather than waiting for the big finish.

Enough of my pitch. Just thought my website should say something about the fact that I’m anxious and want to find my unicorn job. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m about 75% confident it’s just hiding out there and I can’t find it. Help me?


Scio14 – I felt like I belonged more this year.

Posted: March 3rd, 2014 | Filed under: oceans, self-aggrandization, social media, Upwell | No Comments »

I came to Science Online in 2013 a newbie. My colleague, Rachel Weidinger, had attended in 2012 to introduce the community to our fledging nonprofit startup, Upwell, and I’d been hired a month later. When I attended last year, I was initially quite nervous and hesitant to speak up. I came from a nonprofit background, and felt that my streak for advocacy and my lack of a science background would set me apart as an unwelcome stranger amidst the crowd of accomplished scientists and journalists. I was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn’t the case, and felt welcomed into the ocean blogging community. I even stayed up late sipping Kraken in the #DSNSuite, feeling like a true ocean groupie.

But something still stood out to me – I couldn’t really participate in many of the conversations. Not because I was shunned, but because they just weren’t all that applicable to what I was doing. Let me take a moment here to explain what I do – I try to make the ocean famous on the internet. I promote science-based content and try to increase the number of social mentions about issues facing our ocean – everything from overfishing to ocean acidification to marine protected areas. I work closely with scientists, government officials, and environmental advocates. I process and communicate science much like so many people in the Science Online community.

But, last year, I found that so many of the conversations focused on the actual act of writing. And how people get there. How do academics break barriers against social media? How can bloggers use narrative techniques? How can they overcome imposter syndrome? Why should scientists even be online?

I felt like there was a lack of focus on what to do after a piece of content is published. Sure, we do need to focus on creating good content, but how do we get people to actually read or see it? The people who come to Science Online are generally not only super wicked smart, but are also highly skilled communicators. They are the people who not only love and understand science, but know that it needs to be translated, and often know how to translate it.  Maybe it’s the communications pro in me, but I craved a stronger focus on outreach. I was pleased with sessions that focused on creating captivating visuals or using social media for promotion, and I wanted to see more of that.

Which is why I’m glad that there was a stronger focus this year on what to do after a piece of content is published. Not just what to do, but actually how to package information in the first place so it’s optimized for what happens after it’s out there on the web. Some topics that I loved this year:

  • Creating videos that not only explain science well, but also encourage viewership from a broader audience, and are easy to watch all the way through and entice viewers to share. #ScioPrep
  • Finding ways to inject science everywhere, not just the standard places. How do we interject pop culture, how do we use it as a hook for explaining science? #scioSciAll
  • Using social media and social media analysis and monitoring tools to understand how audiences are talking about a topic of interest. And not just that, also understanding how they feel about it and what their level of familiarity is. #ScioResearch
  • Developing press materials that are web friendly before publishing your papers. And doing it in a way that’s conscious of how journalism has changed in the internet age. #ScioPress
  • Incorporating images into your content in a way that adds meaning and also makes your content appear right on social media. #ScioVisual

I’m glad we’ve moved beyond just asking: “should we be communicating science online, and what are the challenges to being able to do so” to also saying “we are communicating science online, now how do we do it better, reach more people, and keep adapting to the changing ways people communicate and consume information online?” I found myself speaking up more, contributing information on the challenges we face on the daily at Upwell in terms of intervening in conversations, making science relevant, and helping science-based content reach broader audiences. And the responses I got were super positive. At Friday night’s Intergalactic Gala in the conference hotel, I had to keep putting my glass of wine down to reach into my back pocket for business cards for all the people who kept coming up and saying, “what you do is so cool.”

You like me - you really like me!


I’m hoping that, next year, the focus on outreach, promotion and optimized “packaging” is even stronger – maybe I’ll even be leading one of those sessions. 🙂

(As a side note, I moderated a great session on mentoring and mentorship, which, while it had nothing to do with science communication, was a much needed discussion that crosses boundaries. Not just for the scientific and journalist communities – for everyone. We talked about how to find a mentor, how to be a mentor, how to structure mentor relationships, and what challenges come along with mentoring. Check out my #ScioMentor Storify.)

(Edited on March 5, 9 am PST, to remove an offhand comment that devalued the craft of writing!)

Featured in GO Magazine

Posted: June 26th, 2013 | Filed under: self-aggrandization | No Comments »

In May, the editor of GO Magazine (the US’s most widely read free lesbian publication) contacted me about their annual issue featuring “100 Women We Love,” focusing on “out lesbian or queer women doing amazing things.” A subscriber to Upwell’s Tide Report, she was familiar with our work to make the ocean famous on the internet, and with my love for sharks. She called herself a “secret admirer,” to which I kind of melted.

A month later, I was featured in the magazine.

GO Magazine - 100 Women We Love - Rachel Dearborn

Fuck yeah! I was thrilled to be listed in the ranks of such inspirational queer women.

Click through to read more.

Remarks and remembrances, on books and reading.

Posted: March 14th, 2013 | Filed under: language, words | No Comments »

A new kind of book.

I bought my first tablet (an iPad mini) last fall. It was an impulse purchase after I did some hard overtime working and had a small stack of dollars to spend on myself. An unusual occurrence. I’ve been surprised so far at its utility, and at my own frequency of use. I’m writing this blog post from it, in fact. It’s somewhat difficult, with squidgey buttons, but it’s lighter and cooler on my lap, so there’s that.

With this purchase came a new phase in my life: that of the ebook. I use the Kindle and iBooks apps (alternating purchases between the platforms largely due to price differences). I also still read and buy real, tangible books. The kind that can give you papercuts and take up more space in your messenger bag.

I see benefits to both. I realize I’m nowhere near alone in that.

My reasoning is colored by the fact that I am the daughter of an avid book lover and collector.

I learned to love books

Books tower on every wall of my father’s bedroom, stacked in every corner. His dresser looms, a small island in the middle of the room, concealed by turf of more books. And there are more, tons (without exaggeration) stored in the basement of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, where my father worked for four decades before retiring earlier this year. Even more stacked in the attic of our home, and in the unoccupied (and currently unlivable) apartment that my grandfather built below my childhood home when I was a small child.

Books everywhere. A mix of the collectible sort with beautiful leather binding and gold edges and the handworn, loved sort — for instance, the Calvin and Hobbes collection with binding creased from all the times in my youth when I would crawl onto my dads bed and crack one open to read with him in the afternoon sun while he tried to nap.

My dad would even take my math textbooks from my sister and I after we finished a year of class, because brushing up on basic calculus was an enviable pastime to this engineer, and how terrible it would be to see those books full of knowledge get discarded.

It has been my dad’s first project of retirement to catalog them all. I fear the size of that database when it’s done.

My father was the type of book lover who admonished the dog-eared corner. I’d hide my penciled-up paperbacks from my English courses from him. To me, it was a method of learning to transcribe experience next to text. To my father, a disrespect of the item.

My dad covered the dust jackets of my well-read hardcover books with the plastic coverings you find on library books. My entire Harry Potter collection sits on the shelf of my San Francisco apartment, reflecting the light. The dust jackets are in mint condition under their crisp sheathes.

So I was raised to have a respect for the printed word. My father had significant influence (though he may not know it) on my decision to major in English in college.

As I’ve been adjusting to this world of ebooks, and enjoying it, loving that I have books with me everywhere, even if I didn’t think to pack them with me when I walked out the door, I’ve had that small pang of guilt.


What has helped has been a deliberate and inquisitive look into the ways my consumption of tangible and e-books differ. This is still evolving, but here are some of my initial inclinations:

I’ll still buy beautiful books, to touch and hold. Vintage illustrated encyclopedias. Children’s books that are meant to be wide, thin, and tactile. Large-format overpriced Taschen books bound in cloth. They mostly don’t exist as ebooks, because why.

I will buy books to support authors I know and hold in esteem, especially if they are “small time.” The other night, at the Green Arcade bookstore on Market (which you should patronize, if you get a chance), I was attending a meeting of folks to strategize around getting SF to divest from fossil fuels. Rebecca Solnit, a long time SF resident, activist and prolific author was there, and I was so delighted to make her acquaintance, and support her (and Green Arcade) right then and there by purchasing her gorgeous anthropological masterpiece, Infinite City. She signed it: “To Rachel, the cool.” There’s not much to describe the feeling of reading that.

I feel a unique sense of anxiety about ebooks. There are admittedly more books on my shelves that I’ve never read than those that I have (I have this tendency to give away books once I’ve read them, and never see them again). But I never stare at my shelves and feel the weight of those unturned pages. Owning the books carries its own sort of personal satisfaction. They decorate space, and are such patient waiters.

Conversely, the ebooks on my Kindle shelf, while light as air and invisible to the eye until sought out, have this strange weight of utility. “I downloaded you so I could read you. You serve no other purpose,” I think. I must finish them because they are waiting for me. It’s a magnified version of the feeling I have when looking at the significant unread count in my Google Reader (sniff sniff), or every time I hit the “save to Pocket” link in my browser. These words are queued up. No one likes waiting in line.

The ebook is preferable when I’m in learning mode. If you were to take a look at my Kindle bookshelf, you’d probably get a good idea of the world in which I work: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky; Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig; The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver; Contagious by Jonah Berger; and so on. It’s helpful to be able to highlight passages and refer back to them easily later at the touch of a few buttons. Particularly if the moment when I might need to do that is impossible to predict (even for Nate Silver).

I’m finding increased utility for ereaders’ search functions for novels too, but haven’t yet given in fully. But for those kinds of books with a million characters and innumerable parallel story lines, the ability to quickly find out when someone was first introduced, and be reminded, “oh yeah, that’s one of the Riders of Rohan” is quite handy. Like with many of the ways technology has made tasks in our life easier and more automated, I feel a hesitance: do I embrace this new laziness? Is it tainting the authentic experience? What is the cost of such passivity? As I said, I’m not sold.

I feel weird taking my iPad in the bathroom, or to the beach. There’s still a need in this life for books that can go to unsavory or messy places, or can afford to get lost or be left behind in a hostel.

I’m reading more, now that I have an iPad. It’s inarguable, and simple. I’m a more voracious reader, now that its so much easier to have books with me, and buy them at a moment’s notice. I like this.

These are just some of my initial thoughts. There are more to come, as I wrestle with my love for the printed word, my geekery, and nostalgia. It will be an interesting few years, watching how this little glowy device changes my reading habits while I watch my father sort through and remember each and every book he’s collected.

We’re changing the chemistry of our oceans.

Posted: March 4th, 2013 | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

A few weeks back, I was delighted to hear from the California Academy of Sciences that they were producing an educational video for online outreach and their exhibits about ocean acidification. Ocean acidification, dubbed “osteoporosis of the sea” and “climate change’s evil twin” by NOAA’s previous administrator, Jane Lubchenco, is a process that is happening now: the CO2 we are emitting is being absorbed by our oceans like water into a sponge. Scientists used to think this absorption would help mitigate the climate problems CO2 brings, but ocean scientists have bad news to deliver: the oceans can’t handle it.

This is bad news, but in my usual style, I find the silver lining. We know exactly what’s causing this problem, and we know exactly how to fix it: stop burning fossil fuels. I was glad to deliver that message for the Academy’s video (check me out, starting at 3:00), and hope it will inspire others to use their voice to speak up for our oceans – the lifeblood of our planet that lack a voice.

Another silver lining that inspires me is the growing level of conversation online about ocean acidification. A few years back, I was working with organizations that wanted to get the word out, but didn’t know where to start, because ocean acidification wasn’t even on the radar. The landscape has changed. People are talking about it.

Twitter mentions of ocean acidification, June 2010 – March 2013

The conversation on Twitter is growing, but is still quite “spikey.” This means that there is still a relatively low baseline of ongoing conversation, but scientific reports and news media coverage are increasing, and bringing this issue into the public eye on a more regular basis. At Upwell, we believe that by causing more ongoing spikes in a conversation, we can increase attention to an issue and ultimately raise that overall baseline. (see more about our methods and conversational data analysis on our blog.)

We can’t rest on our laurels. Environmental and political need to keep bringing attention to this issue. If Bill McKibben thinks it’s the worst problem we’re not talking about, something tells me we’ve got work to do.

My 2 cents on #GivingTuesday

Posted: November 27th, 2012 | Filed under: self-aggrandization | No Comments »

Today is “Giving Tuesday” – the charitable world’s response to consumerism-focused days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I’m getting a lot of donation appeals in my inbox from an array of worthy causes. Instead of going off on a rant about why I think that’s a shallow approach to what could be a really thoughtful day of community and movement-building, I’ll just tell you why I give.

I give back to communities and organizations that have given or provide for me. I give when my friends ask me to give, because it takes time and risk to ask your friends for money, and I know my friends only do that for worthwhile causes. I give to small organizations because I know that living on a grant-to-grant cycle can suck up a lot of time and energy that could be better spent on world-making. I give to artists and entrepreneurs because they inspire me with their ideas, and most of the people and companies with deep pockets never inspire me, or have stopped inspiring me long ago. I give because I have money to give – not because I feel like I’m rolling in cash, but because I’m doing far better than most of the billions of people on this planet, and despite my very best efforts, I’m probably destroying the planet quicker than them too.

Upwell Diaries, Chapter 1: Social Media Lessons for the Marine Community

Posted: October 31st, 2012 | Filed under: oceans, social media | No Comments »

I’m experimenting daily with crazy campaign ideas at Upwell, and with all that I’m learning, wanted to share some of it with you here. In this first installment, some tips on using social media to promote marine/ocean issues. The basic social media lessons go without saying. I am a fan of transparency, immediacy, reciprocity. But there are unique challenges in this field – advocating for something that is hard for most of us to see, feel and touch. Explaining the myriad complicated issues that are bound to exist in such a diverse ecosystem. And moving beyond our fascination with charismatic megafauna to inspire action around the less cute or sexy issues, like ocean acidification, marine protected areas, and forage fish.

This is not an exhaustive list, just a few things that have been… swimming in my head recently.

1. Communicate based on shared values, not shared knowledge.

The ocean is so big, so vast, there are so many things that you can know about, and after years of campaigning in this space I still learn stuff everyday, so how can I expect to get massive amounts of social media traction on something that requires baseline knowledge about an ocean conservation issue?

Tap into an emotion we all share, as opposed to tapping into a specific set of knowledge that only a portion of people have. When thinking about how to campaign with social media around ocean issues, you have to understand that there is a lack of knowledge. When you’re campaigning on women’s issues, you’re not fighting that same information deficit. There is a base of knowledge, even if there isn’t a base of activism. When it comes to ocean issues, the knowledge and activism circles are pretty much one and the same.

One of the most creative ways to get people to share, to get a message to spread farther is how can we compare the ocean to things we take for granted in our everyday lives. Tap into our basic human nature, and the things that drive our daily decisions as opposed to into some pre-existing ocean ethic, which is not as widespread.

Seafood Fraud image macro

What else gets mislabeled in the world that people do know about?

2. Use people’s love of the ocean to inspire them to act.

Everybody loves the ocean. Even if we’re not all ocean conservationists, people  innately love the ocean, even it they’re scared of it. Even if they won’t swim in it, they love it. People love putting whales on T-shirts and shells in bathrooms. The ocean is part of our everyday existence. It has a good aesthetic. It’s beautiful.

The idea of abundance is deeply set in our culture. People believe that the ocean is abundant, that coral reefs are lively and colorful all over the world, and that our oceans are full of fish. There is a doom and gloom aspect in working in this field which makes you want to say, ‘Actually, we’re killing all the fish and all the coral reefs are dying,’ but like we did with Shark Week, it’s really important to meet people where they are. If they’re already thinking from a frame of abundance, hammering them with a message that things are dying is not something they’re going to want to share.

As much as we can use enthusiasm and love for ocean life to activate people, rather than a message of death and gloom, I think that that is much more powerful. We saw it happen during Shark Week. There were so many people who were excited about sharks. Sharks are awe-inspiring, and if you can acknowledge that, while also taking an opportunity to talk about the threats that face sharks, and use messages of awesomeness and abundance, you’re creating community with people who feel that way. If they see you as part of their community, and as sharing some kind of aesthetic, or personal, or moral value, then they’re that much more likely to listen to what you have to say. You have to establish a lot of common ground with people.

If you’ve got a Facebook Page and all you’re posting are negative things, you’re not going to get a lot of likes. You’ve got to celebrate what’s wonderful about the ocean in order to get people to understand that there’s something worth saving.

3. Embrace the meme. Combine images and text.

Memes are driving the discussion. People are engaging intellectually via memes. It’s not a vapid thing.

4. Look to other causes for inspiration

Just because we believe our issue is special, and especially important, doesn’t mean we are interacting with a different Internet than the rest of the nonprofit world. Look at what the Humane Society is doing. Look at what Human Rights Watch is doing. Some of the cutting edge nonprofits are doing social media work. You can just copy what they’re doing for ocean issues.

Don’t be afraid to copy what works.

Some thoughts on conversational tone and campaign messaging

Posted: October 31st, 2012 | Filed under: design, language, politics, social media | No Comments »

I was sorting through email on a flight the other day and started thinking about all the subject lines I was seeing. Quickly jotted this down before we landed in LA.

Over time, the difference between paid and organic content, between mission/brand-oriented and unaffiliated-human-created content, has become more and more blurred. (By paid content I mean not only traditional “paid media” – i.e. advertisements – but also content placed by paid employees – social marketing and content created by employees for their employers’ online presences.)

Advertisements use social language. Presidential campaigns send email blasts with the subject line “Hey.” Nonprofit organizations create photo petitions and video contests so they can hear and feature the voices of their supporters. Organizations, businesses and individuals who are spending money or paid time on social content are trying more and more to approximate our authentic social language.

With that, our ability to discern between paid and organic content has also evolved. I can tell spam from a mile away. And as much as President Obama’s campaign team tries to become the embodiment of a “friend,” I’m never fooled by their “friendly” language. We are evolving with new media, marketing and campaign strategies. Our personal boundaries, while they seem to be disintegrating with the increasing transparency of the social web, are in fact staying as solid as ever.

So what is the takeaway for the creators of paid content? I don’t believe that steering toward conversational tone is misleading or misguided. Neither do I believe that this content is 100% inauthentic. I’m sure our President does say “hey” from time to time, and I know several of the individuals who manage the social media properties of national NGOs, and I can assure you the tone of those properties reflects their individual personalities.

No – we shouldn’t steer away from this trend. It reflects increasing transparency in institutions, and, by extension, reflects increased opportunity for impact and engagement on behalf of the consumer/supporter/subscriber. But with this shift toward transparency, we mustn’t lose true authenticity. I don’t buy the “Hey” messages not because I don’t support Obama (I do), but because I know it’s actually not Obama saying “hey.” But when I see a tweet from NWF saying “hey” I know exactly which staff person that’s probably coming from.

If you are going to project authenticity, be authentic. Or else your efforts will come across as thinly as a 1950’s advertisement for a pack of cigarettes (“Great for your health!”).

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