Thomas Dodson is the social networker
Thomas Dodson is one of Sacramento's top social-media experts, but his biggest challenge might be crafting his own online image
It was election night and Thomas Dodson sat huddled in the corner of the New Helvetia Brewing Co. on Broadway. City Councilman Steve Hansen was there. So were members of the League of Women Voters and myriad other allies, all on scene to support Stop the Power Grab, Hansen’s campaign opposing Measure L, better known as Mayor Kevin Johnson’s push for a strong-mayor initiative.
As others downed beer and chatted, Dodson—who doesn’t drink—remained mostly solitary, intently focused on his iPad and iPhone, tweeting and Facebooking results as they came in.
It was a small gathering—at least compared to the bigger party Johnson hosted a short cab ride away at Pizza Rock on K Street. “It was very low key, very reflective of the campaign,” Dodson remembered later.
And when the final poll results were recorded—the measure was defeated 56 percent to 43 percent—the victory marked, at least to date, Dodson’s most prominent success as one of Sacramento’s top social-media experts and as president of Selvage Media, a local consulting and strategy firm that’s also worked with Regional Transit and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Dodson woke the next day exhausted, physically and mentally.
“I literally had a hangover—an emotional hangover,” Dodson said. “To work for months and months on a singular focus and then it’s like a burst … and then you’re left thinking, ’Wow, did that really happen?’”
For Dodson, it also represented a personal victory. The 40-year-old former TV news reporter and model has spent the last several years staking out a claim in the wild, ever-changing digital frontier. Although the Stop the Power Grab Twitter and Facebook pages attracted only nominal followers, it didn’t matter, because Dodson is a veritable one-man social-media machine, with in excess of 21,000 Twitter followers and more than 4,000 Facebook friends.
About a year ago, Dodson, who divides his time between Sacramento and Nashville, where his girlfriend lives, launched a new nonprofit, Above the Fray, which aims to educate parents, teachers and kids about online bullying and harassment.
Dodson says it signaled a notable turn in his own Internet behavior. Just two years ago, in fact, he was probably better known as someone who walked the line between funny and inappropriate.
He admits his own social-media history is a bit checkered: sexy photos of scantily clad women posted on Facebook, snarky comments on Twitter. It’s an image that stands in stark contrast to the one he presents today.
Dodson insists those old posts, that past behavior, no longer represents who he is or what he stands for—even as an anonymous site designed to poke holes at his image threatens to tarnish his reputation.
That site, along with Dodson’s past and present actions, highlights the reality of living online. Most of us don’t think of it in such terms, but anyone who uses social media is cultivating a personal brand—a presence, a voice, an image—built upon layers of posts, likes, retweets and hashtags.
Ask disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, now out of a job thanks to scandalous online behavior. In fact, ask any public figure—celebrity, politician, high-profile executive, et al.—who’s hired someone like Dodson to help them craft a better social-media profile. A better brand, if you will.
To that end, what is Dodson’s brand? Is the guy who uses the Twitter handle “@shockthomas” really reformed?
Simply put, is this the guy who should be educating kids—and, by extension, adults—how to behave online?
“My personal brand has really evolved from someone who was just kind of floundering around to try to make a lot of noise and get attention for attention’s sake,” Dodson says.
“The voice I hope I’m projecting is one of fun, but also it’s about promoting the great things that are happening in Sacramento.”The three epiphanies
A few years back Thomas Dodson found himself in Sacramento, alone with too much free time. He'd moved to town to be with his wife, but they'd just gotten divorced and, as these things tend to go, his ex kept most of the friends.
“I thought, ’I gotta meet some people, I gotta get out,’” he says. “I don’t drink, so I’m not going to the clubs or the bars myself, but I wonder[ed] if there [was] an opportunity to get out there in a different way.”
He worked as a marketing coordinator at an architectural firm, but it wasn’t enough, socially speaking. So, to combat boredom, he took a part-time position as a VIP host at a downtown nightclub. It was an easy gig, shuttling the big spenders to booths, making sure they were well-attended to. On slow nights there was a lot of downtime. Idle chit-chat with co-workers.
One night, a cocktail waitress—a part-timer, she also clocked hours as a San Francisco 49ers cheerleader—had a proposition. Take a picture of her—nothing racy, mind you—and post it online.
“Put me on Facebook,” she asked. “You’re funny, write something.”
Dodson obliged, uploaded the pic to Facebook and captioned it “Hot or Not?” borrowing the idea from the popular site by the same name.
The post blew up. Dodson’s friends commented. So did the cheerleader’s.
Dodson says he found the reaction “interesting” and continued to upload similar photos. A girl’s wild tattoo or funky piercing. A guy dressed funny, a woman dressed provocatively.
“It just became this thing I did on Facebook a lot,” he says.
Each time, Dodson added the hot-or-not tag, and each time more people jumped into the conversation. Some comments were funny. Others skewed mean. That kind of thing happens online.
The habit, in a way, launched his current career—although, of course the path took many twists and turns.
With his salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair, almost translucent blue eyes and smooth features, Dodson has a face for television but a mind for social media: Online and off, he’s quick-witted and personable.
Born and raised in South Carolina, Dodson initially had a very specific plan for his future: Attend college, study finance, follow in the family business by becoming an IRS agent—just like his grandfather and uncle.
The plan didn’t last too long. A year and a half into college Dodson rethought everything. “It was like, ’No, this cannot be my life. This is not how I’m going to experience it.’”
From there, he talked his way into an interview at a local TV station and nabbed a part-time job, which eventually turned into a full-time gig. Dodson spent the next decade reporting and producing local news in various TV markets: South Carolina to Idaho, Idaho to Washington.
Along the way he married another TV reporter and the couple had two daughters. When her job brought her to Sacramento, Dodson followed and, subsequently left the business. That was 2004 and, by that point, after a stint at Fox40, Dodson was ready to leave television news. From there he landed a job at Comstock’s magazine editing special project supplements.
Then came the divorce. And life in Sacramento after. The nightclub gig, the Facebook posts—and the resulting blowback.
“I would do the ’hot or not?’ thing and … even though I never really weighed into the fray, it did get pretty ugly sometimes,” Dodson says now of the comments left by other users.
“Even though in my mind it’s in the nature of good humor … people can be assholes,” he says now. “Given the opportunity, I kind of lobbed these softballs up. And while it was fun, I had to recognize, when I stepped back from it all, it was kind of a dick thing to do.”
Dodson’s own online behavior was arguably also less than stellar. Posts and tweets that objectified a woman’s physical attributes. Reposts of racy Miley Cyrus Instagrams. A Tumblr update featuring a naked woman straddling a motorcycle. Some posts poked fun at someone’s taste in clothing or weight.
“Flight attendant just brought air freshener to one of the fat bastards. not even joking,” Dodson tweeted from a Southwest flight in March 2013. The post was accompanied by a blurry photo of an overweight passenger.
And then Dodson experienced what he describes as nothing short of an “epiphany.”
Three of them, actually.
First, he says he took a hard look at his own social-media image, his brand if you will.
“Was I leading a positive, healthy example? Was I doing things I wanted my daughters to see?” he asked himself. “Was I doing things I wanted my clients to see? I recognized I wasn’t being the person that I wanted to be or being the example I needed to be.”
His daughters, in particular, served as something of a catalyst during a trip through the grocery store checkout line.
“They were 8 and 6 at the time and I’m putting stuff up on the conveyor belt and they’re just fixated on these magazine covers … fitness magazines, celebrity tabloids, gossip magazines,” he says.
“It felt like this sort of bombardment that happens 24/7 to children through through social media. What I experienced was just one moment—that’s what it’s like for them all of the time, receiving those messages.”
The third epiphany brought everything into sharper focus: What if he’d endured school with the same social media pressures that kids face today?
“That about made me want to throw up,” he says.
His own experiences were fraught with the typical amount of teenage angst: anxiety over not being able to afford all the stuff the cool, wealthy kids had. The usual pains of not fitting in.
Still, back then—unlike now—it was easier to turn off pressures at the end of the day. There was no late-night Instagramming. No endless Facebooking. No ceaseless Kik or Snapchat chatter.
“When I think back on how deeply I felt that [pressure], it does really affect me. And compound how I felt in that moment in my life … by that digital barrage of it never going away, of it always being there,” he says.
As such, these moments, he says, made him examine his own behavior.
A more cynical social-media user, however, might have a different take. Thanks to screen grabs, once something is posted online it never really goes away. To that end, Dodson’s “three epiphanies” story could easily be interpreted as a marketing tact designed to soften the public’s take.
Certainly, he brings up the narrative repeatedly. Is it just PR hype or is Dodson sincere?
Maybe both. Either way, Dodson says that series of events changed everything, including how he interacts with others online.
“[Those moments] made me realize this is path that I’m supposed to be on. Maybe I have some role to play,” he says “Maybe I have some culpability. Maybe I have something that I’m supposed to be doing now.”Kids, community, conversation—and snark
In late 2013, Dodson was busy with Selvage Media, which he founded after quitting the architectural firm and a subsequent three-month stint living in a Costa Rican treehouse community. He'd worked on the successful Steve Hansen city-council race and kept busy with a client roster that includes the California Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce and the Davis Joint Unified School District. It was a good gig: Dodson spent his days working out of coffee shops with the kind of flexible schedule that allowed him plenty of time to spend with his daughters or to travel to Nashville to be with his girlfriend.
Then came the epiphanies and, in the same week, a conversation with Aja Uranga-Foster, a wellness and life coach who also tutored youth. The onslaught of media, social or otherwise, that she witnessed these kids experiencing, and its resulting effects—social pressures, cyberbullying, poor self esteem, etc.—was extremely troublesome, she told him.
Dodson started researching programs aimed at protecting the online life of kids but came up short. There were already anti-cyberbullying programs, of course, but Dodson says he found them “reactive”: A sexting scandal breaks out at a school, and two days later there’s someone from law enforcement or an anti-bullying program lecturing to students about the dangers of reckless behavior.
“OK, great—wonderful, positive message, kids need to hear it,” Dodson says. “But there was no proactive conversation happening about what’s happening online.”
Dodson and Uranga-Foster conducted focus groups to better understand what kids and teens faced online. Those initial efforts were eye-opening, Dodson says now. The conversations they had with kids made them reconsider their goals.
“Once we realized parents weren’t involved … we realized we needed to create a program for parents,” Dodson says. “I didn’t want to be standing in front of a bunch of kids saying ’Don’t do this, do that.’ I remember that guy from high school and he was an asshole.”
And so the pair broadened their focus to include parents and educators, sharing with them social-media usage facts and the latest trends and apps that their kids were likely already using. Eventually the project had a name, Above the Fray. With it came a crowd-funding campaign built on a platform that promised educational tools—books, a mobile app, presentations, et al. Eventually they secured nonprofit status and enlisted Dr. Shawna Malvini Redden Ph.D, a Sacramento State adjunct communications professor, to conduct and analyze results of various focus groups.
Malvini Redden assigned her students to apply qualitative data analysis to various focus groups, research trends and to study parental involvement.
The result was a detailed youth study released last month. An anonymous survey of nearly 200 Northern California teens revealed that 70 percent had “no parental oversight” of online activities and only 18 percent said their parents monitored their social-media use. Twelve percent weren’t sure.
Malvini Redden says she was drawn to the project both by Dodson’s enthusiasm and also his experiences.
“I was really impressed by his passion. He’s a dad, he talked to his girls and saw the world they’re coming into and how shitty high school was for him and how it would have been even worse had there been social media,” she says.
Dodson, she adds, makes a great online ambassador.
“He’s prolific, but not annoying online,” she says.
Rather, she says, Dodson excels at starting conversations. It’s not just about promotion.
“He’s got an established presence in Sacramento … and he makes an effort to develop relationships with people. If someone has a question or makes a crack [to him], he uses the opportunity to discuss rather than shut them down.”
That’s possibly Dodson’s biggest strength and weakness as a social-media consultant, as a brand: His online persona roller-coasters between feeling authentic and like a public-relations spiel. He logs dozens of tweets daily, with posts running the gamut of lively, off-the-cuff observations to direct questions designed to engage other users. His #sacbrandathon marathons, in which he pokes fun at his adopted hometown’s quirks, are fun and lively, albeit with a bite:
“Sacramento: Four arrests at MLK event. Three arrests at Easy Rider Bike Show.
“Sacramento: Technically we’re 54% closer to San Francisco than Tahoe
Laura Good praises Dodson’s online presence as “effective.” Good should know. She’s director of programs and operations for the Sacramento Regional Technology Alliance and a member of the Sacramento Social Media Club’s executive leadership team.
Dodson’s prolific tweeting and engaging voice makes him a natural online leader, she says.
“I like that he uses his social-media presence to engage with the community on issues he cares about,” she says. “I know about marketing folks, they’re constantly selling their services or just tweeting studies. Thomas doesn’t do that, he tweets about things he cares about. His personality comes through.”
Still, she adds, sometimes he almost crosses the line..
“He doesn’t shy from poking fun at Sacramento—sometimes his snarkiness on his Sacbrandathon tweets goes a little too far for my taste,” she says.
Good, who adds that she’s shared that observation with Dodson and he’s welcomed the feedback—“He can definitely take it”—says she sees his overall presence as more positive than not.
“I can secretly admit to giggling at some of his posts, even if I don’t retweet them,” she says. “He still builds community and gets the conversation started in a fun way.”
Dodson sees it this way: “One of the most important things to do to be successful on social media is to be genuine—people can tell when you’re not,” he says. “It’s OK to stir the pot.”
Still, sometimes a stirred pot boils over.That human touch
It's just past 7 on a recent Thursday night at the Shriners Hospital for Children, where Dodson is giving an Above the Fray presentation to members of the Third District PTA, a group comprising parent-teacher association representatives from Northern California counties.
It’s Dodson’s first big public talk on the subject and it goes well. He shares focus-group results. Cyberbullying horror stories. The epiphanies are, of course, explained in detail. Throughout, the audience is engaged and asks questions. After, several approach him to discuss possible future presentations.
The night’s success isn’t surprising. In person, Dodson is polished and well-mannered. Friendly but professional.
Sometimes, however, he’s also a bit difficult to read. One minute he’s reserved, exceedingly polite. Other moments he swears like a sailor, lets a sarcastic comment (or several) fly.
As such the real Thomas Dodson remains something of an enigma. He doesn’t reveal many personal details and while he posts the occasional photo of his girlfriend, he doesn’t typically mention his daughters.
There are other contradictions as well. Although he says it was daughters who, in part, inspired Above the Fray, Dodson rarely talks to them about their own online habits. His explanation, perhaps inadvertently, explains the dilemma many parents face.
“Our time is so limited,” says Dodson, who shares custody with his ex-wife. “When we’re together, let’s really cherish the time that we have and put our devices away. I do it as well. Let’s be a family.”
Fair enough. But then also, worryingly, is that anonymous site that squarely aims to damage Dodson.
Below the Fray, named obviously as a dig at Dodson’s program, depicts screen grabs of many of his old “hot or not” posts as well as a few racy Instagram posts and insensitive tweets. Some are eyebrow-raising, mildly offensive, sexist even. But all are at least two years old, which again raises the question: Is the Dodson of yesterday a different, better man now?
An email to the person or people behind Below the Fray went unanswered as of press time and Dodson declined to comment on the subject.
Still, he’s not entirely quiet on the topic.
“I’m not perfect,” he says. “I’m modeling behavior online [and] I’m getting parents engaged and getting them engaged means getting them to look in the mirror. I’m not trying to preach.”
Sometimes imperfections can prove valuable, too. In social media, says Councilman Hansen, an authentic voice can go a long way toward toward cultivating that brand.
“He’s not only loyal, and certainly he’s not a perfect person, but as a professional he’s [done] an amazing job,” says Hansen.
In social media, Hansen adds, you want someone with a genuine voice. Snark isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“He’s got a sharp wit,” Hansen says. “And sometimes, depending on the audience, that works.
“In the campaigns I’ve worked with him on, he’s used a positive constructive voice, it’s the mark of a professional,” he adds, pointing to his City Council campaign as proof.
“He helped us focus our message … and he put a little more of human touch on it through some of the content he put out there on Facebook and Twitter,” Hansen says. “I’d like to think we could have won without that, but when you only win by 173 votes in a very competitive election, everything matters.”
Now Dodson aims to make sure it keeps mattering. There are plans to continue his work with the PTA, and there’s talk of taking his Above the Fray presentation to a Philadelphia school district.
Throughout, he says, he’ll continue working on his own online presence, his persona. His brand.
Whether that message is truly authentic or merely spin remains to be seen.
Dodson promises it’s the former.
“What I’ve shared with the world has evolved,” he said. “I think it’s grown up.”