Alternative facts, social media bubbles, assortative mating/friendships and diversity

We all like to think we have a handle on what’s real — it’s natural.

However, with the pervasive nature of opinion media broadcasting 24/7 on television and now on the internet, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on the situation. This is compounded by the echo chambers of our social media bubbles and our assortative friendships as well as assortative mating.

What this all means is that we are getting a lot of positive reinforcement from people who agree with us. So it all feels right — our opinions, our choices, our behaviours are all reinforced by friends and family and followers who tell us, very earnestly that you should “be yourself” because “you can’t be anyone else”.

It’s too bad that what this really means is: “Be like us, conform to our little bubble’s social, moral and ethical norms. We’re with you, let those who challenge you — the unenlightened or the profane — be silent.”

After all, you can unfriend those nagging voices who question your beliefs, challenge your morality and your ethics or criticize your choices. You can cut them out because they make you feel something psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the fact that we can’t hold two opposing propositions in our minds at once. It’s actually painful — if you believe someone is a good person and then you get evidence that they are a liar or a cheater, it is easier to dismiss the new facts because they make you feel uncomfortable.

Before social media, assortative mating and friendships, safe spaces in universities, etc. we were often confronted with opposing views and had to argue them out before arriving at a decision.

Now, the process has changed… when we feel an impulse to do something: take a political position, make a life choice, buy something, etc. we tend to go our affirming group to have our decision positively reinforced. If people disagree, then our affirming group labels them as outsiders and often as questionable morally or ethically. So we dismiss them.

Our new internet bubble and assortative mating/friendship trend have meant that many of us live in a state that used to be reserved for people who join cults or espouse strongly ideological politics. It isn’t good because there are few dissenting voices and more social pressure to conform.

All of this while we all sing the praises of diversity and difference. Too bad we rarely experience it.

Diversity and difference means actually countenancing an opposing view and then using reason to debate, discuss and then either dismiss it or change your own views.

But this implies that there is a discussion happening. I fear that our social media bubbles and assortative mating/friendships have made having that discussion inconvenient or even uncomfortable.

Time to open the debate and burst the bubbles.

Otherwise, alternative facts (from every perspective) will be a fixture in our lives, society and politics going forward.


What made Facebook successful?

I remember, in 2006, when I first started to notice Facebook. At that point, it was a basic service, allowing users to connect to one another and share updates and information. It had competitors – myspace and Orkut, amongst many others. Why did Facebook grow to be so dominant?

Facebook’s simple visual identity and early links to the Ivy League gave it an aspirational brand component, which meant that young adults adopted it in droves, which later pulled their parents into the network and then their grandparents.

As well, FB has been quick to adapt to emerging trends in social networking such as the incorporation of hashtags, trending topics and embedded video. As its members’ networks grew, FB’s algorithms that keep you focused on the friends you are most likely to interact with kept users’ feeds relevant.

The perceived rapid responses to demands from users to customize their privacy settings kept the network in its users’ good books. While the actual efficacy of privacy protection is questionable, FB was able to create the perception that it acted quickly.

As well, FB has kept its advertising scheme relevant, with relatively unobtrusive advertising that permitted easy and accurate geotargeting as well as targeting according to SES and other demographic features.

Once FB became a household name and an essential part of many people’s family, personal and work/school lives, it achieved a critical mass which has made it difficult to not be part of for most.

So, a combination of first-to-market, a clean look, prestige associations and quick adaptation has kept FB at the top of the heap.

Any thoughts?

7 Tips for succeeding at conferences

Conferences are microcosms of human society. They are opportunities to observe people of all ages interacting, performing, charming and arguing. Everyone is a little nervous before they arrive and then they reveal themselves in the few appointed days of concentrated interaction. Conferences are a great way of focusing and honing your communication skills and your identity. They are a great way of getting others to know you and your brand. On the downside, they can also be very damaging to your reputation and brand if they are not handled well.

I have attended dozens of conferences – academic, political, commercial, professional, thematic. Here are some of my takeaways for having a successful conference:

  1. Prepare for the conference using social media. Use social media to lay the groundwork for your interactions at the conference and to direct attention to yourself and your booth, as Scott Stratten points out in his engaging book, UnMarketing. Twitter (hashtags, in particular) and Instagram can be your friends.
  2. Build on relationships you already have. Every time you engage in a positive social interaction, you not only build social capital for you and the person you’re engaging with you’re also inspiring others to want to interact with you.
  3. Be authentic. Don’t treat the conference as a time to be a different version of you. Be the same person that you in everyday life while you are at the conference. The worst thing is for a group of people to begin speaking about you and shaping your reputation for you based on a performance on your part that was fake or contrived.
  4. Dress and behave appropriately. Remember that people form opinions of you within seconds of meeting you. They also form opinions of you as they gaze at you across a room. You want to be memorable, but for all the right reasons: you want to be remembered for your ideas and personality, not because of your appearance and outrageous behaviours.
  5. Plan your interactions before you converse. It is easy to get carried away in conversation during a wine and cheese, or at an after party or hospitality suite. Be careful what you say to others. Don’t be excessive in praise or criticism of others. Remember conferences are public performances to strangers. Take a few seconds an plan what you will say before entering a conversation.
  6. Blog during the conference. People are all using their computers, tablets or smartphones during the conference pretty much 24/7. Write quick, intelligent blog posts and then share them using the conference hashtag. Then follow them up in conversation. This is a quick way to build your credibility and audience.
  7. Manage your reputation. People will remember what you say to them and how you made them feel. Don’t fall prey to “What happens at the conference stays at the conference.” This just isn’t true. Conferences are reputation management on steroids. Don’t let excitement, alcohol and lack of sleep shape other’s trust in you and impression of you. People remember.

The most effective conference goers I know are those who treat them as occasions to meet people who will be new friends and professional acquaintances in the future. Those relationships are built over time, conference after conference. After a while, conferences become a place where you reconnect with old professional acquaintances and then broaden that circle as you accept others into your trust.


Community building in the emerging oral culture

Everyone seems to be talking about building and managing community these days. But what does it really mean? I think some of the answers lie in awareness of what culture is and how it works.

We used to be a print and language based culture. Things were only deemed to be “official” or legally or socially “real” if someone with authority said them or wrote them down. This is changing.

Social media has opened up access to the seal of approval. Authority is still important, but the idea of a cloistered elite holding authority is in serious decline. A quick look at the last few iterations of the Edelman Trust Barometer for Canada shows that trust in experts (except for university professors, funny enough <phew!>) is declining whereas trust in “someone like me” is on the rise or stable.

What this says to me is that McLuhan’s idea that electronic devices would “re-tribalize” society was accurate:

I would alter this slightly. I prefer Harold Innis’s idea of “oral culture.” In fact, I think we are very much returning to an oral culture. That means that to build or manage communities, particularly online communities, we need to draw our inspiration from the rules and norms that govern interpersonal communication. That means changing our thinking as professional communicators from a comfortable “broadcasting” mentality to a more challenging and engaged “dialogical” mentality.

A fascinating and exciting challenge, if I ever saw one.

The future of communications is interpersonal

I began teaching communication studies in 2001, when I was hired out of my post-doctoral fellowship to be the first professor in the new communication studies program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My first week was marked by the first great tragedy of the 21st Century, when the World Trade Centre was bombed and everything changed. Suddenly, the world seemed smaller and more interconnected. Cable news network, cellphones and email gave us a sense of being there and participating in the events as they unfolded in New York City – a feeling that was only intensified by the advent of social media and ubiquitous mobile computing.

The technologies of communication have always had a big impact on our society, culture and business. The printing press ushered in a new age of knowledge sharing and standardization that culminated in the industrial revolution. Now social media, smartphones and tablet technologies are binding us into a tightly knit network that doesn’t so much resemble an orderly grid, as it does the heaving surges and flows of communication in a town square packed with people, awaiting an event. If anything, social media have turned daily life into an unmissable event which captures the poetry of the everyday. We have all heard the complaint that “no one wants to know what you had for lunch” and yet we share this information on Twitter and Facebook and we are inspired by it, wanting to meet the challenge posed by knowledge of what another has done. Indeed, social media have begun to transform our culture, politics and economics.

Our world is no longer as it was. Our world is no longer as even I – with my 39 short years on this Earth – remember it to be. My father often speaks wistfully of a rural Northern Ontario world that is long gone and mostly forgotten. I always thought that I would not be in his position, that the world I lived in was always vital and real and true – that it would persist and exist forever. It has not. The world I grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s is as remote to the digital natives of today as the world of my father’s youth in the Northern bush camps was to me.

Truthfully, we are in the beginnings of a move from the print and broadcast model of newspapers, book publishers, terrestrial radios stations and broadcast television networks to an age of self-publishing and interpersonal sharing via social media. This change is a shift from a culture of gatekeepers, editors and experts to a culture of storytellers, rhetoric and persuasion. This means a move from understanding culture and business through the lens of mass communication theory toward thinking of mediated communication as a primarily interpersonal phenomenon.

While this might seem to many to be a largely academic distinction, having little bearing on the world of motion and action outside the university, in fact it is a phenomenally important distinction to begin to fathom. Mass communication privileged experts and gate keepers. It had very high production values that demanded significant investment on the part of media companies to create content that was fit to print or broadcast. It was a world of hierarchy, rules and constraint. That world is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by a place where the human voice, the story and the village are of primary importance.

We are morphing into a society shaped and organized by the tenets of oral culture – fluid, chatty, playful, emotional and mistrustful of expertise and authority. Its rhythms are in tune with the flow of conversation, rather than segregated by the categories and boxes of print and broadcast. The operative skills, identified half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan, are pattern matching and fit. Statistics and probability reign in this world, while rigid logic fades. It is a world of relative and local understanding, not universalism. It is world where people are motivated by principles rather than constrained by unenforceable rules.

It’s a whole new world and I will be back at regularly writing this blog to explore it with you.

Students don’t read anymore. What does this mean for democracy?

I have spent most of the last week marking papers. As professors, we sometimes grumble and complain about this task, but it is important to consider how vital evaluation and feedback is to student growth. The thing is, marking work is a two-way street.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of assignments and marking papers over the last little while. What kinds of assignments are appropriate? What do students learn from a particular assignment? Should assignments be on hypothetical situations or should the examples be drawn from the real world?

I have settled upon a compromise in the courses I teach, particularly at the fourth year level. I ask students to work on assignments incrementally, handing in a draft, which I mark up and then a final version, to which I assign a grade. I find that this is the only way to encourage a culture of constant improvement and self-evaluation. I also walk students through the elements of research methods and theory in every class I teach. It is a challenging balance to maintain, but it is valuable, since by the end of the seminar, they have produced a piece of work that they are usually proud to include in their portfolios, for presentation to potential employers.

The thing is, this strategy requires a commitment of effort and good faith on the part of the students. They have to commit to doing the readings and working through the theoretical components of the course, so that they are ready to come to class and have wide-ranging and profound discussions. There is a problem, however: many students have to work long hours to pay for their tuition and there seems to be a culture of “work hard, play hard,” which leaves very little time for reading, reflection and deep thought.

This is worrisome, because it downloads all of the learning onto the actual time students spend in class, which is not considerable. University seminars are two or three hour sessions, once a week. That just isn’t enough time to cover all of the material that would need to be covered to assure the depth and breadth of learning expected in a university level class. This means that students are leaving with a piece of paper that says “Honours Bachelor’s of Arts/Science/Commerce/Engineering/Etc.” but it is a degree that doesn’t represent what it once did. I can attest that student attitudes to reading and reflection have changed from even a few years ago, in 2001, when I started being a professor.

Whose fault is this? I don’t know. Students tell me they simply don’t have time to read, between work, internet and social commitments. They tell me that there is no culture of political, ethical or philosophical discussion – only a constant chatter about celebrity news and lifestyle information that is pulled from various outlets online. They explain that there isn’t really a desire for more heady conversation, either; that they get shut down by peers if they try to talk politics or current affairs.

This will not lead our culture, our economy and our democracy anywhere good. An uneducated, unreflective public, tuned in largely to passing fancies and trivialities can’t make good voting choices, smart investments or career and lifestyle choices. This can only lead to a two-tiered society, where people who are “tuned in” make all the decisions and have all the know-how and depth of understanding to pull the levers of power and influence, while the rest – both men and women – are chatting about celebrity gossip and dieting/workout tips.

How do we repair this situation and right the good ship education? Or is it our culture that is broken?

Gave a “Mac on the Road” Alumni Lecture on “Making Sense of Social Media”

I had a wonderful night giving a public lecture to a great audience at the Holiday Inn on Wyecroft Rd in Oakville. The lecture was in the “Mac on the Road” Alumni Lecture Series, so I knew some people in the crowd! What a pleasure to reconnect with people who were my students only a few years ago – it felt like a reunion among family members who haven’t seen one another for awhile. It was fantastic to make a bunch of new friends as well!

I spent most of the night talking about how social media is changing our social, professional and personal lives. I used some of Marshall McLuhan’s thinking to frame my arguments and then walked people through my insights on how social media is expanding and extending our personal and collective imaginations. I talked about how this is impacting our professional practices and how the line between physical reality and virtual reality is blurring. How virtual reality is just as important to many people as the physical reality in which they exist. I described what this means for business and how it’s changing journalism.

People were really into it. Some told me that they didn’t want it to end! What a wonderful compliment.

Afterward, we had a great question period that lasted 20 mins and then people lingered and chatted with me for another hour. What a great night. I truly enjoyed it.

If you missed this one, but would like to catch my next public lecture, it’s next Monday, November 8, from 7-8pm in the BMO Room at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga.

You can click here to sign up. I truly hope to see you there…

Lecturing to Mac Alumni on Social Media.

We live two lives, in two realities: physical and online

People no longer live one life, but many. Physical. On-line. With whom are we really communicating?

You may think that this is a silly topic, if you’re someone who hasn’t grown up on-line or thrown yourself into the world of the Internet and social media. But you would be mistaken – a significant proportion of the population, young and old now have two very distinct lives: physical and online.

As a parent or a friend, this means that you have to become savvy to how other people may have several different presenting selves or personas – each which is as real to them as the one they live in physical space.

In a world of symbols and representations, that is, the world of communication and the internet – there is no real distinction between the physical and cyber-reality. It is all symbols flowing through wires into your brain.

Let’s think about this for a second. You touch the stove and it feels hot, right? So you take your hand away quickly. Your pet saunters over and you grab it. It feels soft and warm in your arms. This all feels real, right?

Well, the answer is… sort of. The fact is that you are feeling emotions and sensations because your brain is processing the outside world as information. As Bishop Berkeley, a British philosopher implied, reality exists in the mind of the beholder.

So, what does this mean in terms of cyberspace vs physical-space? Well, the fact is, since our eyes and ear pull create nervous impulses that are translated in our brains as information, and if reality lives in the mind, it would seem that, for the mind, cyber-reality and physical reality are similar – two streams of information which blend and blur in the electric storm of the brain.

This PBS Frontline documentary lends significant insight into how teens are living in two parallel realities:

The young people seem to live in two separate realities with two very different moral codes. Parents are present in physical reality but neutered in virtual reality. Also, the interview demonstrate that the young people don’t really understand that what happens in cyber-reality can have consequences in physical reality. This must be terrifying for parents of children.

For PR pros, this is both an opportunity and moral hasard. As the relationship-builders for organizations and individuals, we have to be at the frontlines of understanding how people are building their identities on-line and what this means for the practice. How does one create and organizational “avatar” (an online identity) that interacts in cyber-reality in an ethical yet persuasive fashion?

To achieve this, PR pros have to become familiar not only with what is being said online, but also how it is being understood. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy is at the core of PR practice.