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?

Measurement in #PR – Social network analysis

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At the heart of public relations practice is the relationship. Whether they are internal or external, relationships are the currency that we deal in.

One metric that we don’t pay enough attention to is how networks of affinity build around a brand. A network analysis can help with this. The challenge is that network analysis does require some knowledge of statistics or at least an ability to use network analysis software.

You definitely want to use social networking software app that has a good GUI. Otherwise it is can be challenging to enter everything via the command line.

The other point to pay attention to regard the app is its ability to visualize data – preferably generating interactive visualizations. That allows you to play with the data visually when you are doing more qualitative interpretations of the graph. Here’s an example of a data visualization generated using Netminer:

“Netminer screenshot” by Netminer – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (click on image to see original).


You should do some research to find out more about social network analysis. It is fascinating stuff and extremely useful for understanding relationships on the web and elsewhere. This wikipedia page has an excellent summary of social network analysis software.

The main points to bear in mind when you are doing this kind of work are the following:

  • These software programs tend to store information in a database structured as a graph, rather than as a table
  • The nodes on your social network graph represent the individuals in the network
  • The nodes can be “decorated” with features such as age, gender, SES (socio-economic status), etc.
  • You can “strengthen” the arcs between the nodes to indicate the number of times that individuals have exchanged information.

Have fun learning about social network analysis!

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.

Just published: New issue of the Journal of Professional Communication!

The new issue of the Journal of Professional Communication (volume 3, issue 1) is published. You can read it here.

It is almost had dot believe that we have now been publishing for three years. During that time, we have  showcased Canadian professional communication research in both official languages. We have also had research reported from the United States.

Canada has never had a peer-reviewed publication that documents and features the state of the various professions of professional communication in Canada. We are proud to provide that venue in the Journal of Professional Communication.

Here is the table of contents for the current issue (all links lead to PDF file of article):




Research Articles

Practical Paper

Book Reviews

Editorial Advisory Board


Stay tuned for the next issues, full of research, opinion, interviews, academic research and practical papers that will help all of us better understand the practice of the various disciplines of professional communication!

In fact, be sure to look out for our upcoming special issue on Art/Science Hybrids, to appear on March 1, 2014, edited by guest editors, Steve Gibson (Northumbria University, United Kingdom) and Stéfan Müller Arisona (ETH-Zürich Future Cities Lab, Singapore). We are in the midst of editing the final manuscripts for the issue – it’s going to be great!

Finally, be sure to contact me if you are considering submitting a manuscript to JPC. I would love to hear from you and provide any guidance that I can!

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.