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.

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Language and dimensionality: The movie “Arrival”

I watched the film Arrival last night. It was an interesting exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has two versions:

  • Linguistic Relativity — claims that language shapes and colours our worldview (i.e. if you don’t have a nuanced set of words for different types of snow, you are less likely to see the different varieties unless you focus on noticing).
  • Linguistic Determinism — claims that language determines how we view the world (i.e. if you don’t have a word for green, you can’t see the colour)

Arrival takes the linguistic determinism interpretation with the main character, a linguistics professor named Louise (Amy Adams), actually having a piece of her mind unlocked which allows her to perceive time differently, based on learning the script language of the Heptapods.

Generally, linguists reject the linguistic determinism hypothesis because it seems to contradict the laws of physics — as Steven Pinker put it in his book, The Blank Slate, learning a new language doesn’t rewire the cone cells in your eyes.

However, on a deeper level, I think there may be something to linguistic determinism — call it a mindful or meditative, perhaps even a spiritual level. For example, Buddhist koans and Christian plainsong have been said to induce ecstatic transport, increase focus and alter consciousness. I recognize that this isn’t linguistic determinism proper, but there is a linguistic behaviour here (chanting) at play that seems to have the potential to alter one’s perception of reality.

The fact is that we don’t  understand the brain well enough yet to be able to know how different stimuli and practices come together in the network or palimpsest or whatever configuration of mental representations through which our minds are organized .

Now, these altered states may not be determined through language strictly but through a combination of language, memory, shape, colour, sound and attention… who knows.

The idea of the link between symbols, representation and our consciousness is pretty fascinating and I am happy that Arrival was abe to produced such a nuanced and engrossing experience based on it.

My beautiful trip to DC

Last weekend, I traveled to Washington, DC, one of my favourite cities in the world. It was a bit of a working vacation for me, since I have been going quite hard, with research and teaching.

I arrived on Saturday morning, flying on Jetblue out of Buffalo. It was a funny flight, because I was a little tired, after waking up at 4am and driving out to Niagara International Airport – so i fell asleep in my seat and dropped my BlackBerry. The person beside me, being a bit of wit, I think, picked it up and took a picture of me to wake me up. Haha. Here’s the picture:

Well, I finally got to Dulles International Airport and took a cab into the city. The drive was so very beautiful – DC still had its Autumn leaves and the weather was a bit chill, but warm enough for sweaters. I arrive at the Fairmont Washington DC, which is in Georgetown and was happy to see that they had granted my request for a room with a view. I almost always stay with Fairmont – if I can – because I find that their attention to detail, their personal knowledge of me as a frequent visitor, and the warmth and intimacy of their hotels is very reassuring. This despite the fact that they are often historic properties: grand châteaux with glorious lobbies populated with many overstuffed chairs.

Once arrived and checked in, I asked the concierge to define “a very long and exhausting walk for me” that would take up most of the afternoon. After a brief conversation about what I would like to see, he gave me a map and highlighted several places that I should stop. He also said that I could do without my coat – I would warm up with the walk.

I ended up putting on a shirt and tie with a cashmere sweater underneath my suit jacket over dark blue jeans – it was more than warm enough and reasonably stylish. I think embarked on a walk that took me through Georgetown, along the Potomac River over to the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln was there, stately as always, yet always giving me a vague feeling that he was restless, staring anxiously over the republic he preserved and started to heal before being assassinated. As usual, he was surrounded by people lounging around, chatting and snapping pics – everyone from kids on field trips with tired teachers, to hipsters with their funny plastic glasses, to businessmen and Asian tourists.

Here’s a picture of the crowd:

People lounging at Lincoln's feet.

And a picture of Lincoln’s statue:

Lincoln, looking a little restless as he watches over his Republic.

After that I walked the Mall over to the White House and then took a cab back to Georgetown where I had dinner at my favourite place in DC: Martin’s Tavern. I had New Brunswick stew and then New England-style shrimp as well as a nice Guinness, one of very few beers I really like. A pleasant dinner finished, replete with the warmth of the pub, I walked back to my hotel and had a last little 20 year-old tawny port from Taylor Fladgate that I love so much, while listening to some live piano in the hotel lounge. A very pleasant day.

Sunday was far less solitary. I woke up early, did a little work on laptop, took a swim in the pool, went for a gloriously sunny run along the Potomac through the crisp morning air, went to Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and then took a cab to Alexandria, Virginia to have lunch with my host at Georgetown University, Dr Mima Dedaic and her family.

We spent a lovely afternoon of warm conversation over a vegetarian lunch in their elegant home and then went for a walk around historic Alexandria with her daughter. It was a long walk along the river and through the lovely historic streets of downtown. Beautiful boutiques, artisanal shops, newspaper vendors: a splendid walk that was rewarded by a coffee and croissant at La Madeleine, a bustling little bakery of the Main Street, whose delicious smells of coffee and chocolate and savoury pastry wafted out onto the patio, animating our conversation and making think of a second coffee or dessert. How hard it was to resist! Truly, I spent a magical day in Alexandria, came as an acquaintance and feel as though I left as a family friend – what could be better?

Monday was a more serious day. I spent the morning at the Newseum, which sits beside the Canadian Embassy. I love this place because it manages, by its architecture and its expertly curated exhibits, to capture the world of journalism, news and current affairs. When you enter, you walk by the day’s frontpages:

Newseum's Frontpages exhibit.
New Orleans Frontpages Exhibit - Top fl of Newseum.

In the atrium, there is a giant screen and a real-life Bell newschopper, which gives you a real sense of the size of the news-gathering endeavour:

Newseum Atrium

One of the more moving exhibits concerns 9-11. They even have a piece of twisted metal from one of the buildings on display, which makes a dramatic contrast to the incredibly tall wall of frontpages displayed behind it:

9-11 Exhibit at the Newseum

Another inspiring and moving exhibit was their recreation of Tim Russert’s office. He was a beacon for journalistic integrity and the most popular of the Sunday morning current affairs talk show hosts:

Tim Russert's office exhibit at the Newseum.

After my day at the Newseum, I went back to the Fairmont to find my suit and shirt pressed, got dressed and went over to Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture and Technology Program to give a booktalk with my friend and editor, Mima Dedaic. This was a bit of a funny situation, because the book we were launching is called South Slavic Discourse Particles, published in the very famous international series called Pragmatics and Beyond by John Benjamins in Amsterdam. I have written on Macedonian, which is one of my native languages, several times, but it was funny to present on that topic in a communications department and not a linguistics one! The talk went splendidly well, and the audience received it with praise and interest. In the wine and cheese after, however, and even in the questions, the discussion turned to how I apply the theory of pragmatics to study political communication. It was a diverse crowd of grad students, faculty and friends from the Hill.

Giving a talk with Dr Mima Dedaic at Georgetown Communication Culture and Technology Program.

After the talk, we went for dinner and talked about the huge potential for future collaboration, since we both do cognitive linguistics, discourse analysis and political communication! What a great discovery. There is no greater pleasure for an academic than discovering an intellectual kindred spirit.

I cabbed it back to my hotel, and couldn’t resist a final, celebratory port as the pianist filled the air with emotional contemporary classical music. It was beautiful.

I left the next morning early and, through a connection at JFK at New York, was back in time for my class and my special guest speaker, but that will be the subject of my next blog!

How I became an academic: from tenure until the present

During the last month, I have been recounting the story of how I became an academic. In this, the final blog entry in this series, I discuss what it was like settling into the reality of becoming a middle-career academic and learning to savour life a little.

During the last two years before tenure, I decided that it was important to move beyond the work I was doing in the communication studies program and see how I could be of use in other departments. At McMaster we have a system where you can become an honourary member of another department: it is called “associate membership.” I quickly became an associate member in two departments: psychology (which has been renamed “psychology, neuroscience and Behaviour”) and modern languages and linguistics (which has been renamed “linguistics and languages”).

In 2006-7, Dr Bob McNutt – one of the most experienced university administrators in Canada and a truly decent human being – took over the Dept of Modern Languages and Linguistics and he asked me if I could co-chair (with Dr Magda Stroinska) an ad hoc decanal committee to recommend changes to the existing curriculum or come up with a new one that was more modern. My background training was in French linguistics and I had a pretty good sense of where the field was going. The department had experienced a few issues – in fact the Dean of Humanities at the time, Dr  Nasrin Rahimieh, actually had to step in and name herself acting chair of the department before Dr McNutt stepped up to be acting chair for a couple of years. During those three years, Dr we undertook a consensus-building process to set up a new cognitive science orientation for the department – which was adopted – and has given fruit to much success in the hands of those to whom I handed it off, after it had been approved.

Dr Rahimieh is another person of whom I think highly. She is a profoundly humanistic person who also has an iron will. Over the three years that she spent as our Dean of Humanities, after Dr Daniel Woolf left, she and I collaborated on several academic endeavours and she became a mentor and friend to me. I respected her drive and her vision. Dr Rahimieh asked if I would co-chair (with Dr Magda Stroinska) a committee to construct a new undergraduate linguistics program which would be supported by the Dept of Psychology. My partner in this project from psychology was Dr Karin Humphreys, who, with her husband, Dr Scott Watter, was to become one of my dearest friends at McMaster. With equal representation from both psychology and linguistics, the committee was a great success: within eight meetings we had a new Bachelor of Arts designed, in Linguistic Cognitive Science. I chaired all the meetings and made a huge effort to make sure each and every person on the committee had input and I made certain that we established a consensus around every aspect of the new program. It was a fun process – one that everyone told me they enjoyed and felt energized by. I personally made coffee and brought cookies for each meeting.

After we had a description and a curriculum ready, I brought the program forward (with the strong support of Dr McNutt) to every university committee: the departmental committee, the faculty of humanities general assembly, the faculty of humanities undergraduate curriculum committee, McMaster undergraduate council, the university planning committee and finally the university senate. It was approved at every stage! But what an enormous amount of work, and thought and consultation and planning. It ate up a goodly part of my year – and I wasn’t even a member of that department! It was, however, worth it – at the end of the process, McMaster had one of the most up-to-date and innovative linguistics programs in Canada. And I felt as though I had given something back to the discipline that had been my foundation.

A very innovative feature that we built into the program was an area of concentration that was basically “pre-speech and language pathology.” This stream was designed to prepare students for entry into professional degrees in SLP. It was a necessity because speech and language pathology is an interdisciplinary field that spans health science, science, humanities and social science, and it can be very tricky for students to assemble all of the pre-requisites given the differing requirements and enrollment limits across different faculties at the university. Karin and I built this part of the curriculum after umpteen meetings with various speech and language pathology practitioner associations. I was so very impressed with the community of speech and language pathologists: they managed to combine being scientists with a profound humanism and respect for those among us who face challenges communicating; whether those challenges be congenital or were acquired because of brain injury. Years later, I am still thrilled when I bump into the worthy people from those associations. They were so very excited by the idea of a program specifically designed to prepare students for entry into professional SLP programs. The community of practitioners was also enthused by the thought of having an outlet for research collaborations outside of the clinic, the school board and the hospital. It was win-win all around. I recall those meetings with pleasure and a little nostalgia. What a dynamic group.

Another large part of building the linguistic cognitive science program was recruiting associate members from across the university who were interested in linguistics, cognitive science or both. This was an absolute delight for me: I visited with, and pitched the program to a very diverse set of colleagues from computing and software, philosophy, psychology, health sciences, gerontology, multimedia, English, French, psychiatry and neuroscience. It was an enriching experience for me. I ended up recruiting 11 associate members for the department, most of whom would form the faculty that would back the proposal for a new M.Sc./PhD in the Cognitive Science of Language which we would develop the next year.

Once the undergraduate program in linguistic cognitive science (it has since been renamed “BA in the cognitive science of language” to align with the new grad program) was rolling, it became very successful. In fact, it began to eclipse the mainstream program in linguistics. In the year following that success, Karin and I proposed to use the successful platform provided by the undergraduate program in linguistic cognitive science to build an innovative graduate Master of Science and PhD program in the Cognitive Science of Language. I actually postponed my sabbatical for one year to bring this new program from dream to approval within McMaster.

Building the grad program proposal was the same exhausting process that we experienced in developing the linguistic cognitive science undergraduate program: umpteen meetings and the writing of an exhaustive proposal, which would be presented to the many committees at every level of administration at McMaster. It was approved at every step of the way.  I have to say that I am very proud of this achievement. It taught me an awful lot about how the university works, as well as how inter-faculty politics can be tricky and sometimes even bitter. In fact I learned how true the maxim is: “Conflict is born of perceived scarcity.” The lack of resources we have been experiencing at the university makes people nervous and tentative about the thought of introducing new ideas. But academics love progress, and when we made a serious business case and passionate intellectual case about how important this new program could be, we succeeded in achieving those approvals.

The final piece of the puzzle in the revamping and renewal of linguistics was the hiring of a new chair for the department. We were very fortunate to recruit Dr John Connolly and his wife Dr Elisabeth Service – they are both superb scholars and have taken the program forward since their arrival at McMaster in 2008-9, the year I finally went on sabbatical. I am proud to say that I was part of the recruitment of Drs Connolly and Service – they even spent a significant amount of time as my house guests, which was a real pleasure. Dr Connolly and I share a love for NFL football – it was great to discover an affinity. Dr Connolly took the proposal that we got approved at the university level, improved and refined it, and then carried it across the finish line by securing its approval by the Ontario Council of Graduate studies (OCGS). Since then, he has taken total ownership of it and really devoted himself to turning it into a success. Hats off to him – he’s done a great job! It feels good to see something into which I put so much effort, passion and sweat-capital not only be successful, but also thrive and grow. I wish Dr Connolly all the success in the world as drives the program forward.

It was a big sacrifice for a junior professor to put so much time into saving a program that I was not officially affiliated to. I didn’t even have tenure, so I exposed myself to great career risk to build the new linguistics programs. But, I am very proud of all the hundreds of hours that I put into co-developing the linguistic cognitive science BA and the cognitive science of language MSc/PhD programs, as well as working tirelessly to secure university approval for them. It felt good to give back to the discipline that I had studied for so many years. For me, it was a sort of swansong, as I already had plans to to leave linguistics behind after the programs were secure, and throw myself more and more deeply into the fields of political communication and professional communication – which were quickly becoming my greatest passions.

During three of those years, before my sabbatical, I also served on the McMaster’s University Planning Committee and the University Budget Committee – two blue ribbon committees that really give you a voice in shaping the future structure, finances and culture of the university. I owe that one to Dr Rahimieh, and did I ever learn a lot. I stood for a university-wide election and won in a pool of candidates many of whom I felt were far more experienced and worthy than me! Wow. But I thank my colleagues in my faculty and across the university for their faith in me. My time on those committees was a true education: I learned how budgeting works and I got to watch every dean, vice-president and staff director come before those committees to justify their plans for their units’ futures and budgets for the upcoming year. On those committee, we approved policy for the entire institution and also wrote the budget that the  university would have to work within. It was both exciting and enlightening.

After  the two new linguistics programs were approved and passed to the capable hands of Dr John Connolly, I decided it was high time that I took my sabbatical. During my sabbatical, I took some time to do some fieldwork by doing a pile of political communication volunteering. I had done a little by helping Ms Judy Marsales in communications during her campaign to become elected in 2003, and in 2005 I had joined Gerard Kennedy’s leadership campaign in its very last stages, upon the instigation and invitation of Jessica Martin who now works as a transit reporter for CP/24 in Toronto. She is a McMaster alumna whom I never taught, but whom I met at her graduation. We quickly became fast friends, through working on Gerard’s leadership campaign and going to the Montréal Liberal leadership convention. She remains one of my favourite people to this day! The little I experienced of Gerard’s leadership campaign made me respect him enormously as a politician and also as a very decent human being. I made a personal commitment to help him get elected, should he ever run for federal office.

In 2008, the occasion presented itself, and I served as communications co-chair of his campaign to become elected in Parkdale-High Park in Toronto. It was an exhilarating 39 long days and often sleepless nights. Jessica and I worked day and night together: designing literature, placing ads and arranging media appearances. What a rush. On October 14th, at our victory party, we found out that Gerard had won. I have to say that making that announcement in front of everyone gathered and the media was one of my best life experiences yet. After that, Gerard invited me to come and help set up his office in Ottawa and serve as his senior advisor. I agreed to do this with pleasure, and while the adjustment to life on Parliament Hill was a little jarring from the cozy varsity life I had enjoyed at McMaster, we accomplished a lot while he was Industry Critic and I think that it was one of the most important experiences of my life. I thank Gerard personally and profusely for it. I can say that my respect for his ethical, caring and evidence-based approach to being a politician grew steadily.

I was on Parliament Hill for the coalition and prorogation scandals – what an experience that was! And I left with the end of that session of the 39th Parliament. I learned an awful lot while practicing political communications during my sabbatical – it was a dose of reality and a return to the world of professional communications practice, a world that I had been away from since my summer jobs as an undergrad and grad student. Above all, I gained a fresh perspective on the state of the art in my field and brought that knowledge back to the classroom and the lab with enthusiasm and pleasure. As well, I returned to McMaster with a clear sense of the direction I wanted my research to take: political communications, media content measurement and analysis, and public relations.

As soon as I came back, I started simplifying my life. One of the first people I spoke with was our new Dean of Humanities, Dr Suzanne Crosta. What an absolutely amazing person. Dr Crosta is a dynamo of activity and energy. She is also a model of fair-play, caring and mentorship. Dr Crosta sat me down and asked me directly where I wanted to go with my career, now that I had had a year’s sabbatical to reflect. We talked for over an hour and I can honestly say that that hour was one of the more reassuring and life-changing I have ever lived. She validated my plans for the future and said that she would endeavour to help support me to realise them, as she does for all of the professors who work in her Faculty of Humanities. I am extremely grateful to her for this.

I had felt that I had drifted away from linguistics and so I didn’t ask to renew my associate membership in the new department of linguistics and languages (as it had been renamed). I also asked that my joint appointment with the department of French be transformed into a single appointment in the department of communication studies and multimedia. I started the COMM-Lab: McMaster Communication Metrics Laboratory with Dr. Philip Savage (I am executive director and he is managing director).

I also started developed a solid teaching and research collaboration with another colleague who has become one of the people whom I respect most, and whom I consider to be a true friend: Dr Terry Flynn of the DeGroote School of Business. Terry and I have started the Journal of Professional Communication, the first Canada-based journal for both communications and multimedia academics and practitioners: very, very exciting. He also invited me to teach communication theory in the Master of Communication Management program – an opportunity that has enriched my life enormously and put me in contact with the executive education students from the world of professional communication, many of whom are some of the most fascinating, alive and aware people I have ever met. It’s a true pleasure to teach in the MCM program. An honour, actually.

Since then, I have been focused on two things: writing books and being the absolute best teacher and mentor that can be to for our students. As I have said several times, they are the center of my life and the highlight of my days. I look forward to seeing them every Autumn and I wake up excited to see them and to speak with them every morning. In terms of research, I see some books in my future: textbooks, a scholarly monograph and a book describing my approach to public relations practice. I am excited and energised by the potential of these projects.

In closing, I have to say that – several years post-tenure – I am still as much of a workaholic as I ever was. I love progress. I love building things. I love, love helping people realise their potential by opening doors for them. Especially doors that were closing.

As I progress into my mid-thirties and feel a little more settled as a man, I am very open to what adventures may lie before me:

  • I would love to meet a beautiful, vibrant, generous woman who will share the joys and simple pleasures of my life, and maybe even have a child or two.
  • I would love to build a PhD program in the dept of communication studies and multimedia.
  • I would love to  deepen the department’s links with the world of professional communication practice.
  • In fact, I would like to get more involved in professional communication practice and public speaking on the topic.
  • I guess I would eventually like to seek promotion to full professor.
  • I might even buy a sports car along the way.

In the meantime, I will continue to savour every day, pay attention to those around me, and generally try to grow into a better teacher, a better researcher, a better communications strategist, and, above all, a better person.

Co-organised LACUS Conference.

Last week I organised a conference called LACUSLinguistics Association of Canada and the United States.

I love event planning. I love hosting people. I love throwing parties and cooking for people. So, last year, I agreed, with my colleague Dr Michael Kliffer from the Department of French, to host the Annual Meeting of the Linguistics Association of Canada and the United States. Mike Kliffer and I are old friends – he was the one who really supported me being hired at McMaster at the departmental level, in 2001. I was actually hired as a linguist into the Department of French back then, since there was no communication studies program that existed. I founded McMaster’s communication studies program that year with another colleague, Dr. Graham Knight from sociology.  So to make a long story short, I work well with Mike, and this conference was no exception. It was a great conference, but exhausting to organise!

In essence, I was up from 7am until midnight from July 21-26. The whole day was spent thinking about logistics, helping people get around Hamilton and making sure that A/V equipment was all working right. I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure, since I love helping people enjoy themselves and feel comfortable as my guests. I loved the planning process during the months and weeks leading up to the conference too! Special thanks to the following conference organising committee members:

  • Sheila Embleton, York University
  • Sydney Lamb, Rice University
  • Douglas Coleman, University of Toledo
  • Bernard Sypniewicz, Rowan University

They all worked very hard on making sure that Mike Kliffer and I had all the wisdom of previous organising committee at our finger-tips!

A huge thanks to several tireless volunteers, as well, whose help was invaluable:

  • Melonie Fullick, York University (Mac alumna)
  • Paul Bullock, Dept of Communication Studies & Multimedia (McMaster)
  • Dr Dong Sun, Dept of Communication Studies & Multimedia (McMaster)

Mike and I tried to think of everything. We organised a trip to the African Lion Safari in Hamilton, Ontario that everyone enjoyed thoroughly! We saw lions, cheetahs, baboons, bison and many other animals. I was afraid that the animals might look sad, but it wasn’t the case at all! They looked happy and relaxed and well-cared-for.

We also had two excellent keynote speakers:

  • Andrew Laing, Cormex Research, “Bringing language research from the ivory tower to the halls of commerce.”
  • Michael Ullman, Georgetown University, “What rats can tell us about language. Contributions of declarative and procedural knowledge to language.”

They gave excellent talks which everyone appreciated greatly.

LACUS was originally formed to provide an alternative, eclectic and wide-ranging forum for language and linguistics scholars to be able to express themselves out of the mainstream of chomskyan generative grammar. While the field of linguistics has grown and diversified and, to be honest, become more open to non-chomskyan perspectives, forums like LACUS still have a place. There are so many novel ideas at expressed at this conference, and so many fascinating, original people.

I believe it was Harold Innis, the great Canadian communication theorist and economic historian who said that “innovation begins at the edges of Empire and transforms mainstream society as the fringe innovation becomes more accepted.”

That’s LACUS for me – a place where people do not judge according to clique or clan, but judge you based on how cool and rigourous your ideas are.

I was so happy to serve as co-host for LACUS 2010. I am so glad that everyone had such a wonderful experience. You’re all always welcome back to Hamilton and McMaster (well, at least while I’m there!).

Public Relations and the Social Media Revolution

Mass broadcasting systems permitted the marketing revolution of the 50s and 60s. Now, the social media revolution is opening up the same radical possibilities for public relations.

PR is the business of building relationships, in Canada that means preferably symmetrical relationships between an organization and its various publics. In the past, it was very hard to measure how these relationship-building processes operated and what the value of their outcomes were. To many members of the executive suite in organizations, PR seemed like a magical process that was hard to value.

Social media changes all of that. PR is a symbol-industry. It deals entirely in mental representations. That is to say, PR’s currency is the representations of the world that are formed in the minds of the publics that the practitioner deals with.

Mental representations are images held in the brain which are the result of translations of sensory input. So, when you pet your cat on your way out of the door, your mind forms a mental schema of the feeling, the meaning and the context of what it feels like to pet the cat, when you petted it, what it did when you petted it, etc. Our reality is shaped by the mental representations we store from our experiences.

The quickest way to access what is going on in people’s minds is through language communication. It is where people express their “inner life” most clearly, with the most fidelity to what is actually going on in their minds. Visual arts production is more complicated – it involves layers of visual metaphors, colour allusions, shapes, etc.

But language is clearer. While there is certainly not a one-to-one relationship between what we think and what we say, language has the closest relationship to our thoughts of all of the communication modalities (painting, drawing, dancing, singing, etc.).

So how does this relate to social media?

Well, social media permits us real-time access to people’s evolving mental landscape through that truest representation of what is going on in their minds – language. For the first time, we can watch relationships evolve and follow the shape and colour of those relationships as they develop, rise and decline.

But wait, there’s more! Anything digital can be measured. One of the strengths of marketing professionals is that they have been able to provide precise approximations of the value of their contributions to an organization’s well-being. The measurable nature of social media provides to PR the same window to dive into a new world of measurement.

Social media is a huge opportunity to justify PR as a core strategic function. Time to jump in with both feet.

Video: Public Relations and Edward T. Bernays

Public relations was born out of idealism, elitism and a desire to perfect democracy. The founder of the field, Edward T. Bernays, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He created the field and named it on a whim. This video, produced in the United Kingdom and called The Century of the Self, while quite critical of Bernays and public relations, is an excellent overview of the profession’s early history. The conspiratorial nature of some of the voice-over is forgivable…