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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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.

Descriptions and times of courses I am teaching in the Autumn Term!

I just put the final touches on my courses for this year. I am pretty excited about what the year portends!

On Tuesdays and Fridays at 2:30pm, I will be teaching CMST 1a03: Intro to Communication. I absolutely love teaching this giant course. It is the first course that I ever taught at Mac, on the morning of September 11, 2001. What a start to a career. The way we teach communications at McMaster is a little different, with a strong focus on critical, cognitive and professional approaches. The students read a big selection of interpersonal and speech communication texts, as well as a lot of communication, linguistic and cultural theory. The assignments are a combination of professional writing, presentations and, this year, public speaking!

On Tuesday mornings, 11:30-2:30, I will be teaching CMST 4N03: News Analysis, Theory & Practice. This course is designed to highlight agenda setting, framing and cultivation theory. It is also meant to pull the veil back from how news is a produced and viewed. We spend a lot of time thinking about what the move to the Internet and social media means for the news. I also schedule a good number of visiting lectures from the worlds of journalism, public relations and political communication during this class. The students do a major empirical content analysis, working in groups.

On Friday evenings, 4:30-7:30, I will be leading a graduate seminar, CSMM 704: Media, Public Relations & Reality. This course will examine the concept of reality from a variety of perspectives: social, linguistics and cognitive. It is a very challenging course that takes students on a tour of the philosophy of reality, cognition and some public relations theory. Here’s what the syllabus looks like (remember, we are reading excerpts from the philosophical works!). I am very excited about this course, since it really is a “high theory” course – a change from the courses in communications management, measurement and analysis (which I love teaching too!).

CSMM 704: Syllabus

Week 1: What is knowledge? How does it support life?

  • Aristotle, Montaigne, Nietzsche

Week 2: Does knowledge define reality? How about perspectivalism?

  • Berkeley, Nozick, Descartes, Plato (Allegory of the Cave)
  • Fiction: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Week 3: What is reality for communications? The gnostic heresy.

  • Vogelin

Week 4: Causality?

  • Hume, Laplace

Week 5: How do language, mind & society impact reality?

  • Searle, Sperber, Eco, Quine,

Week 6: What is linguistic discourse? Does language shape reality?

  • Lakoff, Pinker, Fairclough

Week 7: What is social discourse? Is reality a social construction?

  • Foucault, Rosen, Wittgenstein

Week 8: What is the mind? Who are you? Is there a self?

  • Dennett, Freud, Aristotle (De Anima)
  • Media: The Century of the Self

Week 9: Media as simulacrum of life?

  • Minsky, Kurzweil, Hofstadter, Baudrillard

Week 10: What is reality from the perspective of public relations theory?

  • Bernays, Lipmann, Ellul, Chomsky
  • Media: Necessary Illusions
  • Fiction: The Man in the High Castle

Week 11: Do our senses and our emotions shape reality?

  • McLuhan, Damasio, Minsky (emotions), Turing
  • Media: The Persuaders, The Merchants of Cool

Week 12: Borges’ story of the map & Jean Vanier’s alternative view.

  • Borges, Vanier

Gave a Speech on Social Media Risk Management in Ottawa

Last night I had a wonderful experience, giving a Mac on the Road alumni lecture on “Social Media Risk Management” in the St. Laurent Room of the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa.

There was a great, diverse crowd of people out, ranging from professional communicators from the Ottawa area to different generations of McMaster alumni, to several young people who were alumni of my CMST 1A03: Intro to Communication class, across the years, since I started in 2001. There were also several current and former Hill staffers there. There were also a couple of my current students in in the Master of Communications Management Program – I was so happy to see them!

I was so very pleased to see my former students present. Their success is my success. I am very proud of them all and honoured that they would take time out of their busy day to see their old professor!

It was a good night. The lecture lasted just over an hour and then we had approximately 30 mins for questions. People were very interested in the idea of social media as a new country that has been opened up parallel to the “real” one we live, but which is just as real to many people who participate in it, especially young people who have grown up in a social media world.

I touched on security particulars for the following social media sites, for both individuals and organizations:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • On-Line Dating
  • Geotagging
Then I discussed emergent risks that weren’t linked to any specific social media setting, but rather to more general trends as computing becomes a more fundamental part of our lives:
  • Cloud Computing
  • Surveillance
  • Facial Recognition
  • Security of information
  • Device-Specific Usage (spreading your data across a multitude of devices)
I also had a brief discussion of the concepts of trust and reputation, as foundational concepts that both individuals and organizations have to be concerned about when they use social media services.
After the talk, we had a lively discussion about how social media use is affecting our individual identities and how organizations are being affected by this seismic shift in our business and leisure cultures.
A big thanks to John Popham, from McMaster Alumni Services, who organized the talk. He did a great job!
All in all, an excellent night.
I am just getting warmed up at the Lord Elgin. (photo: John Popham)

A mind forever voyaging… seeking the Good in your life.

The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

– William Wordsworth

“An explanation of cause is not a justification by reason.” – C. S. Lewis

I have often reflected on the meaning of these verses, taken from Book Three of The Prelude by William Wordsworth and how they relate to this quote from C.S. Lewis.

We live in a world of ideas, symbols and signs. All around us, reality is pulled and stretched, tweaked and polished through words, images and narratives designed by influencers. It’s easy to lose track of reality in the midst of this vast and shifting sea. We are pulled  by currents that feel so strong, it feels impossible to resist simply giving in and “going with the flow.”

The problem is that there is nothing but flow and trends. There is no floor, no ground in this world of information. There is only influence and fitting in. The problem is that this means that the only principle in this world is power. The power of the influencer and the persuader. The power of the crowd.

The flow of meaning in the sea of culture and social life is something that we each can only glimpse a piece of, from a limited perspective. Actually, we are only ever seeing a “thin slice” of reality, and our understanding of it is coloured by our perspective. This is what makes reason and principle so important.

Let’s unpack this idea a little.

If we are swimming – perhaps treading water is a better way of thinking about it – in a sea of ideas, ideas that feel linked together and organized, we feel grounded. We wake up one morning and see something on the television, say, a fashionable new pair of shoes. We see somebody famous being interviewed in a friendly way on a morning show and, without too much make-up, wearing jeans, the person looks remarkably like us. Then the celebrity tells a personal story of how they came across these shoes and how they fit in to being modern, hip, cool and avant-garde.

It’s an alluring prospect. Someone famous who looks  quite a bit like people I know, who look and sound and feel like me. It makes it easy to think of those shoes as a part of being trendy, or – more likely – “fitting in.” And this way, it is so easy to begin to behave in an inhuman way. To lose yourself in the fantasies and visions of other people. People who would have power and control over your imagination.

Why does this work?

It’s because, as I said earlier, we can only know a thin slice of what there is to know about anything, whether it is shoes, or fashion, or politics or even the identities of our friends. The rest of what we feel we “know” about these things and people is really just smudgy background, but we assume that the smudgy background, if we looked at it closely enough, would become as crisp as the image of the shoes or the celebrity.

The thing is, it doesn’t. It’s a game of smoke and mirrors, where the only clear image is the one in the foreground.

The fact is – the smudgy background doesn’t exist. In fact, the smudgy background is the vague totality of our feelings, our self-concept, our interpretation of our experiences in the current context. It is built of a series of assumptions that we take for granted. But the shocking thing is that the background isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. It is a projection of our subconscious mind. And that is what persuaders depend upon.

That is what takes me back to Wordsworth and Lewis.

A mind forever voyaging seeks to understand – Newton was a scientist and a mystic, trying throughout his life to reconcile faith and rationality. The problem with depending on rationality is that it is easy to be limited to the sharp foreground – the sharp, high definition image of the shoes and the celebrity in the foreground of our perception. It is less good at casting light on the background. It is easy, when you are being purely rational, to focus on the most obvious, rather than to seek what’s true. To peer into the smudgy background.

That is the trap of living in a symbolic culture. We can end up trying to piece together the two-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of symbols and narratives that swirl around us. We may even be able to establish causal relationships between things: “I saw those shoes, thought that they would look good on me, and bought them.”

But this superficial causality doesn’t necessarily capture the truth or the reason behind our actions. It just floats at the surface. Reason asks us to peer into the smudgy background of our perceptions in an attempt to transcend the limitations placed upon us by our individual perspectives. Our individual perspectives which are but the sharp, blade’s edge of our experience: the knife’s edge of our experiences, raw and thin. Our perspectives in any moment, our impulses, aren’t reasoned, but they are causal. Pure rationality, without caring and love, is but a funhouse mirror image of reality. It isn’t human. It is hard and brittle. It is driven by power. Power is ugly.

The trick is to not confuse the superficially causal with the reasoned way. Human reason requires a dimension beyond pure rationality. It demands faith and love. It demands faith in love.

So back to the mind forever voyaging.

The poet, the scholar, when he or she is motivated by love, applies loving reason to his or her experiences. S/he voyages back and forth through the slipstream of experiences, and lovingly examines them. Understanding of self is born of this. Depth and caring are born of this. Agape – the brotherly love – is born of this.

So I feel that to get to the reasoned life, we have to put aside superficial causality and attempt to illuminate the smudgy background that supports it. We must ask: Why? Who benefits? How does this make sense? How does it serve the good?

When you ask yourself these questions, you start to realize what I mean by the fact that there is no ground underneath the flow. There are no trends. There is nothing to “fit into”. In the world of images, there are only influences, patterns and power. It isn’t human. Only love is human.

So what to do?

Know your heart. Seek to be loving and open and generous. Always ask what “Good” comes of the things you see. If there is no Good, then what you are seeing isn’t constructive. Rather, it is destructive. The good is generative – it builds us up, it builds our relationships. It builds communities. It builds trust.

Seek to understand what the good means in what you see and hear in your life. Then make the good your perspective on the world.

You will be amazed at how different the world of media, fashion, images, sound and narratives and relationships will look to you. How brittle. How faded. How inhuman.

Demand the good. Free yourself from the power of illusion.

Become human.

Inaugural issue of JPC going live very soon!

I am just putting the final edits and final page layout tweaks for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Professional Communication. We have excellent content and many lively debates represented. We also have a serious policy white paper, Pathways to the Profession, which details educations pathways as outlined by the Canadian Public Relations Society. An excellent document that begins to create a system of recognition for academic programs.

Starting a journal is quite an endeavour, but definitely a pleasure. Every experience that opens new horizons of possibility for discussion is. What a satisfying and motivating idea: that our volunteer labour and the work of our paid assistants will produce an arena for debate and discussion among professional communication practitioners, academics, journalists, creatives and policy makers.

Our editorial team has been very fortunate to have the unwavering support of Dean Suzanne Crosta at McMaster University. As well, the authors have been patient as we discovered the various bumps in the road to producing a quality, fully peer-reviewed academic journal.

What a wonderful journey it has been from conception to creation to publication.

You can see the table of contents of the inaugural issue here.

JPC 1 will be going live very soon. I know the authors are excited and so am I.