Social media is probably THE word of 2012. Facebook goes public, Twitter takes off, and YouTube and LinkedIn are hitting their stride. Add mobile data to the equation and the prospects for a truly interconnected web (no pun intended) of humanity in real time is becoming close enough to imagine being real. The singularity indeed may be near and social media is helping lead the way to a new global brain.
Evolving our thinking and the role of social learning
We are at another inflection point in social cognition. We have evolved our thinking from units associated with families, to tribes, to institutions and more recently to networks. With each step, the complexity of the communications increases. Consider the Facebook status update and the myriad sets of relationships that are wrapped up in the audience for that post and the intricacies associated with deciding who should see that post or who should have access to it. (For the record, Google + is immensely more easy to navigate with its Circles, yet it still hasn’t quite caught on).
With every additional layer of connections so too does the complexity associated with those connections. It is no wonder that people are feeling overwhelmed, confused and disturbed by social media, and yet it is pulling us into a new (media) world order that is seemingly inevitable.
Let me unpack these ideas. Firstly, the move towards social media is as much a way forward, but also a return to the past when ‘news’ was transmitted socially. It is also a means of navigating complexity. When the abundance of information available to us is as great as it is, humans need ways to efficiently filter information for effective sense-making. To this end, recommendations from our peers and social learning is an efficient way to side-step this. We use a form of distributed cognition to mitigate the risk and assist in our decision making and use others as a proxy for thinking about problems. It’s not that we’re stupid or lazy, we’re being efficient.
Filter failure and the problem of information volume
Clay Shirky has argued: we are not living with information overload, but filter failure. This is true and not true, because we are exposed to more potentially meaningful bits of information than ever before, not just more information. While Shirky is correct that we have had more information than we could possibly consume at any one time for generations, the increase and ease of access to this information through electronic media and the personal relevance of this information makes our current circumstances different.
We now have tailored news services/apps like news.me and Zite that help filter information, but they also add to the number of sources that one regular checks to get news. I use Twitter as a primary news source, but as my list of followers increases along with those I follow, the number of engagements I have through that media increase every week. Add email, Facebook, Google +, my LinkedIn groups and connections and the RSS feeds I subscribe to and its amazing I am able to do anything with any of the information I get.
That is part of the problem. Contemplative inquiry and mindfulness is a potential solution.
This past week’s Opinionator column in the NY Times was on the busy trap that we find ourselves in. This was published the same week as The Atlantic published a piece on women’s challenge of ‘doing it all’ that I commented on in my last post. Both articles point to a trend toward expectations of having to do too much and not finding the time to squeeze it all in. Mitch Joel from Twist Image refers to this as the age of digital anxiety and points to some resources like calm.com that are designed to help people take themselves away from the fray, even for just a few minutes.
Another resource designed to help work with this complexity is Buddhify, a website and app designed to bring mindfulness into the everyday life of people on the go. I use this regularly and really enjoy it.
Yet, these are all ways to deal with the output of information and the complexity it produces in our lives (along with the attendant stress and time-pressure). What we are not doing is mindfully attending to this complexity as a whole, asking what it serves. Just as we humans created this social media landscape, so too can we re-create it. We are at a point in the evolution of our media ecology that Marshall McLuhan notes was at a point of serving us and is shifting to having us serve it, unless we engage in mindful (re)design of our system.
Before moving in this direction, we first must as a simple, but important design question: what was social media hired to do for us?
If we are to mindfully design our social media ecology and do it in a manner that promotes empathy and connection, rather than overwhelms us; engenders learning and insight over simple content absorption; and promotes creativity and innovation rather than just talks about it, we need to answer the question more intently and act accordingly.
Applying complexity questions and mindfulness to social media use
From a complexity perspective we can note a few things as we engage in contemplative inquiry on social media. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the boundaries of my (social) media ecological system?
- What are the attractors that organize my activity (what do I pay attention to voluntarily or involuntarily)?
- What new insights and patterns of behaviour emerge from these interactions?
- How have those new insights and behaviour patterns influenced what I do?
- How have the products of those changes been fed back into that media ecology (what have I taken away?, what have I given back?)
- What have I hired social media to do for me?
- Is this serving me and my interests (which include that of any social units — family, firm, community, network) ?
Contemplate that as you engage in social media use and you may find surprises. I’d love to hear about what those are.
Facebook has introduced new roles for pages (see graphic). The manager of a page can assign the following roles:
- Content Creator
- Insight Analyst
What is unclear to me is that the manager of the page does not have the same rights as the other roles and is not able to create content, edits the page, add apps, respond to and delete comments, send message, create ads, or view insights.
Social media is finally catching on with healthcare, public health, and health promotion. With a few recent articles published in the academic literature to rest on, academic health sciences has finally (and I might argue, begrudgingly) conceded that 900+ million users and $100B valuations (Facebook), and thousands of messages exchanged every milisecond (microblogs like Twitter and Sina Wiebo) might have some value for the public beyond entertainment.
If you note how long it took the health sector to start using the telephone as a serious means of engaging their patients or the public, this is lightning-quick adoption. Still, the barriers to adoption are high and the approach to using the technology is scattered. Indeed, just like the start of Internet-delivered telehealth (or cybermedicine (PDF), which has now evolved into eHealth), there is a mad rush to get liked, followed or some other metrics that most health professionals barely understand.
And that is part of the problem.
Meaningful Social Media Metrics
What is a meaningful metric for social media and health? A recently published article in Health Promotion Practice suggested four metrics that are taken from social marketing and applied to social media. These Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) are:
- Insights (consumer feedback)
- Exposure (media impressions, visits, views, etc..)
- Reach (# people who connect to the social media application)
- Engagement (level of interaction with the content)
These are reasonable, but to to the uninitiated I would suggest a few words of caution and commentary to this list.
Firstly, the insights suggested by Neiger and colleagues “can be derived from practices such as sentiment analysis or data mining that uses algorithms to extract consumer attitudes and other perspectives on a particular topic” (p.162). While not incorrect, this makes the job sound relatively simple and it is not. Qualitative analysis + quantitative metrics such as those derived from data mining are key. Context counts immeasurably in social media use. It’s only in situations where social media is used as a broadcasting tool that gross measures of likes and sentiment analysis work with little qualification.
Even that is problematic. Counts of ‘likes’, ‘visits’, ‘follows’ and such are highly problematic and can be easily gamed. I am ‘followed’ on Twitter by people who have tens of thousands of followers, yet virtually no presence online. Most often they are from marketing fields where the standard practice is to always follow back those who follow you. Do this enough and pretty quickly you, too can have 23,000 followers and follow 20,000 more. This is meaningless from the perspective of developing relationships.
Engagement is the most meaningful of these metrics and the hardest to fully apply. This category gets us to consider the difference between “OMG! AWESOME!” and “That last post made me think of this situation [described here] and I suggest you read [reference] here for more” as comments. Without understanding the context in which these are made within the post, between posts (temporally and sequentially), and in relation to a larger social and informational context, simple text analysis won’t do.
Social Media Evidence: Problems and More Problems
One of the objections to the use of social media by some is that it is not evidence-based. To that extent I would largely agree that this is the case, but then we’ve been jumping out of airplanes with parachutes despite any randomized controlled trial to prove their worth.
Another article in Health Promotion Practice in 2011 highlights potential applications for social media and behaviour change without drawing on specific examples from the literature, but rather on theoretical and rhetorical arguments. An article published in the latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science highlights the current state of research on Facebook, which is timely given that its IPO is set for today. That review by Wilson and colleagues illustrates the largely descriptive nature of the field and offers some insight on to the motivation of Facebook users and their online activities, but rather little in what Facebook does to promote active change in individuals and communities when they leave the platform.
The answer to whether social media like platforms such as Facebook ‘work’ as methods of promoting change is simply: we don’t know.
Does social media provide support to people? Yes. Does it inform them? Yes to that too. Does that information produce something other than passive activity on the topic? We don’t know.
In order to answer these questions, health sciences professionals, evaluators, and tech developers need to consider not just followership, but leadership. In this respect, it means creating changes to the way we gather evidence, the tools and methods we use to analyse data, and the organizational structures necessary to support the kind of real-time, rapid cycle evaluation and developmental design work necessary to make programs and evidence relevant to a changing context.
As Facebook launches into its new role as a public company it is almost assured to be introducing new innovations at a rapid pace to ensure that investor expectations (which are enormous) are met. This means that today’s Facebook will not be next month’s. Having funding mechanisms, review and approval mechanisms, a staff trained and oriented to rapid response research, and an overall organizational support system for innovation is the key.
Right now, we are a long way from that. Hospitals are very large, risk averse organizations; public health units are not much different. They both operate in a command-and-control environment suited for complicated, not complex informational and social environments. Social media is largely within the latter.
Systems thinking, design thinking, developmental evaluation, creativity, networks and innovation: these are the keywords for health in the coming years. They are as author Eric Topol calls the dawning of the creative destruction of medicine.
The public is already using social media for health and now the time has come for health (care, promotion and protection) systems to get on board and make the changes necessary to join them.
It’s much easier to talk innovation and creativity and far harder to turn that into something transformative that has social impact. Until we start acting on our conversation and creating the systems that support it, talk will become cheaper and the costs of converting that talk into something useful may grow beyond our means.
As the number and scope of information channels available to me grows, so too does my awareness of the conversations taking place on matters of personal interest. Where I once had to scour through material to find a place where I could learn about topics that interested me, I can now point to dozens of constantly updated spaces and tools where I can learn about social innovation, design, knowledge translation, systems thinking, evaluation and beyond. But this points to a problem as I’ll discuss later.
Two of my favourite tools are both optimized for the iPad and iPhone: Zite and Feeddler Pro. Zite creates a personalized magazine for you that is updated throughout the day drawing from various sources on the web from blogs to mainstream news through to academic articles. It’s a marvellous service and it ‘learns’ as you provide feedback on the selection it gives you, introducing you to new content from new sources all the time. Feeddler is a little less sophisticated as it is a RSS reader, but it provides a steady stream of content from the sites that I already know and trust. Mainstream sites like Fast Company (and its design and innovation derivatives such as Co.Design) and social media leader Mashable combine with some of my favourite blogs from folks like Seth Godin and KT blogs at Mobilize This! and KTExchange.
Indeed, it was a post on Mobilize This! from David Phipps that happened to crystalize something that was percolating in my head about taking action related to what I was reading. The focus was on the thinking about knowledge translation vs. its application.
In that post, Phipps comments:
It must be nice to be able to think about something and never have to do it.
But then that’s the role of researchers in many fields. Researchers think about things and study things without actually doing the things they study. Then there’s the role of practitioners. We do things without having incentives or rewards (ie the time) to sit back and think about and reflect upon what we do.
Referring to an earlier post on knowledge hypocrites, Phipps adds:
We need more mobilization of knowledge about knowledge mobilization. Researchers need to move beyond thinking about frameworks to working with practitioners who are putting those frameworks into practice. Practitioners likewise need to embed researchers in their practice.
I had found this post sandwiched between a number of other blogs or articles on innovation and creativity with similar calls to action and sometimes some tips or ‘lessons learned’. People (myself included) eat this up. Knowledge translation is a ‘sexy’ term in health sciences right now, particularly as people look to getting more bang for their research dollars. Innovation is seen as a big part of how to do it and what it is that should come from KT.
And creativity is the way to bring them both together. It makes for great reading and starts to give you the impression that you’re actually getting things done.
Get creative! Be innovative! Translate what we know into what we do! It’s just that easy…right?
As complicated as weaving these ideas together can be, they are not rocket science (even if the Apollo 13 rescue provides us of one of the best examples of them coming together, particularly when Hollywood sets it up). Yet, practically bringing action to the talk in health and human services may be a far greater challenge to address than putting humans on the moon. Indeed, it took a bold statement by President Kennedy and massive organizational commitment, research, creativity, innovation, and knowledge translation to go from rockets that could barely reach orbit to having multiple successful missions to our lunar neighbour. (For a remarkable recap of that journey I highly recommend seeing the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon).
Humans didn’t get to the moon because of one person or a small team, but organizational commitment and delivery. NASA didn’t just talk about going to the moon, write about innovation, or read creativity books — they (to draw on David Phipp’s blog) just did it.
Talking and writing about innovation is easy, doing it is hard. As Thomas Edison said:
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work
At the same time, the work needs to be done beyond a few. And the more we see something talked about, the easier it is to assume that others are doing it and that it is common practice. In the space race there was only one small community that could possibly get the job done (in the U.S. at least). If it wasn’t NASA, it wasn’t going to happen. A problem in health and human services is that most of society is implicated in the enterprise in some regard. Research comes from different disciplines (basic science to medicine to social work to education and beyond), it is practiced in health care institutions, daycares, schools, workplaces or individually at home, and it is highly contextual and oftentimes global in scope.
It’s not “Houston, we have a problem”, but the world.
This could be an advantage, but it isn’t for some reason. More knowledge, more talk about doing knowledge translation and innovation and creative work and more exposure to them all seems to be having an unclear effect. Having met many people from programs training people in design thinking and attended many an event that focused on knowledge translation I can say that there is only a modest correlation between those that study and those that do.
After nearly 20 years of scholarship and debate on knowledge translation and with tools like Twitter and YouTube and blogs we still have to ask questions (quite rightly and likely with much frustration) like this* :
We are still asking ourselves this question and will be for years to come if we don’t start walking instead of talking.
And change isn’t about convincing individuals alone to blog or Tweet, but to create that culture of innovation where we can share ideas, discuss concepts aloud and ideate together, prototype (and fail!), and experiment. It means acting on research as part of doing research and building partnerships rather than writing about them. It’s also about creating the systems that support change, not just inspiring a few individuals to do something different.
Writing about innovation is not the same as doing it. Thinking models — design thinking, systems thinking, knowledge-to-action thinking — are supposed to inspire action, not just thought.
We got the moon and back three times in the span of ten years from the call to action from President Kennedy. An entire country rallied around a very simple and challenging task of putting humans on the moon.
Could the time be now for us to do the same with social innovation and health?
* Thanks to Rob Fraser for consenting to having this tweet included in the post
** Speaking of walking the talk, it is good to be back after a few weeks’ unplanned sabbatical from CENSEmaking. More talk, and lots of walking to come. Thanks to all my readers for your continued interest.
Planning works well for linear systems, but often runs into difficulty when we encounter complexity. How do we make use of plans without putting too much faith in their anticipated outcome and still design for change and can developmental design and developmental evaluation be a solution?
It’s that time of year when most people are starting to feel the first pushback to their New Year’s Resolutions. That strict budget, the workout plan, the make-time-for-old-friends commitments are most likely encountering their first test. Part of the reasons is that most of us plan for linear activities, yet in reality most of these activities are complex and non-linear.
A couple interesting quotes about planning for complex environments:
No battle plan survives contact with the enemy – Colin Powell
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Combat might be the quintessential complex system and both Gens Powell and Eisenhower knew about how to plan for it and what kind of limits planning had, yet it didn’t dissuade them from planning, acting and reacting. In war, the end result is what matters not whether the plan for battle went as outlined (although the costs and actions taken are not without scrutiny or concern). In human services, there is a disproportionate amount of concern about ‘getting it right’ and holding ourselves to account for how we got to our destination relative what happens at the destination itself.
Planning presents myriad challenges for those dealing with complex environments. Most of us, when we plan, expect things to go according to what we’ve set up. We develop programs to fit with this plan, set up evaluation models to assess the impact of this plan, and envisage entire strategies to support the delivery and full realization of this plan into action. For those working in social innovation, what is often realized falls short of what was outlined, which inevitably causes problems with funders and sponsors who expect a certain outcome.
Part of the problem is the mindset that shapes the planning process in the first place. Planning is designed largely around the cognitive rational approach to decision making (PDF), which is based on reductionist science and philosophy. Like the image above, a plan is often seen as a blueprint for laying out how a program or service is to unfold over time. Such models of outlining a strategy is quite suitable for building a physical structure like an office where everything from the materials to the machines used to put them together can be counted, measured and bound. This is much less relevant for services that involve interactions between autonomous agents who’s actions have influence on the outcome of that service and that result might vary from context to context as a consequence.
For evaluators, this is problematic because it reduces the control (and increases variance and ‘noise’) into models that are designed to reveal specific outcomes using particular tools. For program implementers, it is troublesome because rigid planning can drive actions away from where people are and for them into activities that might not be contextually appropriate due to some change in the system.
For this reason the twin concepts of developmental evaluation and developmental design require some attention. Developmental evaluation is a complexity-oriented approach to feedback generation and strategic learning that is intended for programs where there is a high degree of novelty and innovation. Programs where the evidence is low or non-existent, the context is shifting, and there are numerable strong and diverse influences are those where developmental evaluations are not only appropriate, but perhaps one of the only viable models of data collection and monitoring available.
Developmental design is a concept I’ve been working on as a reference to the need to incorporate ongoing design and re-design into programs even after they have been initially launched. Thus, a program evolves over time drawing in information from feedback gained through processes like evaluation to tweak its components to meet changing circumstances and needs. Rather than have a static program, a developmental design is one that systematically incorporates design thinking into the evolutionary fabric of the activities and decision making involved.
Both developmental design and evaluation work together to provide data required to allow program planners to constantly adapt their offerings to meet changing conditions, thus avoiding the problem of having outcomes becoming decoupled from program activities and working with complexity rather than against it. For example, developmental evaluation can determine what are the key attractors shaping program activities while developmental design can work with those attractors to amplify them or dampen them depending on the level of beneficial coherence they offer a program. In two joined processes we can acknowledge complexity while creating more realistic and responsive plans.
Such approaches to design and evaluation are not without contention to traditional practitioners, leaving questions about the integrity of the finished product (for design) and the robustness of the evaluation methods, but without alternative models that take complexity into account, we are simply left with bad planning instead of making it like Eisenhower wanted it to be: indispensable .
Are you an evaluator and do you blog? If so, the American Evaluation Association wants to hear from you. This CENSEMaking post features an appeal to those who evaluate, blog and want to share their tips and tricks for helping create a better, stronger KT system.
Build a better moustrap and the world will beat a path to your door — Attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson
Knowledge translation in 2011 is a lot different than it was before we had social media, the Internet and direct-to-consumer publishing tools. We now have the opportunity to communicate directly to an audience and share our insights in ways that go beyond just technical reports and peer-reviewed publications, but closer to sharing our tacit knowledge. Blogs have become a powerful medium for doing this.
I’ve been blogging for a couple of years and quite enjoy it. As an evaluator, designer, researcher and health promoter I find it allows me to take different ideas and explore them in ways that more established media do not. I don’t need to have the idea perfect, or fully formed, or relevant to a narrow audience. I don’t need to worry about what my peers think or my editor, because I serve as the peer review, editor and publisher all at the same time.
I originally started blogging to share ideas with students and colleagues — just small things about the strange blend of topics I engage in that many don’t know about or understand or wanted to know more of. Concepts like complexity, design thinking, developmental evaluation, and health promotion can get kind of fuzzy or opaque for those outside of those various fields.
Blogs enable us to reach directly to an audience and provide a means of adaptive feedback on ideas that are novel. Using the comments, visit statistics, and direct messages sent to me from readers, I can gain some sense of what ideas are being taken up with people and which one’s resonate. That enables me to tailor my messages and amplify those parts that are of greater utility to a reader, thus increasing the likelihood that a message will be taken up. For CENSEMaking, the purpose is more self-motivated writing rather than trying to assess the “best” messages for the audience, however I have a series of other blogs that I use for projects as a KT tool. These are, in many cases, secured and by invitation only to the project team and stakeholders, but still look and feel like any normal blog.
As a KT tool, blogs are becoming more widely used. Sites like Research Blogging are large aggregations of blogs on research topics. Others, like this one, are designed for certain audiences and topics — even KT itself, like the KTExchange from the Research Into Action Action initiative at the University of Texas and MobilizeThis! from the Research Impact Knowledge Mobilization group at York University.
The American Evaluation Association has an interesting blog initiative led by AEA’s Executive Director Susan Kistler called AEA365, which is a tip-a-day blog for evaluators looking to learn more about who and what is happening in their field. A couple of years ago I contributed a post on using information technology and evaluation and was delighted at the response it received. So it reaches people. It’s for this reason that AEA is calling out to evaluation bloggers to contribute to the AEA365 blog with recommendations and examples for how blogging can be used for communications and KT. AEA365 aims to create small-bite pockets of information that are easily digestible by its audience.
If you are interested in contributing, the template for the blog is below, with my upcoming contribution to the AEA365 blog posted below that.
By embracing social media and the power to share ideas directly (and done so responsibly), we have a chance to come closer to realizing the KT dream of putting more effective, useful knowledge into the hands of those that can use it faster and engage those who are most interested and able to use that information more efficiently and humanely.
Interested in submitting a post to the AEA365 blog? Contact the AEA365 curators at email@example.com.
Template for aea365 Blogger Posts (see below for an example)
[Introduce yourself by name, where you work, and the name of your blog]
Rad Resource – [your blog name here]: [describe your blog, explain its focus including the extent to which it is related to evaluation, and tell about how often new content is posted]
Hot Tips – favorite posts: [identify 3-5 posts that you believe highlighting your blogging, giving a direct link and a bit of detail for each (see example)]
- [post 1]
- [post 2]
Lessons Learned – why I blog: [explain why you blog – what you find useful about it and the purpose for your blog and blogging. In particular, are you trying to inform stakeholders or clients? Get new clients? Provide a public service? Help students?]
Lessons Learned: [share at least one thing you have learned about blogging since you started]
Remember – stay under 450 words total please!
My potential contribution (with a title I just made up): Cameron Norman on Making Sense of Complexity, Design, Systems and Evaluation: CENSEMaking
Rad Resource – [CENSEMaking]: CENSEMaking is a play on the name of my research and design studio consultancy and on the concept of sensemaking, something evaluators help with all the time. CENSEMaking focuses on the interplay of systems and design thinking, health promotion and evaluation and weaves together ideas I find in current social issues, reflections on my practice as well as the evidence used to inform it. I aspire to post on CENSEMaking 2-3 times per week, although because it is done in a short-essay format, find the time can be a challenge.
Hot Tips – favorite posts:
- What is Developmental Evaluation? This post came from a meeting of working group with Michael Quinn Patton and was fun to write because the original exercise that led to the content (described in the post) was so fun to do. It also provided an answer to a question I get asked all the time.
- Visualizing Evaluation and Feedback. I believe that the better we can visualize complexity the more feedback we provide, the greater the opportunities we have for engaging others, and more evaluations will be utilized. This post was designed to provoke thinking about visualization and illustrate how its been creatively used to present complex data in interesting and accessible ways. My colleague and CENSE partner Andrea Yip has tried to do this with a visually oriented blog on health promoting design, which provides some other creative examples of ways to make ideas more appealing and data feel simpler.
- Developmental Design and Human Services. Creating this post has sparked an entire line of inquiry for me on bridging DE and design that has since become a major focus for my work. This post became the first step in a larger journey.
Lessons Learned – why I blog: CENSEMaking originally served as an informal means of sharing my practice reflections with students and colleagues, but has since grown to serve as a tool for knowledge translation to a broader professional and lay audience. I aim to bridge the sometimes foggy world that things like evaluation inhabit – particularly developmental evaluation – and the lived world of people whom evaluation serves.
Lessons Learned: Blogging is a fun way to explore your own thinking about evaluation and make friends along the way. I never expected to meet so many interesting people because they reached out after reading a blog post of mine or made a link to something I wrote. This has also led me to learn about so many other great bloggers, too. Give a little, get a lot in return and don’t try and make it perfect. Make it fun and authentic and that will do.
Researchers and policy makers wring their hands and wrack their brains at ways to get people to take up the knowledge generated through scientific research and use it for social good and further invention. Some, stop doing this and just make it happen and YouTube and the Internet are showing us how.
We can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both
It seems when talking about knowledge translation, there is a lot of talk about how to do it better and then there are some who just do it better. McGill University and some of the researchers associated with the Goodman Cancer Research Centre have partnered up with filmmakers, volunteers and a medical supply company to ‘dance for cancer’ as a means of promoting their work and raising funds for cancer research. (The company, Medicom, has offered to donate per click so if you’re interested in donating and being entertained, click the link below).
Besides being catchy (Taio Cruz‘s club hit, Dynamite, is the song that these researchers and cast are dancing to) and well-produced, the video unscores the potential that video and some creative use of the arts can offer the scientific community in showing the world what it does and how it does it. The video shows what life is like (in a singing-and-dancing way) in a lab and showcases some of the people who do it, making them real humans rather than some mysterious “scientists off in the lab”.
They are designing a knowledge translation opportunity that (so far) has been viewed nearly 30,000 times as of this writing. I suspect that number will triple in the coming weeks. When some of the best, most cited research articles in the world are read (viewed) by maybe hundreds of people, the attention of thousands in such a short time should give pause.
Further, of the thousands that view the video, it is safe to say that most are non-scientists. For many, but certainly not all, of the studies we do in public and population health, the audience for this video is almost the same as ours — or at least includes many of the same people. Not all studies or research projects will yield the kind of data that are video-worthy or inspire photosharing, but some are. Many more than we acknowledge. And if we want the public engaged in science, if we want to reach practitioners and inspire policy makers and researchers alike to pay attention to the evidence being generated, this video might offer some suggestions for a way forward.
While you think of that, enjoy the choreography and lip sync skill of McGill’s brave super-translators and support a good cause in the process:
Designing for how people live is part of good design practice, but what about designing for the way people could be? What does it mean to design for social norms and what role does design have in changing them?
Media scholar and youth researcher danah boyd recently wrote on the need for designers to consider social norms as part of their media creations. The post received a lot of attention in the mediasphere and came on the heels of another interesting post by Keith Sawyer on Chinese social norms and the Tiger Mom phenomenon (that I also wrote on a while back). Returning to boyd’s argument, she makes the case that designers don’t dictate the behaviour of people in the systems they create, the people tthemselves do:
Social norms aren’t designed into the system. They don’t emerge by telling people how they should behave. And they don’t necessarily follow market logic. Social norms emerge as people – dare we say “users” – work out how a technology makes sense and fits into their lives. Social norms take hold as people bring their own personal values and beliefs to a system and help frame how future users can understand the system. And just as “first impressions matter” for social interactions, I cannot underestimate the importance of early adopters. Early adopters configure the technology in critical ways and they play a central role in shaping the social norms that surround a particular system.
What boyd is arguing (using my words and concepts from complexity science) is that emergence and path dependency shape design’s manifestation in the social realm. In technology-oriented systems, the ‘early adopters’ are the ones who set the stage for how the next wave of users interact with the system and boyd points to examples from Friendster about how attempts to control its community helped drive people away from the site (ultimately leading to its demise).
People don’t like to be configured. They don’t like to be forcibly told how they should use a service. They don’t want to be told to behave like the designers intended them to be. Heavy-handed policies don’t make for good behavior; they make for pissed off users.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t design to encourage certain behaviors. Of course you should. The whole point of design is to help create an environment where people engage in the most fruitful and healthy way possible. But designing a system to encourage the growth of healthy social norms is fundamentally different than coming in and forcefully telling people how they must behave. No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults.
The focus here is more on social media and online spaces, but the argument could be made for the same thing in social design. But unlike information technology, which favours a very particular group of people, social design has the potential to intentionally engage specific populations. Using boyd’s argument, one might assert that much of the technology we use from Foursquare to Instagram to the iPhone itself is shaped by the under-40 set of educated, middle class, largely white male hipster knowledge workers as they are typically the earliest visible adopters for such technologies (even if that is changing) .
In this model those with the most power, privilege and social capital at the outset greatly determine what comes next. This might be OK for technology, but is highly problematic for social justice and social inequities. A health promoting social design has the potential to change this by seeding that early adoption cycle with different people with potentially different values to shape outcomes not defined by a narrow set of social groups.
Keith Sawyer’s article points to the social norming around Chinese parenting (as defined through Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom) and how it clashes with a particular type of parenting model that dominates in the United States and our ideas of creativity. In describing his reaction to a recent review of Chua’s book and its contents, Sawyer points to the unease it creates in him when comparing norms and what it means for creativity and innovation:
I ought to be lined up with all of the horrified American parents who hate this book. But I just can’t side with them on this one. Creativity is hard work, and you don’t get creativity without paying your dues. No one magically learns how to play piano or violin (I’m reminded of the old joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.”) And as Amy Chua points out, there’s nothing like the joy that comes from being able to do something well, knowing that you earned it with hours, months, and years of hard work. As a child, I took piano lessons for eight years, and now thirty years later it’s a major source of joy in my life.
Chua’s parenting is an issue because it doesn’t fit with the dominant social norms, just as the self-esteem-at-all-cost approach that Sawyer rightly exposes as problematic in its own right would be in China.
These are designed systems. Just as we create path dependencies for one set of values, so too can we do the same for others and with other people. The focus on the outcomes of systems rather than their design is problematic if we want change. Starting with design and values at the outset, being conscious of who we invite in and how we engage them and by remaining contemplative about how these systems unfold and the emergent patterns that shape them, designers of all stripes may be better positioned to create social change rather than just for social norms.
18 days abroad and a bad set of Internet connections gave me a rare opportunity to take a break from social media. What happens when the lives we live online disappear, even momentarily?
This week I came back from a wonderful trip to the United Kingdom and Germany to a social media world that had been largely ignored for the first time in years. As one who works online a lot, whether using Twitter, or Facebook, Foursquare, or this blog (or one of the others I contribute to), the tools that fall under the rubric of social media are ones I use daily. So it was an interesting experiment of sorts to see what might happen when I left it largely alone for a couple weeks.
In truth, the experiment was forced on my by a series of unreliable Internet connections and the unwillingness to pay for a service I was supposed to have access to for free (I will not use this as a platform to badmouth the service, although I was disappointed). So I relied largely on a small window of time every few days when I went for an espresso at Starbucks and used their free service. What was interesting was noting how much I wasn’t missing. For reasons of expediency, I checked my email and maybe glanced at Facebook occasionally, but that was it.
No photosharing with Instagram
No updating the blog
I checked in almost nowhere (except the airports, because I like the Jetsetter badge on Foursquare)
No reading my RSS feed using Google Reader
I didn’t even respond to any of the Google+ invitations I received until I got home.
No YouTube videos were watched
Nor did I create any content for anyone else’s blog or read anything that wasn’t the news — and even that was tiny.
What this showed me (once again, I’ve seen it before) was how powerful the everyday pull of social media can make things seem so big, bold, important and urgent. Yet, when removed for a couple weeks, there was actually little if anything that I can determine was worth missing. It’s something to ponder when the pull to update our status and track ourselves and others online can be nearly addictive when involved in the everyday.
It’s good to be back, but also to have had some time away from social media. In taking time away, it reminded me about what it is there for and what it offers, as well as what it takes away.
Social media provides a virtual firehose of content that surpasses anything we’ve had access to before. But is this sea of content becoming too much to manage and what does this mean for knowledge-driven enterprises as the barriers to content creation drop almost as low as they are for consumption?
I added some new friends to Facebook this week. To my knowledge, there weren’t any that left my roster. I also had quite a few new people follow me on Twitter. This blog was visited a few hundred times and even my other, less widely publicized blogs got some traffic. So too did millions of others. Despite there being holidays North and South of the Canada-US border, people still were reading and writing and so, too, was the rest of the world.
Dana Meadows’ classic work in system dynamics, The Limits to Growth, has served as a treatise on the problem of the “more of everything” mindset for a generation and continues to inspire work in the environmental movement. It may be time to dust off our copies of Meadows’ book (or pick up her newer, posthumously published one, Thinking in Systems) and consider what this means for social media.
The argument is pretty straightforward: “more of everything” thinking to solve problems leads to dynamic shifts in our system that have unintended consequences. If our current capacity to handle information — whether in quantity or quality — is a certain level now, adding more input will result in a change in this capacity. These changes are often non-linear in nature. Consider the example of lifting weights at the gym. You might do 10 repetitions of an exercise where the first 7 feel comparably similar and then grunt and push your way through the final three with difficulty that gets exponentially more difficult with each additional rep. This is an example of a type of distribution of experience that social media operates in.
Complex dynamic systems, of which social media is indeed one, frequently operate using Pareto distributions of activity, not the standard normal one. What this means in complexity terms is that when we start to feel that it is hard to handle things, the gap between our current capacity and maximum capacity is actually very small not something far off. I believe we are getting close.
What this means is still a mystery. We humans are remarkably adaptive and if the information layer is too thick in one area of our life, we will compensate in others. Unfortunately, this means neglecting other activities, whether that be face-to-face relations with others, hobbies, other interests, travel and so on. Another compensatory response is to distribute attentional resources differently. That is, spend less time in depth on issues to allow for greater breadth.
All of these are problematic when many of the challenges we face require more sophisticated thinking, contemplative inquiry, and the space to bring diverse perspectives to bear. Complex problem solving is difficult because it often requires working with others, considering different perspectives, listening deeply and broadly; all of which take time, which is something we are taking less of more and more. In public health, we’re doing a bad job of serving as role models in caring for ourselves and giving us the time to contemplate these big problems. A fascination with social media, while helping us consider the role of relationships, could also be undermining our already fragile state of attentional awareness.
I recently experimented with the new service Path, which allows you to build a deep relationship with others using social media. It was among the shortest experiments of my social media career. Interesting idea, but the wave of content that it helped unleash was too much, too soon. What I am worrying about is spending less time on things, not more. In embracing social media as a tool to support complex decision making and learning I am realizing that there is an ironic twist in that it, in some cases, is reducing my ability to do so.
In striving to create better wayfinding strategies, I am getting lost.
These are design problems, wicked problems, and ones that we will need to tackle soon lest we have more of everything and wind up with lots of nothing.