Month: December 2009

education & learningemergencepsychologyscience & technologysocial media

The Future of Electronic Communication is also the Past


An interesting discussion has been taking place on the SourcePOV blog (hosted by Chris Jones) this week on the importance of communication — specifically the need for clarity and the methods that can promote it — and the trouble that ambiguity brings in a digital world. The debate, critique and insight from the many participants (myself included) has been a breath of fresh intellectual air this chilly week, not only because of the level of thought put into the discussion, but because the dialogue is challenging our collective assumptions about language in the present day digital era. Alas, we haven’t solved the problems of language and clarity in the information landscape, but we have posed some interesting questions.

One of the challenges that has come up is improving clarity in communications given the changing nature of the tools we use and the contexts in which we apply them. I’m not going to re-hash the debate here, rather I’d encourage you to join in at the source (no pun intended!) and add to the rich conversation going on there. What I am interested with this post is building on those ideas and offering some new ones on the future of communication. A few weeks ago I posted a highly unscientific, partly tongue-in-cheek poll to confirm or challenge something I was seeing in my personal communications, which was a shift from Facebook to Twitter and blogs in the number and nature of messages being shared. Facebook seemed to be getting quieter and Twitter and my blog-roll were heating up with messages and I wanted to know whether this was something unique to me and my network or something broader.

A few brave readers responded with 63 per cent (N=5) saying that Twitter and blog traffic is going up, while 1 participant felt there was no change and 2 voted for ‘other’. Unfortunately, no one commented and suggested to me what ‘other’ meant, as I’d hoped. Lesson: don’t expect much from half-serious polls.

Perhaps another lesson is that our electronic communications and online social networks are beginning to change. A look at the traffic for both sites over the past year shows that there was a big gain in March and April and a steady move upward or level since then. But what I see, and cannot be gained from these numbers, is a shift in the sophistication and quality of the content that I’m seeing on Twitter and my favourite blogs versus what is on Facebook. I would argue that 80 per cent or more of the very best content that I get on a daily basis can be traced back to my Google Reader and Twitter feeds.

It is not from academic journals or books or from formal presentations, rather it is content in the form of narrative fragments, little bits of information linked together, either unorganized or disorganized, and often free of any larger narrative beyond a general area of interest. Critics (too many to list here) suggest that this is a threat to literacy, a juvenile form of communicating, and out of sync with the way humans naturally communicate, which is based on stories with a beginning, middle and end.

While I agree that we are storytelling beings, I’d challenge the suggestion that stories (at least complete ones) are natural, while others suggesting that the electronic world of narrative fragments might very well be taking storytelling to a new level. The idea of ‘natural’ complete stories is a myth. When was the last time you sat down and told a complete story to someone (other than reading a bedtime story to a child) that could be reasonably understood and interpreted by someone other than the person you were communicating to? (In other words, you could take a transcript and show it to someone out of context and they would know what you’re talking about? No insider knowledge would be necessary, no shared history, no temporal or physical connection present). Probably not very often. The truth is that we communicate in fragments all the time. Twitter posts and Facebook updates work because the fragments we use have some other shared contexts with the audiences — intended or otherwise. These contexts shift and change and tools like Twitter, or text messages or other media provide a concise way to adapt quickly to rapidly changing contexts. This is why I think Twitter and blogs more generally are becoming the more powerful tool set for communicating and why I am seeing a change in my communication patterns.

In the days of Dickens people’s lives were far less complex than they were today. A person would communicate with a few dozen others at best and assume a few social roles. Today, we communicate with potentially thousands in many roles because of our vast networks and global reach through technologies. Yet the stories we tell are still done in fragments most of the time and require context to fully appreciate. So while our future of communication will require tools that enable us to communicate quickly in a variety of contexts to a broad audience, the importance of context will become as important as in Dickens time. A tool that allows us the ability to attract the right people (that is develop a shared context) and allow us to adapt it to the changes in context will be the one that fits with our natural communications and more likely to thrive. So the future will indeed be the past. Fire up the Delorean!

Join the discussion at the SourcePOV blog or here and in keeping with Dickens may I wish you all a Merry Christmas for those celebrating it and a happy holiday and insightful 2010 to all.


complexitypsychologysocial mediasocial systems

Ushering In a New Phase of Social Networks


The term social was big in 2009. Whether it was social networks, social media or social context — this six-letter word had quite a year. It seems that public and academic discourse is shifting away from the lone, rational actor to the social being making decisions in consort with her or his peers. Whether it is offline, online, or some type of hybrid environment, social interaction has now widely been given its due by decision makers, researchers and the public. We see this in the rapid adoption of tools like Facebook, Twitter, and custom networks on Ning in business, health, and education sectors and by the use of video or photo sharing, citizen journalism, and reader/viewer comments into mainstream media. Even academic health journals from the traditional publishers like the New England Journal of Medicine with its use of podcasts and reader comments to the new Open Medicine, which has explored the use of wikis, are incorporating some social aspects to their online content.

It seems that mainstream institutions have finally picked up what social psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have always known: we are social beings and we’re more productive, creative and happier when we have opportunities to engage with others.

Lest we pat ourselves on the back for finally ‘getting it’, there is a long way to go before these tools, technologies and systems of working truly produce the dividends that we are looking for in public policy, health care, science and innovation.

What is missing is emotion.

In their new book, Connected, social network researchers Nick Christakis and James Fowler describe the importance of emotion in their exploration of the evolution of social activity:

The development of emotion in humans, the display of emotions, and the ability to read the emotions of others helped coordinate group activity by three means: facilitating interpersonal bonds, synchronizing behavior, and communicating information (p.36)

Our social media and networks have done a reasonable job of the third part (communicating information), but a relatively poor job at the first two. Yes, we can meet people online through social tools or dating sites, but my 15 years of work with online communities has shown me that these technologies are good at facilitating introductions and sustaining relationships over time, but they are lousy at growing relationships. Why? Consider the volume of emotional information that is exchanged when you meet someone and interact with them for even a short period of time. Whether it is a look, a smell, a touch, the tonality of the voice or some combination of them all, the sensory experience that comes from a personal encounter is something that can’t be replicated in our current tools for nurturing social networks.

The rise in the use of video, which provides many more streams of information than text, is one of the hopeful points for social networking. Facebook’s addition of video to its service and the already growing use of Twitter-like tools such as 12 Seconds and Seesmic video suggest that we could be seeing a new style of networking in 2010. Apple’s new iPod Nano also features simple video capture and upload tools. And as video grows in use, so too will the complexity of the messages that are communicated and the ability to express and share emotion within online and mobile networks. Once that happens, we may start to see social networking and social media live up to its full potential.

behaviour changedesign thinkingeducation & learning

Amazing Stuff: December 14th Edition

It’s final paper and exam time at the university so that means one thing: procrastination.

Procrastination also yields a lot of unusual thinking so with a nod to the serious and the silly, I’ve managed to whittle down the many amazing things sent my way to just five:

1. 1000 Awesome Things. Rather than be amazing, this blog captures awesome. Although not so much the amazing like mind-blowing or novel, what this blog does is remind us of the little, everyday kind of things that happen in life that make us smile, pause, or even contemplate enough to go “wow, that’s awesome”. AWESOME!

2. The Art of the Idea: 8 ways to Light a Lightbulb Above Your Head. Fast Company’s Sheryl Sulistiawan presents a visual pictorial based on John Hunt’s insights collected in his new book. It is a creative, artistic way to imagine new ways to visualize the creative process. It’s a lot different than the usual pictogram and got me thinking.

3. Yes, Bottled Water Really is That Bad. Another gem from Fast Company and their infographics: A look at just how awful bottled water is for the world. Where I live (Canada) we have more clean, fresh water than almost anyone in the world yet we fill our buildings with bottled water when its cheaper, healthier, and sometimes tastier to drink it from the tap.

4. The New York Times Magazine 9th Annual Year in Ideas issue. I look forward to this every issue every year for a highlight of the most innovative — and sometimes also ridiculous — inventions, social trends, and novel solutions to problems big and small. I’m  quite intrigued by the growing interest in zombie attack science.

5. World Food Programme’s Fight Hunger campaign. When you think of innovators and integrated thinking, the UN isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But the UN’s WFP has shown that it can out-campaign even the slickest corporation with its multi-channel social media campaign using Facebook, Twitter, crowd-funding and micro-donations to stimulate awareness and solicit donations to affect a problem that is big and getting bigger everyday. A great ‘101’ on the program is available in this CNN International profile.

behaviour changecomplexityemergencepsychology

Complex Change and Energy


Simple, straightforward and predictable things are pretty boring, but they at least can be understood without much effort. And sometimes that simplicity provides comfort that we can’t find in complicated, complex or chaotic events. As we find ourselves working long hours eating badly and sleeping less hours than our body would like its no surprise that we find a lot of organizations trying to make complex change using simple processes (that won’t work). It’s tiring thinking about complexity and simplicity is, well, simple. We don’t need to consider the pushback that could come from making our morning coffee, we need not worry about the unintended consequences of ironing our shirts, or contemplate the emergent patterns that come from picking a green M&M out of the holiday party bowl over the red one. After a long day at the office or an emotional conversation with a loved one, these ‘simple pleasures’ as they are often referred to provide us comfort that can’t be found in complexity.

But change is rarely a pleasure, but always an adventure; When it comes we need to be ready and have the energy to tackle it.

It is perhaps for that reason that people try to deny it or over-simplify problems. Its the very reason why the self-help book section of a store is so big, why New Year’s resolutions are so popular (do you have yours yet?), and why late night infomercials and daytime talkshows still persist in their efforts to sell us the quick and easy change. Change your life in three, five, seven, 10 or 12 easy steps!

It is never that easy. If it was, I could teach my students health behaviour change in an evening seminar at a hotel airport instead of a semester-long graduate course that is, at best, showing the ice floating above the waterline. However, in that proverbial sea of self-help resources one of the few ideas that stands out comes from The Power of Full Engagement. In the book, authors Jim Loehr and and Tony Schwartz point out that a key to change is managing energy as much as it is our cognitions, emotions and behaviour. It is the energy we bring to situations that is the necessary precondition to becoming fully engaged and able to change. It’s why its so hard to pay attention in class or a meeting when you’re tired. Or why you tune out when the message itself is tired; the same old stuff trotted out again and again.

Change in human systems is complex.

Tired individuals and organizations tend to opt for those solutions to complex problems that are simple and, as H.L. Menken said, wrong, — see my last post. Ever seen profound change take root in an exhausted environment? Not me. It’s one of the reasons why effective leaders are those that aim to spark emotion and raise the energy level of those that follow them as much as instill new ideas. Indeed, if you look at many of the best leaders out there, they tend to create environments where new ideas come from introducing new ways to see the complex and make it exciting. A terrific example of this is Benjamin Zander’s talk at TED looking at how the complicated structure and complexity of classical music can enliven the spirit.

So perhaps our first strategy to change is to take a nap, play some Chopin and watch an inspirational movie than try and solve it otherwise we might end up with simple and wrong solutions to complex problems and be no better off for it.

behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningenvironmenthealth promotion

Complexity and the Information Landscape


This morning the newswires are buzzing with a story that alleges Britain’s Climatic Research Unit fudged some of its climate change data and suggesting that a ‘bunker mentality’ took hold in the unit, which led to this kind of skewing of the data and science. One scientist told Doug Saunders from the Globe and Mail that “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this has set the climate-change debate back 20 years.” Indeed, with the Copenhagen Climate Summit about to start, there is real concern that these allegations – whether proven true or not — will impair the delegates’ ability to reach a deal.

On a different, yet related note, yesterday I went and got my H1N1 shot and was told by the official guiding people through the clinic that about 37 percent of the population of Toronto have had the vaccination. I went to the downtown clinic and waited about 2 minutes to see someone, which is in stark contrast to what we saw a few weeks ago.Why? The threat of H1N1 seems much less in the here and now than it did a few weeks ago when, in the span of one weekend, when U.S. President Obama declared swine flu a national emergency, and two young people in Ottawa died from H1N1. Towards the end of October, H1N1 seemed a lot more scary and that made the issue a lot simpler: get protected or die (or so it seemed)

So what do these two stories have in common? Both illustrate the problem of complexity in the information landscape. H.L. Mencken is quoted as saying: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong“.

The problem that public health and scientific research faces is that it is in the business of complexity, yet the business of the media is too often in simplicity.  This caused that. That person is bad, this person is a hero and so on. The archetypes and stereotypes come in spades and that is the problem. On the issue of climate change, most scientists worth their salt looking at the data are concerned about what is happening to our climate, not because they know for sure, but because they don’t. In a complex system like the environment, the overlaying causes, consequences and potential confounders of data make it impossible to say for sure that something causes something else in a specific dose. What can be done is that we can observe large scale patterns of behaviour and anticipate changes based on models developed using past, current and possible future (estimated) data and scenario planning.

In public discourse however, this makes for a less compelling story. Many like to think that buying a hybrid car, recycling, and carrying a reusable shopping bag will help solve the problem of climate change, when the truth is an entire system of small changes needs to take place if we really want to make a difference. This speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding of complexity.

With the H1N1 example, complexity is less about the cause and effect relationship of the disease and host and more about the vaccine developed to help prevent it. There are an entire littany of websites, pundits and voices who have turned something that is complicated like a vaccine, with potential complex outcomes in rare events such as allergic reactions, into overly complex issues around patient safety, conspiracy theories and the like. I commented on some of these issues in a previous post. At issue here is a fundamental lack of understanding of statistics and probability.

The problem is that the two are related. For those of us in public health, this is an issue that can lead to sleepless nights. How to both make complex information accessible and interpretable to those without the interest, time or ability to sift through it and make reasoned, informed decisions AND how to enhance people’s understanding of probability? Just yesterday in my course on health behaviour change a student in epidemiology remarked that even something as fundamental as an odds ratio to her field gets debated and misunderstood among her peers. John Sterman at MIT has studied his students — ones that learn about system dynamics — and found that many of them have difficulty grasping the fundamentals of the ‘bathtub problem’ and accumulation, which I discussed in a previous post.

I would argue that this is one of our most fundamental challenges as educators, scientists and members of society.

Think you know about stats and complexity? You might be surprised (and entertained) by how randomness creeps into our lives by listening to the recent podcast on recent episode on stochasticity, or randomness, from WNYC’s Radio Lab.


Blogs and Twitter vs. Facebook: What’s going on?

I’m noticing that Facebook is getting far less traffic amongst my ‘friend’ group than usual, but that Twitter seems to be revving up more and so is traffic in the blogosphere. I’d like to know if this is just me or is this a trend that other social media users are noticing.

education & learningeHealthsocial media

Amazing Stuff: The Film and Video Edition


Last week my class on Health Behaviour Change was on the topic of eHealth. So to make the point about how information technologies can play a role in supporting change I decided to create a series of YouTube-sized bits of content for my students rather than give a lecture. The ‘lecture’ became a series of short videos starring some of my teammates at the Youth Voices Research Group and brilliantly shot and edited (with next to no time) by our uber-talented  resident health promotion videographer, Andrea Yip. This experience, plus exposure to a number of serendipitous videos over the past week had me thinking that a special film and video edition of Amazing Stuff was warranted. So to welcome the month of December, the darkest month of the year for us here in the North, I thought I’d share some sites to visit when you’re huddled inside looking for knowledge, inspiration or amusement:

1. TED. This is fast becoming THE site to waste time on and learn about amazing things from. Originally started as a meeting of artistic and creative types in Monterrey California in 1984, this annual meeting (now spawned into many international meetings) features some of the leading thinkers in such diverse areas as design, science, the arts, politics and public life. You’ll come for one talk and stay for a dozen. This is must-see Web TV.

2. This newish web channel is another feed for the soul of those interested in science, the economy, technology and other issues that are particularly nerd friendly to us academics. There are some high-quality videos here and some insightful lectures.

3. is Al Gore’s digital cable channel. There are some interesting things on it, but nothing and I mean nothing beats Infomania; my favourite show on TV, or the Web, or both . Sadly, Infomania is taking a break this week, but the witty satire of the entertainment biz will return in early December.

4. The National Film Board of Canada is one of this country’s gems. It is a treasure-trove of high-quality material and insightful documentaries on a wide range of topics. Perhaps the one that has my interest most piqued is the Filmmaker in Residence program that Kat Cizek has held for the past few years. Kat and her colleagues have done some amazing work at highlighting the perils of homelessness, inner-city health, and the plight of new mothers living in poverty. This is really health promotion video at work and something that I’d like to see a lot more of.

5. And lastly, I came across this past week as I attended the Ivey Centre for Health Innovation and Leadership’s first annual Global Health Innovation conference in Toronto. Publicvoice has a great set of speakers and interviews with people out to change the world and influence Canadian and international public policy. The entire conference and interviews with the key leaders are available at or will be available at the conference’s ongoing Ning community of practice site.

Now if anyone can help me find the time to watch all of this…