Month: July 2011

social media

Social Media Staycation

When is a Minus in Social Media a Plus?

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 Tweeting

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.


design thinkinghealth promotion

Health for Design

The Design4Health conference is on this week bringing together designers from different fields together with health policy, practice and research professionals. While the focus is on the relationship between design and health, it is also inspiring thoughts of how health itself is designed.

This week the first Design4Health conference is being held in Sheffield, UK. The conference attendees includes designers looking at interactions, service, interiors, architecture, fashion, and industrial areas of design. Mixed with is group are physicians, physiotherapists, psychologists sociologists, health promotion practitioners, artists, and policy researchers. This mix represents much of what makes the design and health intersection so exciting, but also the (somewhat) predictable “Tower of Babel” with many disciplines working to be understood by the others.

The language issues have been relatively minor, but on one level the more complicated area of confusion is not where one might guess (the application of design to health issues), but rather the understanding of health itself relative to design.

To illustrate, much has been presented on the way design has re-fashioned devices for those with some form of physical disability. From wheelchair designs that are aesthetically pleasing and light to female portable urinals to address issues of incontinence and the social issues women face trying to relieve themselves in non-toiletted spaces, the products being discussed have shown what some design thinking can do to potentially improve people’s lives. But what if those lives don’t need improvement in the way we think?

Consider the language of health in popular use, which focuses on the ability to control conditions and both be free of physical discomfort and mental stress. These are deficit-oriented models that focus on what must be absent or is undesirable, rather than what a person does with their life and their capabilities to act on their values and interests. What if we viewed health differently?

Further, what happens to design when we focus it’s talents on alleviating pain and discomfort as defined by some standard that is both ideal and unattainable at the expense of promoting personal wellness as defined by the person living their life? What we’ve not talked about is the idea that someone with a substandard medical device might have creative ways to live a life where the sub-standard product becomes nearly invisible. This is not to suggest that we lower the bar, but it does beg the question why we are so focused on ‘problems’ of a particular perceived nature and not opportunities?

We also seem to be poor at reflecting the diversity in the public and their relationship to their bodies, minds and lives that we embrace in our attendance at our conferences. Just as we come from different disciplines, so too do people’s sense of what is a ‘problem’ and what contribution design has to addressing that problem. This is about designing health, not the design for health.

systems thinking

Innovation, Networks & Design

The terms innovation, networks and design are becoming “hot”, although nothing compares to what could come from bringing these three ideas together. But what might that look like and what ought to be considered in moving these three ideas closer?

Innovation is on the brain for business, health, and social services. Productivity, creativity and strategy execution are all tied to firms’ abilities to be innovative. Not surprisingly, there has been a flood of investigations into innovation and theories about why some organizations adapt and survive and why some do not.

One of the latest books to explore this innovation challenge is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. His book follows on others that have looked at the history of innovation and illustrated the benefits that come from social interaction. Social networks are one of the principal means of leveraging the benefits of interaction by creating more space for such interactions to occur. Johnson refers to the best of these as ‘liquid networks’, drawing on the analogy of a fluid and dynamic set of conditions that link people and ideas together.

While there is much written about the structure of networks and their benefits for innovation, relatively little is discussed on their design. While networks do happen somewhat unconsciously (we don’t always consider how we fill gaps, strengthen connection, or create weak-tie bonds in our relationships) they are also designed. Being more conscious of what kind of networks we create and what conditions are likely to produce favourable ones is something that is worthy of deeper thought and research.

A good example is looking through London (UK) where I’ve spent the last few days. If you’ve never been to London, it is easy to get lost in the diversity of languages, dress and styles of people everywhere you go. Some of these are undoubtedly tourists, but many are not. London’s diversity makes it a prime location for innovation now, just as it has been in the past. But while there is much diversity here, it is the way in which the space for these interactions have been laid out that causes some question to whether or not this space is leveraging its innovative potential effectively through the networks created.

Those areas of the city that are most attractive to the most number of people — and thus, creating the most diverse spaces — are also the most crowded, maximizing the number of contacts you’ll make with others. Yet this high number of contacts is not the same as quality contacts and it is those quality contacts that make the big difference in getting ideas moving from one state to another, while the size of the networks that makes something go bigger. Too often the discussion shifts to making bigger networks, without the cultural curation that goes into making deeper ones.

To that end, I was reflecting on the number of research networks that I am a part of and how very little time or energy is spent on nurturing quality interactions, just creating more of them. In an age where there is so much available to us — information and otherwise — the idea of creating more seems somewhat antithetical to what we are trying to do. It is like we are all trying to be London, yet without creating the Hyde Parks and spaces where the diversity that comes to these network members can really benefit from interacting with one another.

social mediasystems science

Social Networks: Beyond the Numbers

There's More to Connections Than Lines

Social networking research is becoming a hot topic as people discover the potential that mapping has for guiding policy and practice, however like many other “hot” research methods, there is a need to go beyond the numbers to make sense of what they really mean lest we create beautiful maps and have no place to go with them. 

The rise of social media applications and the ability for anyone to use simple tools to create, extend and shape their social graph with a mouse click or tap of the app has helped stoke interest in network research. Social networking methods are those that tend to favour quantitative development of maps and numerical representations of what a social network looks like. We are most often terribly ignorant of the role and position we play within a network so to see ourselves and peers positioned literally on a map can be revealing in more ways than one.

Between 2005 and 2006 my colleague Tim Huerta and I did a study that looked at the formation of a community of practice (CoP) in tobacco control through the lens of the social network and published a paper on this based on that work. Part of the study involved giving a group of people who were meeting face-to-face a survey and ask them about who they knew that influenced their work in the web-assisted tobacco interventions (the CoP’s focus), how well they knew the people they identified, and what kind of things they did together. This data was entered over the first night and analyzed for the next day’s meeting with the network map revealed (see summary here, full article here) .

While the map itself was generated through quantitative analysis, revealing patterns akin to the image above, it was the meaning that people gave to those connections that allowed this group to begin envisioning how they could leverage their untapped potential in the network to advance their interests as a community. This sense-making process is too often neglected in social network research and risks turning something meaningful (like a relationship) into a statistic that can more easily be dismissed — or misunderstood.

This week another social network study was published looking at tobacco control and the use of Twitter as a medium to support that. This study didn’t map the network per se, but rather looked at the type of people in the network and what the content of the messages that were shared within it. This represents another type of social networking study where the researchers aim to peer into the activities of a group of people who are interconnected and describe from afar what they see and who they think they see. This has some utility for those wanting to delve into areas where there is little known (such as Twitter and smoking cessation), but can also mislead people if used improperly. Networks are dynamic, with influence shifting and participants activity modulating greatly within its lifespan and because of this, cross-sectional data poses the risk of capturing a slice of activity that might not reflect the whole.

Which slice do you want?

Consider the analogy of slicing a watermelon sideways and doing so at the end, rather than in the middle: if you love watermelon, you want the middle slice because it’s bigger and richer than the end. The same might be true for social networking activity.

The tendency to want to produce network maps using numbers alone to explain them is highly problematic. Even Facebook has decided it will give greater priority to what people do in the network, rather than how big the network is as evidenced by the push to add Skype-powered video to its service this week. Facebook knows that their value is determined less by how many friends you have, but more about how you truly connect: photosharing, comments, game-playing.

True, this can all be quantified, but they are going a little further beyond the numbers. The Facebook example provides an interesting example of potential social network studies that could look at the type and content of the photos shared, how people have reacted to them, and what kind of social movement has been formed by the content created for and shared through that network. If you want to leverage a network for social change and good, this is the kind of stuff you need to focus on, not just the total numbers of people involved.

Powerful social network research is as much about having a good statistician as it is an anthropologist and together, they need to have the story that comes from it, woven together by the users and a good storytelling host.

*** Watermelon photo by Rameez Sadlkot used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr. Network image used under licence.

complexitypublic healthsocial systemssystems thinking

Social Media and the Limits to Growth

Social Media, Social Noise?

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.

knowledge translationpublic healthresearchsystems thinking

Innovation and Academic Science


Innovation grants are a misnomer, signifying one of the greatest problems with academic science and the quest to create novel solutions to important problems. 

Yesterday the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute (the research arm of the largest charitable agency that supports cancer programming in Canada) announced its new, revamped lineup of grant funded programs to be launched within the coming months. Among the first of these new programs is one called Innovation Grants (PDF)while another is called Impact Grants (PDF). In fact, both of these new program announcements include the definition of each of the key terms in their program call:

Innovation: The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is 
established by the introduction of new elements or forms.
-Oxford English Dictionary


Impact: the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another; a marked effect or 
-Oxford English Dictionary

This is impressive in how they can clearly and distinctly linked the definition of the word to the program call. Why? Because too often grant program calls and their expression in reality are too often separate. I once served on a grant panel that was looking at grants aimed at ensuring quality knowledge translation only to find that most reviewers were comfortable with things like “prepare academic manuscript based on research” and “present findings at major conference” to be acceptable knowledge translation goals by themselves. I was appalled.

Yet, I can’t help but think, despite the good intentions here, that these new programs are going to follow in similar footsteps. The problem is not the funder, but rather the way that funding is granted and the reliance on the system to change itself.

The innovation grants are designed to :

support unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies to address problems in cancer research. Innovation projects will include elements of creativity, curiosity, 
investigation, exploration and opportunity. Successful projects may involve higher risk ideas, but will 
have the potential for “high reward”, i.e. to significantly impact our understanding of cancer and 
generate new possibilities to combat the disease by introducing novel ideas into use or practice

The mechanism by which these grants are to be decided are, as much as I can tell, by peer review. It is for that reason alone that we can feel some level of confidence that these grants will fail outright. Peer review is designed to judge the quality of content by what is and has been, not by what could be. “Innovation” is about doing things differently, often markedly so. Scientific panels are about supporting incrementalism, particularly in the social and behavioural sciences.

Innovation is also about risk and the potential for failure. These are two words that are highly problematic in present day academic science. Firstly, if you’re a junior scientist, you may be working desperately to fund yourself and your research (and research team). The price of failure is high. If you’re not able to publish meaningfully off your research, you will have a hard time getting your next grant and keeping yourself afloat. In public health sciences for example, CLTA (contract limited-term appointments) are dominant.

I should know as that’s the position I hold.

But the tenured faculty don’t have it much better. While they are more secure, their research teams, graduate student trainees who rely on projects to develop their skills, and the ability to develop coherent programs of research are at risk every time there is an unsuccessful grant. There are real opportunity costs to pursuing risky ventures so many don’t do it

As one who has tried to be innovative with his work and having the privilige (or curse, depending on the perspective) of having interests that have fallen into the innovation category (or “trendy” category to the cynic), I’ve seen how innovation is treated and it’s not good. Innovation programs tend to split committees. I’ve had too many comments returned to me that have some variant on “this is amazing, potentially leading edge research!” alongside “the use of non-conventional methods makes this suspect” or “I don’t understand what this is supposed to do“. As one who had to endure years of questions like “I don’t see how this Internet thing has anything to do with health” in the early days of the eHealth this kind of line of questioning is familiar to me.

I point this out not to gripe, but to illustrate how innovation can get treated in academia. When you get feedback like I described it is very hard to critically assess the true merits of the proposal for improvement. Did people not understand an idea because it could have been written more clearly or did they just not “get” the innovation? Were those who were excited just caught up in the “newness” or were they really in sync with my vision? As a scientist, I don’t know the answer and can’t improve because the feedback is so contradictory.

And because innovators often create, develop or define fields of inquiry or practice that does not exist or is in development there are few if any adequate and available reviewers with the appropriate background on the topic.

In academia, we rely on tradition, on evidence (which is part of tradition, what has been done before), not on strategic foresight and innovation to guide us. That is a problem in itself. Universities haven’t survived hundreds of years by being risky, they have because they were safe (in spite of the occasional radical shift here and there). With complex social problems and the challenges posed by things like cancer, something risky is needed because the traditional ways of doing things have either been exhausted or are no longer producing the necessary health gains. Academics just aren’t positioned to embrace this risk unless the system changes — with them helping drive that change — to support innovation and not just talk about it.

Until that happens, the opportunities to live up to the definition of innovation posed about to create the impact described above will be limited indeed.