Category: social media

complexityemergencejournalismknowledge translationsocial media

Shaking the System of Knowledge Translation and Journalism

Media covering the media talking about the media #riptide #media #harvard #journalism

Leveraging systems change comes when you are willing to examine the system itself, not just the component parts. News media is struggling to remain financially viable in a time when readership / viewership is high and revenues low by considering ways to adapt to an online world and the way it thinks about the problem will go a long way to whether it can solve it.  

Last night The Joan Shorenstein Center  at Harvard University hosted an event launching the public face of an initiative called Riptide, which sought to create an oral history of journalism as it transmophizes from independent media like paper, television and radio into what I would say is transmedia and social mediaThe Riptide Project has already been criticized for its lack of diversity of its subject matter to the point of being called “The History of Internet News, as Told by Rich, White Men” , although for its many faults it does bring together individuals who have shaped the landscape of the English-language news. That story is still worth listening to and learning from.

The event was organized around a panel featuring AOL Chairman Tim Armstrong, Caroline Little – head of the Newspaper Association of America, and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The one hour event featured some wide-ranging discussion on how mainstream media has responded to digital challenges and is seeking to promote quality journalism amidst all these threats (A summary of key points are summarized in a Storify  (click link)).  Among the points that stood out was one NOT discussed and that was around the news systems themselves. While AOL, local newspapers and international publishers like the NY Times were exploring different media vehicles for news — such as AOL’s Huffington Post and recently scaled back local news network Patch — the way journalism was to be done was basically the same, except for journalists this means more work.

There was much handwringing over the threats to the system of journalism and publishing without seeing it as a system that itself requires adaptation at a fundamental level.

Seeing the system

While the event was focused on news and journalism, it could have easily been a parallel lecture in the world of health and scientific publishing and knowledge translation or knowledge mobilization. The leaders were speaking about how they were adding video, using social media and pointed to the well-known (and critiqued) ‘Snowfall‘ journalistic endeavour tried at the New York Times as an example of doing things differently. Snowfall is a multi-media story that brings video, text, and audio together under a NY Times digital umbrella and was intended to show how old and new media could work together. Yet, there are many critics who point out that the apparent success of this new multi-media, long form journalism was really just window dressing and that the numbers — 3 million visits — actually obscured a harder truth that indicated that very few of those readers went through it all. Most skimmed. Few got the whole story

The parallels with academic publishing are startling. For all the talk of high-impact scientific publications, the truth is that getting an article included in a top-flight academic journal is — if it is very well received — is likely to garner less than a few dozen citations. Yet the amount of energy and resources that go into these publications is enormous.

Academic journals are seeking to respond to this challenge by using open-access and web-based publishing, but the same fundamental challenge exists: adapting to new media while keeping the old. The publishing model is not developing, it is adapting to threats and not necessarily in a way that is resilient.

A developmental challenge

Developmental evaluation and design is about transforming the system as you move it along. It means being willing to examine or re-examine commonly held assumptions and working with changing conditions as they change, not just upon past reflection as we saw last night. It also means considering what developing a program is all about, not just improving it. Slide number 17 of the presentation below illustrates how this might look in practice. Developmental evaluation is not about program improvements, it is about developing them further to adapt and respond to changing conditions. The resulting program response might be something that is more effective at achieving goals, but that is not the primary focus.

For journalism the risk is that they will add all these additional layers to their product without questioning the assumptions behind what it means to do good journalism. Are journalist going to be videographers, photographers and web coders as well? The point was raised that the Huffington Post has a climate where journalists sit next to engineers. While creative and useful for looking at innovation, it doesn’t help if journalists, editors and publishers are still also doing all of what they used to do and now need to add on additional activities. At some point it all suffers. Yet, the panelists also argued that strong brands like the NY Times will do well when quality markers fail in the sea of low-brow content. How can this be if the resources to do good reporting aren’t there? You can’t act like a budget outfit, but claim to be bespoke.

Academics and scientists are in the same situation. They are being pushed to deliver high quality science and teaching in an age of diminishing resources, with few good metrics to assess outcome,  TED-worthy presentations, Tweet, blog and get into the community to speak to end-users. It is a lot and might even be possible if the system changed to support it. Instead, fewer resources are given, less support for excellence provided and the expectations rise.

Without quality knowledge translation — whether it be great science journalists or outstanding health scientist or clinical communicators — our entire system will collapse. There is too much information to sift through, it is too complex of a system to operate in, and there are far too many actors to navigate it well. Journalists and their institutions can provide common touch points for many across the system and the woes, challenges and systems issues they face are ones we face in health sciences. Learning from what they did and didn’t do in the realm of communication is worthy as is watching where they go as we seek to question if other areas of health communication need to follow.

Audience seeking direction on the future of #journalism by hearing from leaders of the past #riptide

complexityevaluationsocial mediasocial systemssystems science

One leg, two leg, three leg, more?

Exploding into What?

Exploding into What?

In Orwell’s classic Animal Farm the characters often oscillate between their evaluative assessments on the merits of two or four legs. The value was socially constructed, however in practice there are real tangible benefits socially and otherwise to having two legs, which serves as an apt metaphor for understanding the role of scaling in social innovation.

I was fortunate to be born with two very functional legs. Since I could first walk and run I’ve done so continually with enthusiasm onward of decades. However, there have been times through injury, experimentation or fun that I’ve tried navigating my life with one leg.

On the matter of movement I can say that two legs are not twice as good as one, they are an order of magnitude better. Likewise, I’ve done three-legged races and can definitely say that the benefits of two legs over one do not scale up to three. It’s a toss up whether I’d rather have one leg over three (irrespective of the horrible pant problems three legs would pose to me). I want two and I suspect you do too.

Two legs, no more  or less are optimal. If you’re a dog, that can be doubled. If you’re a millipede, you might need to add a few hundred legs to be optimal. So legs scale, but only when you know what the context is.

Two legs good, Four legs better

We don’t know what will scale with all things (and I would argue most things). I have been and remain critical of the dominant push to scaling social innovation out of a misguided, often patriarchal perspective that holds bigger is better. Bigger is bigger and occasionally that means better; they are not equivalent terms.

To get a sense of what scale means: imagine a shower. If you’re the man below, a shower is a pretty good way to get clean.

Man Under Shower

Man Under Shower

Now imagine you’re an ant like the one below. You still get dirty, but how good is the shower to you? The ant is going to experience those drops of water that are cleaning up the man’s skin much differently in ways that might literally mean life or death.

Ant Closeup

No shower for me, thanks! I’ll just pat myself clean

Now what might happen if you were a woman? Suddenly, the scale works again. Different being, similar outcome.

Is the shower better for the man, the ant or the woman? Did it scale up and down well? The answers have as much to do with what the point of the shower was in the first place and the perspective we take at the outset.

Poolside shower

This is a scalefully wonderful way to get the salt off


Facebook as an example of (failing) scale

Facebook provides an example of how scaling is not always human scaled. A look at Facebook’s corporate page will find this:

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

Embedded within this mission is an assumption of scaling that isn’t congruent with human relationships. The accumulation of friends on Facebook — something it strives to support — ceases to reflect a reality where our relations come and go, become more or less intense, and often do so on a time frame that can be momentary or develop over a lifetime. All of these relationship scenarios occur simultaneously. On Facebook, they all happen at the same time in the same way, treating relationships as a matter of linear accumulation than a non-linear, dynamic set of temporal engagements.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has looked at relationship scaling and developed his famous number of 150 (+/- 50 or so — it’s not precise) for the mean amount of intimate or stable relations that a person can have.

Of course, 150 dynamic relations — of which many will not be interested in relating online — is not profitable so Facebook has every investment in having you expand your network in a linear or even exponential manner in defiance of evidence to suggest its futile.

But as a great mis-spoken friend of mine once said (under the influence of a couple beer):

Futile is resistance

Little did he know how prescient he would be (and how many Star Trek fans he might annoy in that statement).

Resistance and futility

One of the ways to gauge scalability is by the level of resistance to the core function of the activity. To return to the matter of legs, one leg creates resistance throughout the body because of the shock of a single, hopping prop used to propel a body not suited to a single leg. When you see two legs move, there is fluidity within the system that enables a movement that is resisted if you add or subtract a leg. In other words: the body was designed for two legs.

In social systems, the designs we work with are co-created and inherited. In social innovation we often don’t know what the scale of something is often because we don’t know what the natural scale of our social creations are, or that we have no evaluative data to make developmental design decisions. Paying attention to scale and resistance is one way to get a sense of where natural human resistance to change ends  and real system-level resistance to scaling begins.  I argue that a developmental evaluation and developmental design approach with the right quantitative and qualitative tools can help immensely if combined with mindful attention to these details.

Research — like that of Robin Dunbar and others looking at social systems — can be a guide. We have evidence of programs and ideas scaling well and some not taking at all. A more anthropological, mindful and evaluative approach to understanding what we’ve done and what we’re doing can help when taken together with strategy and knowing our intent. If what we want is better social worlds, maybe two legs are not half of four, but many times better after all.

Photo credits: ThinkStock used under license and the Wikimedia Commons – used under Creative Commons License and edited using Snapseed

journalismsocial media

Reading it Later: Om Malik Reflects

Giga OM founder and prolific reader Om Malik posted a reflection on his reading habits on his blog that got me thinking about the way we consume, rate and appreciate content online. In this post, Malik shares some of the dialogue he has with the CEO of Pocket, a read-it-later service that allows you to save webpages you’re unable or unwilling to read at the moment you find them. It’s a great service and I love using it, but it is a source of guilt — which is what struck me about the exchange. I, like Malik, am also a voracious book buyer. My ‘to-read’ list is enormous and I am constantly feeling behind or wondering whether I have sufficiently caught up or processing what I need. Talking with others, this is shared and clearly Pocket is aware of this. The metric of words saved and read which, in the case of Om was two novels worth per month, is oddly reassuring that all that content consumed in webpages and tweets and such is adding up to something. The bigger issue and quest might be (a la Dr Strangelove): how to stop worrying and love content.


One of the things I like about the internet (as opposed to hating it) is the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions with really smart people and walk away more educated from those interactions. Earlier this week, I blogged about my save-and-read-it-later habits based on data from Pocket, which is my de facto TiVo for the web. My conclusion looking at the data was that I am reading a lot less than I thought (only about a third of what I was saving) and promised to work harder to get through more articles.

This prompted a response from Pocket CEO Nate Weiner and his editorial director, Mark Armstrong, who said that I have to look at it as a glass half full, not glass half empty. In his blog post in response to my post, Mark wrote:

“There is a misperception that Pocket should be treated like…

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journalismpublic healthsocial media

Of digital riptides and original sin — was the decline of newspapers inevitable?

Matthew Ingram does a good job of doing a retrospective on the state of newspapers and questioning the fit their current predicament has with disruptive innovation. Interesting to consider that public health and its communications are facing similar challenges with how people get and use health information. I can’t help but think there is a lot to learn here about what was and wasn’t done by newspapers (who are still around).


At the Brainstorm tech conference on Wednesday, several media-industry heavyweights talked about a video project they did for Harvard University in which they interviewed leaders in the industry about the rise of digital and the decline of newspapers as a force in the media business, and also gave some of their own thoughts about whether media companies could have avoided what they called a “digital riptide” that sucked the business under.

Their answer was no — because the upheaval was too widespread to resist, and the disruption of their business model too financially painful. But is their analysis correct? Yes and no.

The three directors of the project, which was put together for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, are former Time Inc. editor-in-chief John Huey, former New York Times editor of digital Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan, executive chairman of Akamai Technologies. They interviewed about 60 media insiders about the…

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public healthsocial media

Attack on Anti-vac – Toronto Public Health vs. Jenny McCarthy

Yesterday I posted on the story of Toronto Public Health tweeting a call for its followers to voice concerns to the TV show “The View” about the recent hiring of Jenny McCarthy, a prominent anti-vaccination advocate, as its new co-host. Today, Nicole Ghanie-Opondo reflects more deeply on what kind of impact such tweeting really has and the role of public health in voicing its concerns from that of an insider. What should we expect from these Tweets? What really drives change? Why is there resistance to engaging the public and how can we professionally do so in the complicated, messy work that comes with social media engagement? Huge questions to ask and the fact that people like Nicole and her blog collaborator Corey are doing it speaks to how much change potential we can expect. One of the best blog reads you’ll find on this topic.

Public Health and Social Media

I wanted to keep quiet on this issue, being the pioneer and former voice of Toronto Public Health’s Twitter for 3 years…but I think in the spirit of reflection – let’s blog on!

Cameron Norman explains the issue really well in his post ‘Public Health and Social Media: Catching Fire from Small Sparks. Here’s another opinion via Jim Garrow on why governments should have an opinion, as junk scientists do. To sum it up, Toronto Public Health tweeted at Jenny McCarthy regarding her anti-vaccine views and requested The View to change their mind about having her as a host.

2013-07-24 08.17.32 pm

My biased opinion.

I love my public health peeps and especially adored the pioneering and willing spirit Toronto Public Health had in the early days of its foray into social media. Like family, bureaucracy and public health practioners come with their own baggage. One large piece of baggage around public health messaging…

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knowledge translationsocial media

Twitter shows how the news is made, and it’s not pretty — but it’s better that we see it

With the tragic events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings today, the strength and weaknesses of Twitter and the new media for journalism gets brought out for everyone to see. The news is changing and the importance of traditional journalism and citizen witness reporting all comes together. Much to consider as we reflect on the ways of the world and try to make it a better place while others seek otherwise.