Information flow and attention

danah boyd writes an insightful essay for UX Magazine, Streams of Content, Limited Attention, which examines the change from a broadcast information landscape to a networked one and its implications. She identifies four core issues:

  1. Democratization
  2. Stimulation
  3. Homophily
  4. Power

About democratisation, for example, she says:

Switching from a model of distribution to a model of attention is disruptive, but it is not inherently democratizing. This is a mistake we often make when talking about this shift. We may be democratizing certain types of access, but we’re not democratizing attention. Just because we’re moving towards a state where anyone has the ability to get information into the stream does not mean that attention will be divided equally. Opening up access to the structures of distribution is not democratizing when distribution is no longer the organizing function.

This is a really important essay, full of thought provoking nuggets. I don’t really want to boil it down to a soundbite, because this is a complex subject and to give you a two sentence summary would be to do it and danah a disservice. I think, though, this is going to be one of those essays I’m going to have to read and reread until its implications – which are not always obvious – have fully sunken in.

Report: ‘Digital Natives’: A Myth?

POLIS, the LSE and London College of Communications’ journalism research and policy initiative, recently released a report into the concept of ‘digital native’, examining whether young people really are imbued with an innate, and by implication superior, understanding of technology.

I wrote about this last year and my review of the literature led me to the conclusion that the idea of the ‘digital native’ was no more than a construction, created primarily it seems to provoke a sense of difference between the generations and, from that, a moral panic around how technology is allegedly affecting younger people.

In the introduction to his report, co-authored with Ranjana Das, Charlie Beckett says:

Myths can be useful ways for societies to tell stories about themselves. They can help us preserve our values and cope with change. So the idea that young people are particularly, even naturally adept at using new media technologies is comforting and perhaps even exciting. Even if older adults find digital devices and processes challenging we can reassure ourselves that the next generation will take to them effortlessly and creatively. I regularly hear from middle aged digital enthusiasts as well as the technophobes how their teenage children can do amazing and/or disturbing things online. They blog, game and network on a variety of platforms, often multi-tasking, producing sophisticated and rich patterns of communication and expression. This is wonderful and quite often true. But as the evidence and analysis of this report shows, it is a myth that this kind of youthful dexterity and literacy is somehow inevitable or ubiquitous. And this matters. As Professor Livingstone says, if we don’t understand the reality of young people’s use of the Internet, then we won’t realize how important it is to them and how vital it is to provide the skills and resources for them to make the myth a reality.

The fact is that young people experience the same opportunities and challenges as everyone else who uses digital technologies. The cultural and social barriers to conventional literacies appear to replicate themselves online. A young person who struggles to read a book will quite likely find online navigation difficult, too. There may be magical things that we can do online, but there is no miraculous power that changes intellectual frogs into digital princes. Those people growing up over the last decade or so may well be more familiar with a world of virtual and networked culture and communications. However, individual youths have not been endowed by some freakish evolutionary process with exceptional technological powers.

Furthering our understanding of how young people use, understand and relate to digital technology is essential to business. Too many times I have heard business people talk about how the ‘Facebook Generation will demand social tools’, when the anecdotal evidence I have is that the Facebook Generation doesn’t much see a need to use social tools in the workplace and would see the use of Facebook by their employers as an invasion of their personal space.

The truth is that all generations show a distribution of technological aptitude, and I’d put money on it being a normal distribution at that. There may be a difference in the width of the central hump of the bell curve, due simply to the increase in opportunity to interact with technology, but there no generation is born with an innate ability to grok tech.

This should ring alarm bells in any business whose HR policy has focused on attracting young employees with the assumption that those people will be better at technology. If you’re hoping that the youngsters will save your business from technological decline, you’re very much mistaken. Such a policy also ignores the vast pool of older tech-literate people who have grown up with the technology and who understand it in their bones.

Social isn’t just online

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog carries a post about how much better we feel when we get absorbed in a social task than if we do the same task on our own. You’ve probably heard of ‘flow’, the feeling of being so absorbed in something that time stands still. Flow “is highly rewarding and usually provokes feelings of joy afterwards”, but Charles Walker has discovered that “social flow is associated with more joy than solitary flow – ‘that doing it together is better than doing it alone’.”

The ‘social enterprise’ isn’t just about using social media to make connections between people via technology, it’s also about using that technology to bolster face-to-face relationships. Wouldn’t it be great if we could provide people with opportunities to experience social flow on a regular basis as a part of getting their job done!

Report: Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2010

Edelman’s yearly Trust Barometer survey results are out, with trust in business, governments and NGOs up, whilst trust in the media continues its three year decline. However:

Although trust in business is up, the rise is tenuous. Globally, nearly 70 percent of informed publics expect business and financial companies will revert to “business as usual” after the recession.

Interestingly, trust in “credentialed experts” is up, compared to a drop in trust in “[people] like me”, perhaps because in a recession people become aware that their friends don’t have better information than they do. I don’t think this necessarily points to a decline in word-of-mouth and would expect this metric to bounce back once we’re out of recession. But then, your word-of-mouth is only as good as people’s experience of your actual product or service and businesses do need to understand that you if you put lipstick on a pig, people will still see that it’s a pig.

Edelman also found that:

A vastly different set of factors – let by trust and transparency – now influences corporate reputation and demands that companies take a multi-dimensional approach to their engagement with stakeholders.

Another good reason to use social media to engage with customers, clients and other stakeholders!

I’m slightly surprised it’s taken us this long to see this happen. People are much more aware now that businesses can act deceptively towards them. There are many examples of deception (whether deliberate or through incompetence) and subsequent climb-down that persist in the public consciousness because the story has been so efficiently transmitted via the internet. It’s hard not to view business in general with a certain level of mistrust these days.

Businesses that are deliberately transparent, on the other hand, counter this background mistrust by laying their cards on the table and emphasising that they are made up of human beings with whom we can interact, rather than corporate droids who only know how to say their equivalent of Computer Says NO! It is, after all, much harder to mistrust a real person for no reason than a faceless megacorp.

Here, Robert Phillips, UK Ceo for Edelman, talks about how trust pans out in the UK:

As usual, Edelman’s report provides us with much food for thought.

Report: Pew’s Social Media and Young Adults

Pew’s Internet & American Life Project has recently published their report Social Media and Young Adults, which looks at social media usage by teens and young adults.

Two Pew Internet Project surveys of teens and adults reveal a decline in blogging among teens and young adults and a modest rise among adults 30 and older. Even as blogging declines among those under 30, wireless connectivity continues to rise in this age group, as does social network use. Teens ages 12-17 do not use Twitter in large numbers, though high school-aged girls show the greatest enthusiasm for the application.

The report goes on to say that whilst blogging amongst teens and young adults has dropped since 2006, down to 14% of online teens compared to 28%, it has risen amongst the over 30s from 7% in 2007 to 11% in 2009. 73% of online teens use social networks now, compared to 55% in 2006 and 65% in 2008. 47% of online adults use social networks, up from 37% in 2008. Furthermore, adults are “increasingly fragmenting their social networking experience” as 52% have two or more different profiles.

There’s lots more information, about Twitter, connectivity and gadget use. I haven’t yet had a chance to read the whole thing, but none of the above statistics should surprise anyone.

Teens never were particularly into blogging and if they were going to blog anywhere it was going to be on LiveJournal. Different blogging tools had radically different profiles in 2006, with tools like Typepad having a middle-aged, white male demographic and LiveJournal attracting mainly teens, 75% female, with a focus on cultural minorities. The blogging landscape has changed a lot since then, and the tool-specific cultures have grown or receded along with the tools themselves. LiveJournal, which had just been bought by SixApart was sold to SUP, a Russian media company and now has 11.6 million users. Movable Type/Typepad seem to have decreased in popularity. WordPress has developed is now one of the most usable and extensible platforms available. It currently has 202 million users.

Culturally, blogging has moved into the mainstream – a good enough reason for many teens to see it as ‘something old people do’ and that they should, therefore, avoid. And those teens who were on LJ in 2006 are growing up, hitting 20 and going to university or getting jobs. And I can say from experience that blogging really is easier when you’re underemployed!

The wider social media landscape has changed too. Facebook had started off as a closed, school-/university-only site, accessible only to those with an educational email address. In 2006 is opened its doors and so all of those teens/early-20-somethings who were facing having to leave their friends behind as they lost their university email address could continue their activities into the workplace. MySpace, which in 2006 was the most popular social network, became a lot less cool. In 2008, Facebook took MySpace’s crown and it is now pretty much seen as Facebook’s ugly little brother (even though MySpace is a year older).

Twitter, of course, barely existed in 2006, and whilst it’s still not hugely popular amongst teens, plain ol’ SMSing is. Teens have greater access to mobile phones now than they did, with 75% of American teens between 12 and 17 owning one. I’d suspect the pattern is the same in the UK and Europe. Text bundles are now very generous, so teens have no need of Twitter – their social circle is based on their school friends and neighbours for whom texts work well enough.(In most cases, they have yet to develop geographically scattered networks that tools such as Twitter are useful for sustaining.)

As for adults using more social networks, but fragmenting their social experience, well again, there are a lot more networks to join now than their were, and they don’t all do the same thing. I can’t do on Twitter what I do on Flickr or Dopplr. So I would expect to see usage and fragmentation continue to increase.

I love the Pew reports. We don’t have anything like this in the UK, although we desperately need this sort of research to be done. As I’ve said before, Ofcom and the Office for National Statistics do some work, but it lacks the focus and detail that business and government need if they are to base decisions on evidence instead of anecdote. However, it is important when we read these reports to remember that the digital landscape is continually shifting, and we can’t separate out the changes we see in online behaviour from the development of the web. As such, I’d say there is nothing that surprises me in this report, nothing that seems out of place within the wider context of technology change and adoption.

Lessons in statistics

This week brought two really fascinating insights into the world of statistics. The first was from a most unusual source: The Daily Mail (not my usual read – the link was posted to the Bad Science forum). They had run with the story Cracked it! Woman finds six double yolk eggs in one box beating trillion-to-one odds, which was then pretty rigorously debunked by the Mail’s own Michael Hanlon.

In Eggs-actly what ARE the chances of a double-yolker? Hanlon points out that young hens tend to produce more double yolks than older hens, and that flocks tend to be of the same age, so six double-yolkers is not an unusual occurrence for a young flock. Further more, double-yolkers are heavier than single yolked eggs, so when the eggs are sorted by weight they will tend to wind up in the same box. So really, a box of six double-yolkers isn’t that much of a surprise.

The second was from WNYC’s RadioLab, a great radio show and podcast from NPR in the States which has now become a must-listen for the gym. I love RadioLab – they cover science stories in an engaging, entertaining and though provoking way. Their programme from Sept 9 last year was called Stochasticity, “a wonderfully slippery and smarty-pants word for randomness”. The first two sections should be compulsory listening for every journalist:

A Very Lucky Wind
Laura Buxton, an English girl just shy of ten years old, didn’t realize the strange course her life would take after her red balloon was swept away into the sky. It drifted south over England, bearing a small label that said, “Please send back to Laura Buxton.” What happened next is something you just couldn’t make up – well, you could, but you’d be accused of being absolutely, completely, appallingly unrealistic.

On a journey to find out how we should think about Laura’s story, and luck and chance more generally, Jad and Robert join Deborah Nolan to perform a simple coin-toss experiment. And Jay Koehler, an expert in the role of probability and statistics in law and business, demystifies some of Jad and Robert’s miraculous misconceptions.

And then the first half especially of:

Seeking Patterns
Fine. Randomness may govern the world around us, but does it guide US?? Jonah Lehrer joins us to examine one of the most skilled basketball teams ever, the ’82 – ’83 ’76ers, and wonders whether or not the mythical “hot hand” actually exists.

Then we meet Ann Klinestiver of West Virginia, an English teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991. When she began to take a drug to treat her disease, her life changed completely after one fateful day at the casino. Jonah discusses the neurotransmitter dopamine and the work of Wolfram Schultz, whose experiments with monkeys in the 1970s shed light on Ann’s strange addiction and the deep desire for patterns inside us all.

Statistics is something that you constantly see journalists getting wrong. The Bad Science forums are rife with examples of statistics abuse. It’s not surprising, because it’s actually very easy to get statistics wrong: Probability in particular can be very counter-intuitive and assumptions that seem to be common sense are frequently just our brains playing silly buggers with us. Personally, I think that all journalists should have to study statistics, even the freelances, because it’s so easy to get it wrong and so useful when you get it right. But, in the meantime, I’d settle for more people listening to shows like RadioLab and reading blogs like Good Math, Bad Math, Bad Science, or Junk Charts.

Does your personality influence how you use the web?

The British Psychological Society blog highlights recent research by Leman Tosun and Timo Lajunen (requires login) into personality type and internet usage:

Using Eysenck’s classic personality test, Tosun and Lajunen found that students who scored high on extraversion (agreeing with statements like ‘I am very talkative’) tended to use the Internet to extend their real-life relationships, whereas students who scored high on psychoticism (answering ‘yes’ to statements like ‘does your mood often go up and down?’ and ‘do you like movie scenes involving violence and torture?’) tended to use the Internet as a substitute for face-to-face relationships. Students who scored high on psychoticism were also likely to say that they found it easier to reveal their true selves online than face-to-face. The personality subscale of neuroticism (indicated by ‘yes’ answers to items like ‘Do things often seem hopeless to you?) was not associated with styles of Internet use.

‘Our data suggest that global personality traits may explain social Internet use to some extent,’ the researchers concluded. ‘In future studies, a more detailed index of social motives can be used to better understand the relation between personality and Internet use.’

I wonder how long it will take for companies that use psychometric testing to add an additional “internet user type” section…

Are you T-shaped?

I recently discovered Keith Sawyer’s blog, Creativity & Innovation. Keith is a professor of psychology, an expert on creativity and well worth a read. In his post about cross understanding in teams he discusses the observation that teams including people with the ability to understand another’s perspective do better than teams that don’t:

[…] cross understanding can help us to explain several apparently contradictory findings in group collaboration research:

1. Diversity often has a negative impact on team performance, and this is sometimes explained by the “social categorization bias” that people have towards similar people. But in some groups, diversity does not result in reduced performance; the authors argue that this will happen when cross understanding is high.

2. In some groups, strong sub-groups can interfere with effective collaboration. But if cross understanding is high, this problem can be reduced.

Related to this is the idea of ‘T-shaped people’ who have one particular area of deep expertise which makes up the shaft of the T, but then also have knowledge and skills in other areas (the crossbar).

It strikes me that most of the social media and tech people that I admire look T-shaped to me: Leisa Reichelt, Stephanie Booth, Stephanie Troeth, David Weinberger, Euan Semple, Lloyd Davis… the list goes on. I wonder if being empathic, able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, curious about the world around it and other people’s experiences, and able to recognise patterns across disciplines is really what marks out a social media natural.

Some people really do just ‘get it’, almost without trying, whereas others just can’t wrap their heads around even basic concepts no matter how often or how clearly they are explained. I have never been able to spot a correlation between age, online experience, social media experience, activity in communities and that ability to comprehend what makes social media different to other forms of communications. Hm, that could be an interesting area of research!

Embrace your daydreams

Psychology Today has an article by Amy Fries on how daydreamers are also more intelligent:

Researchers using brain scanning technology found that the “default network,” the relatively new buzzword for the daydreaming state, was significantly more active in the “superior intelligence group” than the “average intelligence group.” According to the study, this suggests that the stronger connections displayed in the “functional integration of the default network might be related to individual intelligent performance.”

My nonscientific translation of this: while daydreaming, your thoughts are gliding and ricocheting all over the place–past, present, future–accessing all your stored knowledge, memories, experiences, etc. What the study seems to be saying is that these connections–the ricocheting thoughts if you will–appear to be stronger in smarter people. Maybe that’s why they can get more out of their daydreaming states of mind. They can dig deeper. This seems to fit nicely with other studies that say that people who can go deeper into daydreaming states are more likely to come away with worthwhile insights.

I’ve spoken before about daydreaming and it’s importance to my writing life. I also think that daydreaming is important in business, particularly if you’re in a creative or innovative role. Yet daydreaming is verboten in a professional context. We’re supposed to be heads-down, focused on our work all day every day. That’s not physically possible, of course, so people fake concentration by doing low-energy tasks, like cleaning out their inbox, to give their brains some time to spin freely.

When it comes to social media, I see this need to freewheel as even more important. I can type at over 90 words per minute, but it can still take me an hour to write even a short blog post because for much of that time I’m reading and mulling (a more acceptable word for daydreaming, perhaps). Blogging is, at its best, about people synthesising new ideas from the works of others. That sort of thought, where you’re taking in different strands of information and forming novel links between them, requires time, not to mention a good night’s sleep.

This is why bloggers need managerial support to be effective. Blogging at work can put serious pressure on the blogger, who may want to spend a day figuring a post out, but who feels that they are supposed to be banging out something quick. Acceptance from colleagues that blogging is a legitimate way for them to be spending their time is also important – there’s nothing like negative peer pressure to kill off a blogger’s enthusiasm. Without that support the blogger can wind up abandoning their writing or not fulfiling their potential, and everyone loses out.

The long and the short of it is that if you want your staff to be creative, innovative, thoughtful and to benefit fully from their intelligence, give them the time and space to cogitate, mull, consider and daydream.

What can a dating site teach enterprise?

I wrote earlier this month about the importance of faces in profile photos. Today I stumbled across a fascinating post about profile pictures from dating site OKCupid, via Adam Tinworth’s blog.

Christian from OKCupid gathered data from their site, analysing photos and looking at the messages that people received and sent to see if different photo styles affected how successful people were in attracting both incoming messages and replies to their outgoing messages. The results are fascinating, turning upside down some assumptions about what sort of photos would be best. Women, for example, should probably put a ‘flirty face’ on, whereas if you’re a bloke with good abs you should show them off and if your photo doesn’t show your face, make sure that it’s interesting in some other way.

Now, I’m not trying to imply that professional women should put on their flirty face when posing for their business headshot or that men should be getting their abs out for their team photo. (And I’m sure I”m not the only one to heave a sigh of relief about that.) But this study does throw up an interesting question: What do we know about the impact of different types of profile pictures in a professional setting?

I’m sure that some will say that in a professional context, photos shouldn’t matter, that we judge each other based on their abilities and actions, not on what they look like. If that were true, the world would be a much better place, but if we’re honest we’ll admit that how someone looks does affect the way we think of them. Such reactions are hardwired into our brains, and they’re not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have good instincts.

I’m also sure that we’ve all seen corporate directly photos that are deeply unflattering. Generally speaking, when you get your company photocard done, the person taking the photo probably isn’t thinking very hard about how to make you look your best. And in some cases, the results are worse than a passport photo. Unfortunately, regardless of quality, those photos then get put onto the internal directory, whether we like it or not.

I don’t know of anyone who has studied the responses provoked by different photos in, say, LinkedIn, but I think it would make a fascinating topic of research. Are there particular types of photos – looking the camera or not, smiling or not, naturalistic or posed, for example – that make people more predisposed to think positively of the subject? And how might this affect the way we interact with people professionally?

There is no doubt that very subtle things can affect the way we think of others. In one experiment, subjects were asked to hold either a warm of cold drink for a brief time. They were then asked their opinions about the woman who gave them the drink to hold. Those who held a warm drink thought more kindly of her than those who got the cold drink. (Lesson: Never give your boss anything cold to hold!)

So, are we doing ourselves no favours by allowing poor photos of ourselves to be used in social networks and internal directories? Should businesses pay more attention to the way that they photograph and present photos of staff? Should we be allowed to provide our own? If so, what guidelines should we follow?

I know one things for sure: I need a better avatar photo because apparently “with an animal” scores worse than any other typo of photo if you’re a woman. If you’re a bloke, however, you should go and get yourself a kitten right now, because even getting your abs out is less popular than a guy with an animal. It’s probably more socially acceptable too!