By the end of my time writing my dissertation, my goals for my work included:
Not having it sit on a (digital & actual) shelf, never to be seen again
For people to actually read it, or to at least read some version of it
To release it relatively quickly
If you know me, you probably know that my research is on college student use of social media and how that use relates to their civic learning and participation. As you might imagine, this topic changes very quickly. In fact, over the course of my work, I came to find out that Facebook adjusts its news feed algorithm on a weekly basis (h/t @Zeynep for that). This is just one example of the speed of variance we are up against when approaching this sort of study. To a social scientist, this is incredibly frustrating, because we know that it takes months, or years(!) for our finished research work to ever reach others. Meanwhile, trying to account for the variation in something that changes constantly can feel like a Sisyphean task. One of the few things that we can do, then, is to try and get our results out as quickly as possible to at least maintain some level of relevancy.
Taking the above into account, the traditional book/peer review article/chapter route didn’t seem right for me. I think that for several reasons — furthering the academic knowledge base by allowing others to cite your work, long-term contributions to the literature, traditional norms among faculty, etc. — it may still be important for me to publish in traditional formats. However, right now I want people to have easy access to this work, and I’d like to provide it in a format that is appealing to the average reader.
The power of social media to start and amplify discussions around political and social topics is a constant source of amazement for me. As I developed my work, I came to realize that I wanted to practice what I preach and use these tools to advance what I see as an important topic. Still, as the first person to publish their dissertation on Buzzfeed, this is experimental and a bit unpredictable, so I’ll just have to adapt as it goes.
If you’re interested in reading my work as it comes out, I’ll be adding to the below links to reflect new pieces as they are published. Title/Topic:
In this week’s election, Americans aged 18-29 are estimated to have voted at a rate of 21% participation. Make no mistake about it – those numbers are an embarrassment. It’s hard to know where to point the blame, because there is a whole lot to go around. Surely the non-voters themselves, political leaders with repellant behavior, and a society rampant with government cynicism (some of which is deserved, mind you) all contributed to the discouraging statistics.
If you care about anything, then you should care about voting. Living in a nation that provides us with the opportunity to vote on our leadership is a great privilege and responsibility, but the old phrase in Washington is, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” We better start pulling our seats up to the table, because I know I’ve been directly impacted by policies that I disagree with (increased student loan rates, to name just one), and there are surely more to come. When we remove ourselves from the vote, we increase the power of the outside influences that we say discourage us so much. How is that logical?
The thing is, we need to actually start thinking about large-scale societal changes that will actually encourage a spirit of civic responsibility, rather than just paying attention for short spurts and then living with the status quo. If we actually voted and participated as a society, then we might have a shot at an actual representative government. While voting is not analogous to civic engagement, I do see it as a bellwether of national attitudes towards our civic lives. Also, I admire voter turnout efforts and registration drives, but I think that we are facing an apathy that cuts deep. So, the question is, how do we engage our next generation on an intrinsic level to not only care about civic issues, but to actually participate in them? Here are just a few that I propose:
Compulsory Public Service – We need buy-in from young people on the idea that our communities are important, and that when we engage with one another, we all benefit. So, what might this service look like? Community volunteerism work, military service, public agency work, AmeriCorps, and so on could all be considered part of this. The point would be to get young people working in ways that benefit our society, working together and opening up horizons beyond a simple, self-serving viewpoint. I believe that America’s colleges and universities have a big role to play here, as the work being done at colleges reflects great progress on the public service front. Having leaders from higher education in the conversation on developing national public service is something I see as imperative.
Make Election Day Social, Celebrated, and a Holiday – As much as we might discuss political and social issues with one another, voting is a solitary act. Many voters go by themselves, and once you step in that voting booth, you’re all alone. Anecdotally, the groups that I tend to see head to voting booths together are generally people like senior citizens or church groups, who have traveled together via bus. To me, this seems more than a matter of convenience, because I believe that when you regularly do these things in your social group, the act of voting becomes woven into the fabric of your social life. To this end, I find it confusing that we don’t have Election Day as a national holiday…making it so would not only make voting infinitely more convenient, it would also be like creating a fall peer to the 4th of July, and that actually sounds fun. I’d also speculate that developing the social aspect of political participation might happen online, at least in part. Facebook’s Election Day banner is a nice start, and I think we’ll see quite a bit in this area in the years ahead.
Cultivate Empathy in Everyday Actions – This is both the easiest and most difficult of my three proposals to implement. On a day to day basis, we are met with situations that allow us to learn from others, challenge ourselves, and try to help our communities, so the opportunities are there. However, on a day to day basis, it’s also really easy to disengage from challenging interactions, and it’s easy to turn a blind eye to community issues. The good news is that I think the way that we cultivate empathy in our society begins with simple steps toward building social capital, like being open to dialogue with people you disagree with, considering how your actions impact others, and other lessons we hopefully learned shortly after we began speaking. Most importantly, an empathetic society is a caring society – looking out for our fellow citizens and caring about the good of our communities must become traits that are intrinsic in our everyday behaviors.
What do you think? How do we get people engaged and should the focus be on younger generations?
Marshall McLuhan famously noted, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the path of information has such a direct impact on the content of a message that the path of the message is more important than the content itself. Basically, the fact that information is being transmitted through a newspaper, or through an email, or phone call, or a television, has such direct control over the person crafting the message, that inevitably the method of communication embeds itself in the DNA of the message.
So, if we accept McLuhan’s premise that the medium really is the message, what happens when every message we send to one another is mediated by a digital middle-man? We rely on smartphones to transmit our voices (sometimes via voicemails, sometimes through live verbal conversation), we limit ourselves to 160 characters in a text message (140 in a Tweet), and we accept our posts out to friends and followers to have certain layout and size limitations across Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on.
What happens as our technology gets smarter? As Facebook learns what we are more likely to click, when Google customizes our search results to fit with our search history, and when our recent actions are used by our computers to anticipate what we might do next? All of these aforementioned things happen now, and trends indicate that we’re heading further in the direction of customized everything. In this way, the medium through which information travels impacts the content in ever-escalating ways. Ever heard of “The Internet of Things (IoT)?” The basic idea of this is that as many aspects of our lives are digitally connected, many of which learn our habits and preferences, increasingly working in tandem to make life more convenient. Companies now work to build devices that embrace the IoT in areas both mundane (home lights and temperatures adjusting on their own, based on your schedule) and significant (wellness indicators that can directly connect with health providers). As our technology gets smarter, its role in our communications and actions grows larger. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it is primary reason why devices like smartphones are so useful.
The implications of a more fully integrated, intelligent, and responsive world around us are being realized every day. One such implication, however, is the idea that our devices and applications are reflections of ourselves. Think about it this way — In the movie Her, Samantha (the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson) layers an encyclopedic knowledge of information onto a complex analysis of the preferences of the user (played by Joaquin Phoenix). So, the system operates with an infinite set of resources, all designed to cater to the user’s every specific whim.
If our devices are really becoming reflections of ourselves, many questions are raised. Are the reflected images accurate, or are they skewed, as in a funhouse mirror? Are our actions changed, based on the assumption that other people will likely see those actions publicly online (see: Cooley’s Looking-glass self theory)? Do our interactions with one another contain the same value online as they do offline? Are the screens through which we exchange information barriers to communication in addition to serving as facilitators? Do the multiple layers that exist between person A and person B in a digital message result isolation for both parties?
I’m not entirely certain where I stand on these issues, to be honest. Either way, I think we owe ourselves an ongoing audit of our technologies, in a search for good, bad and in between. I’ll end with one of my favorite videos/songs from last year that points a critical eye at our reflective age:
Note: This blog post is cross-posted at the ACPA Digital Task Force Blog, but I thought it might be relevant here for anyone interested in the work that we’ve been doing on the ACPA Research & Scholarship group as part of the ACPA Digital team. Free free to share your thoughts here or on the original post!
As part of our work on the Research & Scholarship subcommittee, our team recently began officially exploring what we perceive to be the gaps in the literature on digital technology and higher education. Of course, many of us in our doctoral programs have already done quite a bit on this search, and so our combined backgrounds served as a great starting point for this project. Still, in a new but burgeoning field, it is our expectation that we will not be able to identify all of the gaps on our own. Our hope is that the gaps that we identify help to further the conversation that is then continued by the community of scholarly practitioners and faculty in higher education. Below are some of the large gaps that we’ve already discussed as a group. With that, we ask: what gaps have we not yet identified? Higher Education in a Digital Age: Large Gaps in the Literature
Demographic Differences in Technology Use and Issues of Equity – Much of the literature on technology use in higher education looks at general trends and suggests parsing the data further to uncover the impact of technology on minority groups. How can our research help to work towards the larger goals relating to equity within higher education?
Qualitative Research – The majority of work out there on social media use is quantitative – what topics have already been explored from a quantitative perspective that would benefit from the addition of qualitative data?
The Evolving Definition of Leadership Within Contemporary Higher Education (Due in Large Part to Technological Change) – The question of “what does it mean to be an effective leader within higher education (in 2014)?” is the focus of entire graduate programs/degrees. How is technology impacting this central aspect of higher education administration?
Globalization of Higher Education and Technology’s Role in this Process – There are seemingly endless areas for exploration here, from BRIC nations and other emerging markets, to student mobility, to opportunities for the democratizing of education through web accessibility. What questions need to be asked in this area?
MOOCS and Other Online Higher Education Environments – As these educational options persist, researchers are just now beginning to explore the areas that have long been studied within student personnel/higher education scholarship. Research opportunities in this emerging area are already extensive, with more still yet to be realized.
Application of Long-Standing Theories (and the Creation of New Theory Where Necessary) Within the Contemporary Context – Huge areas of work are just now being revisited when accounting for digital contexts. Within higher education, a starting point might be direct analyses of student development theory online and blended environments.
Higher Education Population Studies – From graduate students, faculty, and new professionals to SSAOS and college presidents, quantitative and qualitative research needs to be explored on usage, perception, and educational needs of each level within education.
Social Media and Social Justice – What does this relationship look like? What education is working, who is doing it right, and is it even possible at the large scale?
So, what do you think? The power of crowdsourcing can help us to push higher education scholarship forward, but your involvement is imperative. Let us know your thoughts in the comments and on Twitter at #ACPAdigital!
Adam Gismondi @AdamGismondi
Research & Scholarship Committee, ACPADigital
[Upworthy Parody Headline via @UpWorthIt Twitter account]
Do you believe article headlines that you read on your social media feeds? I’ve been asking this question of students as part of my dissertation research to begin my understanding of how students make sense of new media and elements of the world around them. I’ll admit, I’m not so sure how I would answer the question myself. Although I’ve been let down often by hyperbolic headlines that promise to “restore my faith in humanity,” I’m probably still a bit too trusting in terms of my expectations of news stories online. Is this relentless optimism or gullibility? Perhaps both.
Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and a sea of others have all adopted the practice of writing sensationalized headlines that help to drive traffic to stories. “Clickbait” headlines have become so endemic on online news sites that it makes me wonder: What does this style of journalism (a term I use very loosely here) do to the average media consumer? What is the end result of this trend, if it is one that will continue? Is this a positive feedback loop that will result in a complete erosion of public trust in modern media?
I hesitate to pose such wide-reaching (and unanswerable, for the moment) questions, for fear that I might also be engaging in hyperbole. However, let’s consider the 24-hour news networks. Looking at the big three (MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN), you don’t have to search far to find a clear parallel.
When I was a kid, I remember the teaser commercials for the local news saying things like, “What you don’t know about this common household cleaner may be putting you and your family in danger. More at eleven.” A mere taste:
In theory, the 24-hour news networks were supposed to give us hard news that went beyond this style of reporting. In reality, the news networks have nudged further and further away from in-depth, investigative reporting and towards tactics that are aimed exclusively at building viewership above all else. I would argue that these methods jeopardize public trust in information, and thus threaten the public good.
Perhaps the most striking example of cable news’ failure to inform is the absolute reliance on/abuse of (pick your favorite) the phrase “breaking news.” Just one recent example can be seen below, in which an interview on government data collection is interrupted for breaking news on…a Justin Bieber hearing.
With each false alarm sounded by the media, public trust in these outlets erodes. Do people stand up and take notice when “BREAKING NEWS” flashes across the screen with the same attentiveness now as they did even 15 or 20 years ago?
It is this same sort of desensitizing process that I fear when headlines set up news items that simply aren’t there. As more and more sites shift to the clickbait tactic, how do we separate the actual “mind-blowing” and “amazing” from the ordinary? Logically, a fair expectation might be that the stories that used to pack a punch may soon be overlooked. The analogy that I keep coming back to is the idea of slash-and-burn farming. This farming technique clears areas of trees for short-term farming, and it results in poor soil quality. Farmers then must shift their efforts to a new area and repeat the process. Similarly, I wonder if the short-term tactics of the media degrade the public trust in information, resulting in the impact of words being compromised. Eventually, we may tune out and become more difficult to reach.
Most of the conference presentations I’ve seen over the years end with a brief answer to the question, “so what?” Perhaps the element I love most about my two years at SXSWedu is that its sessions often make the “so what” the focus of the dialogue. One of my favorite 2014 sessions that stood out in this way came to us from KQED, a project for multidimensional learning.
The work presented by Matthew Williams of KQED is a perfect example of a creative idea successfully implemented. Existing at the intersection of public media, civic education, and social technologies, KQED provides students with a starting point and a forum for impactful discussions. Williams went through the tools used by KQED – a reliably updated website and an active Twitter presence were two examples – and proceeded to really showcase a model for how to implement technological tools in education. Another great session worth noting along these lines dealt with digital and participatory maps as educational tools. At SXSWedu, there is an assumed starting point for all attendees in terms of knowledge that you bring in, and this allows for a depth of conversation that is unreachable otherwise.
As an educator with a research focus on technology, I’ve seen all too many promising conference sessions devolve into a back-and-forth debate over the minutiae of definitions. SXSWedu mostly avoids this momentum-killing practice by using a format that rewards dialogue and practical application. The shared language that seems to serve as a backbone of SXSWedu leads to a notebook filled with tangible ideas and actions you can bring home. Of course, as with any conference, it’s important that you choose where to spend your time carefully, and you will find hits and misses. Once you find a session that takes theoretical propositions and animates them using clear applications, it can be an immensely rewarding professional experience.
Adam Gismondi is a PhD candidate in the Higher Education program at Boston College and former student affairs administrator. His dissertation is on undergraduate social media use as a means to civic engagement and his other research work deals broadly with technology within higher education. He can be found on Twitter @AdamGismondi and blogs regularly at societyandsocialmedia.wordpress.com.
What do “social” web technologies look like in practice within higher education? This is a question that I often see posed within both online conversations and at conference educational sessions, but rare is the tangible answer that follows.
Earlier this month, I was down at my alma mater, William & Mary, for the annual Charter Day Weekend festivities. Each year, the College brings alums and current students together to celebrate the institution’s founding and honor distinguished alumni, and I was lucky enough to be down there representing the W&M Boston Alumni Chapter at the annual meetings. It was at these meetings that I was introduced to an innovative practice currently being used that combines several elements of the college experience in a unique way. Professor Joel Schwartz, Director of the Charles Center on campus, spoke about the Center’s Honors Fellows, students that apply for and receive special grants for research projects in their respective areas of interest. This is a program that I was familiar with from my time at W&M, but the process by which students can now receive funding was markedly different.
The projects out of the Charles Center, as I remembered them, were fairly contained in a way – if you were interested in the projects being done, you could always find information after a bit of searching. However, for a student that was not personally involved in a project, this research work seemed a bit abstract and distant, in a sense. Unless you went through the application and funding process, it could be unclear exactly what work was being done and how it came about. Recently, however, the Charles Center has shifted this process and made it much more engaging for those not personally connected with the Fellowship program through a revamped and social web presence.
As pictured above, Honors Fellows are now featured online with an abstract of the proposed study, academic department information, and hometown, along with a tracker of funding progress. These straight-forward features allow for engagement within the campus community (and beyond) in ways that may not be immediately apparent.
As anyone that has ever received a college alumni email knows, university projects often rely on alumni donations, so engagement with graduates (who might be able to fund the research) is key to the maintenance of a program such as the Honors Fellowships. In that regard, this website is a great resource.
First, the Honors Fellow website allow for the research proposal to be the primary focus, as it should be. Students condense their project ideas into a short summary that still remains effective enough to help the reader understand the purpose, feasibility, and importance of the study.
Second, the information about department, advisor, and hometown allows for alumni to sort through projects based on groupings that might encourage more financial support. Alumni within the biology department, for example, might decide to donate to a student working within their field. Similarly, a regional alumni association can easily sort projects based on hometown and put together a fundraiser for a student from their state or region.
Third, having a funding status bar within the features (ala Kiva, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or many others) allows visitors to the site to a) see support needed, b) visualize the impact of a donation towards reaching an end goal, and c) become invested (financially, but also emotionally) in a way that can connect someone to the College. Rather than pleading with potential donors to give to a general cause that they might not understand, this online strategy allows people the opportunity to understand, choose, and buy into a cause, person, department, or project that they believe in. This is the sort of engagement that social media strategists speak of – this age of media is not just for broadcast; social media facilitates dialogue. *
The process of sharing and connecting with each year’s Honors Fellows continues beyond the initial donation process, as the site also features student blogs that document research progress. A quick read through some of the entries illustrates how the follow-up writing allows for the work to really come alive in a way that might otherwise never be seen.
Often, those of us in higher education theorize ways in which we can integrate our latest tech tools into practice but struggle to bring these methods to fruition. The work being done with the Honors Fellowship program at William & Mary is a program worth recognizing, because it accomplishes this difficult task and serves as a model for future work on other campuses.
*Note: One area that I was curious about when learning about the Fellowships was the idea of quality control – isn’t it possible that potentially excellent research proposals can be overlooked in favor of those from students who simply gain popular support? The Charles Center accounts for this possibility by also having a committee of faculty reviewers that recognize and fund the top projects that do not make it to their fundraising goal online.
What are the priorities of the student groups that you advise/supervise? Student activities, housing, new student programs, and so on – what are the rules of your department? How does your division of student affairs communicate expectations of employees?
Is it like this?
Effort does not matter, results do. If you happen to be talented and efficient enough to produce great work with minimal effort, raises and promotions will come your way. If you work more hours than everyone else, pour your heart and soul into your office, but just produce average results, prepare to be fired.
Take as much vacation time as you want. You can take as much or as little time off as you see fit, as long as you do excellent work. By the way, the same goes for sick time.
Organizational values are reflected in who is “rewarded, promoted, or let go,” not in a value statement riddled with buzzwords. The qualities of employees that are rewarded for their work are the real reflection of what an organization sees as important. If a supervisor doesn’t view an employee as someone that they would fight to keep (should another job opportunity tempt them to leave), then that employee should be let go.
“Brilliant Jerks” are not worth keeping. The chances of you “teaching” someone a positive attitude are slim to none, so why allow egomaniacs that ruin team morale to stick around?
If you work in a Division of Student Affairs, some of the above may seem quite removed from your organizational reality. Our best of intentions have led us to a place where certain traditional values are embedded in a way that seems permanent. For the same reason, going through Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ 2009 company presentation on their corporate values (called a “Culture Deck”) can seem quite jarring. The above bullet points, along with the below are all adapted from Hastings’ presentation, and I believe that they have major relevancy for student affairs. The presentation slide deck (presented in full at the bottom of this post) is no secret, as it is widely cited and has been called “[possibly] the most important document ever to come out of the Valley” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. I say we take a moment to look beyond our student affairs silos for inspiration in hopes that we can find some new ways of approaching our work.
Six highlights of the Culture Deck that should give us pause (and help us rethink our own organizations):
Honesty Always. A fantastic supervisor of mine from my first year as a student affairs professional (David Pittman, I tip my cap to you) had a rule in our office that really stuck with me: No surprises. He wouldn’t surprise us, and we wouldn’t surprise him. So, if a potentially problematic issue was seen on the horizon, we let him know ASAP and he would do the same for us. Too often in an organization, a small problem can become a big one if it goes unaddressed (or worse, hidden).
Consider your coworkers to be teammates, not competitors. Cutthroat behavior is “not tolerated” at Netflix, because it works counter to the notion that by supporting each other, everybody wins.
Look for ways to increase employee freedom. Allow staff to feel trusted and they will become personally invested in the organization. Innovative minds do not thrive in an environment that sets up boundaries and restrictions at every turn, and these environmental limitations will be visible to potential employees during the hiring process (and VERY off-putting). Allowing for this freedom can be increasingly difficult as an organization grows, according to Hastings, which adds increased importance to bringing in the best employees from the start. In student affairs, since salary may not always be an available incentive, putting forth a trusting, skilled workplace can serve as a valuable incentive to a potential hire.
Vacation flexibility can serve as a tangible reinforcement of some of the aforementioned values. Now, I know that there are MANY complications to this one (state institution rules, varying levels of employment that require different hours/office coverage, and so on), but I think there are ways supervisors can think about ways to allow for some flexibility. In his slide deck, Hastings speaks of the revelation that employees may have semi-set office hours, but they still end up working nights and weekends both in person and online (sound familiar?). One employee took this thought one step further and pointed out the strange practice of counting vacation days but not hours worked per day (or week). This realization led Hastings to remove vacation restrictions altogether.
Context is more important than control in management. By setting institutional context and communicating that context to staff members (through clear and inspiring statements of priorities, stakeholders, overall goals, and what defines “success” within the organization), the need for an organizational leader to control everything evaporates. Micromanagement can’t (and shouldn’t) survive in this environment.
Keep a person’s position in the organization tied closely to their performance. Hastings notes that, “if a manager would promote to prevent an employee from leaving, the manager should promote now instead of waiting.” There are often ways to add responsibility, shift work around, and (sometimes) increase pay/title to show a staff member’s value within a division of student affairs. There are also going to be times when it simply isn’t possible to promote or otherwise compensate a staff member, but actively looking for the next possible way to make such a move on someone’s behalf can still show an employee that they are valued.
Even taking all of the above into account, I do think it is necessary to address some caveats in adapting the Netflix Culture Deck into student affairs. We should be honest about what is and isn’t possible (or even what we don’t want to be possible), and we should consider:
A major tradeoff of the Netflix ethos is that is not necessarily a “stable” environment, and job security can be seen as tenuous at best for some. Bringing elements of the Netflix workplace into higher education comes with tradeoffs, and this instability would certainly not be for everybody (and could drive off some skittish current and potential employees).
There isn’t an endless supply of amazing staff members out there – but there are superstars, and they are worth fighting for to keep on your staff. Recruiting for a giant tech company is very different than recruiting a staff member to a student affairs job. The candidates that come through job interviews in student affairs do, however, often share the widely-cited Silicon Valley trait of being extremely passionate about their work. It just takes a great deal of work and care to identify those employees that will excel in your organization.
There isn’t an endless supply of money in higher education to pay salaries that remove financial concerns. I left the salary section of the slide deck (mostly) out of this post for a reason. Despite some sections of popular media declaring higher education’s administrative bloat to be out of control, the reality is often that offices are not equipped to pay staff members with any sort of excess. This speaks to the importance of working to positively affect the elements of an organization that are within a staff’s control.
Netflix’s policy on expensing, entertainment, gifts, and travel is simply, “act in Netflix’s best interest.” No qualifiers, no rulebooks, just five words to summarize all of it. Of course, within higher education, it would be wonderful to have such discretion over just travel expenses, but it is safe to say that most universities will never be able to simplify spending policies to this level.
There is much more to this slide deck than is outlined above, and I encourage you to give it a look below. It may change your views on how your organization can, and should, operate.
Back in college, one of my American Studies professors had our class go back and watch Forrest Gump. The exercise was designed to have us watch the film with a focus on the historical elements and to try and disregard some of the inclination to, let’s say, “take off our thinking caps” in the name of this being a popular movie.
The main conclusion that a viewer draws within the context of this newly positioned viewing is that Forrest Gump is really, really bad as a historical document. Matt Langer does a great job of dissecting the film on these terms, so I will recommend spending a moment reading his post if you’re looking to argue that point. The basic gist, however, is that the film takes recent (often rather ugly) American history, mashes it up, and rearranges it with no discernible edge. The lack of a critical lens is summed up well by Langer, as he declares:
Forrest Gump is a trip down memory lane in the same way a stroll through Epcot is a study abroad program. It’s a carefree romp through four decades of history—four very often quite grave decades!—whose gravity never registers for the precociously dim narrator doing the romping…It maintains no fidelity to any specific telling of history and rather exists only to catalogue the many historical accidents that merely happened. It doesn’t bear witness to anything at all because in Forrest’s telling there is only a that something happened, never a why. It’s a civics lesson in the form of a box score.
Anyway, why bring this up now? The Gump course exercise came to mind recently when I was thinking about the 24-hour news cycle that defines 2013 politics. I was reading a story on Politico that looked at the recent comeback of Mark Sanford and what it means for other politicians as they navigate self-imposed scandals. The Sanford story is a particularly amazing one — from leaving public life in disgrace to winning back an elected office in about 4 years. Anthony Weiner is attempting a similar comeback in the NYC Gubernatorial race.
How is it possible that a public figure can turn their fortunes around so quickly, and why don’t scandals seem to really stick with people anymore? The connections that I see here relate to the notions of narrative, media, and public interest.
In Forrest Gump, history is blurred. The events that we once presumably had clear knowledge of are viewed from a romanticized distance, which one may certainly argue is merely a function of filmmaking. To dive into the sociopolitical issues of the mid-20th century may have been too complicated a task for this particular movie, or it may have just not been the film’s purpose. Either way, though, major events are presented as hollow structures — we recognize their shape and general outline, but the true substance is absent.
I believe that as we learn – about historical events for instance – issues enter our consciousness as blurry, then they evolve to a point of peak clarity, and then finally, as time passes, they settle into a final level of blurriness once again. Consider an event like the ballot/voting mess in Florida in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. First, we (as a collective people) were unclear as to what exactly was happening, then as information came to us we learned about the many voting considerations (hanging chads, misalignment in the ballots, potential hand-counting errors, etc.), and then after the issue came to a conclusion, it faded back into a history that your average citizen could likely explain only in general terms.
If you will grant my basic assumption that the above accurately describes the patterns of historical events within the public consciousness, I would like to extend the logic one step further. This process, in which issues clarify and then blur is now being greatly accelerated by new media. The primary drivers of this change, I would argue, are social media platforms and 24-hour news channels.
In the past, issues had a chance to gradually unfold as ordinary citizens gathered and processed information. This information eventually reached a point that provided peak understanding for the individual, and the story faded over time, such that the person was left with a somewhat informed, but less than perfect memory of the story or event.
This same process is still occurring, but it is happening in minutes and seconds, rather than in days and months.
The problems that I would speculate might be happening as a result are numerous: misinformation surrounding a story receiving a greater proportion of a person’s attention, shortened attention span from the public on any issue (no matter the relative importance of said issue), the creation of an information vacuum that constantly must be filled by some story (any story) and usher out the previous happenings, and so on.
The recent “comebacks” that we’ve seen among politicians of late (and really, many other formerly disgraced public figures – think Michael Vick) is reflective of this process, in which news turnover is rapid and only getting faster. In a media world in which each story seemingly evaporates days after first appearing, it seems only natural that public figures would keep testing the public’s memory (or capacity for forgiveness, if you’d like to take a more optimistic view).
The historical “blurring” that occurs in Forrest Gump makes sense in many ways – the filmmakers never claimed to be making a documentary on the last half-century of American history. The movie proved immensely popular and for some even brought up feelings of nostalgia for the music, style, and excitement of past decades. But even still, the film may represent the natural human tendency to let historical events gradually morph from a photograph to a painting over time. What will it mean when our media environment accelerates this process to still unseen levels? What does it mean for us now? To be honest, I’m not so sure myself. Perhaps in the end, the truly prophetic movie character we should be looking to is Ferris Bueller:
As we wrap up the semester and MI621 draws to a close, I decided to take a slightly different approach to our “concluding thoughts” post. Since we’ve done a great deal of reflection on past trends and current developments in social media, I thought it might be interesting to take a stab at considering future directions in the field. Now, some of these extrapolations are admittedly bolder than others, but I tried to go out on a limb somewhat and give myself something to look back on over the next five years. Thoughts, agreements, and mocking disagreements are all welcome:
Instagram will no longer exist as a standalone app – Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram was met with trepidation by users that swear by Instagram’s focused, simple feed. Many feared that Facebook would strip Instagram’s features and just fold them into the overall Facebook experience in an effort to stop a hot competitor. Both sides put those fears to rest by declaring the companies separate entities that would be developed apart from one another moving forward.
Those sentiments may very well have been sincere, but as Facebook continues to hone its advertising strategy and feature integration, I believe that they will look to Instagram as one of its most potentially valuable commodities. There are other ways to take Instagram’s large and dedicated user base to profitability, but the most direct route seems to force users to engage with the content through the tried and true Facebook News Feed (particularly as they work to make the Feed more photo-friendly). My hunch is that Facebook’s compromise in this shift will be allowing users to view an “Instagram Only” feed through a simple click, much in the same way that you can now create specific feeds (friends, family, etc.).
Twitter will acquire Yahoo! (and reinvent the site using an endless stream of data from tweets) – As Twitter continues to grow its active user base, the company will likely look to capitalize on its vast data source (as can be seen in the new Twitter music app).
Currently, other companies seem to leverage Twitter’s main asset (publicly shared tweets) more than Twitter itself. Yahoo! is a company that does many things, and it does almost none of them well. Yet, because Yahoo! was one of the original large names on the web, it maintains a large user base that uses their services for everything from email to fantasy football. Rather than submit to the painful mix of slow decline and failed modernization attempts, Yahoo! may eventually look to salvage its remaining value. If so, Twitter seems a logical buyer, as the company’s immense data flow would allow for an infusion of unique and incomparably fast content across all aspects of Yahoo’s business (news, search, games, maps, music, and so on).
Restaurants will go through life cycles quicker, and overall quality will be raised as a result – Yelp has become an integral part of local business search, and I believe it (and perhaps similar other companies) will only continue to grow as the population moves towards universal comfort with mobile applications.
Yelp’s anticipated growth translates to new challenges and opportunities for businesses (and restaurants in particular) that are now reviewed by average consumers more than the “professional” counterparts. This scrutiny will force restaurants to become responsive to customers, who will be equipped with options, insights, and new tools for feedback in previously unseen ways. Perhaps the most vital feature of Yelp’s model that speaks to future potential is that it works best on mobile. While other companies struggle to keep up with consumer movement from computer to mobile, Yelp is centered around the premise that it integrates mobile features (location services in particular) to increase usability.
A new degree will be introduced in higher education – The emergence of MOOCs into the higher education landscape is already disrupting traditional notions of the collegiate experience. While some lawmakers and entrepreneurs have made noise about MOOCs eventually replacing brick and mortar universities, the pushback against this viewpoint is palpable within much of the higher education community. Instead, a third path will emerge in
which, while universities work to “flip” classrooms and leverage new technologies to enhance the traditional college experience, MOOCs will also emerge as legitimate centers of education. This path, as I see it, may most logically be developed through a new degree that will be distinguished from an associate or bachelor’s degree as awarded exclusively by MOOCs. The development of this degree will allow for universities to maintain their standing within the educational community while also allowing for the creation of a new set of standards, expectations, and accountability for MOOCs.
So, what do you all think? What are your predictions for the future of the social web/social media? Do you agree or disagree with my extrapolations? I’d love to keep this conversation going, so please feel free to provide feedback!