Your Student Affairs Office isn’t Run Like Netflix, but Maybe it Should Be

Is this how you view your work?
Is this how you view your work?
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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.

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Six highlights of the Culture Deck that should give us pause (and help us rethink our own organizations):

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


The “Forrest Gump-ization” of Now

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.

So what?

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.

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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:

4 Bold Predictions for the Social Web in 2018

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:

  1. 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.).

  2. 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).

  3. 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 recent growth Source:
    Yelp’s recent growth

    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.

  4. 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!

Does Social Media Celebrate the “Narcissism of Similarity?”

Last June, Buzzfeed ran a piece entitled, ” People You Need to Unfriend on Facebook Immediately.”  In the post, the author suggests 1) signing into Facebook, 2) clicking links below various pop culture/political images, 3) seeing which of your friends has “liked” each of the pages, and 4) defriending these people.  Pages included in this exercise?  Nickleback, Guy Fieri, Two and a Half Men, Rush Limbaugh, Kim Kardashian, the Adam Sandler movie “Jack and Jill,” Dane Cook, and so on.

Adam Sandler, riding a jet ski all the way to a 3% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Source:

While Buzzfeed’s post can be tossed aside as a throwaway attempt at garnering laughs and page views, is it indicative of a shared attitude on the Internet?  Do we all self-select our peer group online to the point that we are eventually surrounded by like-minded others that share not only our political views, but also our favorite TV shows, taste in music, and seemingly random (read: bacon, kittens, 90s pop culture) favorite things in general?  And what if you disagree with one of the things that your friends all seem to love – do you feel the need to keep that to yourself?

In his landmark 1985 work, “Habits of the Heart,” sociologist Robert Bellah explores some societal issues that might provide some insight into how we interact online today.  Of particular interest for the topic at hand is the notion of “lifestyle enclaves” that is introduced within the work.  

“Lifestyle enclaves” refer to areas that people live in by choice and are centered around similarity.  In practice, this areas can be anything from a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood to a retirement community.  Lifestyle enclaves fit the needs of those who seek them out, as they position a person amongst others of similar characteristics, be it by measure of income, cultural interest, or another condition.  So what exactly distinguishes a lifestyle enclave from our typical notions of a community? In Bellah’s words,

Whereas a community attempts to be an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life and the different callings of all, lifestyle is fundamentally segmental and celebrates the narcissism of similarity (emphasis mine). It usually explicitly involves a contrast with others who do not share one lifestyle. For this reason we speak not of lifestyle communities, though they are often called such in contemporary usage, but of lifestyle enclaves…The different, those with other lifestyles are not necessarily despised, they may be willingly tolerated, but they are irrelevant or even invisible in terms of one’s own lifestyle enclave.

Reading this passage, one can begin to wonder: How easy is it for us to think we are within a “genuine community” when we are really within a “lifestyle enclave?”  And how easy is it for us to take a step back and see which of these we are building when we are helping to develop a group?  These days, these questions must not only be addressed offline, but they must also be approached within the context of our social experiences online.

Calvin & Hobbes: If you want to be in my lifestyle enclave, you must appreciate it. Source:

In the digital sphere, as I’ve addressed earlier, we often serve as our own editors for the content that we receive.  The status updates that you see, the photos that are shared, the articles that are posted in your feed – it’s all because you decided to “friend” or “follow” an account (except, of course, for advertisements, but that’s another story).  So, when we log into our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. accounts, are we unwittingly part of a digital lifestyle enclave?

Lifestyle enclaves are by their very nature exclusive.  Due to the fact that they are centered around a particular interest (or set of interests), certain characteristics emerge: a language forms around the shared interest, certain abilities and pieces of knowledge are given value, and attempts by a member to show a difference in values or skills from the norms of the group are cause for conflict and exclusion.  Does this exist on the web?  If someone posts a view that you oppose online, do you tend to engage with that person, or do you exasperatedly ignore them?  If someone does not post any view, but does not go out of their way to support a view that you agree with, does that move them away from what you expect to see in your social media news feed? 

So, what is the impact of all of this if the general premise holds?  One might draw the conclusion that users draw themselves into somewhat of an echo chamber online that allows in one narrative and filters out disagreements.  Facebook, however, disagrees – a recent study of theirs contradicts some of this argument, although the debate is far from over.  It’s hard to read Bellah’s work in the modern context and not at least speculate that the social structures of the web perpetuate lifestyle enclaves just as it aids community-building.  As we learn to navigate the new digital tools in our lives, it is important for us to at least explore these questions to ensure that we aren’t moving forward blindly.  Gaining some broad understanding for how society reacts to and prepares for new avenues for communication will allow us at least properly contextualize the new opportunities and challenges on the horizon.

An Ode to Record Store Day: 5 Ways to Use the Social Web to Discover New Music


One of my favorite holidays, Record Store Day, is fast approaching.  The event, taking place this year on April 20th (it is held yearly on the third Saturday in April), is an event designed to raise support for brick and mortar retail stores.  The day features special edition album releases, special events, and features participants from around the world (although it primarily focuses on US locations).  As artists, stores, record labels, and other interested parties participate, they help to build support for the notion that consumers should think local as they shop for music throughout the year.  The first step in this process, however, is finding new music that warrants a purchase.  To honor the occasion, I’ve put together a handy guide for anyone who might feel a little out of the loop on the music discovery process or stuck in a musical rut: Disclosure: I have intentionally left off a few other paths to new music, partially for the sake of brevity and partially because I felt they were more or less covered extensively elsewhere.

    1. – One of the true gems of the web that I feel is constantly undersold (and tends to get overshadowed by Pandora and Spotify) is  The primary function of is as an add-on to your music listening app of choice.  You download the ‘scrobbler,’ and it runs in the background of your computer, keeping a running list of your listening history (by way of Spotify, iTunes, your iPod, etc.) along the way.  This is a great way for you to see your (or your friends’) listening habits in an organized way.  You can look at your most listened artists and tracks of the week, month, half year, year, or all-time.  The data isn’t limited there, however – also has a myriad of experimental ways to organize your music and help you find new artists and tracks in their playground.  OK, so that is all simple enough, but how will this help you to make new discoveries?  The key to this is once you begin sharing your music and letting your library accumulate, will show you listeners with high ‘compatibility’ to you, musically.  These users are called ‘neighbors.’  With one click, you can begin listening to any neighbor’s ‘library radio.’  Inevitably, even the most compatible neighbors will have some artists that fall outside your listening history.  They key is that these users generally do have the same taste as you, so it’s easy to understand that they can lead you to some great finds.  Similarly, also creates automatic ‘radio’ stations for any single track, album, or artist.  So, all you need is any example of the type music you like to begin finding new artists to check out.
    2. Independent Radio Online – OK, so your favorite local station has been destroyed and turned into an all-Black Eyed Peas station.  What now?  Fear not, because many great stations still exist around the globe.  These stations almost universally have taken advantage of new technologies to offer live streams across various services (directly on their websites, on Apple TV/iTunes, and on phone apps, to name a few), so they are highly accessible.  These stations often do a great job of having not only features of some buzzed-about new artists, but also varying specialized shows if you have a niche genre interest.  Two of my favorite stations out there are KEXP in Seattle and KCRW in Los Angeles.  These stations will generally put up the artist name and song title, so as you find new artists, you can make note and look into their full catalogs later.  Also, these stations will often run promotional contests to get you to connect with them and their associated artists via social media which are often worth the minimal fuss.
    3. Find Trusted Record Labels – This one may seem like a cumbersome process, but it’s actually one of the most reliable paths to the best discoveries.  Put simply, many of the artists that ‘break through’ in any given year started out on a small label.  These smaller labels take painstaking care to curate a small collection of artists that they believe in from a long-term perspective.  Fan of Arcade Fire?  They started out on Merge Records.  The Lumineers?  They are still on Dualtone Records, a folk-leaning label.  Girl Talk is on Illegal Art, Passion Pit started on Frenchkiss, Modest Mouse began on K Records, and countless others began on Sub Pop.  Although labels generally do have a variety of artists, if they have one act you really love, chances are they’ll have another.  Once you find one that you like, follow them on Facebook or Twitter to have artist recommendations delivered right to you.
    4. Shazam – Having helped to identify over 5 billion songs to date, Shazam has become somewhat of an essential smartphone app.  Shazam eliminates that frustrating moment when you are in a cafe, watching a commercial, or at a party where you hear a song that you like but don’t know how to track down the artist.  Open the app, let it listen to any track for a few seconds, and soon you are provided with an artist, song title, album, and various ways to purchase the track.  This simple application is a great way to compile a list of artists to check out at your leisure and share with others.  Two years ago, Shazam partnered with Facebook to allow users to see what tracks friends have recently identified, thereby creating a personal network of tastemakers.
    5. Follow Innovative Live Music Sites – One of the great developments over the past decade or so is the growth of sites that focus on providing artists with new mediums for presenting their music to the world.  Daytrotter, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, Blogoteque, The Onion A.V. Club’s Uncovered Series, and many others are offering performances by some of the most creative, captivating artists around in unique live settings for listeners to check out.  Below is one of my favorites from Blogoteque, featuring Phoenix performing “1901” below the Eiffel Tower.

Phoenix – 1901 – A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

  • Bonus Tips: Other paths to discovery that I didn’t get the chance to go into here:
  1. Live music venues – Periodically check a site like Pollstar for local concert listings and see where the kinds of artists you like are playing.  Much like the smaller labels mentioned above, venues have curators that book shows consistently (sometimes consistently bad, sometimes consistently great).
  2. Look at the openers for your favorite bands’ tours – Although bands can be thrown onto a tour for a number of reasons, they are often paired with a headliner with a similar aesthetic and/or potential fan base.  Using Google, Facebook fanpages, YouTube, and other social means can help you to see if openers hold any appeal for you.
  3. Music Blog Aggregation Sites – Hype Machine and Elbows are sites designed to look at trends across thousands of music blogs, see what trends exist and who is gaining notoriety.
  4. Music News Sites and Blogs – Don’t lose faith in music news in a slightly more traditional sense.  There are some great writers and periodicals still out there, and quite honestly, they often provide the most direct line to new music discoveries.  Paste and Pitchfork, alongside blogs like I Guess I’m Floating, You Ain’t No Picasso, and I Am Fuel, You Are Friends offer a steady stream of musical finds.

The Ultimate, Super, Unbeatable Pro-tip in Music Discovery: Get Social Offline

Of course, another great way to jump right in is to go down to your favorite record store and ask an employee.  Many of the staff are there because they have a passion for sharing music with others and would love to help you on your search.  If you’re a fellow resident of Massachusetts, you can check out a listing of some great record stores right here.  All others can use the map here.  Happy Record Store Day!

I leave you with a playlist from last summer of both new and old music to get you into the warm weather spirit:

Society’s New Movable Walls: Is Tech Enabling an Empathy-Free Populace?


How many socially and politically-focused posts in your Facebook and Twitter feeds do you disagree with?  I mean, REALLY disagree with, to the point that you are moved to action (be it offline activity or the need to voice your sentiments on the post)?

My hunch is that on social media (that is to say, the sites that are driven by content creators whom have been curated by you), you mostly find yourself aligned with others.  The image above illustrates data from a study conducted at Indiana University, and the graphic is a representation of political tweets as they tend to cluster (red for conservative and blue for liberal).  As you think about your own social media presence, you likely have some friends that you find politically misguided, and they likely stand out from the crowd, but consider your feeds as a whole.  From that perspective, how much diversity of viewpoint is there, really?  I think that this is a byproduct of the structure of social media sites, at least in part.

In general, social media sites are structures that encourage:

  • High levels of sharing – Very few barriers exist on the path from a passing thought to an online post.
  • Easy consumption of others’ content – The feed, which is made up of connections that the user has made, is presented in a way that makes for ease of consumption and becomes ‘smarter’ as time passes (Facebook’s algorithm for the News Feed, for instance, which lays out content based on past user clicks and views).
  • Grouping/prioritizing of connections’ content – Google+ circles, Facebook lists, and Twitter lists all feed into this.  Facebook’s algorithm for the News Feed also orders content based on perceived value/interest to the user.
  • Making connections based on shared interests – Accounts and pages across social media platforms allow users to find highly specialized gathering spots and follow content accordingly.  These pages and accounts rarely connect to other accounts and pages with opposing (or even slightly differing) viewpoints (for example: Would you expect a Tea Party Facebook Page to lead you to a Green Party Facebook Page, unless it was via a disparaging link?).

If you accept the premise above and agree that social networking sites are characterized by the traits above, we might next ask: What happens as a result of these institutional structures?  It is my belief that people gradually build themselves into silos of similar-minded individuals (and pages/brands) and proceed to exist inside of an echo chamber.  Individuals are able to use “movable walls,” in which they build barricades keeping some in and some out.  This freedom allows users to curate a set of editors that serve up information that the user wants to hear, rather than an unbiased feed of all news.  They share, receive, and interact with information that perpetuates and hardens previously-held beliefs, with moments of cognitive dissonance few and far between.  As a result, when people hear of the plights of others and other social problems, their only reply is a collective:

Wisdom courtesy Ron Swanson of Parks & Rec. Source:

Why is this the case?  Consider the possibility that they can’t even imagine the situation of others from different backgrounds, with different values, or within various circumstances.  Quite possibly, most people surround themselves with like-minded individuals in the online realm, and this manifests itself in the content that they read daily on their social media feeds.

Somewhat ironically, it is this environment that allows for stories that do break through to readers to have that much greater of an emotional impact.  I was recently reading an interview with the singer Thao Nguyen in which she discusses some of the people she met through her work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), and the personal background stories are rather interesting.  Each piece focused on the respective situations of the female prisoners, and the result is we learn tales of humanity within a population that is often stigmatized and dehumanized.  I bring this example up because as I was reading the post, I was struck by the thought that prison inmates are quite possibly the quintessential group with whom it is difficult to empathize (if you have not actually been in similar situations).  As such, I doubt that your average citizen would be able to easily process the societal conditions that set some people on certain paths that put them at higher risk to ultimately end up behind bars.  While this disconnect between varying members of society is likely both offline and online, I do believe that the structures within social networking sites merely perpetuate this social problem.  The social ties that are formed offline are then carried over into the online realm, where they are eventually refined and narrowed for information consumption.

What does this mean for managers, businesses, and other organizations?  It could mean that the future workforce that enters adulthood within this environment will reach offices with lesser capacity for empathy and perhaps even greater narcissism.  Data is already beginning to show this trend, but it has yet to be proven that the current technological wave is the cause.  If our “movable walls” are at the root of this decreased empathy, however, let’s hope that the next wave of innovations helps to connect all people beyond existing social stratification.

I leave you with a Calvin & Hobbes strip of questionable relevancy to this particular post (but one that does fit within the confines of our larger course discussions):


Google Labs’ Foreseeable(?) Demise: Rationalization and the Tech Industry


Do you remember Google Labs?  Even if you may not, chances are that the products developed there have impacted you in some way.  The project was self-described as follows:


It sounds like a great idea, and it was.  A number of Google’s current, well-regarded features were hatched in Google Labs, including (but certainly not limited to): Google Alerts, Google Scholar, Google Suggest, Google Video, Google Trends, Google Docs, and Google Maps.  Google famously allows its employees 20% of their work time to do projects that are not specified within their job description, which allows for creative endeavors that still work towards the benefit of the company.  To this same end, Google built their Labs page in the middle of the last decade as a way to promote, develop, and obtain feedback on new features that were being workshopped.  Users were able to sign up for beta-level features and take them for a test run (and provide input on the functionality of said items).  This process broke down some of the barriers that can ordinarily exist between a company’s product development team and the end user.

Then in July of 2011, something unexpected happened.  Google announced the end of their Google Labs page, and while they would be retaining some features, others would no longer be supported.  CEO Larry Page spoke at the time about the importance of putting “more wood behind fewer arrows” and emphasized a more concentrated focus of the company.  He also emphasized to shareholders that the company would serve as diligent stewards of their money and promised that return on investment was a priority.  Part of that renewed focus, many believed, centered around Google throwing its weight behind the development of Google+.

In the days after Google Labs, the company’s leadership insisted that many features in development would merely be folded into other Google products (such as test features in Gmail).  However, the shift away from Labs represented something larger than just the closing of a single page; it marked the movement toward an increasingly rationalized Google.

Rationalism, as identified within the field of sociology, is the notion that systems (in some arguments, inevitably) become rationally defined over time.  In other words, just as water poured into a glass eventually settles at the bottom, calculated actions defined by reason eventually dominate organizational decision-making.  Within this understanding of an organization, a company like Google is rational when it identifies unnecessary processes and areas of functionality that do not meet the end goal of efficient profitability.  Put simply, Google Labs was likely seen as a fun but nonessential function of Google, so it was cut.

What does this mean for other social media and tech companies?  Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for the consumer?  I would speculate that rationalization is the norm for large corporations, and we, as consumers, would be wise to set our expectations as such.  It never was a reasonable expectation for users to expect Facebook and Twitter to remain ad-free, for instance.  In the end, after these companies settle into a comfortable user base, it naturally follows that they must then begin to find ways to become and remain profitable.  After all, it is an investor base that allows most of these companies to get off the ground, and shareholders have an expectation that companies will pay close attention to the bottom line after going public.  It’s at these junctures that social media and other tech companies, as is the case with other peer organizations, must begin to cut some of the quirky aspects of their respective business operations in order to keep showing financial improvements to stakeholders.

Although I use Google to illustrate my larger point in this post, I do think that I should add that Google does seem to go out of its way to incorporate some creative, fun aspects to its public profile.  I would actually argue that it does so better than most other large corporations out there, if not all.  Their continued development of things like Google Doodles shows that even if the company is moving towards greater rationalization, it is hardly fully converted.  That said, I wanted to pass along one of my favorite Doodles of all time, a tribute to Robert Moog and his synthesizer:

There are countless aspects to this discussion, but I’m curious what the rest of the #mi621-ers think about all of this.  Are there similar trends you’ve seen within other companies?  By cutting out some of these programs that celebrate innovation and creativity, are companies taking a short-sighted approach and harming themselves in the long run?  Please let me know your thoughts in the comments – I’d love to hear them.