Online spaces can be crowded with lots of people and lots of ideas. Discussion boards and chat rooms offer the opportunity for us to say almost anything, anytime. But as the popularization of the Internet has demonstrated, when we are given the opportunity to have broad disucssions that take into account a wide range of ideas, we don't. Instead of rambling around in the landscape of possibilities and potentialities, we say the same things, to the same people, repeatedly.
The effect is what has been called "isolated publics." In these echoing chambers, fake news, which relies on uncritical repetition and circulation of false claims, finds a welcome home. A notable recent result was the 2016 federal election in the U.S. Two years on, official investigations are still expanding and multiplying in an effort to find out whether (but more likely how) online fake news affected the election's outcome.
At the beginnning of the 20th century, when radio and television were the new media, liberal democracies, including Canada and the U.K. but many others, too, established national broadcasting agencies. The purposes were to create a public space for citizens, protect cultural sovereignty, and diffuse reliabile information. Perhaps the time has come for a national online public space. Such a space would aim to achieve some of the same goals as those now seemingly ancient public broadcasters.
So what would a national online public space look like?
A national online public space could have three big purposes: access, news, and engagement. It would provide universal access to cultural content, community news production, and opportunities for citizen engagement.
Would changes be required to existing cultural organizations? Probably. But potential partners, collaborators, and allies for a national online public space abound. They include citizen journalists, nonprofit newsrooms (for example, Taproot in Edmonton), universities and colleges (especially communication and journalism degree programs), and existing public and nonprofit broadcasters.
In an age of broken business models, the potential benefits of a national online public space might just outweigh the risks.
Photo: Antony Mayfield, Creative Commons
The 2016 U.S. federal election was tainted by online messages that made false claims, also called "fake news," about candidates and issues. One website circulated the false claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president. Although the Pope denied the claim shortly after it was made, by election day it had been shared 960,000 times on Facebook, according to Buzzfeed.
Canada had a scandal of a similar type during its 2011 federal election. A campaign worker used robobcalls to deliver false information about where and when voting was to take place on election day, with the apparent intention of suppressing voter turnout.
It's become clear that false claims have been increasing dramatically in quantity and occurring at times other than the periods leading up to elections. Online false claims generally originate on a website and then spread quickly on social media.
The question remains as to why people seem willing to suspend their doubts and believe false claims they read online.
A key reason comes to us courtesy of insights gained from research about online advertising. It turns out that the credibility or believability of an online claim is increased if it is personalized. When people receive a personalized online ad, they tend to believe the ad is more credible than if it had not been personalized. In turn, ad creadibility leads to three changes in perception about ads. People reduce their avoidance of ads, decrease their skepticism about the content of the ads, and increase the general favoribility with which they view ads.
Personalization is accomplished by gathering and using information about your online behaviour. A personalized ad can take into account your location, an exchange of messages you've had recently with a friend or family member, and your recent purchases. For example, a personalized ad can encourage you to buy a product that you already know about, which a family member has talked to you about, and which is for sale nearby.
The same principle can apply to other online messages besides ads. A personalized message delivering fake news can be made more credible, just like an ad. With customization, online messages that make false claims can be made to seem more believable than they otherwise would be. The critical instincts of skepticism and avoidance are reduced as a consequence of personalizing messages about politics or other topics of broad interest.
What can be done to reduce the likelihood that we fall for fake news? First, try to reduce the amount and detail of personal information that you make available. Second, think critically and check sources. Keep your critical skills alive and active by applying some skepticism, even to the point of avoidance, for claims that you sense may be false or misleading. Messages offering fake news often include obvious clues about their poor credibility, such as typos or a lack of confirmation in other media channels.
The problem of false claims is important because it concerns all the information that is posted, circulated, and consumed. False claims have the general effect of degrading the reliability of everything we read and view online. Knowing how false claims find a way into our beliefs is the first step in resisting and eliminating them.
Source: Tran, T. (2017). Personalized ads on Facebook: An effective marketing tool for online marketers. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services 39, 230-42.
You might have a side hustle. That is, you might have a job you do when you’re not doing your other job. You probably do the side hustle for two more or less equally important reasons. It’s something you like. Also, you want to add to your income since your first job doesn’t pay as much as you want.
The gig economy, which allows people to take on a side hustle more easily, is symbolized by a big name, Uber, although there are many others, such as Amazon Flex (freelance delivery) or Bellhops (helping with moves).
If you’re trying to maximize your earnings you might assume that checking for the highest payment per hour or per task is the best way to choose a side hustle. Actually, belonging to a robust network is the best predictor for maximizing your earnings from a side hustle. The best way to maximize your earnings is to join, establish, or extend a network.
The best way to understand this principle is to go back to the conventional ways people have had for earning income. One is the market, and the other is a bureaucracy. In a market, price is used to negotiate how much you’ll be paid. In other words, you compete with other people who also bid on the opportunity to work. An example would be a tender process, in which you and others propose how much you’ll charge to do a job. Another transaction of this kind is selling a used car on Craig’s List. In both cases, best price wins.
In a bureaucracy, price isn’t the final arbiter for negotations. With a bureaucracy, which most companies and public organizations use, you sign up to be an employee and accept the pay that the employer offers you and othe remployees for a period of time. In this arrangement, relative financial security for both you and the employer are used to negotiate how much you’ll be paid. The employer wants the security of knowing that people will show up for work each day and follow the company’s rules, policies, and expectations. In effect, you exchange the disadvantage of less pay than you could make in the market for the advantage of the security of not having to find a new job everyday.
Your side hustle can have the benefits of both the market and bureaucracy if it finds a kind of in-between position. This in-between position is a network. Belonging to a network means that you are exchanging information, insights, and skills with other workers and with potential employers. As a member of a network you can gain an edge in finding where the next job might be. The network can also sharpen the information, insights, and skills you have, because of the relationships you have through the network.
You can negotiate a better price for your work because of the knowledge you have as a consequence of being part of the network. And you may be able to move more quickly from one job to another over time and to maximize your earnings as a result.
A network is going to help most often with non-gig “platforms” (the Ubers of the world), because platforms don’t negotiate their price. Instead, you want to develop a network for the purpose of offering your services to individuals, groups, and companies that are ablet to recognize and reward you financially for what you bring as a member of a network.
An example? Let’s say you’re good at an enjoy refinishing wooden furniture such as tables and chairs. You could create an online network of people who want that service and people who offer similar services. You could kick off activity in the network by exchanging information about current trends in the area, such as what finishes and colors are becoming popular. The network could begin to circulate more and more information and insights, while you and other providers in the network showcase your skills by posing photographs of your best work.
It’s important to remember that members of a network exchange benefits and risks. Sometimes you have may want to recommend someone else for a job because they have a bit more relevant knowledge than you - the exchange will be that next time, that person will recommend you for another job.
The result of being part of a dynamic network of this kind? Over time, it will reward your efforts.
Photo by Kat Northern Lights Man from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Many more countries are now democracies when compared with the situation 40 years ago. In fact, six in 10 countries in the world are now democratic. The required characteristics of a democracy together make up a kind of practical definition given for what a democrative country is. Six characteristics commonly considered for a democratic country are popular sovereignty, majority rule, individual rights, free and open elections, citizen involvement, and open compromise.
The imperative of building democracy is often applied to developing parts of the world. The idea is that democracy should be built in Africa, in Asia, for example. And of course it should be done. Each non-democratic country must be examined to determine how many of the six characteristics are in place to a measurable standard, and how many of the six remain absent or underdeveloped.
But existing democracies have to be built, too. Democracy isn't something that is given once, like a divine blessing for all time. Instead, it reqiures continuous examination and reconsideration in the light of changing circumstances and then renewal, change, even rebuilding.
Consider, for example, number 5 in the required characteristics of a democratic country, that of citizen involvement. Many countries can demonstrate that citizens are engaged and participating in the democratic dialogue of their coutnry. But the measure of citizen involvement can be low and on a downward trend. The widespread use of social media would at first glance offer opportunities to enhance and extend citizen involvment, but instead it can aggravate matters.
Citizen involvements require people to become informed about issues that affect them. However, social media for many people means reading and viewing ideas through which they find comfort in repetition. The social-media experience can be as narrow as retreating at the end of each day to a social network for the purpose of viewing descriptions and photos of family and friends reporting on the quirky things they've found online.
Citizen involvement also means keeping up-to-date on the actions of elected representatives and elites, and offering opinions on those actions. While social media can be used to find informed and critical reports about local matters of public interest, the reality is that it's not used that way by many people Distractions abound online and these encourage people to "disappear down the rabbit hole."
Larry Wong / Edmonton Journal
Of course, citizen involvement also requires doing things like attending community meetings and becoming members of voluntary groups. The primary activity in this category is voting. In Canada, it's enough to know that trends in voter turnout in federal elections are not encouraging. The 2015 federal election was a spike to 68.5% voter turnout, but federal and provincial averages are at historic lows. Online voting, which would bring the ballot box online, which is where the next generation now lives, has not found widespread acceptance in Canada. The reasons may be partly technical - fear of the election being hacked - but there's evidence, too, that the status quo simply suits some individuals and groups.
The communications theorist Jürgen Habermas writes that the Internet may erode public discourse in liberal democracies, such as Canada, while destabilizing authoritarian regimes. He also argues that the dominant effect of social media is the same in both kinds of societies. In both, we see the creation and reproduction of “isolated publics." People tend to act in response only to information they find agreeable. Cue the “fake-news,” which can be counted on to find a robust and immediate audience.
At the beginning of the television age, beginning in the 1940s, liberal democracies established national broadcasting agencies as a means of providing a public space for citizens, protecting cultural sovereignty, and diffusing reliable information. Similar policies for the online age have yet to be created.
Everybody's in high definition now. Computer screens, cellphones, and television monitors have all adopted new standards that create images that are much sharper than they used to be. They also reveal the blemishes and wrinkles on people's faces that were previously invisible.
High definition is often discussed in relation to the number of lines that are used to create on image on the screen. High-definition television 1,080 or 720 lines, which is something like twice as many as non-HDTV. This means that high definition has more information. Images in high definition are denser. There's more for your eye to see.
But the lines are not the only measure that defines high definition. Two other measures are scans, and frames. The scan rate is the number of times per second that an image is refreshed. High definition is giving your eye more to see, because of the lines, but it's also doing it more often, because of the scan rate. You get more, and get it more often, with high definition. And the third measure, that of frames, can be thought of as the number of timese per second that the image has been created within the four boundaries of the device you're watching. As with the scan rate, high definition is created using more frames per second. High definition therefore offers you something more often.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (Jason Franson/CP)
I noticed during the last Alberta general election, in the weeks leading up to May 5, 2015, that Rachel Notley's image on television and on the computer screen was much sharper than those of her opponents. This was partly because she was choosing solid colours for her jackets, which were dark grey or black, sometimes maroon or even beige. The debates were broadcast on high-definition television (HDTV), which was just coming into its own as a standard. The aspiring premier's image was sharp and clear, and I suppose this had something to do with her upset victory. Voters certainly opted for something different, and the clarity of what was on offer can only have enhanced its appearl
Alberta will hold its next election this year. So I was thinking again of high definition's lines, scans, and frames, but as a metaphor or way of speaking. As in 2015, in the election of 2019 there's going to be more to see of Rachel Notley. And not because of her colour choices but because of her experience as premier for four years. The first two years were overshadowed only by passing farm-safety legislation for which consultations had been weak. Since then, she's managed her cabinet like a master.
Yet she's been at the centre of events that could have led to political problems. During her term, Alberta has experienced dive in oil-prices that have devastated provincial revenues. She's contended with a federal government that has at expressed distinerest in pipeline investments which are an economic priority for the province. In relation to these and other problems, she's taken clear and timely action. Not everyone will agree with what she has done, but she didn't fade into the background. She remained in high definition - visible yes, but more than visible, clearly and distincly resolved.
More importantly she's also been a head of government during a historical moment in which missteps, scandals, and misspeaks frequently, and quickly, bring leadership into disrepute. This is the age, after all, of apologies and walking back. The lines, scans, and frames of high definition mean there's more to see when you look at public figures, and it comes at you more often. The premier of Alberta has been in full view, which will invite comparison with her opponents.
Let me be the first to say it, but I'm convinced - Rachel Notley will take the provincial election in Alberta again. It's clear as high definition.
Yes, it's true - "Gangnam Style" has been viewed more than 2 billion times on YouTube. The song features a distinctive dance that makes you look like you're riding a psychotic horse. The song and the dance were made famous by the South Korean artist Psy. The song is still popular, but it reached a peak of popularity in 2012 as the Prime Minister of the UK and US President Barack Obama danced the dance in public.
The measure of a viral video used to be one million views. With the ocean of videos now being launched, the threshold is now 5 million views. But what makes a viral video? What do creators think about when they're launching a viral video? Or does success happen as a result of raw luck? Turns out viral videos have certain characterstics in common. Wharton School professors Berger and Milkman studied a large number of viral videos and teased out five characteristics of a viral video. Their findings give support for the argument that viral videos are subject to the same principles of persuasion that other messages are.
For example, once you've seen it, "Gangnam Style" is hard to forget. It turns out that "memorability" is one of the characteristics of a viral video, which seems obvious. But more specifically, viral videos have a memory "trigger," which is a specific image or sound in the video that sticks with you for a while. For me, it's the rocking motion of Psy doing the hop-along-on-the-kookoo-horse move.
Viral videos are generally upbeat and positive, and that's the second characteristic. A small proportion are not positive, but those videos may have other characteristics that promote virtality. The video may provoke what psychologists call "arousal feelings," the third characteristic. These feelings might be positive or negative They may stimulate feelings of awe (positive), or they may stimulate feeligns of anger or anxiety (both negative). An example of a feeling of anxiety may be in sympathy with someone shown in the video in a dangerous situation.
The video must have "social currency," which is the fourth characteristic. This means that if viewers are up-to-date on the news and on popular culture, they won't need much of an explanation of what's going on in a viral video. People are shown in viral videos doing what people do nowadays.
The fifth and final characteristic is quality. If the viral video includes text or a production value, it should be well done. The story has to flow, and the logic of the situation has to be clear.
So the characteristics of a viral video are necessary but not sufficient, meaning the characteristics have to be in place, but they don't guarantee virality. Which is why I come back to the point that persuasion is the key. Virality doesn't require luck, and it's not random. It's the most recent expression of the ancient process described by Aristotle of the speaker giving a speech to an audience. The message has to have credibiility, passion, and logic on display before an audience will consider the content.
SOURCE: Berger, J., & Milkman, K. (2012). What makes online content viral? Journal of Marketing Research 49(2), 192-205.
In the 10th century, the Liu family needle shop in China ordered up a bronze plate (see above) so that they could print ads extolling the high quality of their wares. Adore them or despise them, ads have been part of the social world for a while. One thing that hasn't changed. After all, it was customers of the Lius, not the Lius themselves, who paid for the ads. Advertising costs have always been passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. In ancient China and in present-day Canada, the model is the same. Organizations spend large amounts on advertising. To meet this expenditure, the price of the product is raised.
That's not the only problem with ads. They can be a form of day-dreaming. They can take us away from reality and into the realm of artificiality. And ads can be used to promote products that we don't actually need or want. They may even encourage the sale of inferior products that would otherwise have to sell based solely on their qualities.
But a free market requires a free exchange of information, and so ads are going to be with us for time to come. The question is how and why ads will be delivered to us. for about a decade and a half now, the how and why of ads has been determined by one ad channel - Facebook.
Facebook is the largest advertising channel. By far. Period. The number of active monthly users in the second quarter of 2018 was 2.23 billion, by far the highest of social networks. Revenue in 2017 was $40.65 billion, by far the highest for an advertiser. More than 90% of social-marketing companies use Facebook.
Facebook is unique not only in its stature but in its methods for finding market segments for advertisers. It has singlehandedly rendered antique (at least, for advertisers) the notion of demographics and psychographics. Instead, it offers data about its users that can predict what those users will do, instead of describing who they are. Big difference, and much more effective.
This model of advertising means that you, the user, provide information about what you're doing, what you're saying, and who you're doing and saying it with. Not everyone believes that this is a fair bargain. The advertiser takes our personal information and then charges us, again, for the ads they send us.
So is Facebook, along with that charming model of charging us twice for advertising, really with us forever? Here are three reasons to doubt the "too big to fail" theory for Facebook.
1. The Internet is not the Web. This means that someone, somewhere, can start again. We can still create a new paradigm for social communication that does not rely on giving up personal information. It's possible. Think of Netflix. It's a dedicated platform on which you are able to withhold much of your personal life from inspection. A new paradigm offering social communication channels, creatd by an entrepreneur or by a nation-state or by a dorm-bound university student, could take much of the wind out of Facebook's sails, and quickly.
2. Think Standard Oil in 1911 and AT&T in 1982. These mammoth corporations were broken up by government into smaller units, in order to allow more competition. Sometimes companies get too big to avoid failing. The recent testimony of Facebook before the U.S. Congress suggests that the company is not always in tune with the most deeply held wishes and preferences of its users. These include, in addition to online purchasing and posting, online privacy and protection.
3. Small might be the new big. There's evidence that people might be tiring of being part of a super-large network. They're spending less time on Facebook, preferring to dip in and out of other networks. Their purpose is often just to exchange photos and chat for a bit before moving on to something else, either online or in the concrete world. Facebook is still important to many, but it's increasingly only one piece of the larger task of online identity management.
The needle trade is not what it was. Seems like most of our needles are now made in, uh, China. Some things stay the same, but some things . . .
It's like a law of the universe. Media never truly disappear. They transform themselves, becoming something we don't immediately recognize. They are dusted off after a period of disuse. They even become the content of new media. Marshall McLuhan offered this insight before the computer found millions of users.
That was before we could imagine media that devoured content the way our online media do. It's the rear-view mirror - when we experience something that is already behind us, something that has slightly, every slightly, shifted. We're not looking, or listenig, directly, although we tend forget that fact when we become heavy users.
Think of Vogue magazine. An antique, ready for obsolescence, right? Not really. Vogue's lavish photos offer a richness and tactility on the glossy page that can't yet be imitated online. Also, a copy of the magazine gets picked up an average of six times before it's discarded. So the million or so copies printed each month actually represent several million readers. And the magazine content - both the pics and the journalism - is taken up by blogs, videos, television, and other print media.
It's the old medium becoming content for the new medium. In the case of Voguei, it means fashion retailers are offered a valuable advertising channel indeed, one that really can't be matched online.
So what's the next medium to be transformed? I like the novellas and documentaries produced as podcasts. They offer something of the anticipation and excitement of the old radio dramas while dealing with compelling stories and urgent social issues. Lots of people are tuning in, and the convenience of the podcast, which is anytime-anywhere, only adds to the appeal.
Many more people can use media for finding a wider audience, but understanding how and why they're doing it is as important as crafting the message. The rear-view mirror offers an insight into how we use and reuse media, and how the old becomes new again.