Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

Six Ways to Do a Presentation

People get anxious about making presentations. There are ways to manage this anxiety, but part of the reason people have this anxiety is that they think there is a formula for a “good” presentation and that they have to somehow fit the mold of that formula. It’s kind of like trying to be a rock diva without the sequins or a tech guru without the black turtleneck and jeans.

Too bad for these people that they watch too much mainstream news.

The reality is that the “good” presentation format is only “good” because a whole bunch of people have packaged it into a brand of sorts. People who are not part of that club have to think of other ways to get their message across. If you are doing a presentation for the first time, chances are your audience is not everyone in the world. More likely, you have a smaller niche audience with more specific needs. That means you have to think about your presentations a little bit differently. While I can’t give you a strict idea about how to reach  your audience in the right way, I can offer ten ways you could do a presentation and see if this gives you an idea about how you might approach yours. Here they are:

Lecture with Script

When you have done a lot of research, it is easy to get nervous about the details. Do not try to explain a mathematical algorithm in the middle of a presentation. You will draw a blank. Instead look to a script. You do not need to follow it 100%, but scripting it can help you get through the details without making a mistake. Tanya Boza has some interesting things to say about being a good lecturer, but advises against using a script. Well, I say scripts have their place depending on the situation. Although Tanya is right – it is much better if you can use your script without looking as if that’s what you are doing.

ADVANTAGES: You can script the details. Will go off very well if you are a good writer. Tends to be formal, and usually rhetorical. Great if you are a politician or have to explain things in a very specific way so not to offend people.

DISADVANTAGES: Can be boring and/or un-engaging. You can lose personal contact with the audience if not rehearsed well. Can be over-prepared. Difficult to do ad hoc presenting within a script.

Lecture with Notes

If you are teaching a big picture concept without getting into the details, it may be better to go without a script. Instead, just quick notes will do you well. This is especially good if you have props to show, are teaching English, expect questions about the material. Johnathan Fields gives a great overview of how Martin Luther King used improvisation in his speech and changed the world.

ADVANTAGES: Great for an overview topic. People may feel more comfortable to ask questions. Good for abstract concepts that are hard to display visually. Excellent for people who like to perform and/or do improv. Can be especially good for a dramatic topic.

DISADVANTAGES: Tends to cover topics too generally. Information can be hard to retain if the lecture goes on too long. Can appear disorganized or unprepared, especially if people ask for details.

Power Point Presentation

Like it or not, the Power Point is a mainstay for presentations. I wish generally that we would not rely on it so much, but so be it. The key to remember is that power point should be a support and not a crutch. However, if you are so nervous about presenting that power point is your crutch, I have a few tips to offer you on the issue.

ADVANTAGES: Great for people with an eye for design. Visuals can really help support the topic if done properly. Easily shared on the Internet. Best option for sharing graphs and charts.

DISADVANTAGES: Waaaay over done. Gets tedious if the visuals are uninteresting; gets distracting if the visuals are overpowering. Appears “salesy” at times due to its prominence in the field of marketing. People ask you for your notes so they don’t have to watch the lecture.

Present Over Sound

It’s not often thought of, but it can be very effective to use sound to illustrate a point. This is the essence of podcasting, in fact, although sound does not have to be digital. If you have your own instrument, that can be even more fun. Take a look at Anna Russell explain Wagner’s Ring using music, for instance:

ADVANTAGES: It is not using powerpoint. Sound is a great way to describe emotions, tension etc. Obviously it is excellent for showing music. It’s an excellent way for musicians to show their talents while making an argument. Very effective with visuals, perhaps removing the need for a script or notes.

DISADVANTAGES: Requires a lot of preparation. Can be distracting to try and speak over a music set. Queues can be missed, causing awkward breaks in the performance.


I once did a presentation by simply asking the same question in three different ways. This may seem lazy (and it is) but the reality is that the audience collectively often has much more information and knowledge than the person speaking.

ADVANTAGES: Almost no preparation required. You need an eye for facilitation to ensure as many voices as possible are heard. Crowd wisdom often brings amazing insights.

DISADVANTAGES: Need excellent questions. Always the threat of no one having any thoughts (although this is rare if you are patient). People looking for something unique will often be disappointed. Can come off as overly “new age” or maudlin. You need to be comfortable with a bit of awkward silence.

Structured Alternatives (AKA “Large Group Methods”)

There are a variety of presentation structures that can open the door to more audience participation. Fish Bowls, Talking Circles and World Cafe are some examples, although there can be many more.  These can range from very easy to facilitate (talking circle pretty much just needs a stick or other object to make happen) to very challenging (World Cafe is pretty complex to organize). Either way, they all represent different ways of providing something a little different from lecture-style.

ADVANTAGES: Can be very inspiring. Can open up some voices who otherwise would not want to speak out. Self-coordinating while happening.

DISADVANTAGES: The structures can be a little difficult to explain. Not everyone is free to be honest and open, so these styles can leave them vulnerable. There can be a “musical chairs” kind of effect, so you need to be comfortable with moments of chaos.

So here are six examples of alternative styles of presentations that you can offer your audience. Not everything has to be a power point! What kinds of presentations have you encountered that seemed just a little outside the box?

Philosophy Cafe by Anna Mudde

On Monday, I attended the Philosophy Cafe at the Artesian Gallery. My son and I went there religiously last year, but in the fall our schedules meant that we couldn’t attend unfortunately. Monday’s talk was by Dr. Anna Mudde and titled “What’s it Like to Be You?” I don’t want to share all of her thoughts on the subject, but it had to do with the idea of metaphysics – namely, what do we see and what is it like to experience “red” for instance?

Except a little bit more than that, because how we experience the world, Mudde argues, has implications on our moral and ethical behavior. For example, how the racist experiences people of colour will influence their moral and ethical decisions such that they are quite different from the person who is non-racist. How this process happens is a focal point for the metaphysical discussion on “what’s it like to be you?” This then becomes a discussion of ontology or roughly, the study of being, especially in terms of categorizing things. In the case of the racism example, the ontological question may be about categorizing people in terms of equal, inferior or superior.

I offered a challenge to this view, namely how would we tell the difference between a difference in ontology and a heuristic (a short cut or general rule to help us make choices). In theory, heuristics work most of the time, but fail some of the time, but in the end they help us get to decisions quickly so we can save time. For instance, our racist may not be a racist, but instead has a shortcut in her head that she should not trust strangers. As it turns out, the person of colour is noticeably a stranger (still an ontological concern) but the moral element of racism in this case is not an ontological concern, but one of an error that can be corrected with new heuristics.

But there is a counter-challenge. The heuristics very likely also come from ontology. What is a stranger except a category of person that exists outside one’s circle of friends. There’s something a little bit dark about our “non-racist” who would build a heuristic in her head that causes her to distrust strangers, and especially visible strangers when in fact there are invisible strangers that could be just as dangerous.

All the while, it was an interesting discussion as the Philosophy Cafes usually are. If you are interested, the next one is titled “The mind and the natural world: a brief history of thinking about thinking” by Dylan Ludwig and will happen on February 23rd at 7:30pm at the Artesian. If you come, be sure to say hello!

Eleven Things that Turned Podcamp Halifax 2015 Into Fabulous Clickbait

Ever since that summer time Third Wednesday meeting with Jon McGinley, Craig Moore and Ben Boudreau I’ve been calling Podcamp Halifax “my baby.” This is only true in the sense that I care a lot about the event and the many people who put the effort into making it great. In reality, Podcamp Halifax belongs to a large number of organizers, presenters, sponsors, and participants and they will continue to make it great long after I start to forget about it.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d share eleven things that I noticed about Podcamp Halifax that made it so great this year. Here is the list.

  1. Podcamp Halifax is not just click-bait.  Yes, my headline title is total baloney. Click-bait is a term used to describe a media story that has a catchy or controversial headline, forcing fans, trolls, and raging mad flamers to click on the article only to find that the story itself is a poorly researched and purposely antagonistic piece of glurge surrounded by ads for building your abs in 20 easy steps. By contrast, Podcamp Halifax has always been a sincere attempt at helping people understand the world of social media just that little bit better. The speakers are volunteers and you get out of it pretty much what you give, which is often quite a bit.
  2. It has been a sell-out  every time it happens. Sell-out is not really the right term for it, but every time Podcamp Halifax issues free tickets, those tickets get snatched up right away. It’s always been a challenge because for free events not everyone is bound to show up (the rule of thumb is about 60% attend), but we always overbook knowing this.
  3. The Speakers Rock. While there’s definitely room for improvement on the diversity front (more on this later), the speakers who sign up to present at Podcamp Halifax very generously take time away from their busy schedules (including quite successful businesses at times) to share what they’ve learned and the truth is that people walk away loving it. While sometimes you do have presentations that are little more about sales than sharing, the spirit really revolves around sharing first, and I appreciate people’s work for that.
  4. My Audience Rocked. Sometimes I try to put out a presentation with slidedeck. Other times I just crowdsource. Two years ago it was slide deck – that’s because I was a PhD student doing all kinds of theory I was excited about. This year, I crowd-sourced.  I spent about about 5 minutes describing people like Pierre Bourdieu, Elinor Ostrom and Robert Putnam and then just asked “so – how does Twitter make you want to change your behavior?” The answers were multifaceted, brilliant and at times conflicting. I tried to offer a few things here and there from my research, but overall the audience drove my presentation and I was all the more proud for it. Bonus: my personal goal was not to finish my slides and that happened — IN SPADES. 🙂
  5. The Organizers Rocked. Tracy, Joanne, Kelli, Carmen, Ian, Ben, Kendra, Kula Partners, Verb, Michelle Doucette, The Halifax Hub, Mindsea, Halifax Public Libraries and a whole whack of other sponsors (if you are not in here now, wait for it – I’ll add you soon enough!). Organizing Podcamp in a new space probably came with new unique challenges and everything continued to go off without so much as a (noticeable to me) hitch.
  6. A Conversation Happened. One of the great things for me is that @AtomBombshell raised the issue of privilege and inclusion at podcamp. I’ve thought about this a lot, ever since the first Podcamp. The reality is that Podcamp has behaved in a laissez-faire way for a long time now. The intention has always been to be as inclusive as possible, and perhaps we just assumed that an open forum would be at least more inclusive than a closed one. The reality is not so much. We’ve tried a bunch of things before, including a presentation in Arabic that included precisely zero attendees. This cost me a colleague and friend, as, for whatever reason, I failed to convince the people I invited to show up in Dartmouth on a cold winter’s day in January. It was horrendously embarrassing for the presenter in particular and for me as an extension. If you follow the #podcamphfx twitter tag, you can see a lot more in the discussion. I do have a few thoughts on this though.
    1. Inclusion is a tricky and complex thing, and takes more than theory to make it happen in the real world. For reasons I cannot always understand, communities develop a shape and colour of their own and not everyone is going to feel comfortable even when they are invited. This is the story of libraries for pretty much forever, which tend to attract middle-class white women more than men. ≈
    2. If we broaden the idea of inclusiveity just a bit, there are some things we can celebrate. From a library perspective, Podcamp Halifax was an opportunity to show that libraries had something for men too. While I am aware of privilege in broad terms, I ask that you suspend that line of thinking just for a bit. I remember asking some teens to help volunteer for us at one podcamp and seeing this young awkward highschooler who generally felt excluded from society because he liked html and javascript say that he felt like he belonged for a change. He could see people doing jobs with that html and javascript and he became really excited about his future.
    3. Another story I have is of a man telling us that a library was his worst nightmare because he had dyslexia. Podcamp for him meant that he could belong to a library again. While it’s not really the same thing as inclusion, there is really a great element that connects people that otherwise would not be connected. Not all diversity is visible and we shouldn’t always assume that white means homogenous.
    4. In terms of attendees, Podcamp Halifax has always had a strong contingent of women compared to other technology conferences I’ve been involved in. I am not sure why this is the case, although perhaps the library has a little bit to do with it.
    5. None of these things excuse in the least bit our lack of success in bringing new voices into the Podcamp speaking circuit. Things that tend to work imho are 1) inviting people to co-present, especially citing that as individuals they bring value to Podcamp and should share what they know, 2) starting with the people who attend – something about Podcamp attracted them to the space, it is great to ask people what else they can bring into it so other people can benefit, 3) emphasizing the “un” in unconference. I’ve seen entire presentations based on crowd-sourcing ideas from the audience. If you get people opening up about their experiences with social media, they become more aware that they know much more than they think they do.
    6. Humility is a good thing, and the team at Podcamp right now understands that very well. I asked a person of colour to present once, and even though it wasn’t my intention, he did give me a little jab about being a token for our Podcamp. He proved conclusively that this was not the case, if it was ever the case. The presentation was amazing – one of the highlights of that day. Nonetheless, inclusion sometimes means you will take jabs, not always deserved (not always not deserved either), but at the end of the day, those jabs will mean a better event. Accept them and don’t always try and make excuses.
    7. All things said, Podcamp Halifax is a community, not an organization. If you see a gap, expect to be asked to come with ideas on how to fill it. Frankly, the people at the heart of organizing Podcamp are already putting plenty of work into just getting peoples names on the tags, forget trying to solve Global inequality. There are no end of problems to notice. What is in low supply are solutions to those problems. There is also a privilege inherent in knowing that you can complain about something and leave it to someone else to try and fix it. Except you won’t always get away with that at Podcamp.  🙂
  7. The Library is Fabulous. This was the dream realized. Part of the pitch for Podcamp Halifax was that it was the sort of thing that could show how a library can play a community building role and that a Central Library would only knock that out of the park even further. It was a fabulous space.
  8. There is a Future for Podcamp. It’s hard to say how this will transpire, but there are many directions that Podcamp can go in the future. For instance, perhaps there is a way to reach out to other communities like music, theatre, dance and so on. Maybe something like South by Southwest? Other options have included adding another day, bringing back Battle decks and having a keynote speaker again.
  9. Podcamp is More than Just One Day. The most rewarding thing I’ve seen over the years is how much community building podcampers usually end up providing in the long run. Businesses have grown, social groups have started and thrived, blogs and podcasts have launched, friends have become partners and so on. The real value of Podcamp is what happens afterwards. I look forward to seeing what else comes up. That’s why I try to remind presenters that “whoever comes are the right people.” If you only get one or two people to come to your presentation, then you present to those people and they may have the exact ideas to get you going further.
  10. What the heck is a podcamp? I used to spend a lot of time trying to explain this to people. I’m not sure I should bother that much any more. It’s just a thing about social media that a lot of people love. The reason people love it (I think) is because they are invested in it. So they care about what you need and want to try and give it to you whatever that is. It’s about sharing and learning and eating and playing and friending and following and a bunch of other things. Godspeed to all of you!
  11. More video! We could use more people dedicated to recording and streaming podcamp presentations.  This takes a large amount of work, but would be more than worth it. Unfortunately, I think we need to reach out again to the podcasting community to help make this happen!

SCIENCE! YouTube, the Keystone XL Pipeline, & Not-for-profit Social Media use

Amid promises of, well, nothing, I’ve been thinking about restarting this blog. There are a few problems with this idea. 1) This blog is called The Other Librarian and, well, I am not really a librarian right now in the employment sense. Of course I will always be a librarian because … well, just because. On the other hand, I am more pretending to be a data scientist and researcher instead.

That brings me to some great news. I have two peer reviewed publications that have been released this month. I am excited about both, because finally I have been able to conduct some research about the value of social media to our daily lives.

The first is What Potential for YouTube as a Policy Deliberation Tool? Commenter Reactions to Videos About the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline where I look at comments on YouTube and evaluate the consequences of engaging citizens on social media. The answer is complex of course, but in general, if you use social media to engage the public, you will find 1) people will ignore governmenty videos, 2) topics related to minority groups (eg. First Nations Rights) will tend to be overlooked, 3) the most popular videos will be the ones where the topic is related to some form of identity (libertarianism, environmentalism etc.) 4) on the whole, the aggregated content will be somewhat “wise” in the sense that it generally covers the main issues that researchers pay attention to (with the caveat of #2). Overall, I am really proud of this paper because it was great fun to produce.

The second paper I wrote with Kathleen McNutt and it looks at social media use by not-for-profits. Using Mark Granovetter’s classic paper,  we argue that strong social media engagement requires attention to “strong” (emotionally intense) and “weak” (interest-based) connection strategies.

Beyond this, I have been doing a heck of a lot of writing for my dissertation which is about policy agenda setting and online engagement. I am also *very* excited about Podcamp Halifax coming up in January which will happen at the new and AMAZING Halifax Central Library. If you ever chatting to me about Podcamp, you’d know that my evil master plan was that the meeting could happen in the new library where it could expand to a much grander audience. That’s happened thanks to the lovely people who’ve taken the baton and improved on it year after year. Hopefully there will be a facilitated program about the future of Podcamp: whether it will keep going the way it is, or changing to something new given that the opportunity for growth is now quite grandiose. With the right partners, perhaps there could be a South by Southwest sort of program or a Winter arts & business somethingorother? I don’t know – the great thing about Podcamp is that it uses the wisdom of the crowd in such a way that whatever gets decided, it is likely to be smart. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to use the free aspect to put other conferences out of business – but on the other hand, there is plenty of room for community-based learning and sharing which helps everyone in the end!

Anyway, what are you excited about with social media?