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.

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?

Michael Jackson and 5 Other Things I Do Not Care About

I love the man’s music. I have deepest sympathies for the family, especially his kids. But that’s where it ends for me. Michael Jackson’s death is a personal matter for those close to him. I really wish the media and all his so-called ‘fans’ would butt out — like one of the characters in Gates of Heaven (one of my favorite movies) says, “Death is for the Living.”

People appear to want to draw attention to so many things that I believe should be low on the totem pole of attention.   We have such short lives, why is it that we want to spend large quantities of it worrying about what Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears are wearing (or not wearing)?   It all makes me want to be more concious about what matters and in turn, to be concious about what does not matter.   Here is my list of things I am conciously deciding not to worry about.

Domestic Poverty

Domestic poverty is off my list for two reasons:   1)  I’d rather focus my attention on World Poverty and 2) Domestic Poverty is really a symptom of other equity issues such as support for mental health, access to child care, and equity, especially for those with disabilities.   In my view, Canada is a country with tonnes of opportunity, and sufficient infrastructure to ensure that a population will not starve.   This does not mean I will not donate to organizations like Feed Nova Scotia, but it does mean that my ears will shut off if you are trying to lobby on a platform of poverty.

Preserving Heritage

The key to this statement is preserving heritage.   I think heritage is important, but because it represents a living, breathing entity – not because it is old and needs to be protected.    What I value about my elders is not that they old, but that they have a story to tell.   Some things are historically valuable and need to be preserved, sure – but certainly not everything, and absolutely not everything at the expense of a living, breathing city environment.   Librarians know all too well that an old rusty copy of War and Peace will do nothing to protect the value of Leo Tolstoy’s work.    A new, fresh, exciting-looking copy will have people reading and re-reading the book —  that’s the way you protect heritage, by helping people re-live the past.    That means you weed the old and replace it with new.

Privacy

Don’t get me wrong.  I would never spy or harrass others or want to be spied or harrassed.   Nor would I ever breach a confidentiality policy of any employer I may work for past, present or future.   But, I feel that the wholesale protection of privacy is costing us immensely in terms of service, and therefore I am just not going to pay much attention to this issue.   The lack of progress in a wide range of services in the name of privacy is astounding, and I’m sure that an audit of government would show a huge amount of time and money wasted to prevent that one case where someone discovers prematurely that their wife or husband wants a divorce, or that their young daughter or son is using birth control.   So much of this information is already available on the web if someone wants to look for it anyway – I do not think we can pretend we have private lives for much longer.

Funding for Elite Sports

OMG!   Another country might have more medals than us at the olympics!  How will the next Sydney Crosby thrive if we do not put ourselves into massive debt to provide special facilities for sports?   “Who cares?” is what I say.

What I see in a good amount of even semi-elite sports is not pretty.   The level of single-minded “win at all costs and blame the ref when you don’t” attitude in many sports is astounding.   The things that mattered to the originators of the Olympic Games concept have been pushed aside.   Remember words and phrases like “sportsmanship?” “sound mind, sound body?” and how sports was tied to education?   That seems all out the window in favor of money-making.   I don’t believe in sports anymore.  It used to be an opportunity to think about myself as a better person, now it is a crass illusion that parallels rather than promotes “success.”    There are exceptions, where sports figures are respected for both mind and body (Steve Nash comes to mind), but that’s the exception and not the rule in my view.

“We Need More Funding For. . .”

Just the general premise that we will only solve problem x if our governments make problem x a priority and provide it with funds is just not going to resonate strongly for me.   I believe in some of the work that John McKnight has done around asset-based community development, and agree with the general position that professionals invent problems and issues inside communities that they can solve and then use the community’s funds to solve those problems when the community had the ability to cope with those issues all along.

Here is a librarian example.  A librarian does a study on university students searching only to discover what is the most obvious thing:  university students are not the same as librarians!   That is, students do not automatically use boolean operators or advanced searches to find materials for their research.   Said librarian then uses this information to justify training sessions (ie. hire more librarians) so university students can become more like librarians.   The thing the librarian does not ponder is whether university students need to behave like librarians to be successful at their research; nor does he/she consider the impact of increase education costs (caused in part through funds spent on librarians) on that student’s capacity to learn how to research more effectively.

In short, I really dislike any movement  that blindly asks governments to give organizations more money.   I do not think professionals do it on purpose, but it is a really bad habit that I see over and over again.      Communities need resourcefulness from their not-for-profits, not funding.    And most importantly, communities need not-for-profits that shine the light on what communities already do well, so they can encourage these behaviors.

Well, that’s my list of things I am going to conciously not spend anymore attention on.     What is your list of non-issues in your view?    Am I unfairly representing any of these issues?