Tag Archives: NPR

NPR, Social Media, and Changing Human Behavior for the Better.


NPR is once again doing me a great service, in broadcasting just the right stories to help me think about all of the things in my head.

Recently, researchers collaborating with Facebook released this report on how people’s FB networks affect their behavior in terms of registering to vote.  One conclusion that caught my attention was that people’s closest friends (in particular, those FB friends with whom they interact a great deal, and who are likely to also be in their face-to-face network) were particularly influential in people’s decisions to register to vote.

On Science Friday, our friend Ira Flatow brought in Todd Rodgers, a social psychologist who has experimented with the phenomenon of politicians dodging questions.  His intent was not to prevent the dodge (that would be amazing, if hard to imagine), but rather to investigate people’s reactions to the dodge, and to try to figure out ways that people could think critically about the content of what candidates were saying.  He pointed to two strategies in particular:  in a television context, having the original question displayed on the screen allowed viewers to keep the original question in mind (and therefore more effectively judge whether or not the question was ever answered), and using SMS like Twitter as a way of calling out the dodges (this has been done by Fox news, with the #dodge hashtag).  The point is to allow for people to not just evaluate what is a dodge (and therefore have more information about how candidates approach issues that voters might consider to be important), but to be able to communicate with other people in one’s network about that dodginess, and therefore disseminate the critical thinking process across a wider range of the potential electorate.

Ira brought James Fowler, one of the authors of the Facebook study, into the conversation, and what resulted was a very interesting discussion of the reasons that people would or would not change their behavior.  Central to the discussion was the idea that people are most affected by the people they are surrounded by and connected to.  People are, apparently, most likely to change their minds or behavior because of what someone they know and care about does or thinks.  They are far less likely to be affected by distant friends of friends.

But NPR didn’t stop there–they broadcast another report, this one about the role of teachers’ expectations of students in student success.  The research discussed looked at how teachers responded to training around expectations of students (in a context where it is clear that high expectations can lead to greater student success).  The most effective training, that is, the training that changed teacher expectations of students for the better, was that which emphasized behavior.  Teachers who were given behavioral strategies for dealing with disruptive students that allowed them to communicate high expectations fared far better than those teachers who were simply told that they should have high expectations of their students.

For me, the common thread in all of these discussions is the continuing importance of face-to-face interactions and relationships, and the role of behavior in shaping the thoughts and motives of people who are making judgement calls about people and information.  This is important to me not just because I am an anthropologist, but because I am an anthropologist who works in an academic library, and who is doing research on, among other things, how it is that people make decisions about what information is reliable, and which is not.

Amanda French tweeted the other day, “email is made of people.”  Which is funny, obvious, and brilliant all at once.  We cannot forget that SMS are also made of people–Twitter is people, Facebook is people.  Therefore, understanding how and why people behave the way that they do must be central to any analysis of the impact of social media and other digital tools/environments.

What I am getting out of some of our findings in the Visitors and Residents project is that people are primarily influenced by those who are firmly embedded in their own social network (whether that network is a digitally-facilitated one, or not).  This helps us answer questions like, Why do undergraduates (in particular, freshmen) ask their friends about their research papers rather than their professors?  Answer:  they are drawing upon their social network.  They frequently try to ask friends who have taken the relevant classes for help, but their professors are not a part of the first line of inquiry, despite frequently being the “best” ones to go to for answers.  As they go through the higher education system, and acquire more experts in their close social network, the ability to ask experts for advice nicely overlaps with the content of their social network (this is particularly true of those who go on to graduate school in a particular field).

The importance (and authority) of people’s face-to-face social networks is shot through all of the reports above.  It needs to be in the front of our minds when we try to analyze the behavior of students and faculty in the current information environment with which they (and we) are confronted.   And it cannot be enough for those of us who work in higher education to simply tell students what is best for them.  That clearly doesn’t work.  They need to be shown, they need to be embedded in the social networks that comprise the university community so that they can engage in the behaviors that result in success.  Abstract discussions about what is successful and effective will never be enough.

Science Friday, Digital Scholarship, and the End of the (Academic) World as we Know It (with apologies to REM)


If I didn’t listen to NPR, I think I’d never come up with blogpost ideas.  This time, it was listening to Science Friday that did it.   Ira Flatow was interviewing Michael Nielsen, whose book, Reinventing Discovery:  the New Era of Networked Science appears to be something I should get my hands on.   During the interview, Nielsen discussed the Galaxy Zoo, a project that allows non-scientists to get into NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope archive, and help classify galaxies by shape.   So far, more than a quarter of a million people have participated in the project.  That’s scaling up something fierce, and something that would not have been possible without the kinds of digital tools we now have at our disposal.  It’s also a kind of crowdsourcing. a kind of knowledge production made particularly possible and accessible by tools like wikis, blogs, etc. 

Crowdsourced knowledge is trusted by Digital Residents (so far as we can tell) far more than by Digital Visitors, who still seem to insist on institutionally produced knowledge as the authoritative standard.  Some fields, such as Bioinformatics, have scholars working with projects so novel that the peer-reviewed literature just has not been produced in enough quantity to be helpful to researchers when they are actively engaged in their research–they turn to blogs, tweets, emails, phone calls, and face to face conversations to keep up with the field–the latter two happening, I suspect, only after quite a bit of the first three take place.

My own library has launched a Digital Scholarship Lab, and while we expect that at first, there will be a large Digital Humanities component, I think it’s no accident that we are naming it Digital Scholarship, and Nielsen’s book makes me think my hunch is a solid one–these digital tools are, as he said in the interview I heard, fundamentally transforming the ways we construct knowledge, broadly defined.  This transformation is not limited to a particular field or discipline, it is global, and it is utter.

It is also frightening and destabilizing to many traditional academics, who see in digital tools as a way to trivialize, ignore, or fail to achieve the insights gained through traditional scholarship with old fashioned tools like books, paper,  images, and manuscripts.  Peer-reviewed journals are increasingly threatened by Open Access, blogging, and twitter, as primary ways to share and discuss scholarship.   Twitter and blogs make it possible to have a “conference” at any time, no matter where you are in the world–we do not have to wait for a national disciplinary conference to engage in scholarly exchange, nor do we want to wait anymore.

Nielsen pointed out that junior scholars and senior scholars tend to be happy to get on board with radical changes, and I can see why:  junior scholars are a part of the changes, they are fish in the water already; senior scholars are in a position to actually make change happen, and they are senior scholars, so less is at stake for them.  Scholars in the middle of their career, either trying to get tenure, or just post-tenure and now with even more work to do, may well feel that they’re being told to change doing everything that, up to this point, had been working out just fine for them.  It might be like coming up to someone halfway through their dissertation and insisting that they try this new reference management system.  Or making someone who is writing a book switch word processing software just as they are writing their conclusion.

I don’t have a conclusion here, just a string of thoughts that have come to an end (for now).