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How You Are Influenced By People You Don’t Know, Backed by Science (Book Review)

We’ve all heard of six degrees of separation. The idea, proven through the research of Stanley Milgram, is that any one person is connected to another through 6 or less other individuals.  (If you’d like to see this idea in action, play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon where you can find if any actor is connected to Mr. Bacon through 6 degrees or less). But to how many degrees of separation does one person influence others?  Here’s a hint. It’s not 6.

connected-book

As educators in the social media space, we talk to our students about online influence and the great powers that thought leaders can have to diffuse ideas or realize the adoption of those ideas among social networks. But, while important, talking this way is in a sense, shortsighted.

We know that ideas spread not simply in a two-step flow, a la Paul Lazarsfeld’s groundbreaking research (way before Facebook!), but through a multi-step flow (or, later, diffusion of innovations) through a network of connected individuals.

The book Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do by Christakis & Fowler is a fascinating exploration of the role of social networks in the spread of everything from happiness, to perceived value in the marketplace, to sexually transmitted diseases, to my favorite example: la ola (the wave) at sports games.

But it is not simply ideas or diseases that spread. Who we are connected to has many subtle yet powerful influences on our lives: from who we marry, to how quickly we solve problems, to whether or not we’ll vote, to why we would act altruistically at the expense of ourselves, to why men benefit more from a marriage than women, to much, much more. And that is the central thesis to the book. While we like to think of ourselves as independent and autonomous, Christakis & Fowler take a sledgehammer to that notion. We are, as the authors put it, Homo dictyous (“network man”).

Interest in Social Network Analysis

Interest in social network analysis is on the rise in communication scholarship. Recent years have witnessed a growth in the analysis of large data sets of social media data (e.g., big data) to understand connections and the spread of ideas. As I’ve said before on this blog, this is an area I personally need to delve deeper into. And, I believe that’s true for all of us aiming to teach our students to thrive in the social media economy. Strategic insights can be gained by understanding social networks and we’re seeing a greater emphasis on that both in research and in professional applications.

Should You and Your students read Connected?

The book is a thorough and accessible look at social network theories and research. While this isn’t a ‘must read book’ like Made to Stick, I would suggest this book to anyone as we all live in a networked world. The book has given me a much greater appreciation for my place within the different social networks I’m apart of. It’s been one of my favorite reads of late. and I absolutely recommend it. Educators and scholars interested in a deeper appreciation for social networks would enjoy and truly benefit from reading this booth.

Should students read this book? This is a very readable, incredibly informative and sometimes humorous read that I believe students would enjoy. I would love to have my students read this book. However, I likely won’t use the book in my classes – at least for the classes I currently teach – simply because there are too many other books I want my students to read. But, this book would be great for any class specifically about social networks and more broadly for theory classes. It would be a great read to add to a data analytic course exploring online social networks.

Though the book is primarily about offline social networks with a chapter dedicated to online networks, Connected could be used as a suggested or supplementary reading in a social media class if the professor wants sufficient time or depth given to social networks (see my lecture and activity on social networks for my Social Media class).

Three Degrees of Influence

So back to our initial question. While we all may be connected by about three degrees of separation, through how many degrees does one have influence on another? The authors’ research indicates that influence generally travels three degrees. They state: “Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on friends (one degree,” our friends’ friends (two degrees), and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees)…. Likewise, we are influenced by friends within three degrees but generally not by those beyond” (p. 28).

Which begs the question: How are you influencing your friends’ friends’ friends?

What I’ve learned in 10 Years of Teaching College (And Why I Give My Students High Fives)

It is hard to believe. But, I’ve just completed teaching at the university level for 10 academic years.

At the age of 24, I  began teaching as a graduate student in 2006 at Washington State University where I independently taught 2 classes a semester for 4 years. I had no idea what I was doing. I was barely older than the seniors. With a textbook in hand and the summer to prepare, I jumped right in.

As of this past Friday, I have completed 6 years of teaching as an assistant professor. All of that has been working with undergraduates.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the 10 years since I began. I can boil it down into one concept:

The quality and effectiveness of the education you provide as an educator is a function of the culture you build.

teaching-college-10-years

So, if you want to succeed as an educator, you begin by building a pro-learning culture. And a pro-learning culture is a pro-student culture.

Yes, it is the student’s job to learn in a classroom. Just as it is your job to work at your job. But where would you rather work, in a positive, welcoming, enthusiastic environment, or a in drab office that has the inspiration and personality of a filing cabinet?

Believe in the students – My Ph.D. advisor taught me that, as educators, we all must decide whether we believe students are inherently good or bad. That sounds dramatic. Let me explain. You can believe that your students want to learn, are talented and capable person and are honest with good intentions. Or, you can assume that they are lazy, cynical, unmotivated, etc. Your attitude on this will affect how you perceive them and how you treat them. Believing in your students is the foundation that enables everything else I talk about below to work. Which brings me to…

Set the tone – Students are extremely bright and perceptive. If the culture of the classroom is disengaged or the professor seems disinterested or “going through the motions” then students quickly pick up on this. The tone of the classroom starts with the professor. I’ve had classes where I didn’t succeed in setting the right tone and while the tendency is to start thinking “it’s the students,” I always remind myself to look at the energy and performance that I’m bringing into the classroom. While some groups of students are more difficult than others to energize, we can all make efforts to set the tone and remember that we’re seen as the person who is in charge. Students mirror. If we’re mentally somewhere else, are students will be too. Which brings me to…

You’re The Role Model – All the talent in the world doesn’t necessarily produce results. Many talented, under-performing sports teams prove this rule.  Just as a great coach extracts great performance from talented players, a great educator extracts great performance from talented students.  Students are looking for a leader. They are looking for inspiration. They are looking for someone they can believe in and trust. I see it as my job to inspire my team – the students – to go out and win the game (that is, do great work).  That’s not something you do in 1 day. It is a semester-long push, just the way a coach must push a team not for 1 game but for a season. Being a role model is a marathon effort and it is communicated to students through your actions, words, and attitude in all facets of the class. Which brings me to…

Infect your students with enthusiasm – How? For me, I bring the enthusiasm for what I do each day. I love what I teach. I love teaching. Mood is infectious. Energy, excitement, passion, and inquisitiveness are infectious. I learned this the hard way. When I was first teaching as a graduate student, I pushed for and got the opportunity to teach a 400-level new media course. There were 40 students in the class. I designed the entire class myself and this was my first time doing so. I began teaching social media to these students at a time when I’d never heard of another class teaching social media. There was no textbook, there were no resources, nothing.  It took a ton of work to build the class. I was overwhelmed and I didn’t feel like the class was going well. Some students began to show up late or leave early. They’d just get up and walk out. My confidence was shattered and this was a vicious cycle. As I performed worse, the students seemed more disengaged, which caused me to perform worse. After that semester, I read through my evaluations. A few students commented that I “complained about the weather.” I didn’t realize that I’d even done that – I’d left Miami Florida for the long, bleak winters of Pullman, WA and hadn’t quite acclimated. 🙂  I reflected on this and realized it wasn’t necessarily the material that the students didn’t appreciate. It was my attitude. It was my style of delivery. I quickly realized these were things I was in complete control over.  I’d spent so much time worrying whether I was providing the best possible education, material-wise, that I hadn’t focused on how I delivered it. I was passionate about the topic – after all, I’d sought out this opportunity and built an entire class. What little that meant to the students. They had no idea how I felt inside. For me, that was an epiphany that changed my entire approach to education. Which leads me to…

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it -Delivery is important. Find creative ways to relay information. Beyond the passion of your delivery, is the manner of making content compelling. We’re all familiar with hands-on learning, flipped classrooms, and other ways to bring our classrooms to life with activities and not just lecture. But, moving beyond this, when we do lecture we can relay that information in memorable ways. I think each of us has our own talents and ways of telling the story of what we’re teaching. But, there are some great common tips we all can use from books like Made to Stick (I discussed how this book could be used in an earlier post). I’ve found that my favorite tactics are 1) to create mystery or suspense at the start of a lecture by withholding some piece of information or alluding to a funny anecdote or joke that I’ll reveal later in the class, 2) to make a big deal out of little things because, really, the little things are what matters. For example, I like to talk up activities we are going to in class, why they matter and how fun  they are going to be. I emphasize how valuable activities and lecture materials are going to be in helping students not only complete an assignment but succeed in other realms of their life or career. Which leads me to…

Make education an experience – I’ve never taken an acting class. But I look at education ‘as performance.’ Every time you’re in the classroom you’re putting on a performance. But the difference is that the audience can be actively engaged and participate in the story – they have roles. And that’s a pretty cool play. I try to do this in a lot of ways. Let me focus on one. I celebrate my students’ victories. I reward them for their success. I create awards and accolades. I show appreciation for them. I help them feel important. Here’s an example. For the last 6 academic years, I have given out “High-5 awards.” The idea is simple. As the syllabus in all of my classes reads, “High-fives will be given to students who miss no more than 2 classes at the end of the semester; two-handed high fives for students who miss no classes.” It is important to note that there is absolutely no grade associated with this high-5. You don’t get a better grade for having stellar attendance. On the last day of class, I play Rocky music and give out the high-5s. Double high-fives come with a little certificate that I sign.  I nervously tried this the first semester that I taught at Utah Valley University. I expected the students to laugh it off and not want to participate. How wrong I was. They loved it. It quickly caught on and the word spread. I’ve had students tell me they came back to take a class from me simply because they wanted to get another high-5.  I’ve had students tell me they came to class when they were sick, tired, or otherwise didn’t’ feel like, just so they wouldn’t miss out on getting the high-5 at the end of the semester.  How powerful is that?

This year, I gave out a very special high-5. I had a student who took 6 different classes from me and never missed a single day. Not once. To reward this student, I created a new award in his name. I made a special certificate that I framed and gave to him. I also created a sort of  plaque with his picture and name and hung it in my office. The idea is that if another student repeats this difficult task, he or she would be the recipient of this special award have their name added to the plaque that hangs in my office.

I’ve thought a lot about why the students like the high-5 awards so much.  Yes, it’s corny. Yes, they get a laugh out if it.  But I think the answer is simple. It shows I appreciate and recognize them. That I’m not just there to ‘download’ information to them. But, that I’m there to root for them.

Conclusion

All people respond to their environment. That environment can be motivating or demotivating. Educators have the power to be leaders. It seems that sometimes that is forgotten in our society.

But I know so many passionate and dedicated educators. I’ve seen the great things they’ve accomplished and the impact they have on lives. These people have inspired me in my 10 years of teaching. And it’s because of the educators I know and the wonderful students I’ve had the opportunity to teach that I’m excited about the future.

I love what I do. And this is what’s worked for me: putting my energy into creating a welcoming, rigorous, tolerant, and energetic culture in the classroom.

– Cheers,

Matt

photo CC NEC Corporation of America

 

Theory and Research Breeding Fear and Loathing In the Classroom? They Don’t Need To

I can’t believe it is mid-June! It has been a busy summer. The highlight so far has been 2 weeks in Spain. While the first few days I helped run a booth at an international meeting, the majority of the trip was spent backpacking via train.  I saw Gijon, Bilboa, Seville, Cordoba, Ronda, Toledo, and (for a few hours before catching a flight) Malaga. It was absolutely amazing!

With all that said, a blog post is well overdue!

Puente Nuevo in Ronda Spain
Puente Nuevo in Ronda Spain

One thing I’ve spent a bit of time this summer doing is preparing a new class I am hoping to teach in the spring or the following fall semester. The course is a persuasion course. It aims to enhance exposure to theories and research of influence and persuasion among students in the (still new) Strategic Communication concentration, and our department generally.

As the coordinator of the Strategic Communication concentration, I believe the students would greatly benefit from a focused look at how theories of persuasion and research findings in persuasion can be applied ethically in professional communication settings to improve message effectiveness. Of course, we talk about such concepts here and there in other classes. But, I am excited about having an entire course aimed at getting students to learn these concepts, evaluate their use in real-world examples, and work on a project aimed specifically at applying theoretical concepts to the design of a persuasive campaign (In this assignment, my students will pick a cause they want to advocate for).

I’ve been thinking about this class for the past few semesters. But what truly motivated and solidified my going forward with planning this summer is the very interesting series on the Institute for Public Relations website on behavioral communication. This great series highlights the importance of understanding social scientific research from various fields and its implications for communication professionals.

In his opening post on the series, Christopher Graves states: “When we approach public relations challenges such as changing perceptions, changing people’s minds on an issue, building engagement in climate change or changing behavior related to health, or restoring trust, we tend to gravitate toward intuitive solutions based on creative concepts. Yet we may be working on a false premise from the beginning (“doing the wrong thing righter”). Increasingly, behavioral and neuroscience research related to communications and decision making can better guide us into communications solutions that have a better chance of working.”

While the series focuses primarily on behavioral and brain-related studies, it makes a wider point for the importance of looking to applying research and theoretically-tested assumptions over intuitive assumptions. I always joke with my students that their fear and loathing in the college classroom centers on two words: Theory and Research.

I’ve heard my students express disgust and fear when it comes to theory. I’ve heard discussions among professors that students simply hate theories and research which leads to the question, what should professors do about it? Do we stop teaching theory and focus on more practical things? Do we use a tough love approach and teach students theory, paining both ourselves and our students through dry, intense lectures?

I believe this is a false dilemma. And I believe it stems from not seeing (or showing to our students) the applications of theory and research to practical settings. In a class such as the one I’m designing,emphasis should be given to bridging this gap.

A major goal I have is to help students overcome their aversion to theory and research and to help them see its practical value and importance. We can do so by highlighting examples where theory and research have helped inform effective message design, or by deconstructing an existing message to analyze what theoretical concepts or present or lacking. But we can also do it by taking the time in our classes to demonstrate how a theoretical concept or findings can be applied to a practical situation to better achieve communication goals, thus leading to desired outcomes. In my persuasion class, I plan to have sections of lecture called “Theory into Practice” where, after presenting a theory, I explain how that theory could be applied in a given scenario. I’ll also use mock scenarios students have to work through in class to apply concepts and solve a communication problem – such as through in-class simultaneous response prompts.

Ultimately, it is my goal to have students leaving the class not only more aware of persuasive strategies that can be used, but motivated and adept at using them in their coursework across the concentration (and of course, in their careers once they leave Shepherd). This, in turn, will help them become more cognizant communicators with an empirical mindset towards the choices they make as communication strategists.

It is more important than ever for our students to understand why certain approaches work and others don’t and be able to make informed, research-driven recommendations.

I know this is something we all work towards. I would love your thoughts and suggestions on how you help students see the value in theory and research and bridge the gap between “Oh, this is just stuff I learn in class” to “Oh! This scenario calls for me to apply what I’ve learned to be more effective.”

Cheers!
-Matt

 

Teaching Social Media Metrics: A Professor’s Frustration

Crumpled Frustration

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to improve teaching social media metrics and monitoring. This is something that I have never quite been satisfied with in my classes. I think a big reason for this is because we don’t have access to a lot of real-world metrics for students to learn on. I’ve tried to overcome this limitation in a few ways. But none of them have been completely satisfactory. Here’s what I’ve tried:

  • I’ve pulled down stats from webpages or Facebook pages for events I’ve developed or helped run. But all have been fairly small scale.
  • Last academic year, I implemented a blog assignment in my social media class and one of the main goals was for students to learn how to use Google Analytics. However, to do so, we used Tumblr because that enabled us to install GA for free. Students didn’t like Tumblr. This year, we moved to WordPress for our department blog. The free version doesn’t support GA and the WordPress stats are limiting.
  • This past fall, students created the content for our social media – blog, Twitter, Instagram. So, again, there’s a hands-on possibility to teach metrics and track our results. I’ve used Twitter ad analytics for my Twitter team to learn analytics in my social media class. Those are robust and great! And we use the free version of SumaAll.com for Instagram and Twitter (though redundant for Twitter ad analytics), but those stats are limited. To track the analytics of our department social media, I use a version of a spreadsheet I modified from Professor Jeremy Floyd for students to track their analytics. In my Communication Research class, I teach students how to conduct a sentiment analysis of Tweets by hand.

But I haven’t found something that really makes me feel like I can teach students analytics in an engaging way.

No matter how I present it, I have found that students tend to fear metrics. This morning I started thinking that what we need is a module-based, hands-on teaching system.

Ideally, this would have to partner with a social media analytics company. The company would provide real-world data (they may have to mask identifying information). In a perfect world, students would have access to the company’s software and would be able to play with the data in a safe environment (where they couldn’t take any action on the data, such as send a Tweet, but could interact and create reports). And there would be a series of modules that students use to learn analytics. At the end of it, students would be put into a simulation environment where a problem is presented to the class and students would work in groups during class time to solve the scenario.

I’d love to do this. But I’m not yet sure how to get started. More than that, I think it is a project that has utility at multiple universities. If you are interested in exploring this idea with me, please contact me. I’d love to chat. I believe in the power of conversation.

I think this could be a cross-university effort of professors where we all could create and use the modules. I believe we could approach a metrics software company as a team and have a greater likelihood of success. What do you think about this idea?

Contact me @mjkushin!

– Cheers!

Matt

photo: Creative Commons Aaron Jacobs

Managing Higher Ed Social Media: Guest Speaker

I love having guests come and talk to my class. Last week, Comm 322 Social Media had another special guest – Leigh-Anne Lawrence from Hagerstown Community College (HCC).

Leigh-Anne is the Social Media and Public Information Specialist in the Public Information & Government Relations Office at HCC. Among her many responsibilities, she is in charge of all the social media for HCC- namely, their Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

A few cool highlights from Leigh-Anne’s presentation:

Leigh-Anne has helped build a university-wide social media policy to ensure communication consistency and reduce confusion among the public – For anyone thinking about creating a social media policy, particularly for higher ed, check out HCC’s guidelines. HCC’s policy will do more than just help govern what is appropriate and how entities should communicate on social media.  At many universities, social media is decentralized leading to communication inconsistency. There are too many accounts (many of which become ghost towns). This leaves students confused as to which accounts to follow and how to get important updates. Leigh-Anne takes a proactive role in preventing this problem by seeking to consolidate the voice of HCC on social media. This helps make things simple for HCC followers. She does this in part by reaching out to people who have created social media accounts at HCC and seeking to route their messages through the main account. Leigh-Anne told us that sometimes units within the university will create an account but the folks behind it may not be too certain as to what they want to communicate or how best to go about using the social media service. One thing she’ll do is monitor how active these HCC-related accounts are. For example, if, say, the dining services starts its own Twitter account and doesn’t use it very often, Leigh-Anne may ask dining services if they wouldn’t mind handing over to her the burden of getting dining services’ content out to the HCC community. Whenever the dining services wants to get a message out, they can send it to Leigh-Anne. She’ll post it on HCC Twitter and Facebook. That takes the pressure of having to maintain the account off dining services and helps meet Leigh-Anne’s mission.

Note: You can see her white paper highlighting her research on social media usage at community colleges.

Always On – Leigh-Anne told us how social media workers must be “always on.” There are no days where one can truly log off – workers must keep an eye on social media whether it is the weekend or a vacation day.

Social Media and School Closings – A quick anecdote for those who, like me, loved it when school was closed as a child and wait, wait, waited by the TV watching the ticker of schools that were closed and hoping to see their school’s name on the list. Today, people not only call into the school to complain when the school is or isn’t closed, they take to social media. Leigh-Anne told us she gets up at 4am when there is a storm, awaits the word on whether the school is closed, and spends the rest of her morning until she reports to work fielding questions and responding to complaints, including through social media. She may also find herself spending several hours continuing to answer questions after she gets to work.

Introverts can work in PR – I love this! Leigh-Anne explained that you don’t have to be outgoing to thrive in the field. Introverts thrive “behind the scenes” where their great writing, web, photography, organizational, and numerous other skills are highly valued.

Leigh-Anne was kind enough to share her slides, which I’ve embedded from her SlideShare account below.

Thanks again to Leigh-Anne for sharing her experience and her expertise with us! You can find her @writenowsoical or her website.

Social Media users praise brands in private and criticise in public

This is my first “reblog!” I want to share a great blog post by Ana Canhoto that I came across. This article describes the results of her research into social media and electronic word of mouth about brands. Specifically, the study looks at positive and negative online expression of consumer experiences with a brand. Enjoy!

Very interesting research –  I will be following her work and her blog! Check it out at http://anacanhoto.com.

– Cheers!

Matt

Interview with social media marketing professor Jeremy Floyd (G+ Hangout)

The semester is done. The grades are in.

It is time to reflect on the semester – what went well, what challenges we faced, what we learned, and what we plan to do to improve for next semester.

This evening I had the opportunity to talk about just that on a Google+ Hangout with social media / marketing professor Jeremy Floyd (@jfloyd). Jeremy teaches social media at the undergraduate and MBA level at University of Tennessee Chattanooga. He is also president at BlueGill Creative and brings with him a great deal of business experience into the classroom (more about Jeremy).

In the broadcast, Jeremy shares a ton of great insight about his teaching experiences, his goals, unanticipated surprises in the classroom, and his thoughts on how digital tools and the changing information landscape may impact education.

I learn a great deal from Jeremy every time we talk and truly appreciate his sharing his passion for, and knowledge of,  social media and digital. I particularly enjoyed our discussion on grades and assignments, and how grades can get in the way of education, as well as hearing how Jeremy uses Google Plus hangouts as a digital classroom, and how he’s integrated Twitter chats (he also has an overview blog post about it).

I highly recommend Jeremy’s blog JeremyFloyd.com if you aren’t currently subscribed.

Enjoy!

This is the second Google+ Hangout broadcast from our LinkedIn group – Teaching Social Media Marketing and Management.

Watch the first broadcast on Social Media Measurement.