• 24Aug

    Are you suffering from information overload? I certainly am. The amount of noise in my life seems to be increasing exponentially. My definition of listening goes beyond just hearing the sounds around you. It also encompasses the amount of digital noise that we have to deal with on a daily basis, including SPAM, Twitter feeds, text messages, and Facebook updates.

    To combat the increasing level of noise in our lives, I see a number of people working on refining their multitasking skills. Unfortunately, the human brain is not really wired to multitask, so instead of handling multiple feats simultaneously, we end up doing two or more things poorly. If you doubt it, but try to hold a phone conversation with someone checking their email at the other end of the line. Or try talking to your teenager while their thumbs are busily texting their friends. You not only don’t have their attention, but they are actually actively ignoring what you have to say.

    We need to recapture the art of listening. We need to rediscover ways to cut through the noise and re-engage with those around us. Especially in the age of social media, we have all become “skimmers,” sifting through the cacophony of incoming noise and taking away the sound bites we want without applying critical thought to the context or the bigger picture. In fact, we are all starting to communicate in sound bites since we know our listeners won’t take the time to hear a longer statement. One of the prime criteria for bloggers is keep it short so you don’t lose your audience. (I recall the Jeff Goldblum character in the film “The Big Chill” stating that the editorial criteria for People magazine is “I don’t write anything longer than the average person can read during the average crap,” which seems to apply to most communications these days.)

    To quote Julian Treasure from a recent TED presentation, “Conversation is being replaced by personal broadcasting.” This particularly true with social media where we are all shouting at each other for online attention, and have to ask ourselves if anyone is listening. Sure, we each can count the number of Twitter followers or LinkedIn contacts, but how many of them are paying attention to you?

    As Treasure states, listening is our access to understanding. It’s time to renew our commitment to conscious listening.

    In his TED presentation, Treasure offers five exercises to improve your listening skills, which I will present here for your consideration. We all need to reassess our listening skills and stop shouting at one another, so take a moment to consider these exercises:

    1. Practice Silence – Take three minutes each day to recalibrate your consciousness. Get yourself back in tune with the world around you.
    2. The Mixer – How many individual channels can you hear in your environment? If you are at Starbucks or waiting for a BART train, or just sitting in your backyard, sharpen your listening skills by trying to tune into to as many simultaneous sounds of “channels” as you can.
    3. Savoring – Enjoy mundane sounds. Tune to something that generates sound in your life and pay attention to its sound and how you can deconstruct that sound to make it more meaningful.
    4. Listening Positions – Work with the filters to get conscious about the sounds around you and work with the ways we listen. Is your listening active or passive? Reductive or expansive? Critical or empathetic?
    5. RASA – This is the Sanskrit word for “essence” and can be applied to the acronym Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, and Ask. This is the process of listening in its most active form. If you are going to engage with your audience or as a member of someone else’s audience, then you need to listen carefully and critically, which means you need to apply RASA.

    Listening is a critical component of any communications campaign. If you can’t engage with your audience in a manner that promotes critical listening, you are just adding to the noise. Let’s all think more about listening and less about trying to get our own message across.


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  • 11May

    When I saw Eli Pariser TED presentation on  has come up with a concept called the “The Filter Bubble,” I was reminded of the old Outer Limits television show and their opening sequence: “We are controlling the transmission… We will control all that you see and hear…”

    What Pariser points out is that your Internet experience is being monitored and, more importantly, managed. Okay, this isn’t really news. If you have a subscription to Netflix or shop on eBay or Amazon you know that they have built algorithms into their systems to offer suggestions based on past shopping patterns and preferences. That actually seems, well, helpful. However, what Pariser points out is that by controlling what is delivered online, we are actually creating islands of Web experience that insulate us from other areas of the Web that may challenge our thinking or desires. Apparently, with the help of search bots and search algorithms, we are all creating our own gated communities of web experience where the online vendors and search providers are serving as the gatekeepers.

    For example, it never occurred to me that Google, Yahoo, and other search engines are tailoring search results based on what they know about me. Apparently the search results are filtered based on IP address (work or home), computer you are using, time of day, and other criteria. Okay, I expect that from advertisers, since microtargeting consumers is not particularly new. However, I am appalled that my search results are being filtered to provide a more personalized and thereby insular experience.

    I was fascinated by the example Pariser offered to prove his point. He had two friends search Google for the term “Egypt,” and one friend retrieved the latest political news while the other retrieved vacation and travel information. Huh? You mean web search is not a neutral playing field? You mean when I look for online information I will get data customized by some robot based on what it “thinks” I am looking for?

    Pariser is correct in his assessment that this kind of controlled experience is dangerous. We need to be challenged regarding our world view and we need to be able to share opposing viewpoints. I know my liberal spouse has spirited debates with her conservative compatriots on Facebook, but everyone appreciates the dialogue. What happens when those conversations get filtered out because those conversing are not “like minded”? Then we all lose. The Web should be used to promote the open exchange of information and understanding – that’s what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.

    More importantly, Pariser’s observation’s demonstrate that you can’t rely on the web for objectivity. It is not a neutral news source, and the organizations that are promoting the news are for-profit, which means they are tailoring their data to keep you coming back as a user and potential customer. As Pariser notes in his presentation, in the past we have had editors as watchdogs of journalistic standards, to help promote informational integrity and promote fair reporting and access to information. With the free-for-all of the web, bloggers are now being treated like journalists but they are not held to the same standards, and now apparently the webbots are acting as news editors and determining whether we should receive the facts according to the New York Times or Page Six.

    I, for one, like to make my own determinations based on all the available data; not just the information some computer algorithm thinks I might find interesting. How about you?


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  • 16Sep

    I just love the TED web site. They post some of the most interesting discussions by some of the most controversial thinkers of the 21st century. I recently saw this animated video of a talk by Jeremy Rifkin given before the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on Empathetic Civilization, and it made me start thinking about human empathy and its impact on social media. If Rifkin is right and we are soft-wired for empathy, then it explains a lot about the success of social media.

    If you have read this blog in the past, you know that I have posted about the tribal nature of social media, and even about the impact of brain chemistry on our inherent need to connect with others. Rifkin calls mankind homo empathicus, because our need to empathize and connect with other creatures is soft-wired into our brains.

    As Rifkin explains it, as individuals mature they develop greater empathy for their fellow creatures. Babies cry because they hear other babies crying. Children develop a sense of individuality or self around age 2, which is when their empathetic development really begins and they can start to understand how they relate as individuals to other individuals. Around age 8, children come to grips with the concept of mortality, life and death, and they start to understand that all creatures on earth are following the same mortal path, which broadens their sense of empathy even further to encompass other creatures, not just other people.

    According to Rifkin, an empathetic civilization is not utopian but rather is powered by suffering and a solidarity from understanding of our own mortality. And the tribalism of this empathy civilization expands with man’s experience. Early man could only carry empathy to his immediate circle – the blood ties of those within shouting distance. As man’s world expanded, the concept of blood ties expanded as well, promoting a sense of tribal empathy because of your religion, your country, etc. With today’s technology, we can experience a sense of worldwide connectedness or the global tribe.

    Which brings me to social media. Rifkin’s premise is that man’s empathetic nature is not only soft-wired, but basically benevolent. Rather than being driven by self-interest and greed, man’s inherent sense of empathy makes him want to aid his fellow creatures. This is what fuels the sense of tribalism that makes social media so successful. Social media is promoting an online empathetic civilization of sorts, where people are connecting on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media looking for like-minded people to become part of a shared experience. That same soft-wired empathy also offers an explanation of why those who violate the trust of the tribe are doomed to fail. If you pervert the social media trust by aggressively selling your next webinar or your newest product, the tribe will eventually shun you because you violated the unwritten rules. How many of you have “de-friended” or “un-followed” those who do nothing more than cry”buy my stuff!”?

    So it seems homo empathicus is predisposed to gravitate toward social media, since we are all looking to connect to a larger world and expand our own sense of tribal connection.


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