Tag Archives: social media

Manipulating emotions – the trouble with Facebook

It has not been a good few weeks for Facebook. The company has finally agreed to supply Congress with information about political advertisements bought during the US presidential campaign, apparently with Russian money and promoting inauthentic links and stories. Facebook’s weak response has been noted and castigated as a threat to democracy. But the issues go much deeper than this story, or indeed allegations of fake news and the creation of echo chambers and, I believe, the key clues lie in two academic papers. The first, with the descriptive title, “What Makes Online Content Viral?” analysed all articles published in the New York Times over a three-month period to understand the characteristics of articles shared more often than others. Controlling for as many factors as they can think of, their main conclusion is clear:

“While more awe-inspiring (a positive emotion) content is more viral and sadness-inducing (a negative emotion) content is less viral, some negative emotions are positively associated with virality. More anxiety- and anger-inducing stories are both more likely to make the most e-mailed list….Consistent with our theorizing, content that evokes high-arousal emotions (i.e. awe, anger and anxiety), regardless of their valence, is more viral.”

This conclusion should not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time on social media, but it is useful to have the data. Social media companies have a vested interest in us spending as much time as possible using their tools and encourage us to post material that will be liked and shared. And the way to achieve this is simple – evoke awe, anger, anxiety or something similar. The rest will follow. The logical conclusion of this is that the most popular material on social media is the most emotive – considerations such as whether the material is useful or factually correct come a long way behind. This has always been known to journalists, of course, but social media lacks even the most cursory standards of fact-checking and material can be shared at a speed impossible in the pre-internet age. To use the Silicon Valley terminology, the fact that social media, particularly Facebook, is usually swamped with emotive and misleading material is a feature not a bug.

The second paper is even more scary but with a title that is only mildly sinister, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. To a certain type of psychologist, Facebook represents a wonderful laboratory for testing theories, and the test here is whether people who read sad or happy posts (identified by the use of certain keywords) are more likely to then produce sad or happy posts themselves (again identified through keywords). How do you test this? You take nearly 700,000 Facebook users and manipulate the newsfeed algorithms (Facebook’s top secret way of determining the order in which posts are seen) for two groups – one “sad”, one “happy” – and keep a group unchanged as a control. None of these people, of course, were aware of the experiment, which led to accusations that it breached ethical guidelines. But what is even more scary than Facebook’s willingness to experiment on its users without their knowledge is that it worked. Their summary diagram tells the story:

Screenshot 2017-09-24 at 16.43.13

So there is a small but clearly measurable impact on the emotional state of Facebook users resulting from manipulation of their newsfeed algorithm. Or put this another way – we now have a company, a corporation remember, committed to maximising profits for their shareholders – with the capability to measurably influence the emotional state of over two billion people, without any of them actually being aware of it. If that doesn’t scare you, I’m not sure you have been paying attention.

The truth is, we have created a monster. The question now is whether it can be reined in before it becomes too powerful to deal with. The most hopeful signs so far have come from the European Commission, with Margrethe Vestager, the formidable Commissioner for Competition, one of the few officials willing to take on technology companies, including Facebook for making misleading statements relating to their acquisition of WhatsApp. But what will really make a difference is whether we, the general public, continue to invest our time, energy and attention in support of the company. A great deal may well depend on this.


Berger, J. & Milkman, K. (2012) “What Makes Online Content Viral?”, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. XLIX (April), 192-205.

Kramer, A., Guillory, J. & Hancock, J. (2014) “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 24, 8788-8790.



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Reflections on the DigiKnow conference: digital awareness, online presence and going political

Earlier today, I was privileged to be a keynote speaker at a student conference organised by the University of Gloucester called “DigiKnow”. I kicked it off with a presentation on digital literacy and capability, for which the slides are attached. Using a metaphor from the Matrix, with gratitude to Tara Brabazon, from whom I got the idea, I wanted to encourage attendees to “take the red pill” and be thoughtful about their use of technology, instead of simply taking what they are given. There were a number of interesting questions, one of which picked up on my mentioning how much I learn from my teenage children. I was asked whether I was concerned about children having too much technology, and the short answer is no because technology is simply part of life. In my view, they need help from their parents to learn about responsible and safe use of technology, rather than having it banned altogether. Having said that, this is a personal matter and I know other parents take a different view. It intrigued me that this issue came up again in the Q&A session at the end of the day. There is a lot of anxiety among parents and society at large about children using technology and perhaps there is a need for better support and guidance here. It certainly needs to be more nuanced than “don’t use social media”, which is too often the message and does not get us anywhere.
I attended several interesting sessions including a brief review of copyright issues, which are something of a minefield and difficult to cover in a short talk. One point I was not aware of is that educational institutions often hold licences for use of specific material, but only for study purposes. This means that a student who posts their assignment on a blog, for example, needs to check whether they breach copyright on any external material they have used. At lunchtime there was a professional photographer taking photos for students to use on their LinkedIn profiles. This seems like an excellent idea as the quality of the photo is critical for a good profile, and having a professional involved makes a big difference. We then heard from marketing consultant Luan Wise, who provided useful tips on using LinkedIn. This had me mentally resolving to update my profile, in particular my “headline”. This defaults to your job title and place of work which is not always that informative, and I have never changed this. I will shortly!
We then heard from Mark Gosland from Gloucestershire Police Force about online security and safety. I consider myself pretty good on security but Mark has outdone me. Not only does he have two-factor authentication for key accounts (which I also do), he does this using a cheap phone which he doesn’t use for anything else. In other words, to hack my gmail account you would need to guess my password (which is generated by Lastpass, so pretty much unguessable) then steal my phone (and guess the password to that). For Mark, even if they stole his phone this wouldn’t work. I’m impressed. The final presentation was from librarian Johanna Anderson on “Your digital tattoo”. The word “tattoo” is chosen deliberately rather than the more usual “footprint”, because a footprint fades but a tattoo remains forever, just like your online material. This was timely advice for students who will be seeking employment shortly. Employers will often find out what they can about you online, it’s wise to manage this information. On the plus side, a positive online presence can have all sorts of benefits, as it has for Johanna, who was even offered a book deal on the basis of her blog.
Finally, there was a group Q&A, which pulled a number of themes from the day together. I was impressed at the questions that showed a lot of reflection on the big issues raised. One student simply asked “Do you think it is still possible to have a private life?” This is a big question. At times, I feel relieved that I grew up in an era when you could make mistakes in your teenage years and they would generally be forgotten. Now that so much growing up happens online, it will not be forgotten, an issue which I try to help my kids navigate. Mark Gosland gave his personal opinion that we have “sleepwalked” into a situation where we are under constant surveillance and our privacy is being eroded, but as citizens and voters we have the ability to ask questions and change this. I strongly agreed and ended up talking about the fact that I have recently joined the Open Rights Group, which campaigns on these issues, and advised anyone who is conceDigiKnow keynote presentation 200116 – Daniel Clarkrned to seek more information from them. This is what can happen – when you take the red pill sometimes you feel compelled to try and change things. We covered a lot of ground today, from practical ways to use social media to large-scale changes to society, and lots of points in between. Definitely a day well spent.

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Cognitive presence and open learning: coming full circle again with #HumanMOOC

So here I am more or less completing #HumanMOOC – although readers will be very aware that completion can be a complex idea when it comes to MOOCs. I have not earned any badges (apologies to the organisers here as I said I would), and have not been particularly active on the discussion boards. I have, however, learned a lot from the course and that is of course the critical thing. So firstly many thanks to the team involved in putting it together – Whitney Kilgore, Robin Bartoletti, Dave Hallmon, and Maha Al-Freih. They have done a superb job.

The final week was devoted to the third “leg” of the Community of Inquiry model – cognitive presence. This is the process by which students (i.e. all of us) are helped to grapple with theories, ideas and problems. One approach (Garrison &Anderson, 2003), helpfully thinks about this in four stages:

1) Triggering event/recognising problem – this could be anything from an assignment question to a video, to a news item;

2) Exploration of possible solutions, doing research etc.;

3) Integration of findings – synthesis, exploration, bringing everything together;

4) Resolution of the problem – applying ideas and considering their relevance.

Of course, no one would say these need to be sequential, or that this process is always followed, but it seems to me a useful design tool. Much of the discussion in the week focused on the first of these – “triggering events”, and how to bring them into teaching with imagination and impact. The week kicked off with the academic and self-proclaimed “edupunk” Jim Groom describing a very unorthodox triggering event which he used. He delivered a class as a fictional character, who then disappeared. It’s well worth viewing the video for the full story, which is as weird and provocative as it sounds:

Maybe these tactics are not ones we could all use, but the part of this I found most fascinating was the way Groom’s approach pushed his students to consider the issue of identity on the Web, which in turn is a topic you can only really explore using the tools of the web. His argument, which I tend to agree with, is that educators so often see their role as engineering ways to hide from the Web. The Web is here, whether we like it or not, so our duty as educators is surely to help our students use it effectively and safely. And they can surely only learn about the Web, its capabilities and pitfalls by using it. Interestingly, a similar point was made in another (much shorter) video which was referenced in the course. Here, educator and blogger Will Richardson is discussing the concept of the Personal Learning Network:

Richardson’s point is that so much formal education pretends that children, or even older students, are not already part of personal learning networks. The fact is that they usually are, but we are not helping them develop the literacy to use them effectively. The video was made in 2007 but, in my experience as a parent, not much has changed since. My children get lots of talks on e-safety at their school and of course we have reinforced key messages about being careful how you share information, how to respond to cyber-bullying and so forth. But it gets pretty repetitive and the overall impression conveyed can be that the Web is a very dangerous place and the school would mostly rather you didn’t go there. Of course, most of the kids are there anyway, and we should encourage them to use the web creatively, and through their practice, develop the awareness they need to stay safe (or at least as safe as they reasonably can).

And I do wonder if we, as parents and educators, have room to set a better example in our own practice. Anyone following me on social media knows that Twitter and WordPress are indispensable tools of my practice – I struggle to imagine operating without them. By navigating and using the Web in this way, I like to think that I can serve as a role model for my students and my children. I certainly talk to my children about what I do and why, so hopefully they can learn from this, including from mistakes I have made. And there are countless other educators all over the world who blog, tweet, and use many other forms of media to share and discuss ideas.

And yet my experience is that we are still quite a small minority – a large majority of educators do not use these tools as part of their practice. Of course, they use the Web as a resource, but do not participate much in the professional community there. There are lots of reasons why they might not (including lack of support and training from their institutions), and of course I would not want to push someone into doing something they are uncomfortable with, even if I could. But I would, in all humility, like to pose a question to all educators: your students’ practice will most likely include professional engagement with the Web and learning to do this well may be one of the most important skills they need to learn. Are you in any position to teach and role model this if you yourself do not engage professionally with the Web in some form or other?

All of which brings me back to a topic I have blogged about before – being an open, networked teacher and learner. I am now more convinced of its importance than ever.


Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st century: a framework for research and practice. London, Routledge/Falmer.

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Being open and networked – benefits and ways forward

I recently completed H818 which, assuming all goes well with marking, will be my final module in the MA in Online & Distance Education (MAODE). This degree has taken me two and a half years alongside a full-time job and family, so it is quite a relief to make it. It has been my second Masters degree and a real contrast to my first one, which was undertaken full-time and in a more traditional academic discipline, twenty years ago. Part-time is much harder, by the way, no question.

This is a good point to take stock, then, and part of our final assessment helped us to do this by asking us to evaluate how we operate as networked practitioners. To do this evaluation, I used a framework which was presented to us by Professor Martin Weller (2013) in an audio that formed part of our course materials. He set out five benefits of being “open” in your practice as a scholar and educator, drawing on his personal experience. The audio is not publicly available, but the points are very consistent with Prof Weller’s published work.

The benefits are set out below, with reflections on my own practice in relation to each:

  1. It makes your content go further, in terms of distribution, citations and use;

This is probably true for me. One of the reasons I write my blog and share my work on it is that many more people will see it and it may be useful to them, rather than keeping it private. According to my WordPress statistics, there have been over 7,000 views of my blog since I started it. This is far more people seeing my work than I can imagine happening by any other practical means.

  1. It leads to unexpected outcomes, for example in Prof Weller’s case being invited to deliver a keynote presentation in India;

I have not yet been invited to India, or anywhere else externally, to present on the basis of my blog, but I have had some gratifying responses, including a blog post in response to one of mine (Weston, 2013). So this has been realised in a much smaller way.

  1. It allows you to form a global network of peers without investing in a lot of time going to conferences;

Blogging and using Twitter have brought me into loose contact with an interesting range of people, although my own experience is that making a meaningful connection entirely online is not easy – it helps a lot if you can meet in person at least occasionally. During H818, I had the opportunity to meet with another student, who was visiting my home town. The opportunity to compare notes in person was valuable and hard to replicate online. Prof Weller’s network may well include people he has met at least once, which will make a difference.

  1. It allows for reciprocity, such as answering questions and providing examples;

My experience of digital networking has not included much in the way of exchanging answers and examples, with the exception of a few fellow MAODE students. This is perhaps an area to focus on for development.

  1. It offers interesting ways of doing teaching and education, such as MOOCs.

I have tried to incorporate Twitter and blogging into some of my teaching, although this can be hard to accommodate within course structures, and is further hampered by the fact that many students do not engage with these channels, as per the 1% rule, which I was introduced to on my most recent module.

Conclusions and directions

The overall conclusion is that, while I have seen some benefits, they are limited compared to those of a highly networked practitioner. The key point is one that I am sure Prof Weller would agree with, and has been made by other prominent networked academics (e.g. Wheeler, 2013). Blogging, and networked practice, are hard work and require sustained attention and effort. There will always be a trade-off between time invested in this and maintaining the “day job”. Of course, Weller’s key point is that it will eventually pay off in terms of the “day job”, but this will take time and will also depend what your “day job” is.

This leads to the question of my future strategy for being networked. I realise now that I have relied to some extent on the MAODE to build up my peer network – that is part of what these courses are for, of course. I will not have this help going forward, and don’t intend to do further formal studies at this stage, although on the other hand time has been freed up to focus on networked activity. Part of my strategy will be to invest some of the time I previously spent studying into updating my blog and writing more regular posts (yes, I will try!), as well as monitoring others’ blogs more closely and commenting on them. I will aim to create a “hub” for my online presence, either using my blog to do this or a new page. I also intend to use selected relevant MOOCs as networking tools, building up contacts with those who share my interests. That’s my plan – but no doubt it will evolve over time.

I will of course be dependent on the support and suggestions of you, my network, to do this, and I will offer suggestions and support in turn. I look forward to keeping in touch with you.


Weller, M. (2013) ‘Benefits of Open’, H818 Unit 2 [online]. Available to OU H818 students at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=344985 (accessed 22 February 2014).

Wheeler, S. (2013) ‘Those who are about to blog…’ Learning with ‘e’s, 5 January [online]. Available at http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/those-who-are-about-to-blog.html (accessed 22 February 2014).

Weston, C. (2013) ‘The iTunes model in education’ Ed Tech Now, 26 March [online]. Available at http://edtechnow.net/2013/03/26/itunes/ (accessed 22 February 2014).

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Representations of open scholarship

One thing I have already noticed about being on a MOOC is that the forums and blog posts tend to mingle responses to the exercises and feedback comments on those exercises themselves. Maybe this is all part of the learning experience, but I’m not certain it is always helpful. I will try not to do this too much, but I do have one observation which may be relevant to open education as a whole.

I am a bit surprised that one of the resources set for this task is a set of Powerpoint slides for a talk delivered at a conference. When I personally use Powerpoint in presentations (which I know is a bit unfashionable), I consider it key that the slides are a visual aid to the presentation – they are not the presentation itself. You can use Powerpoint on a stand-alone basis if you want, but that is not what is happening here. The result is that, apart from thinking that 73 slides is far too much for one talk, I feel like I have picked up some ideas about what the speaker was saying, but I don’t think I really understand his argument. (Although I thought his wordle “word cloud” cv was very cool and I will pinch that idea for the “About Me” section of my blog). So why were we set these resources, instead of a more complete resource such as a video presentation, podcast or article? Is this because “open education” means “anything goes”? Hopefully not, but it raised the question in my mind.

Anyway, we are asked to create a visual representation of open scholarship, drawing on some of the ideas in our resources. I am not great on visual representations – I tend to think in words not images, and I have generally worked in places where experts can deal with making things look attractive, so I have never honed my skills in this way. But I gave it a go (that spirit of openness again). At risk of over-simplifying, I would depict the situation in two simple diagrams. One depicts the “old world” of scholarship, say up to the 1970s, although still very much the dominant model when I was at university in the 1980s:

Closed scholarship


It would be too much to say that scholars were completely isolated from society, but they seemed to me fairly well insulated. There were clear entry criteria and career paths. Scholars attended conferences where they discussed matters with each other. They published papers in peer-reviewed journals that few if any outside the scholarly community would ever read. They taught some students within the institutions they worked for. There was interaction with the world outside – perhaps some public lectures, “popular” books or TV appearances – but these were limited.

As we all know well, this model started to break down in the 1970s, with organisations like the Open University and the University of Phoenix (which, in the interests of being open, I will disclose shares a parent company with my employer) getting things going. You can then chart a trajectory via the World Wide Web, academic blogs, OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy and many other staging posts to the emerging situation we see now:

Open scholarship

The key point is that the line between scholarship and the rest of the world is much more porous. Scholars regularly host tv programmes, share their thoughts in blogs as well as academic journals, and run courses open to everyone. This process is still at the early stages, of course, but the direction seems clear. It’s an exciting development, and means many more people can access and contribute to scholarship in all its forms. But, going back to my point about “anything goes”, the questions multiply too:

  • If the universities no longer have a monopoly on scholarship, then who defines whether someone is a scholar or not?
  • Who exercises scholarly authority? Is it based on credentials, qualifications, experience, or how many hits your blog or YouTube channel gets?
  • Social media discourse tends to gravitate to “small talk” – chat about the latest fads, fun stuff, soundbites, instant feelings. There is nothing wrong with this. But it is very different to scholarship, which at its best can mean a painstaking trawl through data and literature, carefully building up conclusions and then opening them for debate. Is the world of open scholarship going to allow space for this?

All food for thought and discussion as we move onwards.


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Twitter: our new way of belonging

Why are human beings so successful? That is, “successful” in the sense that we have become very numerous, and dominate our planet. Many answers can be suggested, but maybe the really important point is our capacity for co-operation. Other animals do this of course – who can forget tv footage of the Emperor Penguins? They are the only native species that can survive the Antarctic winter, and they do it by huddling together, taking turns to bear the brunt of the wind.

But human have taken it to a whole different level – we co-operate in highly sophisticated ways and have developed patterns of working together not just in small groups but in units of millions. This has allowed us to achieve extraordinary things.

One aspect of this propensity to co-operate is that we don’t really cope very well on our own. We are inter-dependent, with a powerful need to belong. This has been recognised and expressed by poets in every generation. As the writers of Genesis put it, “It is not good that the man should be alone”, or John Donne – “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”. I think this is the most powerful aspect of what religion provides to many people. Indeed, my observation is that for many people who practice a religion, this sense of belonging can be more important than issues of belief or behaviour.

All of which points to one of the most intriguing aspects of social media to me. As the “social” suggests, it is really all about belonging. Facebook shows that you belong with a group of friends, and reinforces those ties. LinkedIn shows that you belong with a network of work-related contacts. Both tools offer a bewildering array of “groups” you can join if you feel you want to belong to something bigger than just your network.

But Twitter is perhaps the most interesting of all, because instead of just reinforcing existing ties, where you already belong, it allows you to create new ties. By following someone on Twitter, you belong to a sort of fan club, hence the dominance of pop stars and celebrities among those who are most followed. But in time heavy Twitter users start finding and following interesting new people, maybe interacting with them. It is possible to “meet” people on Twitter, and form communities based around shared interests. You have conversations, respond to each other, and occasionally even meet up in real life. You start to belong to a new community, with all the benefits and problems that entails.

Twitter might not spell the beginning of the end for religion, which after all has a head start of several millennia. But it does provide a genuinely new way for us to fulfil some of our deepest needs – to connect and form new communities. This is why it has moved so fast from geeky niche interest to the mass market. And this is why I am increasingly sure that Twitter, or whatever it morphs into over time, will change our world.


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