Com0014, Blog 2: Becoming a Digital Storyteller

Being a digital storyteller isn’t all that different from being any other kind of storyteller; it’s just a different platform. While telling a story can be therapeutic, if authors don’t keep their readers in mind while they’re writing, they should keep their writing in a personal journal. Those who want to share their stories need to ensure readers will find the information interesting, if not useful.

In journalism school, I learned the importance of keeping the reader in mind and the inverted triangle. Even in the late 1980s, instructors stressed how readers have limited time, so we had to get to the point quickly. In today’s digital world where everybody can quickly and easily share their stories, short and punchy is more important than ever.

While blogging provides an opportunity for writers to get into more details to back up their main point, space constraints of Facebook and Twitter only allow writers to share the story lead. Is that enough? Is the only real usefulness of Facebook and Twitter to point readers/followers to where they can find more substantial information on the business’ website and blog?

Even with communication styles, it’s important to keep the reader in mind. No matter what the topic is, simplicity, consistency and correct spelling and grammar are always appreciated.

What was new to me were the different levels of readers, so much so that I had to look up the word syntopical online because it is not in my Canadian Oxford or Merriam-Webster dictionaries, or even Word’s dictionary. As Danielle Fremes wrote in her blog Storytelling in a Digital Age, “is that state of enlightenment a realistic goal of the content creator, and consistent with how the majority of us use the Internet?”

COM0014, Blog 1: Getting Lost on The Lost Highway

The expansion of Hwy 7 in the 1930s was part of Ontario’s economic stimulus after the Great Depression. As the main link between Toronto and Ottawa, it had a descent beginning with motels, restaurants and gas stations springing up for truck drivers and tourists to stop along their way. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. When the four-line divided Hwy 401 was finished in the 1960s, people took that route instead, taking the flow of trade with it. My husband and I needed to use the now nearly deserted highway this summer to get to a campground just north of Hwy 7 on Hwy 41.


When I first heard about The Lost Highway as  a photography Meetup, I knew Norm and I would want to check out the rust bucket heaps, the Hubcap Hotel and the other abandoned vehicles and businesses. We couldn’t attend the Meetup, but we used the information provided to check it out on our way to the campground. I envisioned creating black and white images with a derelict truck providing a splash of colour and sepia-tone images of long-forgotten motels, diners and gas stations. The section on the Hubcap Hotel is particularly worth scrolling through.

The 2013 TVO documentary, The Lost Highway, included the owner of the Kaladar Motel talking about how the motel business dried up and how he now sells hubcaps at the Hubcap Hotel. Hubcaps for cars made decades ago now fill the rooms; nuts fill the dressers.


Norm and I tried to find the Hubcap Hotel using the Google Map of Lost Highway landmarks. Appearing to be on the south side of Hwy 7, just west of Hwy 41, we drove back and forth on that stretch with a GPS telling us that we were passing it, but just not seeing it out in the field. Turning south on Hwy 41, we tried to access it from the side, along the Trans-Canada Trail. We walked about a kilometer along one trail before heading back as the GPS told us we were still too close to the highway. We walked a couple of kilometers along a second trail, which was closer, but still we saw nothing more than mosquitoes in the woods. The hotel and the rust bucket heap near it were to remain lost on The Lost Highway.

rust-bucket-heap1We did find one pair of rust bucket heaps off Hwy 7 on N Rd/Mountain Grove Rd. I always find it amazing how many pictures Norm and I can take of the same thing, from different sides, different angles, different points of view. We could each post more than a few images online with no two being alike. I’ve shared three of my photographs here.

The only other Lost Highway landmarks we found were the many wooden shacks selling blueberries, which made the outing that much sweeter. It may be cliché that life is about the journey, not the destination, but we certainly did have fun getting lost on The Lost Highway.

If you have any better luck finding The Lost Highway, please let me know. I would be happy to hear from you.

Sexual Abuse Survivors Find Support in Anonymity of Social Media

More than half of sexual abuse survivors do not report their experience to authorities or seek help. Candidly talking about one’s abuse and asking for help often means taking a social risk because the response can be stigmatizing. Researchers suggest survivors — particularly men — may be more comfortable using social media to discuss their experience and ask for help in an anonymous forum.

The research team, led by Drexel University doctoral student Nazanin Andalibi, wanted to understand how survivors interact online where they are able to mask their identities. They studied public posts on three abuse-related Reddit forums (subreddits) for most of 2014, pulling a random sample of 200 posts from the more than 2,000. They compared what users disclosed and how they sought support between those using pseudonyms and those who using one-time-use accounts known as throw-aways.

The researchers found that men were significantly more likely to use throw-away accounts when posting about sexual abuse, and those using throw-away accounts were significantly more likely to ask for help.

The authors write that the added layer of anonymity offered by throw-away accounts provides an important level of security for victims to disclose their abuse for the first time in their lives.

“A significant finding here is that Reddit is used as a platform for first-time disclosures of sexual assault and rape, and that these first time disclosures are significantly linked to support seeking,” the authors write. “This is important because of the highly stigmatized context of sexual abuse and rape. Many abuse and rape events remain unreported to authorities or undisclosed to friends, family and mental health professionals. These online forums have created alternative spaces where disclosures that might have otherwise remained silent have a voice, and people can seek support.”

The researchers suggest subreddit moderators and members who want to provide emotional support pay particular attention to throw-away accounts.

“Talking about one’s experiences, feelings and thoughts, and asking for support, are fundamental needs that often remain unmet for abuse survivors,” Andalibi said in a media release. “In our analysis we found that people sometimes referred to unmet disclosure-related needs when posting online. In other words, sometimes people have never shared these experiences with anyone before online or off and they feel they need to.”

Coauthor and Andalibi’s PhD adviser, Andrea Forte, noted that many of the users they studied are weighing a difficult decision between choosing a higher level of perceived anonymity and potentially not being believed by using a throw-away account against using an identifiable account to gain more credibility and potentially divulging their identity. This decision factors into what they are comfortable saying and what kind of help they will ask for. However, the important thing is that they have found a place where they feel comfortable enough to disclose this sensitive information.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Com0011, Blog 5 — Getting Your News Through Social Media?

You could be trapped in a “collective social bubble”, IU researchers say

I will be the first to admit that one of my sources (but not my only source) of news is social media. I find it the fastest way to get rapidly changing information, whether it is the recent snow storm that crippled Ottawa or a gunman who shut down Parliament and the downtown core. Traditional media outlets—the Sun, Citizen, Metro, CTV, and CBC—have great Twitter feeds that provide up-to-the-minute updates that they cannot provide in print or broadcast.


However, a recent study out of Indiana University (IU) has researchers warning that people who get their news from social media are at risk of becoming trapped in a “collective social bubble”, compared with those using search engines.

The first large-scale quantitative study of its kind looked at the potential social bias of online news-seekers by comparing the diversity of news found on search engines and social media. The researchers analysed web searches of 100,000 IU users between October 2006 and May 2010; a database containing 18 million clicks by more than 500,000 AOL search engine users in 2006; and 1.3 billion public social media posts containing links shared by more than 89 million people on Twitter between April 2013 and April 2014.

In the research paper published in the open-access journal PeerJ Computer Science, the authors write:

“We have presented evidence that the diversity of information reached through social media is significantly lower than through a search baseline. As the social media role in supporting information diffusion increases, there is also an increased danger of reinforcing our collective filter bubble….Given the importance of news consumption to civic discourse, this finding is especially relevant to the filter bubble hypothesis.”

While social media has become a prevalent way to access information, spread ideas, and influence opinions, concern had been raised that news is being shared within communities of like-minded people (for example, conservative or liberal viewpoints). People may have adopted this behavior as a coping mechanism for “information overload” and may not be aware they are filtering their access to information by using social media platforms, such as Facebook, where the majority of news stories originate from friends’ postings, said lead author Dimitar Nikolov, a doctoral student in the School of Informatics and Computing at IU Bloomington, in a media release.

COM0011 Blog 4 — Internet: Reducing or Increasing Inequalities?

While marginalized people use the internet to broaden their networks, which can increase their social capital, educated people with higher incomes are cashing in on more tangible benefits.

Increasing social capital

Recent research out of Indiana University supports the commonly held belief that African Americans, Latinos and those without a college education are more likely to use the internet to broaden their social networks than Caucasians, Asians and those with degrees.

Author Amy L. Gonzales said:

“The internet can be an important tool for increasing social capital for marginalized groups who otherwise have limited opportunities for personal and professional networking, and underscores the need for making sure these groups have stable, high-quality internet access.”

Gonzales studied 98 Philadelphians, aged 18 and 39, who were asked to complete a short survey 56 times during the six-day study when a random alarm sounded on Palm Pilots they were given. The survey asked about participants’ most recent social interaction, including whether it was online or offline, the race of the person they interacted with and whether it was a strong- or weak-tie relationship. Study participants also completed psychological surveys at the beginning and end of the study. The final analysis is based on data from 76 people and 2,669 surveys.

In her article, Gonzales wrote:

“These data suggest that the internet may actually be a 21st-century resource for reducing inequality if marginalized groups can use the web to increase network heterogeneity…. Future work is needed to determine whether social diversification actually translates to improvements in social capital, as found in earlier studies…. If so, this would pose an exciting benefit of digital communications for those marginalized individuals with internet access.”

Increasing social inequalities

In contrast, a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Dutch researcher indicates that internet use is driving a greater wedge in society, increasing existing inequalities between rich and poor.

The study shows that educated people with high incomes get the greatest benefits from internet use because they get better deals on products and holidays online. In contrast, low-income people from socially deprived backgrounds do not, regardless of access and internet skills.

The study of more than 1,100 people was conducted in The Netherlands, which has a well-developed digital infrastructure and near-universal access. The researchers looked at different socioeconomic groups and what effect their internet use had on their economic and social well-being, as well educational, political and institutional outcomes.

In general, 75 per cent surveyed participants indicated they use the internet to buy cheaper products, 68 per cent to trade goods and 62 per cent to book more affordable holidays. These benefits were more likely to be reported by those with a higher social status than those with disabilities or who were retired or unemployed.

Author Dr. Ellen Helsper said:

“To some extent, the findings suggest that access to and use of the internet might exacerbate existing inequalities offline. Not everyone is able to translate internet use into tangible everyday benefits.”

What other areas should researchers focus their efforts to see the socioeconomic effects of the internet and social media?

COM0011 Blog 3 —Social Media and Poor Sleep: Cause or Effect?

Two recently completed research projects looked at the relation between social media use and sleep. While they came to two different conclusions, they seem to point to a potential spiral effect.

High social media use causes sleep problems

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied 1,788 Americans ages 19 to 32 from across the country in 2014. Participants filled out questionnaires about the time they spent each day on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, SnapChat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn and the frequency each week. Researchers also assess sleep disturbances with an established scientific system.

On average, participants used social media about an hour per day and 30 times per week. Nearly 30 per cent had high levels of sleep disturbance.

Adjusting for socio-demographic differences, researchers found that participants in the highest 25 per cent of use per day were nearly twice as likely to have sleep disturbances as those in the lowest quartile. Participants in the highest 25 per cent of frequency per week were nearly three times as likely to have sleep problems as those in the lowest quartile. According to lead researcher Jessica C. Levenson:

“This may indicate that frequency of social media visits is a better predictor of sleep difficulty than overall time spent on social media…. If this is the case, then interventions that counter obsessive checking behavior may be most effective.”

The researcher team suggests physicians consider asking patients about social media habits when assessing sleep issues. Interestingly, though, they acknowledge the possibility that participants used social media to pass the time when they could not fall asleep or return to sleep.

Sleep problems cause high Facebook use

While a significant amount of research has looked at how technology affects sleep, researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) turned the idea around and looked at how sleep affected technology usage.

The researchers collected data from 24 male and 42 female UCI undergraduate students for seven days during the spring of 2014. Taking into consideration the students’ gender, age, course load and deadlines, the team of researchers measured students’ behaviour, activities and stress levels. The team did this by using sensors and installing software on the participants’ computers and smart phones that logged and time stamped when they switched from one application window to another or used their phones. Students also completed a sleep survey each morning and an end-of-day survey each night.

The UCI team found that a lack of sleep — which causes tiredness, irritability (bad mood) and distractibility — leads to more frequent online activities, such as browsing Facebook. According to lead researcher Gloria Mark:

“When you get less sleep, you’re more prone to distraction…. If you’re being distracted, what do you do? You go to Facebook. It’s lightweight, it’s easy, and you’re tired.”

Mark and her team found that the less sleep students had, the more frequently their attention shifted among different computer screens, suggesting heightened distractibility.

The UCI researchers say their results reveal a direct link among chronic lack of sleep, worsening mood and greater reliance on Facebook browsing. The Pittsburgh researchers say high social media use is linked to sleep disturbances. So lack of sleep can cause higher social media use, which, in turn, can cause sleep problems, which, in turn, can cause… a spiralling problem. The question now becomes how best to break the spiral.

COM0011 Blog 2 — Social Media: A Matter of Life and Death?

What started out at the turn of the millennium as a social networking tool to reconnect former classmates and work colleagues has quickly became a reality of every-day life. Now, social media could be transforming into a life-saving communications tool.

Similar to the way a geographical community comes together to help others in times of trouble, social media communities have made the news for doing the same thing. Whether it was the devastating earthquakes that shook Nepal late last April, the terror attacks in Paris, France, in November, or the floods in Chennai, India, in December, Skype made all domestic and international calls to landlines and mobile phones into and out of affected areas free of charge for a limited time. According to Skype,

“Since no one knows the full extent of the devastation [in Nepal], we want to help provide people with alternative methods of communication to reach friends and family in the region during this difficult time.”

Facebook developed Safety Check to make it easy for users to let family and friends know they are safe during a disaster, such as the Paris attacks. If Facebook’s algorithms indicate you may be near a natural disaster or emergency zone, the app will ask you if you’re safe. You can tap on “I’m Safe” or “I’m not in the area” to immediately alert all of your Facebook friends.

As the CBC reported, 4.1 million people used Safety Check to reach more than 360 million family and friends within the first 24 hours after the Paris attacks.

People used the Twitter hashtags #PorteOuverte and #OpenDoors to tweet safe places to go, including their homes, Sikh temples, and phone numbers for various embassies. For French citizens stranded outside of France while its borders were closed, embassy phone numbers in various countries around the world were also provided on the Twitter page.


The next step in the evolution

Receiving less news coverage is how government agencies are starting to come onto the social media scene — sometimes even before disaster strikes.

The National Public Alerting System (NPAS) is a federal-provincial-territorial system that provides a standard alerting platform across Canada. Authorized government agencies can send emergency alerts through the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination system, which is just one part of NPAS. Broadcast distributors — radio, television, email, and SMS text services — then rapidly warn the public about tornados and other weather watches and warnings, forest and industrial fires, train derailments, chemical spills, water contamination, and missing people. According to a Public Safety Canada,

“This is an important safety system for Canadians . . . As the system expands to include the participation of cell phone companies, social media web sites and other internet and multimedia distributors, even more Canadians will be alerted to emergencies that could affect their safety.”

Similar to how Safety Check bypasses the traditional Facebook algorithm to send a message out to all of a user’s friends and family, NPAS would warn every social media user in an alert area of a potential danger. This could turn the popularity of social networking into an effective emergency networking system.

Social Media’s Business Balancing Act

It’s easy to get caught up in the latest trends and technology. While the internet, Web 2.0, and social media have drastically changed the way people communicate, not all change has been for the better.

The growth of electronic communications means anybody with an internet connection (including free Wi-Fi at a growing number of businesses) can be part of the conversation through various free apps. That’s good for businesses that understand the value of the feedback, not only from their customers, but also from people who are not (yet) customers.

However, in a rush to become part of that online community, businesses need to keep a clear focus on their individual corporate brand. While it may be acceptable to current and future customers that a trendy business be part of the community, using the latest lingo, it may not be for a business that prides itself in being an authoritative source of knowledge.

As Forbes magazine said it its article Is Bad Grammar Killing Your Brand?:

“there’s much more pressure to generate large volumes of content that not only echo the established brand voice, but also fit the tone and overall voice of a given platform – which can often mean participating in memes, using popular or trending hashtags, and writing with the type of shorthand or internet-speak that’s common on each social network.”

The social medium may dictate how much one can even care about grammar. With its 140-character limitation, Twitter does not always allow for proper use of punctuation. While not all commas are worth $1 million, as Rogers Communications found out [see The Comma That Costs 1 Million Dollars (Canadian)], punctuation can reverse the meaning of a sentence, which can cause laughter or offence. Take a classic illustration of this:

  • A woman without her man is lost.
  • A woman: without her, man is lost.

But it is not just grammar. Choosing the right words to clearly articulate your meaning takes time. Research published in the January issue of the British Journal of Psychology shows that the quality of writing was better when students were asked to type an essay with only one hand. The researchers from the University of Waterloo speculate that by slowing down their typing, students had more time to search for the best word, rather than using the first word that came to mind.

Taking more time can also mean letting the tweet, Facebook post, or blog sit for a bit so you can read it with fresh eyes to ensure it clearly says what you meant it to say. Having a colleague read it also helps as a writer’s eyes will often see what the writer meant and not what was actually written. Reading the material out loud will help you pick up missing or duplicate words, repeated phrases, ideas, or even paragraphs — all of which annoy readers.

All of this can provide clearer, more informative content that social media followers will want to keep coming back for more.