Meme-ufactured.

I constructed and posted a rather provocative meme the other day.

starvation

quote source: @Toby_Bruce

The meme had an image.  It was graphic, shocking and sad. A photo of a starving child.

I shared the meme publicly on Twitter and privately with some of my colleagues, family and friends through email and Facebook.  The meme resonated in different ways with different people. Responses came quickly, both publicly and privately. Some found the meme thought-provoking and effective:

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. There is a very real human cost to the delay of Golden Rice and some people need to be strongly reminded of that. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words.”

“I don’t see how using existing images without turning profit is wrong. Because it makes [people] uneasy to see what is daily life for half the world?”

Others, however, were shocked and offended:

“The photo was horrifying. It eclipsed the message. I didn’t see it. What did it say?”

“I saw your meme and it kind of bothered me. I agree with so much of what you have to say, but I don’t think anyone should use the specter of poverty to make a point.”

“I’m concerned with the objectification of poor people by first world people. I don’t care what the message is. [The meme] is offensive and exploitive to people who don’t have voices.” 

Others were:

“I’m personally not a fan of using these types of images for anything but e.g. specifically raising starvation awareness. If anyone can misconstrue the message, they will play the exploitation card.”

“It is shocking, sad and evocative.  In the worst case it is a polar equivalent to the visuals used by the anti-biotech interests.”

memeufactured

Click on image to view Twitter dialogue

Humans think in pictures. While words can go in one ear and out the other, images ‘stick.’ This is why memes are such effective visual communication tools in this day and age of decreasing attention spans.  Memes come in the form of images or short videos and they can spread rapidly via the Internet.  We see memes cycling through our social media feeds every day.

I learned a few things about memes through this interesting exercise:

  1. These kind of communication tools can be effective, if properly executed.
  2. Proper execution requires a pre-emptive well-thought-out overarching strategy with defined goals.
  3. Each individual meme needs to be structured around a well-articulated message.
  4. That message has to be paired with an appropriate image.
  5. If the image and message don’t connect in a meaningful way or if the image is “over the top” meaning may be lost.

Where do we draw those lines? What is “over the top”? Did I use rhetoric and an emotionally-charged image to frame an ethical issue with my meme? Am I just another example where ideology led a good person with good intentions to do a wicked thing?

Communicating in this information-rich world is tough. To make our communications more effective, (and I quote Made To Stick (by Heath and Heath)), “…we need to shift our thinking from What information do I need to convey? to What questions do I want my audience to ask?” For any idea (or message) to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity.  Humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects or ideas.

In my blog post of October 28th, I stated that there is no room in well-executed science for provocateurs.  But is there room for a shocking and confrontational blend of images and rhetoric in order to draw First World attention to some of the world’s most dire problems, like hunger? As Steve Savage says in his blog post, Counting the Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement:

“There is a long growing list of environmental and health improvements that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement hadn’t been so effective… Some are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.”

Memes (highly controversial and inaccurate ones) continue to be an important tool in the anti-GMO toolbox. In response to that argument, my very good colleague and friend said:

“Cami, why sink to their level? We are smarter than that!” And another said:

“If this meme were to factor into the GMO debate, I think it would derail the discussion completely and not help the cause at all.”

Good points. Both of them. As is this comment by a Twitter friend:

“We need to respond to human suffering with compassion. Memes designed to prove the meme-makers point are not very compassionate.”

Are those of us that are trying to mitigate some of the damage done by the anti-GMO movement – those of us that want to see some the great technologies that we have in the First World move to where they are most needed in the Third World – being exploitative if we use these kind of memes to communicate our messages? If there are ‘boundaries’ that we need to adhere to, what are they? And how can we advocate for things like Golden Rice without using images of children?

Epilogue: I admit, the meme was shocking. A disturbing image combined with a provocative message. I shared it to provoke ‘raw’ responses.  And I got them. Most responses were highly critical. More than half that voiced opposition to the meme were close friends and family members. It would be fair to assume that they were shocked that I constructed it and I shared it as much as they were by the meme itself. 
 
For the record, if this meme had crossed my desktop I probably would never have shared it. I generally share ones with images of the Dos Equis Man with taglines about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Anyway, this was an interesting exercise and I am grateful for all of you that chimed in. Your feedback was supportive, critical, sometimes loud, often emotionally-charged – but always very insightful.Thank-you.

Social media strategy is a must for science advocates

Launching a social media strategy to advocate for science: is GE3LS* missing the boat?

January 20, 2011

Lackes, et al., (2009), finds that few scientists use social media tools, significantly lagging the adoption rates for both business and personal use. Scientific research is essentially a communication-driven process where many of its contributors, stakeholders and consumers are part of what we might refer to as “Generation F” (the ‘Facebook’ generation). The widespread adoption of social media tools to communicate and share information has significantly changed the science-based research landscape. It’s not enough to merely sit in our labs, closed off from the world. Being memorable, as an organization or entity, is crucial in this Web 2.0 world where we are bombarded daily by millions of sound bytes.  Further complicating the matter for science and science advocates is the fact that NGOs, INGOs and other interest groups have been very proficient in taking up Internet-based communication tools to reach entirely new audiences.  As a result they are able to quickly build coalitions and mobilize the public around specific issues of interest at relatively low marginal costs (Ryan 2010).

For example, we conducted a poll at the annual VALGEN meetings in Banff in January 2010. Of the 28 scientists in the room, only 58.3% stated that they used social media tools and only 36.9% of THOSE used social media for professional purposes (professional networking, recruitment, sharing/accessing knowledge).

This lag in the adoption of social media strategies represents significant costs to both scientific and social science research agendas. For society, scientific progress far outpaces our capacity as stakeholders to adopt or understand scientific or technological developments. Thus, communication – through the integration of optimal social media strategies – becomes the currency for bridging connections between the spheres of science, technology and society.

Is GE3LS missing an opportunity here?  Do we need to formally incorporate social media strategies into our research agendas to support and advocate for science?

                                              

Lackes, R., M. Siepermann and E. Frank. (2009). “Social networks as an approach to the enhancement of collaboration among scientists.” International Journal of Web-based Communities. Volume 5, Number 4.  Pps 577-592. 

Ryan, C. D. (2010).  “Framing, Exploring and Understanding Online Anti-Technology Advocacy Networks.” Working paper. Available online at: http://doccami.posterous.com/online-anti-technology-advocacy-networks-netw. Accessed on: January 17, 2011.

 

*GE3LS is the acronym that stands for genomics and its related ethical, economic, environmental, legal and social aspects. GE3LS research complements genomics research by addressing questions that lie at the interface between science and society. 

http://www.genomecanada.ca/en/ge3ls/

 

 

Solving social science problems à la Hilbert

Posing Big Questions and Solving Big Problems in Social Science
April 2, 2010 (Steve Bradt)

The Division of Social Science in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences will convene a symposium of multidisciplinary experts on April 10th, 2010 to propose and prioritize an analogous set of the world’s hardest unsolved problems in social science. No word on overarching themes or problems but it would be fair to assume that this will be largely driven by the experts in the room.

In addition to being open to the public, the event will be recorded, Webcast, and archived at http://socialscience.fas.harvard.edu . The symposium will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT in Room B103 of Harvard’s Northwest Science Building (52 Oxford St., Cambridge, Mass.). The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, seehttp://socialscience.fas.harvard.edu/hardproblems .

http://www.physorg.com/wire-news/31669165/posing-the-big-questions.html

Question_mark

Getting cozy to advance science….

“Relationship building key social convention for scientists and social scientists”
Ryan. C. etal.
Valgen Policy Brief 2009

“GE3LS research on agriculture and agro-industrial products is located in the ‘fuzzy’ territory of academic inter-disciplinarily and is often a collaboration and exchange with the public and private sectors. How GE3LS researchers construct their research community through networking and knowledge exchange remains an important research question in its own right, one with implications for knowledge mobilisation of GE3LS and science and technology research.”

http://valgen.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Policy-Brief-2-November-2009.pdf