Social media: Are we as informed as we think we are?


A conversation group in a Toronto restaurant pursues connections that are threatened by social media.

Many of us — at least our parents — used to fraternize with the folks living beside them, exposing themselves to a diversity of opinion. But today more of us live in silos built by the electronic devices that were designed to bring us together.

As Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker points out in The Village Effect, the rate of Americans living alone is rising: whereas one per cent of them lived ​solo​ in 1920, more than 10 per cent did in 2010.​ ​​​Canada’s 2012 census shows a similar trend​: more than 27 ​per cent of homes ​had one occupant ​versus​ 13 per cent in 1971.

But, in the upstairs of a Toronto restaurant, a few dozen strangers mingle and drink, laughing and leaning into conversations. They’re talking about everything from terrorism and education to robotics and marriage.

The room practically vibrates with their energy.

Heather Tay, one of the participants, says simply repeating the opinions of others without first giving them some serious thought is something that technology and design consultant wants to avoid.

“Most conversations are recycled,” says the 45-year-old. “I’ve always been interested in good conversations. I remember when I was young, for phone calls, I scripted out what I had to say because I always wanted to have something interesting to talk about.”

Stuart Knight

Stuart Knight, head of The Powerful Group (Stuart Knight Productions)

Tay has seen how her opinion can affect others. Because she’s a black woman, she says she’s used to being a minority.

She says in a conversation around the Charlie Hebdo attack, someone questioned why Catholics can be made fun of, but not Muslims. Tay said that it’s easy to make fun of the majority, but when you’re making fun of the minority, there are different implications. That elicited an “Oh, I never thought about that.”

Sebastien Rahman,  36, a real estate agent, likes to broach testy topics like terrorism, religion, and even personal fears, like his math phobia.

“I like that we can talk about something a little uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s a real conversation.”

But Rahman says it’s not always fulfilling. “Some opinions sound really informed, but some not so much — you can tell when someone only listens to the news.”

Tay’s and Rahman’s group is organized by The Powerful Group, the brainchild of author and motivational entrepreneur Stuart Knight. He started it in October last year, frustrated by what he sees as a lack of informed opinions.

“People go through a week and they don’t think,” he says. “We’re living in this bubble where we aren’t challenged.”

Knight sees this alienation as a business opportunity. The 250 Toronto members of the group pay an annual membership fee of $200.

He says many of us go to the same job, frequent the same stores and circulate among the same people, tethered to the internet and social media.

“More than ever, technology has given us the opportunity to share our opinions, but they’re not necessarily well-informed,” says Knight.

So, for instance, a prominent reporter tweets about NBC’s Brian Williams and you retweet, agreeing the news anchor just has a faulty memory. That tweet could then influence many of your followers. But do you really know the whole story, and how much have you really thought about the opinion you’re sharing?

After joining The Powerful Group,  you’re emailed a list of questions the day before the meeting. Then, at the gathering, you discuss your answers with random people, moving along to someone new every 15 minutes.

Questions include: Are we winning the war on terror? How would discovering life on other planets affect the way humans see themselves? Which subject would you make mandatory for students? How has your ego got in the way of your ultimate happiness?

The group that began with 50 people now has 250 members, relocating to a more central venue, meeting a few times a month. It’s culturally diverse, there are men and women, and they range in age from 30 to  60.

A sad commentary

It is perhaps a sad commentary on urban society that such a group exists. There are no doubt many people with wide and varied social networks, but a whole lot of us feel disconnected from our neighbours.

Bombarded with information from multiple sources on multiple devices, can we be forgiven for having soundbite-sized opinions?

“A lot of it comes down to the fact that thinking deeply about a subject, particularly at the conceptual level, means stepping back from the flow of information that comes to us,” says Nicholas Carr, author of the new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and the Pulitzer finalist The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr says information comes into the brain through a narrow aperture called working memory, which can fit only two to four pieces of new information at a time.

“One of the keys to thinking deeply is moving from working memory to long-term memory,” he says. “It’s that process – consolidation of memory – when associations happen. It’s the connections that really matter when it comes to formulating your own understanding.”

The problem is that we’re so busy gathering information from different media and stuffing it into our working memory, we’re short-circuiting that process.

Another problem is that learning is kind of addictive: research shows that seeking out and finding new information releases dopamine, which encourages you to repeat the activity.

Carr says that we’re giving precedence to the gathering over the processing of information: “I fear that as a society we’re saying that’s not important anymore.”

Stuart Knight says that thinking about bigger questions and sharing opinions is important.

He dreams of expanding The Powerful Group to other cities so that people will ultimately be able to join these conversations from any major urban centre.

“If 1,000 people met once a month and had six conversations – that’s 6,000 conversations. What would that do for a city?”

The Power of PANKS


Professional aunts, no kids (PANKs) have economic power. They’re the millions of women who are close with kids of relatives or friends, but are childless themselves. PANKs are reported to spend as much as $9 billion per year on the kids in the United States and Canada, paying for everything from clothing to education and trips. But some of them say they aren’t always appreciated for their worth.

Have a listen:


Sojourning in Style

I recently went to New York to look into the Airbnb situation. Thousands of people use the website to rent out apartments or houses for short stays, and it’s especially popular in New York. But there’s a bit of a battle going on there pitting renters against tenants and landlords…and I waded into it. I started out in trendy Williamsburg (pictured here). Have a listen to the radio story I did for CBC Radio’s The World This Weekend:

As you say it


Sometimes I watch TV programs in a language I don’t understand, just to hear the sound of it. Could be about a story about pandas, a political debate, a ballroom dancing contest. It’s weird, I know. But there’s something about the undulating sh-jo of Chinese, the staccato of Italian, the briskness of Hindi and the lyricism of those Spanish soap operas.

Music notes

It struck me again the other night when I was at a concert featuring baritone Luca Pisaroni. He was singing in Italian. I couldn’t understand a single word, but it didn’t bother me. It was operatic and isn’t it normal to not understand? It sounded splendid. Then intermission came and my friend and I realized the lyrics were in the booklet that had been foisted into our hands which we’d promptly shoved under our seats until intermission when we felt we should actually learn something about the show we were attending. So eyes scrunched up in the very dim light, I skimmed the lyrics in English to get the gist, then tried to follow in Italian. Lines like this:

Her troubles I fear
More than my own troubles
Because I live more in her
Than I live in myself

Lovely stuff. But it was exhausting to follow every word – and to what end? When it came down to it, I didn’t need to know the subject; you could tell what he was singing about by his smile or his furrow, his gestures. Natch. He is Italian, after all.

Music is language. And language is music. So maybe the next time you feel like listening to something fiery, forget iTunes and tune into an Italian talk show.

Intersections on CBC Radio


Intersections bannerCheck out the CBC Radio show I took a break from the blog to help create and produce. Here’s a summary:

It’s happening in office towers, restaurant kitchens, even in our own living rooms. Some call it a “clash of cultures”. We call it “Intersections”. It’s a show about how we connect – or not – in our ever-changing Canada. Spouses, colleagues, neighbours and friends talk about the cultural tensions in their relationships. Their unexpected, funny and poignant stories tell us more about who we are and where we’re heading, exposing some uncomfortable truths along the way.

Music makes the word go round


It’s easy to lapse into a sing-song way of talking to babies. Something along the lines of “I love you so much, oh yes I do, oh yes I do do do!”

It’s entertaining and elicitsIMG_1061 a smile or giggle – even some babble, in response. But the baby isn’t responding to what the mother is saying, so much as how she’s saying it.

University of Toronto Psychology professor Sandra Trehub has been looking into this, and presented at a symposium in May. It was the first one ever on music and language held by the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music in Montreal.

Trehub says babies are captivated by maternal speaking, but especially, by singing.

She says the prevailing belief is that language is acquired rapidly and effortlessly, and that music requires more effort. But she stresses that infants are naturally musical. They imitate their parents’ pitch as young as three months.

“So the mother might say ‘hi’ or ‘what are you doing’ and the child might go ‘hu-uh’,” says Trehub. “And later in the first year when infants engage in meaningless babble – baba, gaga – those who have listened to it carefully and measured it carefully, can recognize what language that child comes from. It has some of the rhythms and some of the intonation patterns.”

So if an infant is naturally musical, having a caregiver sing to them can boost their language development. Trehub says even though babies don’t understand the words, mothers can help them buy into language, through song.

“They sell infants on that form – the notion that that’s really interesting to listen to,” says Trehub. “And you know, months down the road, infants buy the content because they’ve already been captivated by the form.” Now, that’s some selling strategy.

ImageSinging teaches infants about how language is constructed. The words are presented slowly and rhythmically, so it’s easy to catch on. Some songs are highly predictable so babies find it very comfortable, and eventually join in.

Trehub says regular singing can help infants absorb words and sounds before they speak. So that when they actually start talking, they have a leg up.

To be clear, it’s live songs, sung to infants because it promotes reciprocal communication. Not listening to a disconnected recording like, say Baby Mozart (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).

Besides helping them develop language skills, song can actually help calm babies.

A recent study Trehub co-authored found a baby listened to a voice for four minutes before being distracted. But could listen to a singing voice for NINE minutes. It’s not known exactly why, but it could be due to vocal timbre, which creates pleasing sounds for baby.

Other research backs the benefits of singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to infants before they can speak, adding to a growing body of research singing the praises of song.

So if you like to sing, you might want to sing more to your baby. If not, well, just stick to talking. It’s also proving to give your child that linguistic leg up.

Have a listen!