Friday, February 20

Wading Intelligence: Perceptual Pools

"In reality, there is only one flower. But inside a perceptual bubble, there may be three." — Richard Becker

While the foundation of public relations remains unchanged, the environment in which it operates is changing. In 20 years, mainstream media expanded from four channels to 4,000 channels and the Internet from a few sources to a seemingly infinite stream with an entire library of new content being added every second of the day.

Infinite Information Creates Miniature Realities.

While perception is a common theme here, it was Dan Schnur, a leading political and media strategist speaking at New Media and Political Campaigns, held in the Aurora Forum at Stanford University, who perhaps best articulated the concept that as information expands, the informational pools people draw upon shrink. For individuals, the danger becomes one of isolation, or as Schnur noted, people are drinking from completely different pools of information, which eventually creates different realities.

"As empowering as this media is, it's also isolating," said Schnur. "We have an array of not just three new programs at 6:30 at night, and not just five radio stations on our car radio, but when we have 800 cable TV, an infinite number of radio stations, and an even larger number of Web sites, blogs, and e-mail opportunities, it becomes much more easier for us to pick and choose who we talk to, what we talk about, and what we hear."

The outcome of this endless array of options affords us the opportunity to customize our information to such a degree, that we invent our own world view, which may be completely different from the world view of another person who made different choices. Schnur doesn't mean different opinions. He means different facts all together.

For example, if one person chooses Bill Maher, Daily Kos, and Media Matters, and another chooses Rush Limbaugh, Town Hall, and NewsBusters, both would develop opposing views of the new administraton, stimulus bill, and economic direction of the country. They would not just have different opinions, but an entirely different set of facts upon which to validate those opinions rather than drawing different conclusions based upon the same facts.

The outcome was made apparent last week after my post on fear communication, especially as it pertained to President Obama. In sharing the idea offline, two different people with polar political viewpoints had two different impressions of whether I was right about the communication. In fact, it took a recent affirmation from former President Clinton before that observation was even accepted by one of them.

The Danger of Validating Opinion.

The danger is two-fold. As people go to sources of information that validate what they believe instead of challenging them, the continuing transformation of media could further polarize perceptions as it aims to increase circulation by catering exclusively to that audience. Jonathan Alter, columnist and senior editor for Newsweek magazine, also at the Aurora Forum, recognized it as a troublesome trend.

"The definition of good journalism that I believe in [correct attribution: Finley Peter Dunne] comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," said Alter. "The problem is that if the comfortable is not listening to you because you are not agreeing with them or comforting them, you get a different kind of journalism where you afflict the already afflicted and comfort the already comfortable."

The challenge becomes increasingly problematic because unpopular or even objective viewpoints become ignored, labeled as biased, or drowned out by diatribe. As individuals, and especially as communicators, it becomes especially important to drink from as diverse of information pools possible to maintain as broad of a world view as possible — accepting viewpoints that challenge us more than than validate our ideas.

The Challenge for Communication.

The challenge, especially as mainstream media struggles to adapt to a new market conditions, is that many publics may not be inclined to sample opinion outside their comfort zones. This creates an especially challenging environment for public relations because the trend is not isolated to politics.

Specifically, the challenge becomes applying a foundation that remains to some an increasingly diverse environment where two different people, living next door, could have as different realities as people living half a world away. It's at the heart of what Geoff Livingston called the "Communicators are in a perpetual losing battle for the attention of inundated minds." Except, it's not limited to advertising or communication. It applies to social media too. It only takes a click for consumers to unfollow.

Or to reframe the thought, take what Abraham Lincoln said — "Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." — and then recognize that people find trees uncomfortable.


Anonymous said...

Interesting and very true imo.

Anonymous said...

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Rich on 2/21/09, 12:20 PM said...


It also makes me wonder whether those companies that are connecting with consumers today will fair better in the future. I imagine as people set which sources of information make up their view, it will be more difficult for another to become part of it.


Okay. Though I might point out that my participation in EC is different than most people's participation. Mostly, we participate because several bloggers asked us too, and it provides a nice diverse cross section of all blogs, which somewhat pertains to this post.

All my best,

Unknown on 2/21/09, 7:01 PM said...

hi! can we exlink? :)

Rich on 2/21/09, 8:36 PM said...


I don't generally exchange links. I do rotate some blogs from time to time, usually those with an emphasis on business or communication.

I did visit your blog. It's an interesting mix. :)


Barry on 2/22/09, 8:27 PM said...

Oh boy this is fascinating stuff!

To some extent things have been like this for as long as I remember but it was whether you were reading High Times or the New York variety.

Mother Jones or Newsweek.

The Onion or Othello.

Or all of the above.

We are what we eat and it is true that now our table can be more bountiful with offerings that agree with us than ever.

Or should I say now?

How about now?

I do, however, think that the gadflies will evolve as well. The evolution of revolution just might be Guerilla Theatre 2.0.

Thanks for a pro viking read.

Umm, I mean provoking. ;-)

Rich on 2/23/09, 8:00 AM said...


Do you think it was always like that?

I seem to think most people had some shared primary sources of information, and most of them attempted to be objective (whether they succeeded or not was a different question). We might have had our special interest pubs delivered to our door, but the rest of it was relatively neutral. And even if it wasn't, we could debate about what they were saying because we all watched the same thing.

Nowadays, it seems there are some folks whose entire buffet selection points to very odd conclusions. For example, some say we have to nationalize banks. Some don't even know what that means, but all of their information streams tell them it must be ... so they believe it.

But what does that mean? Objectively, it would mean that the government would become our landlord. They would own our businesses, our homes, and all other assets. They would have 100 percent access to our financial files, and, based upon their behavior with automakers, they may even dictate what debtors might spend the money.

Ah well, I'm an advocate of having all of it and would likely read all of the above as you listed out. I'm confident you appreciate the same.

You may remember when I wrote about wingnuts, with 10 percent on each side of an argument those who will not move. I think the direction we are taking, if we are not careful, will only expand the wingnut base on both sides.

Can you imagine a country like that? Thirty percent on either side unmoving against an ever shrinking middle. As that happens, it will not matter whether the decisions will be right or wrong, but rather read or blue.

Hmmm ... maybe you're right. We might already be there, perhaps just a few steps off from the tipping point. Bumpy rides ahead.


Barry on 2/23/09, 11:22 AM said...

"When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."

-Eric Hoffer

I think inarguably there is a quickening of content preaching to the already converted and that this may be more inclined to create warring tribes than ever.

I remember, long before I ever went online, the notion struck me that people gather together in tribes, that those tribes are held together by belief systems and those belief systems, like fat cells in a body, are looking to survive. It seems the internet has provided a way for them to do that and to multiply.

The internet also provides us a way to trim that fat but it requires exercising our brains in ways we might not be comfortable with. For better or for worse I think the web is the new land of opportunity and the beauty of it is that we are all immigrants here and therefore are all blessed with the remarkable ability to see its potential.

Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former president of The Czech Republic wrote that initially after the Velvet Revolution folks were excited to be free to do, think and prosper as they please but that in short order many became tired of the hard work involved in managing their own destinies and a very large part of the society began to long for the good old days of soviet control.

Potential is a much easier thing to see than to bring to a desirable fruition. It really is a lot simpler to let someone do our thinking for us and in our present circumstance I think the future of mind control is as secure as we allow it to be.

Thanks again,


Rich on 2/24/09, 2:12 PM said...


The thanks belongs to you. The conversation always adds depth that would not otherwise be here.

I see the potential and remain an advocate of of social media. However, the warning you share is one outcome that we need to we avoid. We cannot afford to allow people to do our thinking for us nor buy into the notion that some issues are too complex to question. Or, as outlined, we risk those who might manipulate us — isolate and conquer.

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” — George Orwell

But Orwell presumed we would always will hear. We have to keep our ears open.



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