The World Needs More Love Letters

There’s something about getting real mail, letters in particular, that can’t be replaced with emails, tweets, WhatsApp messages, SMS, etc.

When my friend Joya asked me last summer if I wanted to participate in ‘The World Needs More Love Letters‘, I thought sure why not. I wasn’t in the right state of mind to be thinking too deeply or analyzing what for – instead I just thought whatever could be done to ease my pain and loss would be ok. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about getting letters from total strangers, but if it could somehow fill a little bit of the hole that I felt I had or just to brighten my day, I was all for it.

Not only did the editors accept my story for letter writing, but they also featured it on Day One of their ’12 days of lover letter writing’ campaign over the Christmas holidays.

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I wasn’t expecting such a response. I received over 450 letters from 11 countries including the USA, Canada, France, Netherlands, UK, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Mexico. Letters came from 49 out of the 50 States in the USA (no letters from Wynoming). Every letter was read before it reached me because we weren’t sure what to expect. What Joya found was that not only were the letters overwhelmingly positive, they also contained love from afar, encouragements, prayers, thoughts and motivation for me to succeed.

People are wonderful. I was blown over by the responses and the inherent goodness in people, young and old.

Children, teenagers to adults from around the world sent letters that were poignant, sweet, raw, and insightful. I couldn’t stop reading them. People shared similar tragedies in their life, others wanted to reach out with words wrapped in a hug, and others just wanted to show that they care for another fellow human being. The letters are full of words of wisdom, philosophy, heartbreak, art and poems.

It’s nice to know that people are inherently good and everyone shares a life of struggles, love, joy and humour. These real emotions somehow get lost in translation with all the digital ways we can communicate so it’s nice to know that ‘The World Needs More Lover Letters‘ exist.

Getting a letter (i.e. words on paper, drawings, photos, postcards, etc.) in the mail is real, tangible, and more supportive and comforting than you know.

The box of letters of 450+ letters I received.
The box of letters of 450+ letters I received.

Wanted: New skills for communication pros

I’ve been writing a lot about the influence of social media and the changing landscape of communication. We’re in an interesting period of change where communication professionals, like journalists, not only need skills like writing, speaking, and listening, but also skills in understanding technology, engagement channels, and being aware of and understanding where people find and share information. Ideally, like in any results-driven organization, there would be ways to measure the success or impact of any communication intervention starting with a very clear understanding of the end result.

Despite the uses and shortcomings of social media metrics, as well as other web analytics/statistics, they are still useful in having an understanding of what works (or doesn’t work) when it comes to online communications. Using this kind of information, I learned firsthand in November how powerful social media can be in turning a relevant small piece of information a viral hit. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with 300+ kilometre-hour winds, many people expected the worst. Despite the significant impact and damage the Typhoon caused, UNISDR published a story on how a local leader evacuated his whole island. In the below screenshot from Google Analytics, the spike in the middle of the month was from visits to the story driven 100% by Facebook referrals.

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UNISDR stories are consistently shared via Facebook with significantly less audience interest and engagement. So why was this story so popular? The analytics revealed where and how people came to the website, yet other factors probably were also responsible for such a popular story. This included the way the headline was written (i.e. very clear, concise and action/result oriented), the timing with the focus on Haiyan, and the positive angle of the story during a sea of negative media.

Social media will continue to change the communication landscape – understanding why and how will help organizations be more tuned in and have impact on their outreach. A side note – according to a recent study on the role of news on Facebook, it found that while some people access news and info on the world’s largest social network platform, it is not the primary place they go to look for ‘new’ information. So there might be hope for traditional media outlets still – it’ll depend on how they use web analytics, readership profiles, and other metrics to improve their services.

Most U.S. adults do not go to Facebook seeking news out, the nationally representative online survey of 5,173 adults finds. Instead, the vast majority of Facebook news consumers, 78%, get news when they are on Facebook for other reasons. And just 4% say it is the most important way they get news. As one respondent summed it up, “I believe Facebook is a good way to find out news without actually looking for it.”

Getting down with tech to solve crime and reduce vomit

Social media isn’t just for “fun”. All the sharing that people do via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. can actually help fight crime, improve hygiene, and provide insight into how to improve services (like having less traffic jams) and keep us safe. While the humanitarian community has been looking into how tech can be used to save lives in disaster or conflict-prone countries, you don’t have to go too far to find that the integration of tech and basic public services like policing and public health can make our lives easier, safer, and maybe just maybe filled with less vomit.

In a study earlier this year, researchers at the University of Rochester used a Twitter search tool called nEmesis to identity cases of food poisoning with tweets that had GPS coordinates. In just four months, the system collected 3.8 million tweets from more than 94,000 unique users in New York City, traced 23,000 restaurant visitors, and found 480 reports of likely food poisoning. The public health sector has typically been ahead of the curve when it comes to prevention and early warning to reduce the risk of, say, an epidemic of a virus.

Another example of how tech and social data can actually help is in crime-fighting. It might not be far off from the tech that Batman uses like the Batcomputer. Just ask IBM : they’ve been working with the police to setup systems that will use pattern recognition and anomaly detection technology on existing records like 911 calls, crime records, and building permit activity. Patterns revealed can help decision makers anticipate rather than just react to problems.

“We’re entering a new era of police work,” says the Fort Lauderdale Police Chief.

One of the funniest comedy shows this year has been Brooklyn Nine-Nine and in one of the episodes this season they even touch on the fact that “real crime-fighting” these days is about about using data and technology to solve crimes! In the episode “Old School“, despite coming to work with a huge hangover from a drinking binge the night before, Jake, the main character, pulls together and figures out how to find the IP address of the guy who’s been stealing credit card numbers.

The mEdium is the mEssage

I took this photo just around the corner from where I live. Graffiti like this is a common sight in most cities and all are communicating a message – in some cases one that the general public can understand or in other cases targeted to a specific audience. Aside from the message, there are a lot of other factors that impacts what this graffiti is trying to communicate: the type of paint, design, typography, color, the surface it’s on, and so on. Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 classic book “The Medium is the Massage” is just about that – each medium produces (or communicates) a different effect on us and our senses.

Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.

Canadian Marshall McLuhan is universally regarded as the father of communications and media studies and prophet of the information age. The book, written and designed in an abstract/experimental/artistic way, is McLuhan’s “prophetic perceptions on life in the age of electronic information” – remember this was written in the 1960’s!! This was before the internet, mobile phones, social media, and all the technology we have today to communicate and connect people. Almost fifty years later, a lot of what McLuhan observes in his book is very much applicable to today and addresses the evolution of not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ in which we communicate. Technologies – from clothing to the wheel to the book, and beyond – are the messages themselves, not the content of the medium.

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“You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan says the environment that man creates becomes his medium for defining his role in it. The invention of type created linear, or sequential, thought, separating thought from action. Now, with TV and folk singing, thought and action are closer and social involvement is greater. We again live in a village. Get it?”

His main thesis in the book looks at how any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments, and the effect of technology on our behaviors and responses. While he considered these environments to include television and radio, we can also think about how the computers, the internet, mobile phones, and tablets have also influenced how we react and respond to them. He also believes that we can’t understand how these mediums work with the tools or perceptions of the past.

Our official culture is trying to force the new media to do the world of the old… A common failure [in media]: The attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.

He also emphasized that we need to consider the views and perceptions of youth rather than having the door “slammed in their faces by rear-view-mirror society“, and uses a great quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer:

There are some children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.

Beyond the book, McLuhan’s most famous, this 45-minute documentary on his Life and Times shows that despite the fame he gained from his studies into media, advertising, and the impact on people, McLuhan was a private man.

Disability is NOT inability – why Thunderclap it?

UNISDR’s Communications Unit in Geneva, a 5-person team that includes me, have been scratching its head for most of the last few months to see how we can generate interest in the 2013 International Day for Disaster Reduction, especially since it falls on a Sunday this year. While events celebrating IDDR are and have been taking place all over the world, we needed a way to not only highlight the IDDR survey results, but to do something for October 13th.

thunderclap_side

In addition to having a plan to announce the preliminary findings of the survey on October 10th to the media and on the 11th in person, I came up with the idea of running a social media campaign to raise public awareness of the Day even if it is a weekend for most of the world. Inspired by the 1-billion social reach of the 2012 World Humanitarian Day (remember Beyonce on that one?), I decided to launch a similar Thunderclap campaign.

Basically the Thunderclap platform is the 21st century equivalent of pledging to support a cause. People sign up to show their support using their Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr account… but, here’s the difference. Once people sign up and the goal set by the organizers is reach, a message will be sent out through people’s account all at once to amplify the message. It’s a simple but ingenious idea that takes advantage of how increasingly we live, support, and engage in things online.

Thunderclap is the first-ever crowdspeaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together. It allows a single message to be mass-shared, flash mob-style, so it rises above the noise of your social networks. By boosting the signal at the same time, Thunderclap helps a single person create action and change like never before.

Initially, given UNISDR’s wide network of partners, I thought setting a 500 person goal for the campaign would be easy pickings – we’d reach it in no time. Everyone at work thought the same too – I mean if we could bring almost 4000 people to this year’s Global Platform for DRR, and have an email mailing list in the tens of thousands, it shouldn’t be that difficult, right? With this in mind and when the campaign was launched 3 weeks before IDDR, we all thought it’s plenty of time to reach our goal of having 500 people sign up.

Let me give you a hint, it wasn’t and it doesn’t work to just tell people to sign up – it’s like having a newsletter and thinking people will read it. What motivated people to join was to inspire them with interesting stories and information, engaging them and having a conversation, reaching out with a personal touch… all of it shows that communicating with an impact is a mix of strategic partnerships, creative channels, and innovative tools – you just need to know what you want to say. The simpler and more focused the message and strategy, the easier it is to execute! So in addition to reaching out and having the UN family support the campaign, as well as inspiring individuals and disability groups, we even have the Paralympics’ support on this one!


Anyway, we finally reached our 500 goal about a couple of days before IDDR and the message “Disability is NOT inability” went out to over 5 million people on October 13th… not too shabby.

The Age of Social

Who knew getting people to understand social media would be a monumental task? People are tuned into social media when it comes to personal things, like staying in touch with family and friends, and it just makes sense to share articles, news, photos, etc. When it comes to social media for work, it’s a whole other ball-game. Social media might seem like something that we do in our spare time, but the fact is it’s just the way society communicates now – and the key thing here is that it’s a two-way communication channel, just like when the phone was introduced. In the end, there may not be “social” media since we’re all communicators and marketers now or even the death of the social media manager (yikes, time to look for a new job!). It’s like how we don’t rely on telephone switchboards to connect people and direct calls since we all can do it now on our own phones. Social media will just be a tool that we use to connect, communicate, and engage with each other.

I’ve spent the last two years sensitizing people at work to take the media seriously and one way was to conduct internal trainings. I held the trainings twice in February (see videos below) to make sure that staff were able to attend. A total of ten people came to the trainings, which isn’t too bad considering that’s about a third of our team in Geneva.