Tag Archives: social network

The Value of Real and Virtual Communities

A couple of weeks ago I learned some lessons on community while in a small rural ranching valley. I learned how a community can come together in an emergency and how they support each other and watch out for one another.

 Perfect Storm

I arrived in this valley at just the right time, or just the wrong time depending on your perspective. Earlier this winter there had been one to two feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures, but when I arrived the daytime temperatures were in the high forties with occasional rain and it barely got below freezing at night. Mountains surround this narrow valley with a river running sometimes close to homes and through ranches. The warmth was melting the snow in the hills and valley but because of the prolonged sub-zero temperatures the ground was still frozen, so it couldn’t absorb the melt. This turned the normally placid river into a quarter-mile-wide path of running water that could not sink into the ground. The creeks coming out of the hills were seeking drainage anywhere they could, which meant flooding over roads and fields.

Life Lessons

During this flooding, I helped position straw bales in front of one home to keep water from entering it. Shortly afterwards, some community volunteers came with sandbags and helped us stack them around the house. After they left a group of at least twenty high school youth arrived and stacked a few more sandbags. I was so impressed by the community response that I asked one of the youth why they were not in school today. His response was classic, “Today is a life lesson day.” It turns out this was their third life lesson day since they spent the previous days filling sandbags and preparing for distribution. This caravan moved up and down the valley helping community members prepare for rising water. What a great lesson indeed for the students.

Physical and Virtual

In the case of potential physical danger it is nice to know we can rely on community to help us, but what value do we get from our virtual networks? There are no virtual sandbags, but it would be shortsighted to say our virtual friends cannot come together to support us. A number of years ago I was surprised to see a friend’s Facebook post asking for prayers for her husband who had just had a stroke and was on his way to the hospital. I would have been focused solely on the physical problems at hand, but her virtual community meant enough to her that she reached out in that moment. The requested prayers were her sandbags against the coming storm.

A recent article highlighted people with disabilities who have built a community in Second Life. They cannot always participate in their local physical communities so they have built a virtual space where they can make friends and get and give support. This is their community and support network.


Since my recent experiences with community support, I have been thinking about the differences and similarities between virtual and physical networks. I value each community differently. My social media friends around the world cannot come to my aid in the event of a physical problem, but they provide me with different support that I value just as much. At the end of the day, I think it is important to maintain both groups. Let me know what you value about your communities, virtual or physical.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Information Bias in Social Media

Photograph of a skeptical young man.I am enrolled in a refresher course on critical thinking and philosophy. I have been studying knowledge and particularly skepticism as it relates to knowledge. In applying these concepts, I realize that I need a healthy dose of skepticism when consuming social network news. Recent reports suggest that fake new sites on social networks and search sites could even have swayed the U.S. election. This news has spread over the last couple of weeks so I want to explore our personal responsibility for critiquing news and social network feeds and determining whether we are getting the full picture or whether we have customized the information we receive to fit our worldview.

Strength of Networks

There has been a visceral reaction to the U.S. presidential election with many people publicly expressing shock and joining in protests in cities in America. According to their network, their candidate should have had a clear path to the nomination. The problem is that we have intentionally and unintentionally built our social networks to look like us. Intentionally, we connect through our networks with friends and colleagues who share our political and religious views. Our network, and particularly social media newsfeeds, are fed by algorithms built to reinforce that bias, which is unintentional on our part. For example, your news feed on Facebook is influenced by who you are friends with, pages you like, what you post, and how you interact with others in your network. A recent article from Spredfast, a social media marketing firm, said it best: “On social media platforms, the world looks different depending on the candidate that you support.”

Is it True

We create networks of associates that look and think like we do. The news we get matches our biases. The question now is how do we know that the news we are receiving is true. We may read several articles a day but not take the time to consider whether they are factual or even plausible. As I mentioned in my post last week, our move away from deep reading may have left us unable or unwilling to take the time and effort to apply that skeptical filter. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are reportedly stepping up their efforts to filter fake news feeds but even if they succeed there will still to be a built in bias, fueled by our online behavior.


I am challenging us all to slow down and take in news thoughtfully and skeptically. Challenge the source and ponder the premises and conclusions the author is making. Are they plausible and factual? Are their sources reliable? Are they slanted toward a particular bias or ideology? Does that bias color the actual news that I am getting?

I will strive to be more careful and thoughtful about news I am reading and will try to find articles from trusted foreign news sources as well so I can get a perspective outside of my own normal network. Do you think the U.S. election has been a wake up call to how we view social media in terms of shaping our worldview? Will it change our habits and usage? What would a less biased and more responsible social network look like? I think the responsibility lies with us to find out. Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

The Power of Social Networking

In the spirit of true confessions, I must admit that I don’t check my personal Facebook account very often and I rarely post anything. A recent check, however, surprised me and got me to thinking about trends in social media and the power of social networking. A good friend of mine shared a brief post that essentially read, “My husband is having a stroke. The ambulance just left the driveway and I am on my way to the hospital. Please pray for us.” I was taken aback by the fact that she would take the time to make a post when she clearly had more pressing priorities. As I thought about it more deeply in the coming days I realized that she was simply reaching out to her community in a time of need. Her community, in this case, was her collection of online friends, some of whom could have been across the street but others were across the country or across the world. This highlights the importance and power of social networking.


As little as 150 years ago, we were not a mobile society. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the first Model T Ford came off the assembly line in 1908, and the first commercial airline flight in America came in 1914 although affordable air travel did not come until after World War II. Today, we are such a mobile society that we have friends, family, and associates strung around the country and around the world. One of the ways we keep track of them all is through social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Social Media Survey

In a 2011 survey on social media habits by the Lares Institute, it showed that we are increasing our use of social media and connecting with old and new friends. According to the survey “55 percent of respondents had ‘friends’ from social media they had not actually met, and 77 percent of those respondents had five or more friends they had not met, with 21 percent reporting that they had fifty or more friends that they had not met.” Our networks are larger than ever.

In Times of Trouble

The lines are blurring between our physical and online networks. Part of the power of a distributed social network is that we can put out a plea for help and even if someone cannot help us directly, someone may know someone who can assist us. Combine this with mobile technology that allows us to send and receive updates immediately and you have a very powerful, very flexible network of friends that you can call upon for help or to share good news. It is real, it is immediate, and people often want to help other people in need. This is the power of a distributed social network.


In times of need, do you reach out to your physical network or your virtual network? Which one is faster to respond? Are they really one and the same? What do you think is the power of a social network? Let me know your thoughts.


Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT topics that keep him up at night.