Pot and Obamacare beat out real conversations about health in Colorado

The annual Colorado Health Symposium kicked off earlier today. The Symposium has become the main gathering of people in the state and region working on a wide range of health issues (and it’s likely a big event on the national scene). Colorado Health Foundation staff organizing the event do a great job using YouTube, the web, Twitter and Facebook to engage people during the event. The content is great. Follow along on Twitter at #14CHS.

The theme of this year’s Colorado Health Symposium is Health Transformed: The Power of Engagement. Today’s discussions about how to engage people in health conversations talked about meeting people where they are, communicating on their terms and how to use language that fits the community you’re trying to reach.

That’s a great place to focus attention. Advocates that don’t engage their audience aren’t doing their job.

But it got me to thinking about how people are talking about health in Colorado now (and how much they’re talking about it). What ARE people talking about when they talk about health in Colorado? What else are they talking about? What can we learn about the state of public engagement on health by the looking at recent online conversations?

The chart below uses Topsy to analyze the use of three sets of keywords on Twitter in the past month: (1) tweets that have the words “health” and “Colorado” in them; (2) tweets that have the words “healthcare” and “Colorado” in them; and (3) tweets that have the words “pot” and “Colorado” in them.

health-pot-conversation-30day-900

The “colorado health” conversation is dwarfed by mentions of pot. Talk of health in the state is dominated by debates over Obamacare.

None of these are huge conversations over the past month and, clearly, the conversation about each of the topics represented by these terms is bigger than the numbers in this chart. We’re only looking for these specific words, after all. And we’re only looking at Twitter in the past month. This is just one snapshot, not an extensive analysis. Hop on Topsy to play with these or other terms.

But the chart is telling. The biggest “spike” in Colorado health conversation happened on July 20th as the result of a Denver Post story about billing issues with healthcare plans sold on the Colorado exchange. This story has little to do with health but is instead tied to the continual political debate over Obamacare/the Affordable Care Act. It’s probably no surprise to anyone that politically charged conversations about health insurance laws displace actual health conversation.

It bears further analysis but what’s potentially concerning is that health conversation – and the ability of the health community to engage real people about health issues online – is being confused and displaced by the healthcare debate. A few thoughts on what this might mean:

  • Online channels certainly aren’t the only (and maybe not the best) place to engage people on health issues. Many people in key audiences may not be online, or at least not on Twitter, though I’m guessing many are on Facebook and other networks. The health conversation, like many others, needs many points of contact.
  • Real human health stories need more (and stronger) online voices to compete with the healthcare policy debate. Access to healthcare services is a huge part of good health but politicizing it is polarizing the discussion and making it hard to have real conversations about other aspects of good health (nutrition, food choices/prices/access, school lunches, active children and more).
  • More analysis of the health conversation wouldn’t hurt. How are real people talking about health (and healthcare) in Colorado? And the nation? There’s a wealth of data out there on the social networks waiting to be scooped up.

And what about the pot conversation in Colorado? Well, people use the word “pot” in connection with Colorado much more often than they do health or healthcare. Welcome to Colorado! We threw pot into this chart mostly for comparison’s sake. Seems that health and healthcare should be bigger conversations than pot. Something to aspire to (and maybe learn from) going forward.

As advocates, if we want to engage people online we need to know what they’re talking about and how they’re talking about it. Otherwise, we may be talking to ourselves.

Why not say “I don’t know”?

Faking Cultural Literacy in last Sunday’s New York Times argues that social media (and online, omnipresent, instant information in general) has allowed everyone to have an opinion about everything. It’s worth a read but it misses the point.

A bunch of tabs

A bunch of open tabs. Illustration by Jennifer Daniel, New York Times.

American culture has long frowned on one saying “I don’t know.” To admit ignorance (regardless of source) is to admit weakness. It is to say to your conversation partner that they know more than you do (and must therefore be smarter, better educated, have better parents, read more, have a healthier diet, etc.).

Better to say something, anything, and fake it than perhaps question and learn from one another.

Case in point: I’ve been reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. There is a passage in which the main character who has come to the US from her native Nigeria to study at a university ruminates on the classroom experience:

School in America was easy, assignments sent in by e-mail, classrooms air-conditioned, professors willing to give makeup tests. But she was uncomfortable with what the professors called “participation,” and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words. It had to be that Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what. And so she sat stiff-tongued, surrounded by students who were all folded easily on their seats, all flush with knowledge, not of the subject of the classes, but of how to be in the classes. They never said “I don’t know.” They said, instead, “I’m not sure,” which did not give any information but still suggested the possibility of knowledge.

We’re trained early on to have SOMETHING to say. ANYTHING. You don’t look smart (which is 90% of the battle) by quietly thinking things through. Nobody wants to hear of their child waxing philosophic. Leaders don’t hold firm to the gray area.

Social media and online information has not launched a wave of shallow knowledge—it’s always been there. Social media makes it more apparent, however. It also makes it easier to find support for our views without engaging in critical thinking or questioning our assumptions.

As advocates and social change campaigners we should be constantly aware of our role in finding, analyzing and sharing information. And recognize that most of us have an opinion whether we have knowledge or not.

We change policy by, in part, winning arguments but debate means listening and critiquing as much as it does espousing a viewpoint.

Engage, question, listen, think and respond. Don’t just make a point—create opportunity for conversation with your audience.

Listening (to the right stuff)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Upwell, one of the most important and inspiring around these days.

Upwell works for the ocean. They do that with “Big Listening” (more on that later) to track the global conversation about oceans. They do it with minimum viable campaigns – lean tests of what works (and doesn’t) to change and direct the ocean conversations.

And they do it by sharing everything they learn with advocates, organizations, media, scientists and everyone else that cares about oceans (which should be each of you because, you know, the world’s surface is over 70% water and that gives oceans a big leg up on the global power chart).

Clyde listens

Tracking the global conversation about oceans (or climate change or voting rights or organic agriculture or anything you can imagine) has never been more important. The information each of us gets (or can easily find) is no longer controlled by a community (or national) newspaper or TV station and its editorial board.
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Off the trail, in the network

I came across a Gary Snyder essay called “Work in Place of Place” from a collection titled The Practice of the Wild. It brought to mind a community of practice, Web of Change, with which I’m engaged. More broadly, it speaks to the networked way in which change advocates operate.

Here are the opening and closing paragraphs. They stand on their own in a sense but the whole piece is worth a red.

Place is one kind of place. Another field is the work we do, our calling, our path in life. Membership in a place includes membership in a community. Membership in a work association — whether it’s a guild or a union or a mercantile order — is membership in a network. Networks cut across communities with their own kind of territoriality, analogous to the long migrations of geese and hawks.

Our skills and works are but tiny reflections of the wild world that is innately and loosely orderly. There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed. Not for the sake of newness, but for the sake of coming home to our whole terrain. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. That is also where — paradoxically — we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.

(Well written) email matters

Email is dead montage

Maybe crap email is dead. The rest is doing fine.

In the past week, three organizations I run into a lot online and through work posted writing jobs. More specifically, email writing jobs (a list of them is below).

Writing in less than 140 character snippets, coming up with the pithiest text to put over a share image, and (at the other end of the spectrum) even longer form essays seem to be the skillsets du jour.

Yet email remains a workhorse — building and connecting supporter networks more directly than social media. In combination with social media channels, video, websites, online ads and everything else, email can be more valuable. Email goes directly to the inbox, it can introduce a topic or remind the reader of something posted on Facebook or sent through postal mail.

“But wait,” you might say, “I get way too much email” or, if you’re in the field, you’ll point out the single digit (and falling) open rates in most sectors of the email world. Both are valid points. There IS too much email and most of it is just plain BAD.
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Don’t be the coyote: Falling retention rates can be stopped

Retention rates will fall as predictably as Wile E Coyote if you don't understand why people support you and focus on those likeliest to stick.

Recently, Blackbaud’s npENGAGE blog gathered tips on how nonprofits can do a better job keeping donors on board from some of the best fundraisers around.  Your mileage may vary but each insight offers a little piece of gold bound to help at least a little bit. I was struck, however, by the general message: “you need [...]

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Facebook Grants, Nonprofits and what’s really needed

Facebook Grants

Earlier this week Facebook announced that it had begun putting “Donate” buttons on pages run by US nonprofit organizations. The program rolled out on 19 nonprofit pages and other groups are invited to express interest in participating. Facebook is offering to funnel donations to nonprofits free of charge — 100% of donations made will go [...]

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Creating the most important organization in the world by caring for your members

Be good to your customers

Care about branding and marketing at your organization? Then care about your members. This tweet by Troy Theodore Wruck shares a quote from Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich should be pinned on the wall of nonprofit directors. This quote from co-founder @LeoWid is precisely why @buffer app is the most important social media tool in the [...]

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Twelve things learned from using social media in a community crisis

Lessons from Indian Gulch Wildfire

Earlier this year my partner in crime here at Bright+3 left Colorado for Washington, DC, to work as Policy Advisor on Energy and Environment for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Prior to moving to DC, Jacob served as a city council member and then mayor of Golden, Colorado. Like me, Jacob has always been intrigued [...]

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Behold the greatest threat yet to nonprofit organizations

Death Star poised to destroy nonprofit email

Nonprofit organizations face countless obstacles in their quest to protect the environment, improve education, tackle economic injustice, and otherwise help society. This is tough work, friends, and these days, as we gaze at computer screens or phones we are probably looking upon the most significant hurdle yet: Gmail’s tabbed inbox. That’s the story, anyway, from [...]

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