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Expert Alert: Thoughts on the upcoming Oscars by film studies prof Wheeler Winston Dixon

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar of film history, theory and criticism.

Here are a few of his thoughts about the 86th Annual Academy Awards, to air March 2 on ABC:

– “It continues to amaze me how few people understand that this isn’t some sort of national poll of either critics or audiences; it’s an industry event.”

– “Directing will go to Alfonso Cuarón for ‘Gravity,’ though Steve McQueen for ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a strong contender, and in my opinion should get the nod.”

– “Best Actor to Matthew McConaughey for ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ but Bruce Dern is a strong favorite for ‘Nebraska,’ now that Robert Redford is out of the running. Best Actress to Cate Blanchett for ‘Blue Jasmine,’ which seems to me pretty much a lock.”

–  Other “locks:” “12 Years A Slave”‘ for Best Picture,  Best Supporting Actor to Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club,”  Best Animated Feature to “Frozen.”

– To be taken with “a huge grain of salt:”  – Best Supporting Actress is a three-way toss-up between Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle;” Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years A Slave;” and June Squibb, “Nebraska.”  Best Original Screenplay is too close to call, though “Nebraska”’s Bob Nelson has a decent shot.

– Thomas Vinterberg’s superb film “The Hunt” should win Best Foreign Language Film, though this category continues to rankle. “To pick simply one film to represent the entire world is really a suspect enterprise.”

For more details, visit Dixon’s “Frame By Frame” blog:

http://blog.unl.edu/dixon/2014/01/16/the-86th-annual-academy-awards/

To contact Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472-6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu

UNL professor leads collaboration to open 300 years of books for data analysis

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

In the 19th century, Britain was the world’s superpower, boasting a global empire of 10 million square miles and 400 million royal subjects. And British authors of the era reflected this supremacy, peppering prose with words of command and certainty — ones like always, never and forever.

At the same time in Ireland, writers echoed a different perspective in their books. With the Irish under the thumb of British rule, the nation’s scribes frequently used words that displayed inability or frustration — ones like almost, nearly or perhaps.

Matthew Jockers knows this to be a fact because it bears out in his computer-generated data: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of English has combined computer programming with digital text-mining to produce deep thematic, stylistic analyses in 19th-century literary works. He calls the data-driven process macroanalysis, and it’s opening up new methods for literary theorists to study classic literature.

“But what we don’t know is what happens after the turn of the 20th century,” Jockers said. “The 20th century, as we know, is when the British Empire deteriorates and the Irish gain independence. So do each country’s authors remain as they were in the previous century? Or if they do begin to change their approach, in what ways do they go about it? That’s the kind of question we can address — with access to proper data, that is.”

Now, thanks to an exclusive agreement between UNL and private company BookLamp, Jockers and research collaborators from several U.S. universities have the tools to begin uncovering the answers to that question — and many others. This new research collaboration will ultimately allow scholars to access and analyze book data from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

BookLamp uses digital tools to compare books by theme and writing style, suggesting other books a reader might like based on how closely they match previous reads. To power their algorithm, BookLamp works with publishers across the industry to analyze thousands of titles in its Book Genome Project, which it launched in 2003.

“We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at the writings that have been published over the years as a whole, at a scale that’s been difficult to do in the past,” said Aaron Stanton, CEO of BookLamp. “We’re not providing access to data for individual books, but instead information that can help answer larger questions about changes in society over time.”

Jockers, who also is a fellow in UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, said that in scholarly circles, the arrangement signifies a big step forward: For years, digital researchers have had a difficult time gaining access to the results of digitally text-mined books from the 20th century, thanks to copyright and access issues. While BookLamp will not directly provide scholars with book texts or book-level data, it does provide corpus-level “anonymized” data that allows researchers to ask questions about key thematic and stylistic structures.

An example may be to query how often female writers used keywords related to traditionally male professions in the 1920s compared with, say, the 1980s, to track the changes in women’s literary roles over time, researchers said.

“Nearly everyone who does this kind of work focuses on the 19th century, because that’s all that’s been available in the digital format, outside of copyright,” Jockers said. “So unfortunately, we’ve been kind of stuck in time for a while. But this arrangement will help us clear that hurdle and we’ll be able to look more deeply into more modern works.”

Jockers leads the collaboration with digital literary scholars at Stanford University’s Literary Lab as well as Arizona State University. It starts with a two-year project involving data from BookLamp, as well as data from 18th- and 19th-century novels already compiled in Stanford’s Literary Lab.

Organizers have dubbed the effort the “Unfolding the Novel” project. Ultimately, they will consolidate 300 years of high-level book data to study long-term literary trends and patterns.

And in the 20th century, those patterns explode into a multitude of modern genres and open up a swarm of new research questions, Jockers said.

With the BookLamp-provided summary metadata, researchers could query information from a range of years — the 1950s, for example — and learn how many times a particular word was used in any of the new genres of the time, from detective stories to romance to science fiction. The text-mined results would shed new, data-supported light upon the various themes and styles authors employed in that decade.

One of the project’s initial queries will be to examine the words and stylistic elements that best allow scholars to distinguish between male and female writers, Jockers said. For example, in the 19th century, male authors were far more likely to use male pronouns than female ones. This indicates their stories were more masculine than those written by women authors, who used male and female pronouns more evenly during the same period.

“We’re interested to learn what happens to this tendency in the 20th century,” he said. “This is, after all, the period of liberalization, so the theory would be that women would begin writing more female-centered work. And, if these movements had any effects on the males, we should start to see a greater attention to the other gender in works by 20th-century men, as well. It will be interesting to see.”

The work of understanding and organizing data from 100 years of literature is long and difficult, Jockers said, much less 300 years of literature. But he said he thinks that he and his collaborators are inaugurating a game-changing, information-rich era of literary scholarship.

“The potential uses of this information are huge,” he said. “BookLamp has been a spectacular partner in the effort; they are genuinely interested in many of the same questions we are, and they are passionate in the pursuit of knowledge.

“The possibilities are practically endless.”

Contact: Matthew Jockers, assistant professor of English, 402-472-1896 or mjockers@unl.edu.

UNL Expert Alert: Chuck Hagel to lead the Department of Defense?

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has met with both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, as the president considers tapping him to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary, and several media outlets are reporting that Hagel appears to have the inside track on the job.

Who is Chuck Hagel and why has he become a frontrunner for one of the most influential cabinet positions in the administration? Charlyne Berens, associate dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, is the author of Hagel’s biography, titled “Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward” (University of Nebraska Press, 2006). The edition examines Hagel’s upbringing in Nebraska, his survival of a tour of duty in Vietnam, his rise to political office and the background that has led Hagel to an outspoken internationalism that often put him at odds with his own party. A paperback edition of the biography will be published in July 2013.

Berens offered these thoughts to the news of Hagel’s potential appointment:

“As I got to know Chuck Hagel for his biography, it seemed to me that he is what one would call a true public servant. His work with the USO, turning it around and making it a viable operation, is a prime example – there’s not a lot of glory in that, but he saw it as important and did it with no desire for political gain. He has a desire to contribute, whether it is in elected office or in a high-level post such as Secretary of Defense — or a presidential advisory group, or the Atlantic Council. He’s committed to public affairs and doing what he can to contribute to solving the issues of the day.

“Helping him in this case is the fact that he was in the Senate, and during his time there he was noted for his bipartisan – not nonpartisan, but bipartisan — tendencies. As we know, (Hagel) sometimes would take positions that were more popular at the time with Democrats than with his fellow Republicans. His criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War (and the administration’s subsequent ‘surge’ strategy) is the most obvious example of that.

“Chuck Hagel is a principled man but also a practical one. His bipartisanship grew during his time in the Senate, and came partly from his frustration that Congress was becoming more and more partisan, and it was becoming more and more difficult to get things done. He entered the Senate with what could be considered staunch Republican credentials but left the Senate as more bipartisan. He’s plain-spoken, which can be rare in Washington. Of course, he’s a political enough person that he knows what he’s walking into when he opens his mouth, but I’ve never gotten the sense that he’s routinely spinning things.

“He would not take the responsibility of being Secretary of Defense lightly. I remember him saying once that before you’re going to decide to send someone’s kid to die, you better be very sure you’re making the right decision. If he were to become Secretary of Defense, he would not be eager to involve the United States militarily. On the other hand, he fully understands the importance of a strong military and its role around the globe. He’s certainly no isolationist – he’s not going to say we’re not going to pay attention to what’s happening in the world; there would be no point in making him Secretary of Defense if he were of that mindset.

“But it’s my impression of Chuck Hagel that he would be very analytical and careful in the decisions he’d put forth in the use of troops. After all, he was there. His experiences in Vietnam, as well as his time working for the USO and the Veterans’ Administration have given him a real sense, and a very realistic sense, of what truly happens in war, and what its costs are. It’s not theoretical to him.

“This fits into the kind of thinking that President Obama seems to like in his advisers. He appears to be more concerned with peoples’ way of thinking and the way they approach problems than what party they are or whether they would agree with him on everything. Obama seems to put value not just in what you think but how you think, and I think he would appreciate Chuck Hagel’s approach.”

Contact: Charlyne Berens, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 402-472-8241 or cberens@unl.edu.

Coverage: NPR’s All Things Considered | CNN.com | The Atlantic | Foreign Policy | TIME | Christian Science Monitor | Baltimore Sun |

UNL research prof discovered ‘supertongued’ bat to be featured by NatGeo

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Photo: Murray Cooper, courtesy Nathan Muchhala

When Anoura fistulata – also known as the Tube-Lipped Nectar Bat – was first discovered in South America in 2005, it gained worldwide notoriety for its ability to snap its tongue out 1 1/2 times its own body length, proportionally longer than other mammals and twice as long as other similar bats.

On Sunday, when the super-tongued marvel makes its high-definition, prime-time television debut on a National Geographic Channel special, one viewer in Lincoln will be observing that super-tongue very closely – maybe taking a few notes, even.

Nathan Muchhala of UNL’s School of Biological Sciences was a leader of the research team that discovered the bat in the cloud forests of the Ecuadoran Andes seven years ago. He and colleagues later identified it as a new species.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln postdoctoral fellow since 2011, Muchhala recently traveled to South America with a NatGeo film crew to capture the long-tongued bat in super-slow motion as it zipped from bloom to jungle flower bloom, slurping nectar from long-funneled flowers. The footage will appear in the premier episode of the network’s new nature documentary series Untamed Americas, which airs Sunday and Monday.

“This will be interesting video that we’re excited to see and that we should be able to follow up on,” Muchhala said. “It should give us a chance to see better how that tongue works.”

Researchers suspect the bat’s super-long tongue evolved to forage on long, bell-shaped Andean flowers that have nectar buried at the end of their long funnels. The bat takes a fraction of a second to sink its tongue repeatedly into the flower tube in search of nectar and, as it does, picks up pollen on its head and snout. It then drops the pollen off at the next flower it visits.

In experiments, Muchhala and colleagues discovered the tongue was nearly 3 1/2 inches long. Considering the bat’s body is about two inches long, it was a surprising find, and it led to another theory – that the bat and the flower, Centropogon nigricans, evolved together. The flower’s funnel is just as long as the bat’s tongue.

“It was really neat to discover the bat, and it was in comparing it to other nectar bats that got us thinking about its role in pollinating that specific flower,” he said.

The footage, Muchhala said, should shed more light on Anoura fistulata’s most amazing trait – and just exactly how that tongue extends to nab nectar.

“One thing you can see in some of the close-up footage is the way the papillae, or ‘hairs,’ on the end of the tongue stick straight out right before the tongue retracts, maximizing surface area and allowing the bat to mop up as much nectar as possible per lick,” he said.

The bat’s tongue also appears to differ from the “ballistic” tongue of a chameleon, which stays coiled inside its mouth until needed and then unfurls at breakneck speed. Instead, the bat’s tongue’s base slides back and into its rib cage. When it extends its tongue, it does so gradually and at a constant rate, more like how an earthworm moves, Muchhala said.

“The film helps us see that whole process much more clearly,” he said. “It all takes place in a third of a second, and there’s an incredible amount of detail (in the footage).”

Muchhala came to UNL to further his research and is learning how to do genetic work in UNL assistant professor Stacey Smith’s lab, which focuses on the origin and maintenance of floral diversity. Currently, he’s extracting DNA from plants and bats to develop phylogenetic “trees” to map out the species’ evolutionary relationships.

“These diagrams will help us to understand the evolution of the remarkable adaptations of both the flowers and their pollinators,” he said.

The two-night miniseries, narrated by actor Josh Brolin, begins at 8 p.m. CDT on the National Geographic Channel. Here’s a preview of the video featuring the Tube-Lipped Nectar Bat and more on the Untamed Americas series.

Contact: Nathan Muchhala, research assistant professor, UNL School of Biological Sciences at nmuchhala2@unl.edu.

Increasingly, children’s books are where the wild things aren’t

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Was your favorite childhood book crawling with wild animals and set in places like jungles or deep forests? Or did it take place inside a house or in a city, with few if any untamed creatures in sight?

A new study has found that over the last several decades, nature has increasingly taken a back seat in award-winning children’s picture books — and suggests this sobering trend is consistent with a growing isolation from the natural world.

A group of researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor emeritus J. Allen Williams Jr. reviewed the winners and honor books receiving the prestigious Caldecott Medal from the award’s inception in 1938 through 2008. In total, they examined nearly 8,100 images contained in nearly 300 books. Caldecott awardees are the children’s books judged by the American Library Association to have the best illustrations in a given year.

Researchers looked at whether images depicted a natural environment, such as a jungle or a forest; a built environment, such as a house, a school or an office; or something in-between, such as a mowed lawn. They also noted whether any animals were in the pictures — and if so, if those creatures were wild, domesticated or took on human qualities.

Their results, Williams said, visibly exhibited a steady decline in illustrations of natural environments and animals, as well as humans’ interactions with both. Meanwhile, images of built environments became much more common.

“I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world, less empathy for what is happening to other species and less understanding of many significant environmental problems,” Williams said.

Overall, built environments were depicted in 58 percent of the images and were the major environment 45 percent of the time, while natural environments were present in 46 percent of the images and were the major environment 32 percent of the time. But recent trend lines were discouraging: Latter decades showed an obvious shift away from nature — while built and natural environments were almost equally likely to be shown from the late 1930s until the 1960s, cities and towns and the indoors started to increase in books in the mid-1970s while fewer and fewer books pictured the natural environment.

During the seven decades included in the study, more people have lived in and around built environments, so researchers said they were not surprised such images would be prominent. But “what we find in these books … is not a consistent proportional balance of built and natural environments, but a significant and steady increase of built environments,” the authors wrote. “Natural environments have all but disappeared.”

While the study was limited to Caldecott awardees, researchers said the findings are important because the award leads to strong sales and the honorees are featured in schools and libraries. Caldecott winners also can influence tastes for children’s literature more generally.

The study does not say that increasing isolation from the natural world influenced the content trends, but it does hint that the steady increase in built environments and the simultaneous decline in natural environments and wild animals are consistent with that isolation.

“This does not mean, of course, that environmentalism is not an important part of American culture, but it does suggest that the current generation of young children listening to the stories and looking at the images in children’s books are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it,” the authors wrote.

The study’s findings are published in the journal Sociological Inquiry and was co-authored by UNL sociologist Philip Schwadel and Christopher Podeschi of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania; Nathan Palmer of Georgia Southern University; and Deanna Meyler, now with the Omaha, Neb.-based firm Bozell. Podeschi, Palmer and Meyler are former UNL students.

Contact: J. Allen Williams Jr., jwilliams2@unl.edu or 402-472-9376

Coverage: New York Times USA TODAY | Psychology Today |MyNorthwest.com | The Globe and Mail (Canada) | GOOD Magazine | Mother Nature Network | Wall Street Journal |

Thomas book named 2012 Lincoln Prize Finalist

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

William Thomas, professor and chair of the Department of History and John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities, has been named a finalist for the 2012 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for his book “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America.” The Lincoln Prize is the top book prize in Civil War studies and is awarded by Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Six finalists were chosen from 116 nominations.

The honor is generally given to books that focus specifically on Lincoln or the Civil War soldier — the last four winners have been Lincoln biographies. Thomas’ book is an outgrowth of the “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” digital archive project. The book illuminates the critical impact of railroad construction, railroad management and the boost railroads provided to regional development during and after the Civil War era.

Thomas is a past recipient of the Lincoln Prize. In 2001, he won the prestigious honor along with fellow historians Edward Ayers and Anne Rubin for “The Valley of the Shadow” digital history project.

– Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications

“Been Workin’ on the Railroad”: UNL’s Thomas in NYT

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Thousands of slaves worked on Southern railroads during the Civil War — and many of them used it as a means of escape. UNL historian Will Thomas, author of “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War and the Making of Modern America,” crafted an excellent opinion piece for today’s online edition of The New York Times. Check it out.

UNL gets Willa Cather materials, including unfinished novel

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Charles Cather, an heir to his aunt Willa Cather, has left an estate gift to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that includes manuscripts including the beginning of her last novel, letters, medals and inscribed first editions of her work.

Charles Cather, Willa’s nephew, died March 14 in California, and his personal property relating to Willa Cather was given to the University of Nebraska Foundation. The materials, which were loaned to the foundation from Charles Cather and became a gift upon his death, arrived last December to be catalogued by the university. While the materials have not been formally appraised, the estimated value is $2 million.

“This is a treasure trove of materials that sheds distinctive light on Cather’s working life, and allows us to see just how relentlessly creative she was, even at the end of her life,” said Guy Reynolds, professor of English and director of the Cather Project at UNL.

The collection includes hand-written scenes from Cather’s last, unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments.” This manuscript has not previously been made public.

“The collection holds tremendous significance to Cather scholars, with documents that provide unique glimpses into her creative process,” said Andrew Jewell, editor of the Willa Cather Archive, and associate professor at University Libraries. “Here, for the first time, are early drafts of prose that eventually were transformed into one the greatest novels in American literary history: ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop.’”

The hand-written scenes from her unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments,” were long thought to have been destroyed. Some of the documents from the collection were never known by scholars to have existed, like notebooks full of hand-drawn maps of locations Cather featured in her fiction.

“The Charles Cather collection is an astounding and a wonderful complement to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s other rich Cather collections,” Jewell said.

Items included in the Charles Cather donation:

* Pages from her last unfinished novel
* 1926 notebook and maps from a trip Cather took to New Mexico. The materials are annotated and are the inspiration for her book “Death comes for the Archbishop.”
* Handwritten manuscript of “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
* The William Dean Howells Medal for “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” The medal, established in 1925, is given once every five years in recognition of the most distinguished American novel published during that period. Willa Cather was the second winner of the medal in 1930.
* Several inscribed books she gave to her partner, Edith Lewis
* Photographs
* Letters of advice to her nephew, Charles Cather
* Ledgers detailing what Willa Cather was earning

UNL has the largest Cather archive in the world. The author graduated from the university in 1895 and died in 1947. Her novels, such as “O Pioneers,” “My Antonia” and “Song of the Lark,” recognized frontier life on the Great Plains. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for “One of Ours.”

Katherine Walter, chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections for the UNL Libraries, has seen nine of 15 Cather collections come to UNL, including all the significant collections by Cather family members.

“Charles Cather’s gift adds greatly to our knowledge of Willa Cather’s writing and furthers our insight into her circle of friends and family. These close relationships meant much to her as a writer,” Walter said. “With this acquisition, the UNL Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections is now home to 15 Cather collections of extraordinary value to scholars and students, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries’ holdings of Cather’s works are the most significant in the world.”

National coverage: The Chronicle of Higher Education | The Associated Press 1, 2, 3

The Book List: Who Counts as an American?

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Want to get a better understanding of what has driven the Birthers, the Tea Party and the rise in domestic hate groups since Barack Obama became president? Check out Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s latest book, Who Counts as an American?: The Boundaries of National Identity. While not tackling those specific hot-button topics directly, the book does more to explain and bring into context the nascent formation of white minority politics in the United States — and the paranoia that comes with it — than any work out there right now.

In Who Counts as an American?, Theiss-Morse — chairwoman of UNL’s department of political science — draws on social identity theory to examine the dynamics of national loyalty and commitment. She develops a social theory of national identity and uses surveys, focus groups and experiments to explain why national identity is such a powerful force in peoples’ lives.

Her results show that the mixture of group commitment and the setting of exclusive boundaries on the national group clearly affect how people behave toward their fellow Americans. Those who strongly identify with the “national group” care a great deal about it — they sincerely want to help and to be loyal to their fellow Americans. But by limiting who counts in their minds as a “real” American, those same strong identifiers place severe limits on who benefits from their generosity. Help and loyalty are offered only to “true Americans,” while others are relegated to the edges of the national group.

One stark example from the book is an experiment, conducted well before the 2008 campaigns swung into gear, that asked respondents to examine three photographs. One was of Hillary Clinton, one was of Barack Obama, and one was of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Researchers asked their test subjects which of the three looked the most American. Obama finished a distant third behind both Clinton and Blair.

Don’t take our word for it. Who Counts just won the Robert E. Lane Award, given annually for the best published work in political psychology. She’ll be in Washington, D.C., in September to accept the award during the national meeting of the American Political Science Association. Congratulations, Beth!

The Book List: Have story, will travel

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Co-worker Aaron Coleman recently loaned me Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. It’s relevant, really, to anyone in the information industry –from reporters to editors to communications specialists at, say, a major Midwestern research university.

For those who might not know, Wasik was the inventor of Flash Mobs — those trendy, semi-spontaneous, digitally-driven gatherings that got some head-scratching attention in the middle of the last decade. And Then There’s This uses the story of Flash Mobs to launch his examination of the rapidly shrinking half-life of stories in our culture as they weave their way through intermingled networks of websites, e-mail, blogs and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

In short, the web has created an epidemic of Information Glut coupled with a side order of Short Attention Span. This creates a problem for those of us in the content generation (and more importantly, content sharing) business — even if it’s really, really good, it stands a good chance of getting buried by new distractions after its fleeting 15 minutes of fame. And it’s among an increasing body of work pointing out the irony that, despite an ever-expanding library of news and opinion sources now available, we don’t take advantage of it. Instead, we box ourselves and our information consumption into smaller and smaller silos of people who agree with us.

Makes sense, then, why social media sites have become the new RSS feeds. In a way, they keep the mind-blowing amount of information available to us in perspective. Instead of going to the home pages of local newspaper Web sites, they’re turning to Facebook and Twitter as their most trusted filters — interacting only with the news and information that is shared by friends or acquaintances. Think about it: You check your Facebook page one morning. Your friend Steve has sent you a link to a story about a group of girls at a Massachusetts high school who formed a pregnancy pact, and you click through unhesitatingly. Because you know your friend Steve wouldn’t send you any junk. By sending it along, your friend Steve has stamped the link with his informal, digital seal of approval.

This explains why some stories take off, circulating throughout the blogosphere, forwarded endlessly via e-mail, shared via social media — and in some lucky cases for those of us in public relations, bubbling over into the mainstream media. It also explains why some stories get stopped in their tracks before they even get started. The trick is in deducing what your friend Steve (or John, or Bob, or Natalie …) might be likely to share with you.

And Then There’s This is a quick, easy read that defines the social theory of viral culture that now dominates how information is spread: Essentially, people get news from those they trust, and will pass it along to like-minded people who in all likelihood will trust them. It’s relevant to our communications strategy at UNL, in that when considering what stories to write, to release and to promote, the old tenets of news judgment aren’t adequate any more.

If we’re not asking What are the viral possibilities for this story? as we roll out a release, then we’re not asking the right questions.