Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Are Social Media, Social? (Part Seven)

First let me say that I have really appreciated all of the carefully thought out comments sent in by readers. The last two entries including this one directly and indirectly reference your input.

Go to this site to follow the latest local news in your area. Much like Twitter, FWIX lets you follow the local news based on your interests. This is not dissimilar to the aggregate approach taken by many blogs like the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. The core difference is that news sites select their bloggers, while FWIX relies on entries produced by locals. A site like NowPublic which started in Vancouver but was bought out by a Denver based investment firm, also relies on public participation although there is a good deal more vetting than on other social news sites.

To what degree is the news different on these aggregate sites and what does this say about the use of media? What is the difference between traditional broadcast news and social news? Or, have we all become journalists, writers and commentators on the communities we live in and on the broader political stories that we share?

Part of what makes social media distinct is the *strength* of the ties between people and the stories and messages they exchange. The suggestion that living in a city makes you an expert on local stories depends on many factors not the least of which is what community you belong to, what your work is and where you live. There is no guarantee that being a local confers any greater depth upon a writer or observer. In fact, in some instances the opposite claim can be made. I would suggest that social news broadens the base of potential stories but that the vast majority of what is published is essentially hearsay. In general, with some exceptions, social news sites become a reflection of a small number of users and writers who effectively take on the job for the community of readers.

Digg uses submissions from readers to build a picture of the importance of some topics over others. Numbers count. In 2006 it became apparent that a small number of writers were manipulating the ratings in order to dominate not only the trends of the time, but also to promote their own blogs. An investigation showed that thirty users had taken over.

The internal picture that we have of the Internet makes it appear as if everything we do and say within its confines will have an audience. The network is so large, that news aggregation in particular gives off the impression of connectivity and currency. There is no obvious way of testing these claims other than through a quantitative analysis of visitors and some in-depth studies of usage patterns and learning experiences. Rating a story is not good enough. Feedback is essential to the lifeblood of social news but in reality only a few sites attract the traffic to make them relevant.

This is where Twitter comes in. The brilliance of this short messaging system was all too obvious during the crisis in Iran last year. It has also been very useful in other crisis situations in Africa and Asia. No claims are made to journalistic truth. Twitter entries are newsy without all the baggage of the news attached to them. Recent events in Thailand bore this out, as protesters were able to keep track of their own and the police's movements throughout Bangkok and news agencies used the Twitter entries to explain what was happening.

However, let's delve a bit more deeply into this. The following quote may articulate some of the complications here:

While the standard definition of a social network embodies the notion of all the people with whom one shares a social relationship, in reality people interact with very few of those "listed" as part of their network. One important reason behind this fact is that attention is the scarce resource in the age of the web. Users faced with many daily tasks and large number of social links default to interacting with those few that matter and that reciprocate their attention. For example, a recent study of Facebook showed that users only poke and message a small number of people while they have a large number of declared friends. And a casual search through recent calls made through any mobile phone usually reveals that a small percentage
of the contacts stored in the phone are frequently contacted by the user.
(Bernardo A. Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu Social Computing Lab, HP Laboratories, arXiv:0812.1045v1 [cs.CY] 4 Dec 2008)

In the same article, the authors talk about how after analyzing thousands of Twitter users they came to the conclusion that even with a large following, the central motivating factor in most tweets is to keep friends and family updated on both personal and public news. Their analysis also showed that the number of friends and family involved in the exchanges were quite small. Once again, the overall size of the network as a whole is making it appear as if more is actually going on than is possible given the daily habits of most users. As it turns out, a tiny number of Twitter personalities and sites gather in most of the usage. As with the news, over time, readers will default to a small number of acceptable sources.

A December, 2008 PEW study showed that eleven percent of Americans who are online use Twitter. The mental image we have is of something far larger going on and guess where that has come from? Broadcast media, in other words, television, and the twenty or so most visited news sites on the web which are also the most traditional.

More on this in my next posting. Follow me on Twitter @ronburnett

Part Eight 

  • 5 Innovative Websites That Could Reshape the News (mashable.com)
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