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Dec. 20, 2012, 10 a.m.

Questioning the network: The year in social media research

Journalist’s Resource sifts through the academic journals so you don’t have to. Here are 10 of the studies about social and digital media they found most interesting in 2012.

Editor’s note: There’s lots of new and interesting academic research into social media every year — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry.

John Wihbey, JR’s managing editor, has gone through the research they examined in 2012 and picked out some of the most compelling academic papers.

The range of social media research produced in 2012 has been wide and diverse: from what works on Twitter to explorations of meme “virality”; from Facebook’s power to motivate to the hidden dynamics of friend networks; from SMS power in the Arab uprising to the questionable creep of social “Big Data.” We offer this list with the usual disclaimer: Our selection is meant to be useful, not definitive. Missing from this list is a lot of great scholarship, including analysis of bullying in a networked world, as well as much more on how social media is changing the way we participate in politics.

In any case, here are 10 papers from 2012 worth considering — some light reading for your holiday downtime:

  • “Who Gives a Tweet? Evaluating Microblog Content Value”: Paper from Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, the University of Southampton, and Georgia Tech for the Computer Supported Cooperative Work conference.

    The researchers analyzed more than 43,000 ratings of tweets from 1,443 users and organized the tweets themselves into broad content categories: Question to Followers, Information Sharing, Self-Promotion, Random Thought, Opinion/Complaint, Me Now, Conversation, or Presence Maintenance. They found that only 36 percent of the rated tweets were considered worth reading. “Given that users actively choose to follow these accounts, it is striking that so few of the tweets are actively liked,” the researchers note.

    The most-liked categories of tweets were Questions to Followers, Information Sharing, and Self-Promotion. The least popular: Presence Maintenance (“Hello Twitter!”), Conversation, and Me Now (the tweeter’s current mood or status).

    The authors conclude with a list of “best practices” for Twitter content: “[Posters should] embed more context in tweets (and be less cryptic); add extra commentary, especially if retweeting a common news source; don’t overuse hashtags and use direct messages (DMs) rather than @mentions if more appropriate; happy sentiments are valued and ‘whining’ is disliked, and questions should use a unique hashtag so followers can keep track of the conversation.”

  • “Structural Diversity in Social Contagion”: Study from Cornell University and Facebook published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The researchers analyze the patterns of approximately 10 million Facebook users and their networks and find that the diversity of users’ networks is strongly related to engagement levels. More active Facebook users have friends on the site spanning numerous social circles: “Simply counting connected components leads to a muddled view of predicted engagement […] However, extending the notion of diversity according to any of the definitions above suffices to provide positive predictors of future long-term engagement.”

    The researchers conclude that “these findings suggest an alternate perspective for recruitment to political causes, the promotion of health practices and marketing; to convince individuals to change their behavior, it may be less important that they receive many endorsements than that they receive the message from multiple directions.”

  • “Tweeting Is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions”: Paper from Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft Research for the Computer Supported Cooperative Work conference.

    The researchers, examining survey and experimental data, found that perceptions of an author’s influence, topical expertise, and reputation all enhance a tweet’s credibility; other perceived markers of credibility include the public profiles of tweeters and how often their posts are retweeted. Typical users are not unduly concerned with the credibility of tweets on celebrity news and restaurant reviews, but are concerned with the veracity of breaking news and political content. Users tend to most trust tweets from individuals they follow and trending topics listed on Twitter, and are very concerned about the credibility of tweets they find through Twitter searches and online search engines.

    While the perceived credibility of a tweet was linked to its author, it was not associated with the truthfulness of the tweet itself. This held true regardless of the assessor’s experience with Twitter; in fact, more experienced users typically rated tweets as more credible overall. “Those with more experience with a given technology view it as a more credible information source” than those with less experience, the researchers note.

  • “News and the Overloaded Consumer: Factors Influencing Information Overload Among News Consumers”: Study from the University of Texas at Austin published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

    The researchers analyze survey data from more than 750 news consumers to look at their patterns of reading and viewing, and to assess which platforms and formats make people feel most/least overwhelmed by the information deluge. The findings suggest that people feel overwhelmed on platforms such as Facebook or e-readers, but, interestingly, not necessarily on platforms such as Twitter or YouTube. Over all, the study suggests that it is not the number of news outlets that consumers follow that creates the feeling of “overload,” but rather the platform and corresponding manner in which news is consumed.

  • “Misplaced Confidences: Privacy and the Control Paradox”: Study from Carnegie Mellon published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

    The researchers conducted three survey-based experiments with more than 450 participants from a North American university on the release or accessibility of personal information online. The goal was ultimately to see how, in practice, humans respond to increased privacy controls.

    “Paradoxically,” the researchers note, “participants were more likely to allow the publication of information about them and more likely to disclose more information of a sensitive nature, as long as they were explicitly, instead of implicitly, given control over its publication.”

    They stress that they are not advocating that individuals should necessarily disclose less information online — but they underscore that the propensity to share more is influenced by structural factors such as site controls: “Control has become a code word,” the scholars write, “employed both by legislators and government bodies in proposals for enhanced privacy production [but] higher levels of control may not always service the ultimate goal of enhancing privacy.”

  • “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization”: Study from the University of California, San Diego, and Facebook, published in Nature.

    The researchers tested the idea that voting behavior can be significantly influenced by messages on Facebook. On Election Day 2010 — the Congressional midterms — 60,055,176 Facebook users were shown messages at the top of their news feeds that encouraged them to vote, pointed to nearby polling places, offered a place to click “I Voted” and displayed images of select friends who had already voted (the “social message”). Two smaller groups — each about 600,000 people — were given either voting-encouragement messages but no data about friends’ behavior (an “informational message”) or were not given any voting-related messages.

    The data, the scholars write, “suggest that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.” Strong ties between friends proved much more influential than weak ties: “Close friends exerted about four times more influence on the total number of validated voters mobilized than the message itself […] Online mobilization works because it primarily spreads through strong-tie networks that probably exist offline but have an online representation.”

  • “Why Most Facebook Users Get More Than They Give”: Report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

    The researchers find that extremely active users have an outsized impact on the Facebook experience of everyone in a network. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of Facebook users are considered “power users.” Because of them, the researchers note, the “average Facebook user receives friend requests, receives personal messages, is tagged in photos, and receives feedback in terms of ‘likes’ at a higher frequency than they contribute.” Moreover, “At two degrees of separation (friends-of-friends), Facebook users in our sample can on average reach 156,569 other Facebook users.”

    Within the sample, the most influential power user could reach nearly 8 million other Facebook users through friends-of-friends, while the median user could reach 31,170 people. Other report findings relate to the offline profile of users: “There is a statistically positive correlation between frequency of tagging Facebook friends in photos, as well as being added to a Facebook group, and knowing people with more diverse backgrounds off of Facebook.” In addition, the more active a Facebook user is, the more likely he or she has attended a meeting or political rally: “Heavy Facebook users were much more likely to attend political rallies and meetings, to try to influence someone they know to vote for a specific candidate, and to vote or intend to vote.”

  • “Competition Among Memes in a World with Limited Attention”: Study from Indiana University and Northeastern University published in Scientific Reports.

    The researchers use a complex statistical model to investigate the “mechanisms of competition” among memes and “how they shape the spread of information.” Ultimately, the findings suggest that the virality of memes may less controllable or explicable than assumed.

    The scholars compared patterns in their model with actual Twitter patterns and found strong similarities. This suggests that viral memes can happen without any of the usual explanations — influential user involvement; quality, appeal, or cleverness; or outside world or media events driving attention to certain concepts. The key mechanism appears to be that, because users have limited attention, some “memes survive at the expense of others.”

    The authors do not assert that “intrinsic meme appeal” has no importance in driving viral trends, but the fact that similar viral effects can occur without external impetus has important implications: “This appears as an arresting conclusion that makes information epidemics quite different from the basic modeling and conceptual framework of biological epidemics.”

  • “Critical Questions for Big Data”: Paper from Microsoft Research, New York University, Berkman Center, University of New South Wales published in Information, Communication & Society.

    With data mining techniques increasingly being used across industries — and with social media data a big part of this — the researchers take a hard look at the “Big Data” phenomenon. They note that it is playing out in several dimensions: It is about “maximizing computation power and algorithmic accuracy to gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets”; it is also about “drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims.” Behind all of this, the researchers note with skepticism, is the “widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.”

  • Various studies on global protest, the Arab Spring.

    A lot of new research (some rounded up here) has focused on social media tools used in the service of protest and political activism in challenging circumstances. From the Arab uprising to other global hot spots, scholars are analyzing the outcomes. Many studies provide interesting insights while acknowledging the real limitations of available data.

    Recent noteworthy papers in this area include: “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square,” in the Journal of Communication; and “Blogs and Bullets II: New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring,” from the U.S. Institute of Peace. For useful background data in this space, also see the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s December report “Social Networking Popular Across Globe.”

A parting thought: Journalists interested in exploring this field further might consider following some of journals in the field, including Information, Communication and Society, New Media and Society, Journal of Information Technology and Politics, Political Communication, Policy and Internet, and First Monday.

POSTED     Dec. 20, 2012, 10 a.m.
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