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July 29, 2013, 10:43 a.m.

What’s New in Digital Scholarship: Tracking SOPA, when filter bubbles aren’t bubbles, and the uses of incivility

The impact of paywalls, seeing a city through Instagram, and old vs. new media in the Arab Spring: all that and more in this month’s roundup of the academic literature.

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — 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. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

This summer edition of What’s New In Digital Scholarship has a few insights on some sizzling (and very wonky) questions: Are paywalls worth it? What’s the cosmic meaning of the SOPA-PIPA debate? What do we learn by visualizing millions of Instagram users? How filter-y are search engine filter bubbles, really? And did the early reporting on the Arab Spring miss the boat on social media? That and more among these half-dozen selected studies:

“Newspaper paywalls — the hype and the reality: A study of how paid news content impacts on media corporation revenues”: Study from Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, published in Digital Journalism. By Merja Myllylahti.

The researcher looks at the available data on outlets around the globe, including The New York Times, the Financial Times, The Times and The Sunday Times (U.K.), The Australian, and various outlets in New Zealand, Finland, and central Europe. The study is constrained, perhaps even hampered, by the fact that media outlets do not necessarily disclose full information about their online operations and revenue flows.

In any case, the researcher adds to the heated debate over paywalls by drawing the following conclusions: “It can be argued that online news paywalls create additional income for news corporations, but at the current revenue levels they do not offer a viable business model in the short term. Some newspapers have started to lower prices for their online news content and to offer discounted packages in order to enhance their subscription numbers, but in the short term this is most likely to erode their digital revenues.”

Over this relatively small sample, the study estimates, online subscriptions account for about 10 percent of publishing/circulation revenue. But even this figure is threatened by “softening” paywalls and decreasing subscription prices. Although the findings of the paper are only “provisional,” the researcher notes, the broader potential downsides of paywalls are given heavy emphasis.

“Interactions of News Frames and Incivility in the Political Blogosphere: Examining Perceptual Outcomes”: Study from Washington State University, published in the Political Communication. By Porismita Borah.

The research literature on media credibility and how incivility, online outrage and media polarization affect the public is all still evolving. How does the tone, presentation, style, words, associated images, and other attributes of stories — what scholars call “framing” — affect perceptions of truth? In a digital world of sharp-elbowed trolls, what are the signifiers of credibility for the average consumer? One would hope that calm, reasoned, civil discourse around news issues would engender the greatest degree of credibility. But this may not be so.

This study analyzes web survey results from about 240 college students who were asked to respond to stories around gay rights issues; in some instances, they first read a civil or uncivil blogger commentary. The researcher juggled a couple of different other variables. Some stories had a “strategy” frame — they focused on the performance and style of people involved — while others had a “value” frame, whereby the story focused on the clash of basic worldviews and beliefs. Ultimately, the study concludes that “uncivil blogger commentary increased the credibility of the news article” in cases where the content of the news story highlighted a clash of fundamental values. Although uncivil commentary can decrease trust in government and a reader’s sense of their power within politics, the researcher finds, it nevertheless increases credibility for news framed a certain way. Incivility, it seems, has its uses, even if they don’t necessarily serve the interests of informed, deliberative democracy.

“Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate”: Study from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. By Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts, Rob Faris, Alicia Solow-Niederman, and Bruce Etling.

Did the SOPA-PIPA controversy illustrate a new world at work? Or was it a unique case? This study uses new digital mapping tools from the Media Cloud project (jointly run with MIT’s Center for Civic Media) to examine news coverage of the debate surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and companion bill PIPA, from 2010 to 2012. The research findings validate Internet scholar and philosopher Yochai Benkler’s well-known views on the networked public sphere and “networked fourth estate.” A tiny coterie of “small-scale commercial tech media, standing non-media NGOs, and individuals” managed to spotlight the issue, wake the mainstream media from their dogmatic slumbers and ultimately raise enough hell to thwart the bill.

A close look at the information flows over time shows certain subtleties that highlight how smaller actors played outsized roles at certain points: “A major node like Wikipedia may be secondary, while an otherwise minor node, such as the blog of a law professor commenting on an amendment or a technical paper on DNS security, may be more important. The dynamic nature of attention in controversies over time means that prior claims regarding a re-concentration of the ability to shape discourse miss vital fluctuations in influence and visibility…Fluctuations in attention given progressive development of arguments and frames over time allow for greater diversity of opportunity to participate in setting and changing the agenda early in the debate compared to the prevailing understanding of the power law structure of attention in digital media.”

In the ongoing debate over the relative power of Internet activism, SOPA-PIPA furnishes an “optimistic” story. Overall, the data lend “support to the feasibility of effective online mobilization providing sufficiently targeted action to achieve real political results.” However, the researchers concede that SOPA-PIPA activism could be a kind of one-off, not to be repeated on issues relating to other public policy realms. “Perhaps the high engagement of young, net-savvy individuals,” they write, “is only available for the politics of technology…”

“Zooming into an Instagram City: Reading the local through social media”: Study from CUNY and the University of Pittsburgh, published in First Monday. By Nadav Hochman and Lev Manovich.

The researchers produce fantastic, path-breaking visualizations of the way Instagram users are engaging with the photo-sharing application; they examine a sample of more than 2 million photos across 13 cities, slicing it in various ways. They take a textured, subtle approach — one more “humanities”-driven than some more “scientific” Big Data empirical examinations of patterns — to derive meaning from the data. They call it “multi-scale reading”: Looking at data at different levels, from different angles. It’s the technique of examining photo metadata and content in creative ways that can help tell more interesting stories about the people who engage in social photo-sharing: “This ability to visualize photographic content at multiple scales allows us to start asking questions such as: How can we compare millions of photos taken in London, Bangkok, and Tel Aviv in such a way that cultural differences between these cities can be revealed?” Prose fails to do justice to their results.

No earlybird-Nashville-sepia-valencia-retro-vintage-distressed-really-cool-yellow-light-1977 photo filters are necessary here. And the super-cool visualizations in the study — on display in greater detail at — are all the more interesting for it.

“Connecting in Crisis: ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Media and the Arab Spring”: From Stockholm University, published in The International Journal of Press/Politics. By Alexa Robertson.

This study compares the approaches of Al Jazeera English, Russia Today, CNN International, and BBC World News in their coverage of the Arab Spring events. The researcher reviewed a representative sample of 71 hours of airtime in January 2011; she is particularly interested in how social media are represented and connections between people “on the ground” and media members filtering and reporting from afar. The study critiques the broadcast outlets in many ways for failing to capitalize on the available user-generated material and the new, networked media dynamics at play: “In the first tumultuous weeks of the ‘Facebook Revolution,’ less use was made of crowdsourced material and less attention was paid to the role of social media in global television news than is often suggested. On average, news items drawing on user-generated content amounted to less than 4 percent of all items and social media were part of less than 2 percent of all news stories.”

However, Al Jazeera English “outclassed the others in terms of the absolute number of reports it aired that drew on user-generated content or focused on the role of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or the Internet in general in these events.” It presents a case study of mainstream media gatekeeping and filtering, and the various growing pains global news outlets are facing in a world of mobile device-wielding protestors who each represent their own broadcast outlet.

“Searching the Web for conflicting topics: Page and user factors”: Study from University of Valencia and University of Seville (Spain) and Knowledge Media Research Center (Germany), published in Computers in Human Behavior. By Ladislao Salmerón, Yvonne Kammerer, and Pilar García-Carrión.

Adding to the vast literature now accumulating on the topic of information-seeking on the web — particularly relating to youth and the habits of the “Google generation” — this study analyzes how young people try to resolve conflicting information and how search results presentation affects how they operate and what they conclude. Of course, the top results heavily influence where people click and ultimately what they deem relevant and credible — a phenomenon scholars call the “top link” heuristic. In this way, search algorithms are like rail tracks — or to mix the metaphor with a more famous one, a “filter bubble” — guiding pathways to knowledge and allowing for cognitive shortcuts. But that is not the end of the story, it turns out.

The researchers asked 67 undergraduate students to review search engine results pages that had been manipulated to run in different orders and to bookmark pages for later evaluation; they were asked about greenhouse gas emission and climate change — a topic obviously requiring them to reconcile conflicting information. The findings “reveal that the participants employed a ‘top link’ heuristic while searching Web pages for a conflicting socio-scientific topic, but that they engaged in more systematic processing to assess the topic relevance and trustworthiness of Web pages when deciding which information to bookmark for later study.” This suggests that navigation patterns and actual use of knowledge are not the same thing — and they shouldn’t be confused in our understanding of search. “Conclusions based only on navigation data could result in misleading views,” the researchers state. The study also discusses how students’ prior knowledge influences their behavior and suggests some educational applications of the findings for instructors teaching online research.

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 29, 2013, 10:43 a.m.
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