Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hypo Time

A couple of days ago I blogged about social networking and people's perception of public opinion, and whether the former influences the latter. Skimming that blog may help this post make more sense (but no promises, it's me after all).

I've always been interested in people's perception of opinion. We tend to project our own opinions on the public at large. In other words, we tend to think others think the same way we do, what the social scientists sometimes call projection but based also on the fact we tend to hang out with people much like ourselves, thus skewing our perception of opinion for a broader public.

I've been wondering whether social networking, at being tied in to the mundane and profound thoughts of so many friends and quasi-friends, can influence our perceptions of opinion. Thus, I'm gonna toss out a few possible hypotheses over the next day or two.
Hypothesis 1: The greater the use of social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), the greater the likelihood one will perceive other people agreeing with your own opinion.

Huh? Wouldn't more information make you more accurate, not less so? I don't think so. First off, we tend to link to people like ourselves, even if they're only barely friends, so that should increase the likelihood we'll think the world agrees with us because that's all the opinions we see expressed. Our narrow little worlds make us a bit more likely to overestimate how many people agree with us, and I think social networking only accelerates, not moderates, this effect. I'd love to see this tested.
Hypothesis 2: Social networking posts include only poll information that favors a poster's point of view, not poll results that run counter to a poster's ideological or partisan position.
This one kinda makes more sense, or at least is not counter-intuitive. There are exceptions, the people who put on a Facebook news feed some poll that they think shows how dumb people are, but overall I expect to see confirmatory information, which in turn would lead to Hypothesis 1 being supported.
Hypothesis 3: Attempts to shift public opinion via social networking will ultimately fail.
Yeah, a crappily-worded hypothesis, but I'm short of time and didn't want to get all PhDweeb on it, but the above hypo in its various forms has significant meaning for people in politics, public relations, and even journalism. Basically I'm arguing, and need to explore this further, that social networking, even at its most viral, does little to nudge public opinion. It might move perceptions of opinion.

To me, Facebook is the big guy in this test. Twitter, less so. Too ephemeral, too silly, too confined. But Facebook with its updates and news feeds, that's a place ripe for examination by people interested in what moves public opinion, or moves perceptions of that opinion (to me a more interesting theoretical question).

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