Monday, June 27, 2011

The Power of Social Influence

As I teach a graduate class on social media this summer, I've skimmed or read deeply a large body of work on the effects of Twitter, Facebook, etc., on our social and political perceptions -- deciding whether to include them or not in class.  Today we're discussing a couple of studies that suggest a dramatic shift is taking place in how people organize their news consumption habits and the consequences on what stories they consume. 

One interesting point is this -- that picking your news by partisan predispositions (conservatives to Fox, liberals to MSNBC, and so on) is being shattered by social media.  A set of experiments shows that, instead, individual recommendations outweigh source preference.  In other words, if I'm conservative and I love Fox News, that's all well and good, but a recommendation from a "friend" via social media will trump that preference.

Given we tend to selectively expose ourselves to likeminded others -- people hang out with people like themselves -- this trumping of news source by friend recommendation may not mean so very much.  Or it may mean everything.  It's too early to tell, but it raises some interesting questions as we watch the media audience fragment along partisan lines.  Perhaps personal recommendations is a way to bring the news consumption universe back into order.  Or perhaps it'll make things worse.  Again, it's too early to tell, but my gut says a growing reliance on friend recommendations will only increase the likelihood we consume news that tells us what we want to hear.  And that's the bad news of the day.


bethany said...

A possible mitigating factor is the loose definition of "friend" on social media. I might not spend a lot of time with family members or high school classmates who are politically different from me, but I still am facebook friends with them.
On the other hand, bringing up obnoxious political positions all the time is a surefire way to get unfriended, so maybe not.

Hollander said...

For fun, toggle between your FB "news feed" and "most recent" tabs (middle column, top right).

The way FB works, some folks drift out of your news feed based on how often you click on their links or comment on their own posts. What we kinda know now is people click less often on links to sources they don't like, or "friends" who they politically disagree with. So those folks disappear out of our "news feed" and find themselves in the FB ghetto of our "most recent."

And for more fun, do a like or a comment on one of your "most recent" ghetto friends and watch how, next time you log on, they're reappeared in your "news feed."

Yeah ... I need to get out more.