Social media, Activism, and Organizations 2015 (#SMAO15) brought together a large, international audience from a variety of disciplines. As founding chair, I was thrilled to receive such a strong set of submissions, which made for an exciting day of talks. #SMAO15 was fortunate to have plenary talks by Jen SchradiePaul LevyAlison Powell, Natalie Fenton, and David Karpf. Our keynote talk was by Jennifer Earl. It was a pleasure to also host the launch of Veronica Barassi’s book, Activism on the Web.

Papers at #SMAO15 not only advanced our understandings of contemporary uses of social media use in social movements, but also the many ways in which we can critically reflect on their potential and limitations. Importantly, organizational communication perspectives were central to #SMAO15 and the contributions made give scholars in this interdisciplinary area much to think about. Questions around social media in formal and informal movement organizations were explored from a variety of methodological perspectives, including social network analysis, ethnography, surveys, participant observation and big data analytics. Papers covered regional case studies in Europe, North America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In addition, #SMAO15 brought together practitioners, artists, and scholars. This unique constituency of attendees yielded new perspectives and approaches to studying social media, activism, and organizations.

twitter network_sna

Over 1000 tweets were posted during the event and you can virtually (re)attend via the #smao15 Twitter archive or network visualization/analytics. As you can see from the network graph above, #smao15 tweets exhibit a focused density.

The question of whether social media are addictive is becoming asked more and more. These discourses are generally framed by observations that people seem to ‘always’ be on social media. The addiction card is particularly used in reference to young people. Though the negotiation by young people of social and mobile media spaces presents many challenges, addiction to social media is like most addictions an exception rather than a rule. On the one hand, there are parents who worry and want to exert more control or protection of their kids’ use of mediated communication. However, paternalism and protectionism pose real negative effects for teens as these behaviors can inhibit their engagement with the world (boyd, 2014) − not only with co-located peers, but people, groups and ideas near or far to them. That being said, coming of age in a world of smartphones and social media does present many challenges.

We need to be careful with employing the language of addiction. Specifically, has the person built up ‘tolerance’ to social media wherein they require increasing exposure to it and have social media become the most important aspects of a person’s life (what psychologists call salience’) (Griffiths, 2000)? Are their physical ’withdrawal’ symptoms? Clearly, very few young people fall into social media addiction and I find that invocations of addiction often obscure the social media debate.

For most young people, social media provide new ways of information seeking, new forms of sociability and generally augment their social lives (DeAndrea, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfield, & Fiore, 2012). There are specific ‘uses and gratifications’ (Rubin, 2002) that social media afford well and moral panics around social media addiction reduce the complexity of social media use to statistics of smartphone ownership or hours of screen time. Remember, young people have often been early adopters or ‘obsessive’ about technology − from the advent of the telephone to the Walkman. That hardly makes them addicted. It just makes them young people who are drawn to technologies they perceive as cool. And parents then complained about overuse of these technologies and some previously Walkman-toting parents may not have fallen far from the tree.

Indeed, they may be walking down the street listening to music and emailing colleagues at work. But, that’s just extreme productivity, right? Young people seem to be painted with a different brush in moral panic portraits. And these artists might want to be more reflexive when it comes to their own technology use.



boyd, Danah. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens: Yale University Press.

DeAndrea, David C, Ellison, Nicole B, LaRose, Robert, Steinfield, Charles, & Fiore, Andrew. (2012). Serious social media: On the use of social media for improving students’ adjustment to college. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 15-23.

Griffiths, Mark. (2000). Does Internet and computer” addiction” exist? Some case study evidence. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3(2), 211-218.

Rubin, Alan M. (2002). The uses-and-gratifications perspective of media effects.


A version of this post has been published with The Huffington Post

Social media is all about user generated content (UGC). We often forget that social media companies are multibillion-dollar industries that are ultimately dependent on the content we – every day people -create. Their cyberinfrastructure is not enough by itself to hold inherent value for a social media platform. Rather, the value is maintained and grown via larger and larger amounts of user generated content. Indeed, what is often overlooked is that it is not just the increased volume of content, but it is also that we are increasingly tagging and associating this content, which makes for a certain level of stickiness (Jenkins et al.) within social media platforms. Social media platforms themselves are built to elicit content. For example, emails from Facebook saying so-and-so like this or posted this seduce/tantalize us to produce and consume content on Facebook. But, from the vantage point of social media companies and potentially us, sharing should be seamless – indeed it should almost feel ‘natural’. The notion of frictionless sharing is based on a difficult ontology that places primacy on the ‘shared self” rather than a private self. The shared self sees a social value in sharing. Some see the social function of sharing as akin to forms of social grooming when we share with others, but we also want social feedback in return. However, a perceived issue with social media is that not all of your photos, post, etc. will receive a response so the perception is that the more content one produces and shares, the more one is likely to get a social response (e.g. a like, comment, etc.).

So I ask you readers:

  • What exactly can we ‘frictionlessly’ share? [Feel free to provide examples and links]
  • How do these affect notions of the public and private?
  • Do these technologies make us more pro-social or do they inhibit sharing?

A brief review of:  Hampton, K.N., Rainie, L., Lu, W., Shin, I., & Purcell, K. (2014). “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC.

Hampton et al.’s (2014) Pew-sponsored survey explores the question of social media and stress levels and concludes that users of social media may experience elevated levels of stress as they become more aware of the stresses in other people’s lives – what they term ‘the cost of caring’. Their findings are consistent with academic social media literature. In my book, for example, I argue that social media, for some, functions as a social awareness system. We are kept aware of everything from the banal to the profound in terms of people we are close with as well as distant relations. There is reciprocity in this too as we share and update others of our life’s happenings. This awareness and sharing can have positive impacts on our psychosocial lives. Specifically, if we – in our very busy and increasingly individualized lives – become more social via social media, this could reduce our stress levels as sharing and more communal behaviors have historically been tied to better mental health. Moreover, social media may make some feel more connected (which has been found particularly true in rural settings for example). The sociologist Emile Durkheim found loneliness and social isolation to be major contributors to suicide rates. If social media is found by users to help their sociability, this could have real benefits to their social lives. However, if social media makes people feel more isolated or affects their self confidence, this could have negative effects. But, we have to remember there were similar debates with the telephone for example.


I agree with Hampton et al. that there is a common perception that social media users are gadget addicted stressed out people. There are of course individuals in this camp but they generally represent the exception rather than the rule. Rather, many laugh as they see pictures of new babies in the family on social media. Others share about what they are eating or what movie they just watched. Again, rather than stress inducing these forms of social communication can be stress reducing for some.


The cost of caring argument is interesting and it is understandable that as people become aware of, for example, deaths of more distant school friends that they would not have known about without social media, they may experience additional stress due to social media use.  My work on cancer patients for example has found that social media use can be very positive in connecting cancer patients. Increased social awareness can of course be double edged too.

After the horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed, many have turned to social media to express their feelings, show solidarity with the attack’s victims, or to produce/consume information regarding the attack. The emergence of #JeSuisCharlie on social media and the chanting of it at rallies around the world indicates how central social media has been as a public outlet during this crisis. Indeed, #JeSuisCharlie speaks to the larger point that crisis hashtags are built around a notion of ‘event society’ where social media activity can become part of a public sphere that rallies around events such as crises. However, though we consume and produce social media content in times of crisis, we often do not step back to reflect on our motivations for doing so nor do we question whether social media spaces bring us together or polarize us.

Individuals use social media in times of crisis for several reasons. In my work on Twitter use during Hurricane Sandy, I found that some users turn to social media as a form of ‘self therapy’, an outlet to communicate their anxieties or stresses during a crisis and to receive direct or indirect support. Individuals also turn to social media to produce and consume memes and other humorous content; this can also be a form of self therapy. Though one would not expect humor to be present in #JeSuisCharlie, it is. In homage to the cartoonists who were killed in the attack, some of the images within the hashtag use humor to both cope as well as attack the motives and means of the terrorists. For example, there are numerous cartoons that have been retweeted, which show masked terrorists being attacked by showers of pencils and pens or a gunman shooting a fountain pen and ink spilling out. Some of the most retweeted images include a pencil shoved into a machine gun and a pencil being attacked and then attacking a gunman after being sharpened.




Social media – especially Twitter – is used by many as source of information. Important news stories are retweeted and friends and followers engage in social bookmarking or other means to suggest important sources of information. Social media is well known for being timely in terms of information dissemination during crises. This has also been the case with Charlie Hebdo. Citizen journalists use social media to report on what is happening on the ground. Often citizen journalists can be closer to the epicenter of a crisis. For example, eyewitness accounts outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices were being tweeted as the events unfolded and the opinions of Parisians were being retweeted right away. Though, like in any crisis, because much of this information is produced by non-professional journalists, social media has and continues to be plagued by issues of information integrity. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, factually inaccurate accounts in terms of the number of dead or number of gunmen were widely circulating on social media.

Social media is also used to check how friends and family are faring during the crises and many platforms including Facebook and Twitter afford us the ability to keep tabs on large circles of friends, family members, and colleagues during crises. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, social media was being used to both collectively express solidarity as well as for Parisians to talk to each other as small and large groups about what happened and how they were feeling.

In following #JeSuisCharlie, it remains clear that we have to remember that trending topics by definition trend because they are popular. As such, they are also attractive targets for anyone who wants a soapbox. Because of the usually open nature of social media, hijacking is possible (whether through bots or masses of supporters). Companies have also tried to sell products via popular hashtags during times of crises – usually in poor taste. Extremists have also had success in inserting themselves into trending topics. Pro-ISIS supporters, for example, have made social media a central aspect of their recruitment and propaganda machine. In the case of #JeSuisCharlie, supporters of the gunmen also emerged. In my book, I argue that the openness of social media makes it able to be used by any side (including extremists, spammers and trolls). In this sense social media like all communication media is value neutral. This can have real consequences on civil society as people increasingly turn to social media as a community space to interact publicly.

This can lead to a certain divisiveness on social media. What often happens in social media and more broadly online are processes of polarization that can often privilege certain positions. Additionally, certain individuals and groups have more social media savvy/knowledge and are able to better leverage the platforms to get their points across. This can result in floods of retweets or mentions where polarized sides and up preaching to the choir and not talking to each other. This is not exclusive to crisis communication, but is a broader trend on Twitter and other social media. Sadly, this polarization does not advance collective dialogues during times of crisis.

Ultimately, we may be tempted to view #JeSuisCharlie as a peripheral part of the Charlie Hebdo crisis. However, social media plays an important role in shaping public perceptions of crises. This is particularly true when celebrities, politicians, and social media ‘influencers’ direct or spark conversations, chatter, or the circulation of information. Often just a handful of tweets are what are most read and responded to during crises. For example in the recent shooting at Florida State University in the US, a tweet about a shooting victim whose life was saved by a bullet hitting a stack of library books in his backpack generated the most discussion on Twitter and was highly influential in shaping social media discussions. In the case of Charle Hebdo, the same is true with next week’s cover of the New Yorker the most retweeted and commented on image and tweets by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Stephen Fry the most retweeted and commented on. Even though social media contains a deluge of content during crises, certain themes can and do shape public opinion during crises.

The study of social media has great promise, but we always need to understand its limitations. This sounds rather basic, but it is often not reflexively thought about. Though social media is not as shiny as it was several years ago, the zeitgeist still persists and it often clouds our ability to frame what it is exactly that we are doing with all the social data we have access to.[1] Specifically, if we use Twitter data, it is not enough to just leave research at the level of frequency counts (top hashtags, top retweets, most engaged with comments, etc.). David De Roure [2] warns that this type analysis of social media misses the social aspects of web technologies. Ultimately, social media spaces are sociotechnical systems and the social that is (re)produced – like face-to-face communication – is highly nuanced. I think that it is fundamentally important for researchers of social media data across the disciplines to think critically beyond the literal results of brute force machine learning. Rather, this is an opportunity for us to ask large and important social questions. My point is epistemological in that I think it is important for our results to contribute to our understanding of these social questions. This is not to say that quantitative methods such as natural language processing, n-grams (and other co-occurrence methods), and various descriptive statistics are not important to the study of social media. But, rather, they are often the starting or mid point of a research project. In my work, Big Data analytical models provide a great way to get a birds-eye view of social media data. However, they cannot answer social questions as such. However, these methods are valuable to, for example, grounded theory approaches, which can help produce valuable research questions or social insights. Additionally, the mixing of methods this encourages is exciting as it provides opportunities for us to innovate new research methods rather than trying to fit traditional research methods (though doing this is valuable of course too).

[1] Ramesh Jain in his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop puts this as data being everywhere and that we have access to billions of data streams.

[2] In his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop (December 8th, 2014)

“Most mass-entertainments are in the end what D.H. Lawrence described as ‘anti-life’. […] These productions belong to a vicarious, spectators’ world; they offer nothing which can really grip the brain or heart. They assist a gradual drying up of the more positive, the fuller, the more cooperative kinds of enjoyment, in which one gains much by giving much.” – Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy

A major argument of Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy is that mass media often let down the masses. Rather than bringing knowledge, they “belong to a vicarious, spectators’ world”. In collecting my thoughts for a Hoggart panel at Goldsmiths, University of London, I wondered whether Hoggart would see Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as “anti-life”? Are tweets egocentric and bombastic? Are Facebook posts self-important and overblown? Social media is unique in its interactivity and global reach. Re-reading Hoggart, I wanted to explore how social media challenges Hoggart’s binary between the brain-gripping and cooperative as social media can be both ‘mass entertainment’ and a ‘cooperative kind of enjoyment’ that also may produce new forms of democratic knowledge? Social media literacy may also be giving us new forms of knowledge production and consumption.

Hoggart argued, “It is not easy to find a decent platform without becoming occasionally priggish and portentous. But the present situation offers few grounds for satisfaction.” One could argue Hoggart’s words are just as true for social media today. The Goffmanian “front stage” aspect of tweets often bring out the priggish, though less the portentous. Social media places a temporal priority on the absolute present, which often tends to be egocentric and the self-presentation aspect of it often encourages inflated self-presentation. However, the fascinating thing about social media is they need not. They can quickly disseminate information and knowledge on everything from pandemics to disasters and can rally people to participate in social movements.

This interactivity is important. However, much of social media is not interactive. We often consume YouTube videos without commenting or sharing or posting response videos. In this sense, Hoggart would likely argue that “Charlie bit my finger”, “The Gummy Bear Song” and “Gangnam Style” are what he calls a “hypnosis of immature emotional satisfactions.”

One of the interesting aspects of Twitter I highlight in my book is it is uniquely simultaneously “banal” and “profound”. Hoggart would argue that these are not “serious” media. But, mass social media platforms such as YouTube host new forms of knowledge dissemination ranging from TED Talks to statistics professors explaining ANOVA.

Bringing this back to The Uses of Literacy, if library checkouts are not increasing (Hoggart uses this metric), is the production and consumption of social media (especially article sharing) increasing literacy? The whole notion of peer pressure to read what is circulated in one’s network adds new ways of seeing how the social operates in terms of literacy (especially through the ability to engage in comment-based dialogue with peers about that article in social media – i.e. a thread of Facebook posts and even linked videos – a truly multimedia literary engagement!)

Also, the consumption of knowledge articulated in a social media-friendly form (from infographics to YouTube videos) can cross class (a topic Hoggart is of course deeply interested in). These social media constitute new forms of literacy. TED Talks, for example, according to Alexa statistics are more viewed by women and are viewed at significant levels by viewers with no college education (though viewers with postgraduate degrees are far more likely to consume TED Talks).

As Stuart Hall notes, Hoggart saw culture “as the practices of making sense”. I think that rather than being “a vicarious, spectators’ world”, social media presents new opportunities to make sense of the social as well as for literacy: learning about different world views and reading things one would not normally come into contact with. Also, we increasingly interact with our peers on social media when they share articles on our feeds or profiles. Though a grave warning of Hoggart’s still very much applies to literacy and social media. The commercialization of mass media is just as much relevant to social media today as it was to Hoggart in 1957. Though not an “affluent debate” like it was in Hoggart’s time of writing, commercialization has a real impact on social communication on social media. Promoted tweets, targeted ads, and the infamous Facebook mood experiment all signal how knowledge production and consumption on almost all social media remain mediated by commercialization. Though not a vicarious, spectators’ world, social media remain subject to larger corporatizing media forces which have been longstanding.

A recent application of Big Data which has become understandably controversial is the Facebook experiment, where Facebook data scientists manipulated the feed content of selected users to include only positive or negative feed content. I have previously written about this.

The Guardian’s exposé on the U.S State Department’s PRISM project—which collects data from large technology companies— clearly highlighted the footprint users leave behind when utilizing the Internet. While this particular scenario represents a more extreme and some would argue unethical application of Big Data Technologies, the Facebook experiment reminded many of us why we spoke out about data privacy and PRISM. While many Internet users are aware of the trace data created via online interactions, the power and potential of this information when collected, aggregated, and analyzed is enormous and often easy to forget. The Facebook experiment speaks to the capability for nongovernmental entities such as corporations to easily access information that was previously not available nor analyzable. This type of information, paired with the right technology, can lend a unique glance into a person’s life and ultimately lead to more advanced insights directed towards a person’s interests, hobbies, activities, work, and more. This can be a welcome development in some contexts (e.g. those who opt into health behavior change interventions to quit smoking or lose weight).

However, most of the time, online footprint data (derived from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook) are used to facilitate personalized and targeted advertising (Silberstein, et al. 2011) at best and hyper-surveillance at worst. Some do not have a problem with this use of personal data (as a trade-off for ‘free’ services such as Facebook). Others, see the Facebook experiment as yet one more reason to either minimize their use on the dominant social networking site or quit altogether.


Silberstein, A., Machanavajjhala, A. and Ramakrishnan, R. 2011 ‘Feed following: the big data challenge in social applications’ Databases and Social Networks: ACM.

The Facebook Psychology ‘experiment’ which manipulated the emotional content of nearly 700,000 users provides evidence that corporations need to have review procedures in terms of ethics that universities of been developing for some years surrounding social media research. In a university context, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are responsible for monitoring the ethics of any research conducted at the University. The US government’s Department of Health and Human Services publishes very detailed guidance for human subjects research. Section 2(a) of their IRB guidelines states that “for the IRB to approve research […] criteria include, among other things […] risks, potential benefits, informed consent, and safeguards for human subjects”. Most IRB’s take this mission quite seriously and err on the side of caution as people’s welfare is at stake.

The reason for this is simply to protect human subjects. Indeed, part of IRB reviews also evaluate whether particularly vulnerable populations (e.g. minors, people with mental/physical disabilities, women who are pregnant, and various other groups depending on context) are not additionally harmed due to research conducted. Animal research protocols follow similar logics. Before University researchers conduct social research, the ethical implications of the research are broadly evaluated within ethics and other criteria. If any human subject is participating in a social experiment or any social research, most studies either require signed informed consent or a similar protocol which informs participants of any risks associated with the research and allows them the option to opt out if they do not agree with the risks or any other parameters of the research.

Therefore, I was tremendously saddened to read the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper co-authored by Facebook data scientist Adam D. I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory of University of California, San Francisco and Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University titled ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’. The authors of this study argue that agreement to Facebook’s ‘Data Use Policy’ constitutes informed consent (p. 8789). The paper uses a Big Data (or in their words ‘massive’) perspective to evaluate emotional behavior on Facebook (of 689,003 users). Specifically, the authors designed an experiment with a control and experimental group in which they manipulated the emotional sentiment of content in a selection of Facebook users’ feeds to omit positive and negative text content. Their conclusion was that the presence of positive emotion in feed content encouraged the user to post more positive emotional content. They also found that the presence of negative emotion in feed content encouraged the production of negative content (hence the disease metaphor of contagion). In my opinion, any potential scientific value of these findings (despite how valuable they may be) is outweighed by gross ethical negligence.

This experiment should have never gone ahead. Why? Because manipulating people’s emotional behavior ALWAYS involves risks. Or as Walden succinctly put it ‘Facebook intentionally made thousands upon thousands of people sad.’

In some cases, emotional interventions may be thought to be justifiable by participants. But, it is potential research subjects who should (via informed consent) make that decision. Without informed consent, a researcher is playing God. And the consequences are steep. In the case of the Facebook experiment, hundreds of thousands of users were subjected to negative content in their feeds. We do not know if suicidal users were part of the experimental group or individuals with severe depression, eating disorders, or conditions of self-harm. We will never know what harm this experiment did (which could have even lead to a spectrum of harm from low-level malaise to suicide). Some users had a higher percentage of positive/negative content omitted (between 10%-90% according to Kramer and his authors. Importantly, some users had up to 90% of positive content stripped out of their feeds, which is significant. And users stripped of negative content can argue social engineering.

To conduct a psychological experiment that is properly scientific, ethics needs to be central. And this is truly not the case here. Facebook and its academic co-authors have conducted bad science and give the field of data science a bad name. PNAS is a respected journal and anyone submitting should have complied with accepted ethical guidelines regardless of the fact that Facebook is not an academic institution. Additionally, two of the authors are at academic institutions and, as such, have professional ethical standards to adhere to. In the case of the lead author from Facebook, the company’s Data Use Policy has been used as a shockingly poor proxy for a full human subjects review with informed consent. What is particularly upsetting is that this was an experiment that probably did real harm. Some have argued that at least Facebook published their experiment while other companies are ultra-secretive. Rather than praising Facebook for this, such experiments cast light on the major ethical issues behind corporate research of our online data and our need to bring these debates into the public sphere.