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Social Media

After 11 years of 140-character tweets, Twitter decided to double this to 280 characters from November 2017.

Before rolling the change out to the general public, Twitter began trialing this “feature” with a select group of users (Watson 2017), though initial testing suggested that only 5 per cent of the group opted to use over 140 characters in their tweets (Newton 2017). And critics (e.g., Silver 2017) argue that this will drown out Twitter timelines, compromising the platform’s uniquely succinct form of social communication.

Our contemporary use of Twitter – in part a social, political, and economic information network – has evolved over more than a decade. So it may be some years before the impact of the 280-character expansion can be evaluated. Given that our behaviors on all social media platforms are interlinked, it may be that Twitter is answering a call for individuals to express themselves more fully, though in the context of these platforms more broadly, 280 characters is still relatively terse.

Ultimately, if Twitter continues to be viewed as a platform for bursts of communication rather than in-depth, fully formed dialogue, it is likely that the increased character count will not have a substantive change to the platform. Only time will tell if the increased character count impacts significantly on people’s use of Twitter.

Social media is heavily influenced by algorithms. For example, the Facebook feed algorithm, from what we know about it, is based on what you and your friends are liking, posting, and doing on the platform (and perhaps even ‘people like you’ that Facebook is data mining). Many social media algorithms are designed around homophily. And algorithms theoretically are value neutral. If someone consumes and produces criminal content, the algorithm will try to be helpful and guide the user to relevant criminal content. The algorithms are just following what they are programmed to do.  algorithms can equally encourage content around positive civic responsibility, if a user has displayed a preference in that direction.

To be critical about algorithms, we do have acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages of algorithm proliferation. For example, some algorithms are designed for safeguarding and this can be a real positive. There might be algorithmically-based filters for Internet searching or video delivery specific to kids for example. If a child has a profile on Netflix which is specifically set to Netflix’s child setting, then by the algorithm’s definition, they are not supposed to receive content that is age inappropriate. This tends to work in practice. Though, if content is inappropriately categorized, the algorithm would of course just follow its rule-based rubric instructions and would guide kids to inappropriate content as well. So humans are very much part of this process and if errors occur, then not having humans in the loop can partially be attributable to some of the issues of whether algorithms break down in these instances.

Ultimately, the algorithms driving social media are what are called ‘black box algorithms’. These can be defined as algorithms that are generally proprietary, and which are open-source. The algorithm is meant to be private in terms of its design and operation and documentation is not made publicly available, nor is data made available in terms of the decisions made by the algorithm. In this way, black box algorithms are also similar in that we can only infer particular aspects of the algorithm based on observing the algorithm’s behavior ‘in the wild’.

At cafes, bus stops, and other public places, I hear people lament about what they think is a rude behavior and that there are no manners in an age of social media. Etiquette has been enormously important to societies historically and not always for the right reasons (like marginalizing individuals or groups of people – especially ethnic and racial minorities). The sociologist Norbert Elias spent much of his book The civilizing process investigating etiquette and argued that the development of etiquette is part of a historical ‘process’. Using the ‘right’ fork was not a random thing. So too are practices of etiquette on social media.

 

Etiquette is a reflection of social norms, class, and other demographic factors. As such, it can divide people or create hierarchies. Some social processes were more elite in the past (like diary writing or eating in a restaurant). As social activities become more democratic, practices of etiquette can do so as well. Think of it this way: if someone drops food on the floor during a meal at home and then picks it up and eats it, only those there know about it; but if such behaviors are in tweets, Instagram photos, etc., the action has a much wider audience. For some, the five-second rule applies and for others, such behavior is repugnant. Again, these responses have a lot to do with our social, cultural, and economic background.

 

Thinking about etiquette can be relevant to understandings of social media production and consumption. Ultimately, etiquette is socially constructed and what is considered normal and acceptable varies based on a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors. And these normative constructions can shape social media habits – from deciding whether using social media apps during a date is acceptable to what types of positive and negative things we say about friends, family, and colleagues. Even whether we post a video of our kid comically falling down can partly be influenced by questions of etiquette. In addition, the acceptability of creeping or fake ‘catfish’ Facebook profiles also partly depends on social media etiquette. Certain perceived notions of what one is ‘expected’ to do in a situation or what is civilized – the latter drawing from eating etiquette for example – are important to reflect on. Though, like in history, etiquette is a contested space and has politics of inclusion and exclusion.

 

Ultimately, social media has made social interactions more public – what has traditionally been private has become increasingly public. In addition, social media lets us interact with much larger audiences. Neither is inherently good or bad, but a part of changes in social communication. I also do not think we have become less polite. Rather, the venom and vitriol we have always had throughout time and is very much one part of human nature now has a very public audience that we did not have before. Or, in other words, social media is not making us into this or that; we were already there…

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.

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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.

References:

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

A key domain in which Twitter is becoming important is in shaping the two-way relationship of television and social media. Specifically, live tweeting during television watching is shaping live media experiences in general. And, we are increasingly tweeting to the events of our lives (from news events to concerts). Twitter currently fills an important gap in social media which goes beyond information exchange to making entertainment and other events more socially experienced.

Dick Costolo has made clear that Twitter’s growth model is not focused on specific user growth targets, but rather is about building higher levels of engagement with the platform. What Twitter has is a global presence and household name recognition. But its problem is that perhaps the structure and form of the medium both put people off of joining or make it hard for them to be active. This has led to the trend of Twitter geeks who tweet often and don’t think twice about @-mentions. Your average person may just see the @ and shy away from a perceived wall of geek-based syntax. I think this last challenge is major, but one that is surmountable through creative, easy-to-use interfaces and other innovations and can lead to a new phase for Twitter and our engagements with it.

Television watching has always been a social process (e.g. a family gathering around the TV or colleagues at work talking about a show from the night before). However, the types of social interaction now possible with social media have changed how we watch TV. Specifically, new forms of ‘social TV viewing’ have produced conversations between TV watchers who are not geographically co-located and may or may not even be watching the TV show at the same time. This is a major change in the form and reach of the social side of TV watching.

Estimates have placed around 40% of evening tweets as television-related. Last year, Twitter Amplify, a TV ad targeting system was launched in the US. Twitter’s ad buy remains small in comparison to Facebook, but Amplify and similar products may provide new ways to market video advertising and, importantly, data analytics regarding engagement with a brand’s TV ads. The success of this is partially premised on the fact that users tweeting about a TV show are assumed to have watched the TV program the ad ran against. There are, of course, some limitations with this approach. However, an ad by Heineken during the US open men’s finals in September 2013 was promoted via Amplify and saw about 18,000 views, retweets, and comments. I think there is definitely potential for Twitter to better these relatively new products and further capitalize on social TV viewing, especially as it expands its social TV products outside of US markets.

Twitter’s social TV products like Amplify are still very young (Amplify was launched last year). Amplify is completely oriented to just the US market right now. However, social television watching has become a global trend. So, Twitter has totally new ad markets to tap into. Additionally, user engagement in terms of social TV watching is still very simple and organized around noisy hashtag-oriented engagement which is not always easy from a smart phone or tablet.

I think creative aggregation tools to distill the complex discourses emerging from social TV (and beyond) are completely lacking and Twitter has this and many other potential product avenues to not only spread its market reach, but greatly increase its user engagement (both of which affect revenue and profits). After all, Twitter is (currently) cash rich and could spend some real effort on helping users navigate through the sometimes tidal deluge that is a Twitter timeline.

I am not arguing that Twitter can or will deliver a mass audience on the scale of Facebook. Indeed, I think Twitter’s real promise is in distinction to Facebook in the sense of being a tool for public discourse rather than the more bounded friend networks of Facebook (which also have value of course). In my opinion, Twitter’s success is dependent on not deviating from its attractiveness to users, but creatively taking on user experience challenges.

I think our current experience of social television watching via Twitter is quite primitive. I think users want to spend more time on Twitter and further interact with not just television, but media content more generally. For example, I think people want a more immersive social TV experience which includes the ability to watch content within Twitter and tweet in reference to a particular scene (or even drawing a circle around a part of the frame) and this rich context is embedded within the tweet. Users want to engage at these more sophisticated levels and Twitter just doesn’t have the power to do this yet. In terms of ads, these much higher levels of detail could lead to much more relevant ad delivery (like pushing information about the Nike Air Jordan XX9 if an actor is wearing the shoe and it has been tagged in a tweet). More advanced machine-learning driven data backends could enrich this process even further.

Importantly, these features could also play a role in bettering Twitter’s role in global civil society and keep Twitter in the public limelight for years to come. Visual interfaces don’t just have utility for social TV watching but could be used in social activism and disaster recovery for example.

Parts of this article were published as part of a moderated debate in The Wall Street Journal.