Understanding Information Flows: the True Power of Social Media

With all the excitement about Tunisia and the numerous debates on whether this was/is another “Twitter Revolution”, it was the perfect time to dig into Clay Shirky’s recently published piece ‘The Political Power of Social Media’ in the Journal for Foreign Affairs. I actually like the journal and usually buy a copy, but sadly there’s no existing text online, which means, the article is not part of the current debate (a shame!). Many agree that the revolution in Tunisia did not happen because of Twitter, nor did Twitter *actually* help much for those fighting in the streets of Tunis. While social media play an important role in easing the flow of information during and after the peak of events, Clay argues that there’s an important and usually overseen long-term effect that Social Media has in strengthening public spheres.

In the article, Shirky claims that the US government overestimates the value of access to information, particularly that hosted in the west, and underestimates the value of tools for local coordination. There’s a need to think of social media as long term tools that can strengthen civil society, and thus the public sphere. Clay argues that a strong public sphere plays a crucial role in social change. For example, communication tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. They played a supporting role in social change by strengthening the public sphere. It is imperative for the US to rely on countries’ economic incentives to allow widespread media use. It should work for conditions that appeal to states’ self-interest rather than the contentious virtue of freedom, a way to create or strengthen countries’ public spheres.

Clay describes a fascinating study of political opinion by sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld:

in a study of political opinion after the 1948 US presidential elections, sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld discovered that mass media alone do not change people’s minds; instead there is a two-step process. Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well – it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.

The fascinating thing about Twitter, is that for the first time, we are able to actually SEE some of these psychologically triggered processes happen. We see the described first step happen all the time: media outlets and corporations tend to broadcast messages using their accounts. These messages may or may not be picked up by the general audience who follows their accounts. But the second step is where things get really interesting. Posts may be picked up and echoed by friends, family members and colleagues, sometimes bounced around so much that the messages turn “viral”.

This second step, the social flow of ideas and opinions between people based on realtime public data is at the crux of an emerging new field that fuses machine learning and statistics with the social sciences. Access to information is important, but understanding information flows is truly powerful in order to do in-depth analyses of people’s behavior and create systems that are smarter and substantially more effective. Clay talks about a notion of ‘shared awareness’ – people who are part of intertwined networks, posting and consuming each other’s information. Shared awareness binds and strengthens groups, helping millions who are not part of any hierarchical organization spread messages and reach a common understanding. Understanding how people are inter-connected not only helps us build better systems, but also helps us get a sense for the strength of a country’s public sphere.

As the web continues to evolve into a dense network of social links, we need to focus on getting a better understanding of networked information flow. Additionally we must build tools that will help us slice and dice massive social graphs of nodes and edges. Whether a breaking news story, social coupon or a TV show, information flows are the underlying force powering the web, and affecting the DNA of our society. I am certain that making sense of them will bring huge rewards.

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