— Nina Mehta

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Twitter did not go to Tunisia and tell people to revolt. Last September I asked about power in the information age. Who has it? And what is it? If we can get access to nearly all common and not-so-common knowledge, instantly, is knowledge power? Indulge with me for a moment, and let’s say no, knowledge is no longer power. Then is our network the power?

Someone who is connected to a listening audience, who is connected to a listening audience, who is connected to a listening audience is quite powerful. That has always been powerful, but now nearly anyone with a tether to the digital world can be any of those someones. And they have the potential to be quite powerful figures. Save of course that these “powerful figures” are not always recognized as such because they flow in and out of the role as a leader if you consider Ben Schniederman’s theories about consumers and producers online.

The revolution was not tweeted. The revolutionaries in Tunisia were just on Twitter. They spread their ideas fast which got them up, out and in the way faster. Twitter just made it easier for the People to say, “Listen to us, now.”

Matthew Igram via GigaOm writes

But is anyone really arguing that Twitter and Facebook caused the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt, or even the earlier public uprisings in Moldova or Iran for that matter? Maybe cyber-utopians somewhere are doing this, but I haven’t seen or heard of any. The argument I have tried to make is simply that they and other social media tools can be incredibly powerful, both for spreading the word — which can give moral or emotional support to others in a country, as well as generating external support — as well as for organizational purposes, thanks to the power of the network. As Jared Cohen of Google Ideas put it, social media may not be a cause, but it can be a powerful “accelerant.”

Did Twitter or Facebook cause the Tunisian revolt? No. But they did spread the news, and many Tunisian revolutionaries gave them a lot of credit for helping with the process. Did Twitter cause the revolts in Egypt? No. But they did help activists such as WikiLeaks supporter Jacob Appelbaum (known on Twitter as @ioerror) and others as they organized the dialup and satellite phone connections that created an ad-hoc Internet after Egypt turned the real one off — which, of course, it did in large part to try and prevent demonstrators from using Internet-based tools to foment unrest. As Cory Doctorow noted in his review of Evgeny Morozov’s book, even if Twitter and Facebook are just used to replace the process of stapling pieces of paper to telephone poles and sending out hundreds of emails, they are still a huge benefit to social activism of all kinds.

In October, Gladwell said the revolution would not be tweeted. He said our thousands of weak ties won’t make change happen. Soon after, I questioned the power of (Facebook’s) algorithm that aims to reduce information overload and weed out irrelevant content. Doing this, however, there’s no way to protect yourself from over tweeting. The conversation is always streaming and always linear. So then, if you tweet often are you more likely to get ignored or at least get some views.

It depends if you’re a loud, verbose person at a loud party or a quiet person, at a quiet party, saying one, striking thing every so often. The problem here is that everyone is at a different party. Then why, if everyone is at a different party, did the demonstrators catch word so fast?

It’s the two-step flow, 2.0. The beautiful flow of information that embraces the idea of human agency to share knowledge and information. But now, unlike ever before, anyone has the potential to have the power the mass media once had.

We can’t help but keep asking if participating in social media is activism. Does changing a Facebook Status or Twitter profile picture make a difference? Some argue it brings awareness to an issue. But it’s passive activism, it’s enough to get points for “caring” about an issue for a fleeting trend.

Why then is a riot, a protest or a lunch counter sit in considered considered activism, when it too, is also just spreading awareness about an issue? Because it causes disruption. The actions do not ask the community to stop what they are doing and pay attention, they require it. It gets in the way, it upsets people and it makes people talk about the problem.

No. The revolution will not be tweeted. No the revolution was not tweeted. But yes, our new tools inspired conversation that empowered people to put the problem in the way. Whether or not that is Good is another question.

The revolution happened on the streets.

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Narrative (The Creative Process)

Sharing a news story usually seems like simply flicking a click of a button, scribbling out a quick thought and going about your merry way.

But news consumers, who once, were only news consumers are now also producers. Beyond the blogger, only recently has design and technology facilitated the tools to empower the lay consumer to interact with content in a creative way. They are now work as editors, writers and broadcasters, in their own social right.

John McCarthy and Peter Wright compose a fantastic book on experience design, Technology as Experience. “Experience is ever present,” they say. “We are always engaged in experience even when we are trying to stand back from it to describe it.” McCarthy and Wright reaffirm how it important it is to think about and the holistic experience of anything when designing, and in this case, sharing a news story.

Browsing through news stories is absolute active participation. Unlike watching news TV or even reading a print publication, the reader has choice more choice between on and off or skim or not skim. In the current content consuming paradigm, beyond a news summary, the reader must actively decide to click, and almost navigate to a new page to get immersed into a story. It takes a significantly greater commitment. The reader then must actively make a judgement, “do I want to consider reading this article?” If yes, they click, if no, they keep skimming headlines and photos.

This is the first step of what I’m referring to as an editing process, where the reader is flexing their judgement skills. Moving forward, they continue to do this when they’ve consumed enough of the article or graphic and decides to share it. Only now, after all of these hurdles, have they come to the act of sharing something. That standing on the assumption that the sharing interface (and logging in process for that matter) is seamlessly easy to understand.

If the article inspires and resonates with the reader, it’s likely it has a high share-ability. That or it speaks to the readers’ audience, the audience that is comprised of their network. Of course, considering, most people don’t think about the Facebook News Feed is developed in such a way that it’s difficult to overshare to your network, according to Aditya Agarwal, Facebook’s Director of Engineering. Though, they are hoping people will learn and stop worrying about overshare.

In Erik Stolterman’s book, Imagination and Communication, he talks about imagination and communication. The reader takes ideas from their minds eye and must make it communicable, he says, which is part of the creative process.

Once the reader has read the article and formed some kind of thought and new meaning, it still exists in their mind, in their imagination. Once they have taken that vision, explored and then written their thoughts, they have led to “new truths” cited to Erik Stolterman. Their new truths, that are “possible to share with other people.”

And beyond all of this, conscious or not, these readers are engaging in civic and cultural participation, which Jean Burgess, author of Vernacular Creativity cites.

Culture is the means by which we, as individual citizens and communities, experience what the world is like, how we fit in it, and importantly, how we relate to others who are different from us at the same time as we seek out opportunities for belonging.

Where participatory media opens up space for us, as ordinary citizens, to speak and represent ourselves and our ways of being in the world, and to encounter difference, then it’s also a space for the everyday practice of cultural citizenship  in that context, everyday creativity is civic engagement, in a sense.

It is not even the writing process itself here that is creative and expressive. It is the development of new truths, personal meaning and broadcasting in a cultural context to an audience, especially at such a mass scale, that has never been done before. Participating in every day media, like Burgess says, helps us develop our own identities, how we see ourselves and how we fit into our worlds. All the while we are making judgements about the what the people in our networks share, say do, and don’t do and how they fit into the world. That has always been a part of civic engagement.

When designing a share UI, designers must consider:

  • The overall experience from arriving to the article in the first place. How did the reader get here? RSS, Website, another shared link? Think about where they are coming and possibly where they are going afterwards.
  • Consider when they are likely going to want to share.
  • Design the UI with enough space that supports an emergent writing and editing process, like a resizable window.
  • Think of the reader as a media producer. Is your share UI a pop up or modal dialoge? Will they lose everything they wrote if they go to reread a section of text, navigate to a new site to get some information or another link or copy and paste something?
  • Reduce the amount of choices they must make. The New York Times does a nice job giving commentary a high position in the visual hierarchy, while still giving their consumer/producers the autonomy to hit recommend without saying a word, which still says something.
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Gorilla Sharing 2

Sharing a post seems simple enough. Copy and paste a link, click the like button or recommend a story. Seems simple enough–not too complicated. There is a lot more happening behind these 1 and 2 step flows. When we share we are defining our identify, building our social capital and simply speaking, expressing ourselves.

Takin the action to share, or not share, by whatever process is an editorial process. Creative tools like Facebook give people who were once only consumers a more liberal opportunity to also be producers.They are using their personal judgement to select or ignore what they choose to broadcast to their networks. Each post is a reflection of  their values by showing what they consume and promote and thereby constructing their identity.

Schniederman and Hochheiser discuss the transformation from readers to leaders in social media. Social media users are constantly shifting from roles as passive readers to very active leaders: those who move conversations in the community forward. In between they act as contributors and collaborators and are constantly negotiating their role and identity as it shifts even from post to post within their greater social communities online.

Sharing to a community also builds on social capital. Journalism history researcher discusses the orientation of text in his book Communities of Journalism.

“When a reader writes a letter to the editor, they are speaking to the public, speaking to the editor and to the self,” he says.

Nord’s statement here supports identity building while interacting with news. What also happens here is engagement with the community. Posting and sharing certainly speaks to a public, especially as the web is becoming more open. Friends in the network work as editors, they critique, comment and build on what has been stated. As a person shares to their network, the public and editor are one in the same as they are building their social capital.

In a recent study done at Michigan State University, Ellison, Stenfield and Lampe found significant social capital benefits from college students on Facebook. They found students used facebook “primarily to maintain existing offline relationships or to solidify what would otherwise be ephemeral, temporary acquaintanceships.” In doing this, they found “indices of psychological well-being, such as self esteem and satisfaction with life.” Sharing and engaging in these communities not only pass time and serve as passive news to read about friends, but also builds socially beneficial experiences.

Malcom Barnard quotes Roger Fry in his book Approaches to Visual Culture. Barnard writes:

Fry believed that message of the work is described as’a whole mass experience hidden in the artist’s subconscious’ Conscious or unconscious, the matter is still that of expression.

When someone share to their network, whether or not they are conscious and aware of their expressions does not take away from them expressing themselves at are. When they post, and especially with commentary,  they are engaging in editorial, creative work and the process of communication.

In doing this, their expressive nature directly relates to their identity that is always in progress of being crafted and the social capital in which they are building. The individual does this across their networks, their community while every other friend in their network is simultaneously making the same conscious and unconscious negotiations.

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I wish I had drawn out my interpretation of my social communities before I installed the new Facbeook app, Social Graph. What this app does very well is show me how my facebook friends are connected and clustered.

I ran the app, took a screen grab and began to label the clusters. When I loaded the app again, my clusters looked different. In these screen grabs I did not include some of the outliers. Most of those people are friends I made while traveling. There are so many ways to interpret my social circles. The app is slow right now and it doesn’t tell a story. But I can do that:

My Social Graph

Ultimately, what I found is that my techno community links my high school and ancestry communities the most. Media and music are still the center of my social circle here. My current job at the Office for Women’s Affairs is surprisingly barely connected to anything at all. I have two London networks that don’t overlap at all.

My Social Graph

I can see that media and music are the centrally what link me to people and my professional communities. I have strong clusters in Indiana and San Francisco that thickly overlap with my Chicago community.

My Social Graph

I found many of the outliers here to have a specific ethnic quality in common. I also had an absolutely random seeming smattering of “indian people” from all over the country in that cluster.

Overall, I’ve learned that my music communities centrally have guided my social life. I have an enormous high school network, which makes sense because I joined Facebook as soon as I graduated high school. My Bloomington music community is tightly connected to my student media groups which then led me to my job at the Star, the news design community, my Poytner Fellowship and the cluster of friends in Indianapolis who worked at Rolls Royce.

Last year, friends from my San Francisco Tech and Techno Community went to India for a wedding. They stayed with my aunts, uncles and cousins and must have friended each other. There are enough people from my high school who moved to San Francisco, listen to Techno and work in Tech, so we can see those overlaps too.

I was surprised how few links there were between my tech communities and RockMelt, but then again it makes sense because I did not get the internship by knowing someone, per say (which is quite rare). There was a 6-degrees of separation alumni connection there.

I wish I could make some sense of the random smattering of Indian people. That cluster is concentrated with Indian people I know from all over the country and world. I guess we really are all family.

I would love to search for specific friends in this app. Still, very cool. This is also the first time I got to check off every category in my tags!

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Spreading the joy of Spring

Using a Model of Social Dynamics to Predict Popularity of News points to Hochheiser and Schniederman’s reader to leader theory in some ways. In this paper Kristina Lerman and Tad Hogg study the voting and interaction behavior of users on Digg.

A small number of users dominate the activity on the site, and receive most of the attention of other users.

In this case, on Digg, a small group of people act as leaders, as do they on Wikipedia according to Hochheiser. Lerman also found that sites that initially get many votes do not accumulate many more further on. It seems that viralirty does not exist in the Digg system like we would expect. However, Digg is potentially a viral seed.

Leaders potentially start on Digg and as they “vote on the story, it becomes visible to their own fans through the friends interface.” From there, the content may expand to broader networks with more users who act as collaborators and contributors.

The strength of social influence is measured in terms of the proportion of initial votes that can be made via the friends interface: those coming from the fans of the submitter and previous voters. Social influence during the early voting period and the final number of votes a story receives are inversely correlated.

What we can learn here is that initially, it seems that it takes getting content to the leaders so they will contribute to their other leader and readers which then, and only then, will traffic to the content increase. Earlier this year I blogged asking if it was knowledge or was it the network that is power. Some signs point to network.

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Call it expanding and contracting, cycling and then recycling or moving forwards and backwards. That’s the way research goes. I am midstream a thick media reporting project. As I sort through my quasi-professional-identity crisis as a designer, journalist and researcher I have full warrant to borrow tools and techniques from all disciplines.

I borrowed elements of affinity diagraming to draw new conclusions about so much of what I have learned this semester.

I'm supposed to find meaning in this stack?
1. I wrote short summaries of my research findings on individual Post It notes.

Diagram findings
2. I stuck the post it notes on a big blank wall. I organized and reorganized them until they made some kind of subjective, judged sense.

The big topics
3. Then, I gave each stack a topic. I now have organized clusters of thoughts and seeds of ideas about how to move forward.

Questions

  1. What kinds of people should I talk to next?
  2. How does language connect communities and culture?
  3. What are the analog things in our life that mimic the social layer?
  4. What gap is social media sharing expression filling?
  5. What filled the expression gap before?
  6. Will we get social media fatigue (too many chicken nuggets)?
  7. Social media satisfies impulsive behavior and thoughts. What other part of our life does this affect?
  8. Why do we gather where we do online?
  9. What gets left out when shared (broadcasted) content is personalized for us?
  10. How are people who share to social media like and unlike journalists?
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“One click” tools like retweeting and liking content make social participation easy. Harry Hochheiser and Ben Schniederman say “Social networking tools illustrate the importance of leveraging existing social ties to generate perceived community in From Bowling Alone toTweeting Together: Technology-Mediated Social Participation.

It cannot be accidental that they refer to these communities as perceived. I recently posted about the great resource our social media acquaintances are in my algorithm post. However, there is also the dilution of content in our state of information overload.

Hochheiser and Schniederman’s gently claim that these communities we are in are perceived. Because it is so easy to passively interact with those in our social feeds, do we end up crafting communities that truly exist or are they only perceived. Without going too far down the “what is reality” path, what we learn here is that like in traditional media even in social media, leaders emerge.

These leaders emerge from the group of general social media users. Everyone consumes. Those that only consume are often called lurkers. He says, then, some become contributors, collaborators and leaders. They do not define each role and break down the difference between a contributor and collaborator.

My guess is that a collaborator is someone who posts something on Facebook (a contributor). A friend then comments on that post, which makes that friend a collaborator. If the author responds, he then also becomes a collaborator. Once they are in “engaged participation” in the community, say a Facebook Group, or a long thread of posts, they have become a leader.

The reader, the consumer is playing a role s/he’s never played before. The reader is influencing the experience for other readers. They add value to the content written by the author, may that person be writing for CNN or on Facebook.com.

As a collaborator’s reading experience is hyper mediated by contribution, on say, is their reading experience hypermediated across platforms?

It’s possible that leadership on social media platforms has changed the way they read what professional news authors publish. How then, if at all, should journalists change the way they write and collaborate with their readers and collaborators?

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The New York Times boasts highest shared content and page rank but the USA Today wins in web traffic. So what then is more valuable for a news site? While USA brings more traffic to the site, which in the end is better for clicks and ad revenue, a high share rank means better exposure to content which potentially builds better brand, reader loyalty and arguably more interesting (and therefor better) content.
Statistics and text via Journalistsics.com

Top Shares

While Google PageRank is an accurate gauge of authority on the Web, it doesn’t tell us much about how much people ‘Like’ a newspaper. When it comes to ‘Likes’, Facebook is the authority. It took a little (okay, a lot of) trial and error to find the Facebook Pages for each of the Top 25 U.S. newspapers(you’d be surprised how hard some of the top 25 make it to find), but alas here’s the list of the Top 25 U.S. Newspapers ranked by the number of Facebook Friends (‘Likes’) each newspaper has (click the link to visit the newspaper’s Facebook Page):

  1. The New York Times – 781,655
  2. The Wall Street Journal140,515
  3. The Washington Post68,152
  4. The Denver Post30,690
  5. USA Today28,332
  6. The Los Angeles Times 20,715
  7. The Chicago Tribune 19,448
  8. The Arizona Republic 18,002
  9. The New York Post8,087
  10. The San Francisco Chronicle8,051

Top Google Rank

Clicks is one thing, credibility is another. When it comes to online credibility, Google PageRank rules over all. Few metrics illustrate true authority on the Web more than Google’s PageRank. PageRank is the accepted standard for authority on the Web. If you ranked the top 25 U.S. newspapers by PageRank instead of circulation, the list looks like this:

  1. 9/10 – The New York Times stands alone as far as Google concerned – it has the highest PageRank of the top 25 U.S. newspapers
  2. 8/10 – The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, NY Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle and StarTribune have equal authority at 8/10
  3. 7/10 – The Dallas Morning NewsThe Chicago Sun-Times, Detroit Free Press, Houston Chronicle, The Arizona Republic, The Oregonian, The Star-Ledger, The San Diego Union-Tribune and Newsdayare tied for third place with a PageRank of 7/10
  4. 6/10 – The Seattle Times, The St. Petersburg Times and The Plain Dealer share fourth place at 6/10
  5. 5/10 – The New York Post, The Oakland Tribune and The San Jose Mercury News are tied for fifth place at 5/10
  6. 4/10 – Rounding out the bottom is The Denver Post and Contra Costa Times – each share a PageRank of 4/10

When comparing newspaper to newspaper, PageRank seems like a good measure of a newspaper’s authority. Once you get outside of an apples to apples comparison – or in this case, newspaper to newspaper – it gets harder to determine influence or authority. Take popular blogs like The Huffington Post or TechCrunch for example. Both blogs have a Google PageRank of 8/10 – do those blogs have the same authority as The Wall Street Journal or USA Today? As far as Google is concerned they do.

Visit the Top 25 list of U.S. Newspapers by Web Traffic:

  1. USA Today – 239,425,560
  2. The New York Times – 217,513,400
  3. The Wall Street Journal122,397,004
  4. The Los Angeles Times 94,889,543
  5. The Washington Post – 9,1758,837
  6. New York Daily News82,225,690
  7. The San Francisco Chronicle – 46,696,844
  8. The New York Post45,903,055
  9. The Chicago Tribune33,230,030
  10. The Star-Ledger – 31,836,326
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There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

From Malcom Gladwell’s story on activism in the New Yorker:

Gladwell begins a conversation about the Greensboro lunch counter protests. He argues that the social revolution will not happen online. He says our weak ties, our hundreds or thousands of friends let us express ourselves but the impact is significantly lower.

The Facebook algorithm is  designed such that their users can feel comfortable “over sharing.” Only relevant posts should show up in the feeds of their friends. This solves two potential problems for the Facebook experience: information overload and irrelevant content.

Users can post, express and write as much as they would like without the worry that they are writing, tagging, posting or commenting too much something that often happens on Twitter. However, on Twitter, the overshare situation is completely contextual to how many people you follow. If you  write 10 tweets a day, a recipient how follows 50 slow tweeters will feel overloaded, whereas a follower who reads from 300 people will barely notice those ten tweets.

Lets come back to Gladwell’s argument that these networks are both empowered and diluted by their size. Activists and those expressing themselves can do with much more ease. But, they cannot rally the attention that the Greensboro lunch counter could because the Facebook system is designed to quiet noise. It would take many friends posting and discussing a particular topic in a variety of mediums to draw any kind of social stir that the Greensboro counters saw.

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Last week Facebook announced the ability to export your profile “and keep a closer eye on the sites and apps that they have allowed to access the profile.”

Before this, developers could get into user profiles through Facebook Connect. The Facebook and Twitter APIs are relatively open. But this is the first time users have easily been given a way to get a handle on their specific profile. Facebook’s Director of Engineering, Aditya Agarwal, shared with me on a phone interview that the potential for the use of Facebook data is much higher. Content can be personalized to give people a better experience.

A team of researchers at the National University of Ireland in Galway argue for something even more open. In their paper Social Network and Data Portability using Semantic Web Technologies the outlines a vocabulary to structure user generated content in a machine-readable way. This allows the social data to easily be used across services and applications.

I can relate to the problem this group is trying to solve with an example:
I have friends using Gowalla. I have friends using FourSquare. I have friends using Latitude and I have friends now using SCVNGR. I have a circle of friends on Facebook, on Twitter, on Email, on LinkedIn on Flickr and so on. But each of these services require me to reconnect with all the people I’m friends with. So, I use Facbeook Places. Why? Not because it’s more fun, or because the interface is better, but because that’s where my friends already are.

But if I could have all of my friends, everywhere, would there be more competition and therefor better quality of product across services?

What if Match.com could pull up everyone’s Facebook profiles to get an arguably more authentic profile of who you are. For better or for worse, I suppose.

I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll see a mega network any time soon where people share all of their content to one service then feed all of it back out. That was the problem with Buzz. It basically became a Twitter Feed with a Like button and the occasional original post.

What I like about this Irish team’s proposal is the human side of problem solving. Their solution gives users more control, more flexibility and potentially more scalability to connect and share easier with their friends. It also has the power to increase and personalize the quality of our experience online as a whole.

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