For several weeks I have championed the use of digital technology and social networks. Positive outcomes associated with use are faster connectivity, strengthened relationships and opportunities to notice marginalized groups. My last blog entry, specifically, discussed an effective method for mobilizing and maintaining viral movements on social platforms like Twitter. Listing instantaneity, crowd-sourcing of elites, solidarity, and ambience as important values in sustaining viral movements, I may have convinced readers that connecting to millions on the Internet is easy. That, however, is not the case.
The implications of digital technology are vast. As Groshek and Tandoc (2017) note, social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, permit audiences to participate in the news construction process. Users can publish their opinions about political issues discussed in the news on their pages, as well as criticize the news media. Content creation and circulation through social networks empowers citizens to become interested and involved in politics (Penney, 2017). Internet use and frequent social network use positively correlates to the three types of social support: perceived, enacted, and received (Lu and Hampton, 2016).
It also is true that social networks allow users to connect with others on a global scale, allowing for more diverse, and otherwise impossible, connections. Associations on the web, however, tend to match those physically established. Users form connections with those who share similar interests and characteristics creating homogenous groups, also known as homophily. Shin et al. (2016) credits this homophily to selective exposure, where users avoid psychological discomfort from situations that challenge their beliefs. This poses a challenge for those attempting to reach broad audiences, especially on Twitter.
The simplest method of widely disseminating information on Twitter is through retweets and hashtags, where homophily on Twitter usually manifests. Retweeting indicates endorsement and friendship, and the primary audience for retweets are one’s followers. Hashtags create a separate environment on the network where people sharing similar interests gather. It seems hassle-free to start movements with tweeting your message, adding a hashtag, and hoping it spreads through retweets. But, that’s where homophily can hinder the movement.
Retweets depend on how relatable the message is to your followers. They also depend on how supported you are on the network. In this case, followers don’t equal retweets; some users don’t engage, they lurk. Once a post is retweeted, there is no guarantee that the retweeter’s followers will show interest in your message as well. Although hashtags are public and easily accessible to all Twitter users, noticed, retweeted, and mentioned tweets are those appealing to the interests of the users.
It is also important to note that connections among social networks regulate information flow. For sustaining a viral movement, the best typology of Twitter topic-networks is broadcast and support, also known as “hub-and-spoke-topology” (Himelboim et al., 2017). In this typology, users connect to a single or small number of actors for most of their information. Hub-and-spoke-topology can result in unstable communication when an actor reduces their use and activity on a network, which can disconnect most users from information, disrupting the overall flow of the movement.
There are other hindrances to movements online as well. Not only do marginalized groups have a platform, but anyone who desires a platform, regardless of ethical or moral concerns, can have one. As participatory culture encourages users to engage in politics, it also enables disturbing practices that include spreading hate speech and various forms of harassment. 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, using social media to promote his campaign initiatives, received negative press over an unofficial online movement associated with his official campaign. Sanders supporters, labeled “Bernie Bros,” acting disrespectfully towards others who disagreed with them potentially cost Sanders the presidential election due to their online activity.
Although there are various consequences associated with digital technology and social network use, I still believe digital communication and social networks have many implications for society. I realized that I didn’t properly convey the consequences and portrayed social networks as simple applications that allow connectivity. That’s not right. Social networks are complex platforms that thrive on communication, which is a complication in itself. To successfully navigate through them, you have to know every affordance.
Groshek, J., & Tandoc, E. (2017). The affordance effect: Gatekeeping and (non)reciprocal journalism on Twitter. Communication in Human Behavior.
Himelboim, I., Smith, M. A., Rainie, L., Shneiderman, B., & Espina, C. (2017). Classifying Twitter Topic-Networks Using Social Network Analysis. Social Media and Society.
Lu, W., & Hampton, K. N. (2016). Beyond the power of networks: Differentiating network structure from social media affordances for perceived social support. New Media and Society.
Penney, J. (2017). Social Media and Citizen Participation in “Official” and “Unofficial” Electoral Promotion: A Structural Analysis of the 2016 Bernie Sanders Digital Campaign. Journal of Communication.
Shin, J., Jian, L., Driscoll, K., & Bar, F. (2016). Political rumoring on Twitter during the 2012 US presidential election: Rumor diffusion and correction. New Media and Society.