Posted by: structureofnews | May 5, 2011

Reality Check

It’s always good to test theories against facts, painful though the exercise can be.  (At least it is for me, when my theories prove false.)

In this case the theory is that we’re all editors now, via social media, and that the world of information is much more democratic as a result.  The broad outlines of that are true – and certainly the potential for it being true is there – but the reality is more nuanced.

According to CNN research conducted late last year, just over a quarter of users contributed nearly nine-tenths of all news storied shared.  (Recommendations also seem to make people more predisposed to the advertising surrounding the story – which makes sense in a perverse way.)  This fits with the 80/20 rule about most activity being caused by a small group.  (Although there’s also an interesting research paper that looks at the dynamics of elite users versus the crowd at Wikipedia, and how that’s changed over time.  The gist: A small elite used to contribute most of the work at the site, but that percentage has decreased as more novice users have taken to editing. )

The Guardian, in its story about the CNN research, noted that:

Researchers identified three primary motivations for sharing, which differed around the world. In Europe and North America, users had more altruistic reasons for sharing stories that would be useful to friends or family, European users tend to share more work-related stories and Asia-Pacific readers were more likely to ‘status’ broadcast – share things that underline or reinforce their own knowledge and identity.

None of this really comes as a surprise; but the broader point is that, in a fast-changing media landscape, we tend to make – have to make, really – quick-and-dirty assumptions about how people will behave, and why.  Eg: No one will pay for content when they can get something similar for free; people will trust information from their friends more than from media companies; people are more interested in celebrity gossip than in serious news; and so on.   Those assumptions are usually based on some facts and some logic, and in the absence of any other information, can be pretty helpful.  But it’s always a good idea to test them empirically.

In this case, the idea that everyone is empowered to be an editor remains true; but if the CNN research is right, a relatively small percentage of people actually actively get involved in recommending stories. And that people have very different motivations around the world for why they recommend stories.

And then there’s this very cool work being done at the NYT to track how a story actually propagates through social media – Project Cascade, it’s called – that aims to visualize the impact of individual recommenders on the spread of the story.  There’s potential practicality behind this; as the Nieman Journalism Labs piece on it notes:

And — here’s where things get really interesting — the Times could then bring in those influential news-spreaders to become news…producers. With the tool, “we’ve seen this little community discussion that we would have never been able to filter out of the noise before,” (data artist Jer) Thorp notes.

There’s other similar research being done elsewhere, and we’re still a ways aways from actually being able to use this as a really effective editing/marketing tool.  But the underlying idea simply recognizes what the CNN research seems to say – that while the news-recommending function (or news editing, as we used to call it in prehistoric times) is much more democratic now, it’s in practice still the domain of a small group of active users.

At least for now; the other thing that we’re likely to discover (but this is a theory as well) is that our online behaviors will continue to evolve quickly:   What’s true today may well not be tomorrow.  But we should test that hypothesis as well.


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