Social Media, Part I: Information Flows
Nov 1, 2011

Social Media, Part I: Information Flows

It is truly an empowering experience to live at at time with our neary effortless access to unprecedented amounts of information. More than just this, however, we are able to be multilaterally engaged with the information we receive as we can also influence the propagation and dissemination of ideas over the Internet in a way that was simply not possible not that long ago.

As information flows through our society, each of us can interact with this information in two distinct ways. We can control what part of this body of information we receive ourselves. And we can control what information we express or repeat in society so that it can be experienced by others. In both ways, we often have choices over how actively we wish to be engaged in the process of choosing the information we receive and transmit or whether we are going to be more passive and take a back seat in this process. In the language of memetics, a meme travels through society in a process of being received and then transmitted by members of the society; we have, if we choose, the ability to actively control the process at both the reception and transmission steps.

Receiving ideas: 
 In general we receive far more information than we transmit to others and this active vs passive spectrum is perhaps most noticeable when it comes to receiving the news. Consider someone who watches the nightly news every day and thus experiences their information in a largely passive manner. Information comes from the TV and is received by the watcher. They have little control over the content or what information they actually receive other than choosing the news station to watch it on or, perhaps, choosing not to watch it at all. On the other end of the spectrum, doing a Google search for a piece of information is a very active experience. One has some relatively clear idea of the information one wants to finds and uses Google to find it; the value of Google has been that it makes active information gathering so vastly easier than it was a decade or two ago. In between there are many intermediaries that are partly passive and partly active.

One way we become more engaged in our reception of information is through using our own selection filters to acquire some subset of the larger body of available information to us. Take reading a newspaper, for instance. If we just read it cover to cover this is a largely passive experience much like watching the nightly news and we have just read whatever the paper presents for us. However, if we skim the headlines and pick and choose what stories we want to read in full or in part then our own internal selection process is at play which is an active process. Choosing to read left-wing commentary vs right-wing commentary, or vice versa, is applying our own selection filters.

Social Media, on the reception side of things, works by allowing us to have quite a bit of active control over the sources of information. We can choose friends or authoritative figures that we 'Like' or 'Follow' who provide us with the information we receive. Often the types of information, even if we restrict this to politics or news, that gets transmitted frequently through Social Media is simply a different set of information than that transmitted by the mainstream media. One might be able to make a strong case for the value of social media simply based on the idea that it provides a better set of information. However, a key benefit that should not go understated is our ability to very specifically and actively tailor our reception of news to our own interests and sensibilities by choosing what our social network that we pay attention to is.

Personally, I have collected a rather large array of different sources for daily news and opinion, some of it in conventional formats and some in social media formats. I could never read, watch and listen to all of this in a given day, and so I have to apply my own selection filters based on the amount of time at have to dedicate to this in any given day. Some stories I will skip entirely, some I will quickly glance at, and some I will go about finding multiple in depth commentaries on it, discuss it on forums, share it on Twitter, and maybe make a blog post about. That is, it is a very active and multilateral process for acquiring the news.

Transmitting ideas:
Thus far we have been largely talking about our ability to actively control our reception of information, and so we now turn to how we transmit information into society. Outside of the Internet, memes were and are transmitted in a variety of ways such as conversations with friends and family, voting for politicians that express certain ideas, donating money to certain causes, etc. There is also a relatively passive feedback through which media such as paper, TV, or radio shows change their content or become more prominently known based on whether they are presenting information in a way that people like. We thus influence the information available to society in a small way by our choices of information to consume, and this occurs passively with or without us even thinking about it.

What social media has done is allows for a lot more capacity of individuals to influence the flow of information about them. Opposed to being the passive TV news viewer, we actively participate in the transmission of memes in society. Most news websites have a prominent "Most Popular" section which means the stories people like to read get rated higher and hence are read more. One is thus passively voting with one's clicks.  Social Media sites like Reddit and Digg exist entirely on the model that users submit stories and they are rating by other users and the highest rated ones get read the most. Facebook, Twitter, forums and the like all focus more on the side that people read what people in their social circles submit. In addition to the ability to influence what stories other people see, there is the ability to actually comment and react to most stories.

It is more than just continuing to transmit stories, it allows us to contribute to the narrative and context in which these stories are shared. For example, a silly YouTube video (such as the Herman Cain campaign manager "smoking" ad) was shared to millions over a small timeframe, however it was shared in the context of people making fun of it and quite different than the original intent of the video released by the campaign. The Internet in general, and social media in specific, thus allows for a form of multilateral engagement where we can receive, interact with and subsequently influence the information in flows.

Personally, a lot of my political engagement goes quite a bit beyond simply reading and listening to the variety of sources that I do, I also think about and write about many political issues both here on this blog and on various Internet forums. I am thus participating not just in choosing which memes gain a bit more prominence in our society, but also (hopefully) bringing some of my own thinking to get expressed and contribute to the larger flows of ideas in our society.

Subsequent posts in this series will look at the social value of social meda, and then finally will look at Twitter in specific as it relates to the ideas of information flows expressed here and the value to social media to be expressed subsequently.

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