We think we’re making these independent decisions, but because we’re connected to our neighbors and our friends and our friends’ friends, we exist in this synchrony, this super organism…”
“Are you saying we flock like animals?”
This exchange happened during a 2010 episode of “The Colbert Report” between political scientist and geneticist James Fowler and the eponymous host. Fowler, in an effort to explain the incredible and demonstrable influence of social networks – both digital and otherwise – created a metaphor relating human interactions to a herd of buffalo. Colbert looked on with bemusement until after Fowler had made most of his point, then swung at what was essentially a softball set up for a joke.
But if Colbert wasn’t dedicated to his character, you would think he would have been at least a little more curious to hear about the range and power of this influence. After all, Fowler boasts an impressive 1,774 Twitter followers. Colbert? Only 4,820,162…as of press time.
And make no mistake: Social networks really are that important. Besides for Fowler’s research, which correlates social network connections with everything from political mobilization to weight loss, there is a host of other scholarly, journalistic or personal observations on the subject that prove that yes, we do affect those around us, often in deep and subconscious ways. If you add in other works on civil society – which focus on the importance of relationships citizens have outside of work or through the government – you arrive damn close to a literal mountain of information pointing to the fact that even your most intimate decisions, feelings and beliefs have a lot to do with whom you associate with.
If we were looking at this information a few decades ago, it would have been incredible. But we’re looking at it now, when you have the ability to express your thoughts to hundreds or even thousands of people every second of every day.
Social media has added a whole other level of speed and accessibility to interacting. Furthermore, it’s added a mechanism of control that didn’t exist previously. It’s imperative to realize how much influence social media users can have and to take advantage of the medium.
Want proof that your posts matter? Look no further than CNN’s use of “iReport” during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15.
Yes, CNN may be facing some serious criticism for its reporting leading up to the capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev. But the scorn has been laid at the feet of the network’s reporters and their failure to verify information that they received from supposedly reliable police sources and their reluctance to report basic facts, like that Tsarnaev was found in a boat and not within some mysterious “structure” – details that were ubiquitous on Twitter more than 30 minutes before CNN made the commitment. All the major networks were relying on social media to gather information, like first-person accounts and pictures. CNN just so happened to be the one that took it the furthest, and the network’s obvious shortcomings weren’t rooted in that decision.
As a result, we witnessed a major news outlet choosing to magnify its viewers’ social media influences by broadcasting them over its airwaves, a truly remarkable occurrence that we seemingly take for granted amid the continuous conventionalizing of social media.
Or how about the ability for social media posts to be distilled into pure public opinion? A 2008-09 Carnegie Mellon study analyzed a billion tweets and was able to produce public opinion data on consumer confidence and presidential job approval that had significant correlation – 86 percent on consumer confidence, 72 percent for presidential job approval – with data published by more traditional survey sources like the Index of Consumer Sentiment, Gallup and Pollster.com.
This is possible through the use of text analyzing, which involves subdividing tweets into categories like political or apolitical, positive or negative, etc. It can offer access to a much larger section of the population than typical survey techniques.
And it means that every time you express an opinion on Twitter, you could be influencing the creation of laws. After all, University of Washington sociology professor Paul Burstein starts out his paper “The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda” by discussing the near-consensus among social scientists concerning the tight relationship between the two. Put simply, regardless of outliers like the recent rejection of federal background checks, politicians often do care what their constituents think, and they only have so many ways to know what that is.
Of course, there are some flaws. Text analyzers will always struggle with things like sarcasm, creating discrepancies. And the demographic spread on Twitter is hardly representative of the U.S. population: 27 percent of Internet users between 18-29 are on Twitter, while only 2 percent of Internet users 60 or above subscribe, according to data collected by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
But this still means that a new, quick and inexpensive way to poll people exists. It’s hard to envision polling organizations not favoring a system that will save them a few bucks down the road.
All of this is not merely meant to profess the incredible power of social media in our modern age. There have been more than a few well-studied examples recently that can portray that more clearly than I ever could. Look at the Arab Spring for example. While data points do point to a general exaggeration of the influence of the online sources – Internet penetration in Egypt is about 35.6 percent, and only about 14.6 percent are on Facebook currently, and those numbers were even lower in December 2010 – it is rather undeniable that online mediums held some role in starting, organizing and preserving protest efforts.
Instead, the point is to stress the importance in formulating and expressing opinions through whatever means necessary.
Last year, then-Opinion editor Kierra Bussey wrote a final column entitled “Letter from the editor,” in which she stressed the importance of writing opinions and sharing them with others to spread dialogue and ensure that your interests are never forsaken completely.
This year, in my final column, I would like to echo that sentiment, with the caveat that informal methods of information dissemination need to be viewed as equally valid ways of accomplishing this end.
It can be easy to overlook social media and other informal media sites when they are all too often flooded with seemingly useless drivel. But they’re essentially in their infancy, and other platforms like mass media, polling sources and general social science are only beginning to scratch the surface of their potential.
Writing opinions in the more traditional sense will always have its benefits and will never truly go away. And of course I encourage any would-be writers to explore self-expression on these hallowed pages.
But there is absolutely no excuse for anyone to be avoiding letting their opinions be heard when the threshold for publication has never been so low. Whether through social media, blogs or even comment threads, you can publish your thoughts and people will actually read and be influenced by them.
By any standard, that is incredible. And to not take advantage of it would be nothing short of irresponsible.
Zack Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ZackScott11.