More on the power users that drive Twitter

An internal Twitter research report highlights the importance of its most frequent and influential users:

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These “heavy tweeters” account for less than 10% of monthly overall users but generate 90% of all tweets and half of global revenue. Heavy tweeters have been in “absolute decline” since the pandemic began, a Twitter researcher wrote in an internal document titled “Where did the Tweeters Go?”

A “heavy tweeter” is defined as someone who logs in to Twitter six or seven days a week and tweets about three to four times a week, the document said.

This echoes earlier analyses of power users on social media. Many members of social media platforms contribute relatively little while a small number do a lot.

I would be interested to hear more about social media platforms or online sites that are able to encourage broader participation. Is there a way to build broad-based online communities with more equitable contributions and influence?

I also wonder how much this matches offline communities that can also be marked by a small set of participants doing a lot. Is the online realm simply mirroring offline patterns or are there new dynamics here that are important?

My comments on college students and social media in Wheaton alumni magazine

How does social media matter for college students? Here are some of my thoughts in a recently published piece:

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It’s notable that “when we get a break in class, the first thing that almost all of the students do is pull out their phone and engage through the deice,” said Professor of Sociology Dr. Brian Miller ’04, who studies emerging adults and social media.

But these students aren’t the first Christians to embrace new media.

Miller says American evangelicals in the twentieth century were quick to take up new technology forms and adapt them to Christian uses. Miller points to the National Association of Evangelicals and its concern that evangelicals had a radio presence. As other media forms were introduced – television, Internet, and social media – Americans evangelicals have adopted and used them.

“My sense as a sociologist is that we’ve often innovated and adapted [to new technology] and hten asked questions later,” he said.

Right now, for instance, Miller said more Christians might consider asking some questions, such as, “Is what we’re doing on social media as Christians good or useful?”…

Miller is encouraged about ways Wheaton students, staff, and faculty might be able to address some of these questions related to using social media responsibly. How could we build some best practices, consider the worth of social media fasts, or figure out how to gauge social media addiction?”

Now that social media is maturing – it has been around on a mass scale for almost two decades now – I would hope we in college settings could be effective in providing information and options for students and ourselves regarding how we engage with social media. When the interaction with social media is almost always on an individual-by-individual basis, it can feel chaotic and difficult to change patterns. Why not encourage more positive community-based practices with social media?

Particularly in faith-based settings, why not more direct conversation and instruction about social media and its effects? The majorities of congregations and people of faith are engaging social media throughout their days, yet my sense is that religious institutions provide limited guidance on how much to engage, what it is useful for and what it is not so useful for, and how social media shapes our perceptions of the world and life. Sociologist Felicia Wu Song’s book Restless Devices is a good resource for this.

Nextdoor as a kinder, community oriented social media platform and still looking to make money

Nextdoor wants to offer more positive content but is also trying to figure out how to increase profits:

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“We actually have data that shows that in the short run, toxic content absolutely drives more engagement,” Nextdoor Chief Executive Officer Sarah Friar said in a recent interview. “But over a six month period, it drives down overall engagement.”

It explains why the company chose the ticker KIND when it went public on the New York Stock Exchange last year. Nextdoor wants to distinguish itself from social media peers like Twitter Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook as a friendly, down-to-earth platform that fosters connections between real neighbors, not anonymous trolls and scammy bots. There’s also local utility: Users can find a couch to buy, a plumber to fix a leak or a barbecue to attend…

The strategy has not translated into profitability for Nextdoor, which reported a loss in 2021 on revenue of $192.2 million, almost all of it from advertising. Friar says the company is in “investment mode” with plans to expand abroad in the UK, Germany, France, Canada, Denmark and Australia. It’s ramping up marketing and trying to figure out a way to capture more small businesses beyond the 30,000 that currently advertise on the platform. The company is focused on the hyperlocal, but large national advertisers are still how it makes most of its money.

But Nextdoor is competing for those accounts with advertising behemoths, and its users are still older and whiter than other social media networks, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Its $51 million in first quarter revenue is a 48% year-over-year jump, but a blip compared to advertising giants like Meta and Twitter, which posted revenues of $27.9 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively. Frontdoor Inc., a platform for home services and repairs, and Yelp Inc., both eclipsed $250 million for the quarter. Unlike Nextdoor, all of them have been profitable. 

This description of the platform raises multiple questions. Here are a few in my mind:

  1. Is profitability in the social media space now inextricably tied to anger and provocative content?
  2. Platforms offer different affordances, features for users and groups to utilize. How much can these features specific to different platforms tame negative content and behavior or is this a problem endemic to social media or society at large?
  3. Can a social media platform be more of a public service than a profitable private company?
  4. Once a social media platform has an established base – other parts of the article discuss Nextdoor’s appeal to suburbanites interested in crime and safety – can it actually change audiences and purposes?
  5. What happens if Nextdoor is acquired by another tech or media company?

As a Nextdoor member, I will keep my eye on this.

AIM away messages and a “basic form of social liberty”

AIM away messages provided a way for users to show that they were not available:

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Sometimes you had to step away. So you threw up an Away Message: I’m not here. I’m in class/at the game/my dad needs to use the comp. I’ve left you with an emo quote that demonstrates how deep I am. Or, here’s a song lyric that signals I am so over you. Never mind that my Away Message is aimed at you.

I miss Away Messages. This nostalgia is layered in abstraction; I probably miss the newness of the internet of the 1990s, and I also miss just being … away. But this is about Away Messages themselves—the bits of code that constructed Maginot Lines around our availability. An Away Message was a text box full of possibilities, a mini-MySpace profile or a Facebook status update years before either existed. It was also a boundary: An Away Message not only popped up as a response after someone IM’d you, it was wholly visible to that person before they IM’d you.

Messaging today, whether through texting or apps, does not work the same way:

Catapulting even further back into the past for a moment: Old-fashioned phone calls used to, and sometimes still do, start with “Hey, you free?” Santamaria points out. “You were going to tell me if you could talk before we started the conversation.” There’s a version of this today—someone might preface their message with “Not urgent, respond when you can,” for example—but for the most part, we just send the text message without consideration, Santamaria says. Interruption is the default.

The ability to walk away from communication and the demands it makes on a person struck me as similar to one of the three “basic forms of social liberty” humans had before settling in cities and large societies. Anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow say the second form was “the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others.” Text messages, emails, and messages in apps create a pressure for someone to respond. To not have these digital “commands,” one practically not use apps and devices.

Is this the freedom we have traded to use social media, the Internet, and smartphones? People can unplug but it is difficult to do that and still participate in regular social life today. Saying no to messages or refusing to respond will likely not garner many friends or close connections. And related to the first form of freedom, “the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings,” the messages and apps can follow us anywhere there is Internet access or cell coverage.

These platforms succeed by encouraging messaging and connections. But, what if a basic human freedom is the one to say no to that interaction when desired?

Capturing life in a two minute window for social media – or for research

The increasingly popular social media platform BeReal gives users a two minute window in which to post each day:

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Founded in January 2020, BeReal is advertised as “an authentic, spontaneous, and candid social network.” It’s an app that sends all users a notification at a seemingly random time in the day and gives them two minutes to post a photo from their front- and back-facing cameras, capturing the scene around them right at that moment. Users can always post late—though the app will then tell on them—but they can’t see what their friends have posted until they do.

BeReal co-founder Alexis Barreyat’s professed goal in creating the app was to foster “genuine” interactions online, the company said in marketing materials, “in response to a feeling that current social apps are doing everything else but connecting us with our friends and family.” But the real conceit here is that most of the time, you’re probably doing something incredibly mundane like studying or running errands, so the app deglamorizes our lives as seen on Instagram.

Without getting into whether it is possible long-term to have a social media platform that operates this way, I had another thought when reading this description: this sounds like a research protocol. Researchers are examining a particular topic, they ask participants to download an app, and at a random time each day the participant is asked some questions. Indeed, I have read about a research project that did something very similar. And it led to good data and published work.

In general, I am in favor of methods that help us better get at what people do as part of normal life or when they are alone. It is one thing to ask people to report on these times or to observe people doing these things. It is another to stop them briefly in the moment to report what they are doing and/or experiencing.

Researchers would need a lot of participants to collect meaningful data. Or, perhaps they would check in randomly multiple times a day. Imagine an research aggregator app that would allow people to respond quickly to multiple projects daily. However this ends up working, I suspect pushing the research closer to what people are doing in the moment could only help us get at what happens moment to moment in life.

Is Twitter more like a town square or a city full of different neighborhoods?

Finding the right spatial metaphor for Twitter might help reveal what the social media platform does best:

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In Musk’s mind, “Twitter serves as the de facto public town square,” and as such, it should be a place where people are able to speak their minds. This metaphor seems slightly off, though. Yes, for people like Musk it’s a place to have debates they think are important for humanity; people with millions of followers are often the people who think what they’re saying is most important. But for the rest of Twitter—some 229 million daily users—it’s more like a metropolis. People have neighborhoods they stick to; sometimes they go out and talk with friends, sometimes they watch from their windows, sometimes they talk up strangers in a park. Most of these aren’t the kind of world-changing conversations Musk seems to want to have, but they’re just as vital.

As someone who studies cities and suburbs as well as social media, a few thoughts:

  1. The idea of a “town square” seems quaint in a mass society. At the scale of a society like the United States, is there really a single place where everyone can come together? This may have better fit an earlier era of mass media – such as the opening decades of television – or for particular events – the mass viewership of the Super Bowl – but generally does not apply when a country has over 300 million residents.
  2. A “town square” would seem to fit better in a smaller community or neighborhood. The capacity of a town square would be limited. What would the equivalent be in a big city: a plaza? A main thoroughfare or major park where people gather for rallies or protests?
  3. On social media, many users friend or interact with people they know offline. Twitter is a little different model since you follow people but a sustained follow can lead to understanding the other user more. The platforms are not generally set up to interact with random users nor do many users choose to do that.
  4. The goal of participating in durable social media communities is also what Facebook is pushing these days. Even as the early years of the Internet offered potential to connect with anyone in the world, many users found people with like interests and spent a lot of time there. If this is indeed more like city neighborhoods, what then connects the central plaza or town square to all the neighborhoods? How much flow or interaction is there back and forth?

Social isolation and anomie during COVID-19

One possible explanation of the weird behavior of people during COVID-19 draws on the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim:

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The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too.

“We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told me. In some places, he says, police arrested fewer people during the pandemic, and “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules.”

This perspective is interesting to consider alongside the millions who did follow national and local guidelines regarding masking and behavior. A lot of attention has been paid to those refusing to comply but many did; does the weirdness stand out even more because of this?

To take the Durkheim reference further, he thought the breaking of the rules and the subsequent reaction and sanctions could help reinforce the original rules.

I might add to the list of explanations in the article the influence of smartphones and social media. These could matter in multiple ways. First, the weird behavior can easily be recorded by others. People may have been weird in the past but was there such a visible record of that behavior? Second, the people with the weird behavior may be recording and sharing their own behavior. Overall, what may have been more private behavior in the past or actions limited to a relatively small set of people or closely connected set of people are no longer kept from a broader audience.

Sociology and “milling” online

When unusual or bad events occur, how do people respond? They go online to try to make sense of it all:

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I don’t know what to make of all this, and I doubt if there is anything to be made. But the behavior on display is, if nothing else, a product of a lack of sense. It’s the agitated, aimless buzzing of the type of crowd that gathers in the aftermath of some bewildering catastrophe. Social scientists have a name for this mode of chaos: They call it “milling.” We are all just chattering away in restless and confused excitement as we try to figure out how to think about what’s happening. We want to understand which outcomes are most likely, and whether we might be obligated to help—by giving money or vowing not to share misinformation or learning the entire history of global conflict so as to avoid saying the wrong thing. We are milling.

The word comes from the mid-20th-century American sociologist Herbert Blumer, who was interested in the process by which crowds converge, during moments of uncertainty and restlessness, on common attitudes and actions. As people mill about the public square, those nearby will be drawn into their behavior, Blumer wrote in 1939. “The primary effect of milling is to make the individuals more sensitive and responsive to one another, so that they become increasingly preoccupied with one another and decreasingly responsive to ordinary objects of stimulation.”

These days, we mill online. For a paper published in 2016, a team of researchers from the University of Washington looked at the spread of rumors and erratic chatter on Twitter about the Boston Marathon bombings in the hours after that event. They described this “milling” as “collective work to make sense of an uncertain space” by interpreting, speculating, theorizing, debating, or challenging presented information.

To apply the term to the current moment may be a little sloppy—for a sociologist, milling would be the precursor to meaningful group action—but it gets across, you know, the current mood. We’re emoting, lecturing, correcting, praising, and debunking. We’re offering up dumb stuff that immediately gets swatted down. (We’re getting “ratioed,” as it’s called on Twitter.) We’re being aimless and embarrassing and loud and responding to each other’s weird behavior. “People are kind of struggling to figure out appropriate ways of responding to this really uncertain situation,” Timothy Recuber, an assistant sociology professor at Smith College, told me. Recuber, who is also the author of Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster, is an expert on the role that media play in what he calls “unsettled times.” And in these unsettled times, he said, we’re engaged in something like what Blumer had in mind.

The wisdom of crowds as an emergent property in the midst of uncertainty?

I wonder how this milling has changed over time. Specifically, I am thinking about spatial changes in the United States over the last century or so. Milling could work better when people live either in denser areas or small towns. This could lead to having “the public square” described above for people to gather. In a more suburban setting, where a majority of Americans now live, where would milling take place? Walking outside their house or residence might put them in contact with some neighbors but it would take some driving for many to get to a location where people might gather. Go to the shopping mall? The local library? Walmart?

If suburbanization reduced public spaces for gathering and add to this fewer people going to work during COVID-19, the online sphere offers more opportunities. The physical geography matters less when people can enter an online public square from anywhere. Now, there are numerous public squares available online with certain platforms or sites offering different opportunities and population with which to interact.

How effective is this online milling as opposed to milling in a offline location? In the offline public square, there is an embodied experience with people. The online public square is different with fewer cues from other actors and someone has to say/do something to be recognized.

The superusers of Facebook

A new study in the works examines the users who drive activity on Facebook:

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For more than a year, we’ve been analyzing a massive new data set that we designed to study public behavior on the 500 U.S. Facebook pages that get the most engagement from users. Our research, part of which will be submitted for peer review later this year, aims to better understand the people who spread hate and misinformation on Facebook. We hoped to learn how they use the platform and, crucially, how Facebook responds. Based on prior reporting, we expected it would be ugly. What we found was much worse.

The most alarming aspect of our findings is that people like John, Michelle, and Calvin aren’t merely fringe trolls, or a distraction from what really matters on the platform. They are part of an elite, previously unreported class of users that produce more likes, shares, reactions, comments, and posts than 99 percent of Facebook users in America.

They’re superusers. And because Facebook’s algorithm rewards engagement, these superusers have enormous influence over which posts are seen first in other users’ feeds, and which are never seen at all. Even more shocking is just how nasty most of these hyper-influential users are. The most abusive people on Facebook, it turns out, are given the most power to shape what Facebook is.

This connects to a point I have been considering for a while now: the social media activity we tend to see or hear about is often not representative of society as a whole. It depends who is on different platforms, who uses it regularly or are power users, how algorithms work to highlight particular content, and how it is all experienced by users. A social media trend may not reveal much about broader patterns even as particular conversations, sites, and pockets of activity could reveal much about smaller groups or sections.

More broadly, Facebook says it has the goal of connecting people. How do superusers fit into this? Abusive users might be able to connect people, albeit in specific ways that may not be what people generally hope for when they think of connecting. Is the goal to connect people by boosting “average” engagement rather than the users who post the most? On the flip side, how many users do not engage at all and what might effectively move them into engaging regularly?

Social media and the Internet is not necessarily representative of society but they do overlap in important ways with the offline world

Watching dueling online and social media narratives can be quite a disorienting experience. Who is right? What are the facts? Does this story/anecdote/experience reflect and influence broader patterns in society?

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It is this last question that interests me as a sociologist who has studied social network site use among emerging adults. How much does online activity reflect daily life among all Americans or people around the world? How much influence does online activity exert?

It is not necessarily reflective of everyone and their experiences. For example, a small segment of users can create a lot of content and drive traffic. Of those who use social media, not everyone engages much, and others do not use social media at all or use other platforms. What happens online is not always generalizable to broader social activity.

Yet, the actors and actions online can have a powerful influence in both the online and offline world. The way material is presented in social media and the Internet – or in any form of media – can influence beliefs and behaviors. Even if many people are not aware of something online or do not find it themselves, it can be important for those who make decisions or those who are following a particular conversation.

This is another reason that we should consider the online and offline realms as overlapping spheres, not separate worlds. Yes, there are some actors who may act very differently online than offline. Yet, even these behaviors are joined together within an individual who is operating in both realms. Online discussions and trends find their way to the offline world as offline activity gets picked up online. Money, power, influence, and beliefs pass back and through the two realms.

Recognizing this does not make it easier to reconcile competing online narratives. But, it does highlight how these are not just meaningless online discussions; they are linked to offline patterns.