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Public Displays of Connection: How Social Media Can Help Repair the News' Trust Problem

In his new book "Friends, Followers and the Future," Rory O'Connor explains how social media helps us form broader connections and stay aware of opposing views.

Photo Credit: City Lights


Excerpted from  Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media by Rory O'Connor, just published by City Lights.  Alternet co-presents Rory O'Connor at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco on Tuesday, May 1st, 7pm.  Event info here


Long-held conventional beliefs about social networks and the formation of social capital are now running headlong into an area of computer science known as “network theory.” The game-changing power of online social networks is derived most notably from their facilitation of the formation of groups, thus making it easier than ever before to stay in touch with more people with disparate points of view. By greatly decreasing what academic researchers call the “transactional cost of creating bridging social capital,” the tools and technology offered by emerging media enable the finding and sharing of credible news and information through trusted friends and followers—curators and influencers—thus presenting an intriguing possible solution to our ongoing trust dilemma.

Nicco Mele, who ran online operations during the groundbreaking Howard Dean presidential campaign of 2004 (see Chapter 11), describes the theory’s three basic laws as Moore’s Law, which holds that processing power doubles every two years; Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value of a network depends on number of users of a system; and finally, Reed’s Law that the value of a network is directly related to the ability to form groups within it. In sum, Mele says, network theory dictates that “any relatively large group-forming network will inevitably create what is known as the ‘network effect,’” the phenomenon whereby a service becomes more valuable as more people use it, thereby encouraging ever-increasing numbers of adopters.

“When social capital and community meet online, the result can be a large, group-forming social network that is extremely diverse, highly credible and very powerful,” he explains.

Mele echoes Stanford’s BJ Fogg in describing his Facebook feed as “a personalized newspaper put out by my friends.” He believes “Community, trust and persuasion are the keys to both media and political activism in the future,” and adds, “Persuasion and trust are still largely not understood, but there are trends that we do understand. The first is that we can always depend on a proliferation of emerging media forms over time; another is that a convergence of communication and community is rapidly approaching.”

As we have seen, Mele’s belief in the utility of social media’s tools and technology is supported by a growing corpus of academic research. When a team at Michigan State University, for example, examined the use of Facebook by undergraduate students over three years, using surveys, interviews, and automated capture of the MSU Facebook site in an effort to understand how and why the students were using the social network, “What we found surprised us,” Assistant professor of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media Nicole Ellison told the authors of the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog. “Our survey included questions designed to assess students’ ‘social capital,’ a concept that describes the benefits individuals receive from their relationships with others. Undergraduates who used Facebook intensively had higher bridging social capital scores than those who didn’t.”

The students found that Facebook helped them maintain or strengthen their relationships with people they didn’t know that well, but who still could provide them with useful information and ideas. They used the site to look up old high school acquaintances, to find out information about people in their classes or dorms that might be used to strike up a conversation, to get contact information for friends, and many other activities. Such tools, which enabled them to engage in online self-presentation and connect with others, “will be increasingly part of our social and professional landscape, as social network sites continue to be embraced by businesses, non-profits, civic groups, and political organizations that value the connections these tools support,” says Ellison.

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