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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.

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“Does this make us better as a society? Perhaps not,” Donath admits. “We can imagine this being a selfish and media-driven world in which everyone vies for attention and no one takes responsibility for one another.” But she posits as well that “we can also imagine this being a world in which people are far more accepting of diverse ways and beliefs, one in which people are willing to embrace the new and different.”

In “Public Displays of Connection,” a 2004 paper they co-authored, Donath and Boyd noted, “In today’s society, access to information is a key element of status and power and communication is instant, ubiquitous and mobile. Social networking sites . . . are a product of this emerging culture.” They explain that the public display of connections on such sites is a signal that helps others in your network judge your reliability and trustworthiness. New communication technology encourages us to “bridge disparate clusters,” which in turn provide us “with access to new knowledge.” Trading our previous, offline privacy for shared online public displays of connections enables others to determine our credibility—and by extension, that of the news and information we may then share through the network.

Emerging social media also make it less costly to maintain looser or weak social ties. Such ties, “the kinds that exist among people one knows in a specific and limited context,” are “good sources of novel information,” say Donath and Boyd. “A person who has many weak yet heterogeneous ties has access to a wide range of information.” At a time when Mark Zuckerberg was still formulating Facebook in his dorm room, they predicted that, “In the future, the number of weak ties one can form and maintain may be able to increase substantially, because the type of communication that can be done more cheaply and easily with new technology is well suited for these ties. If this is true, it implies that the technologies that expand one’s social network will primarily result in an increase in available information and opportunities—all benefits of a large, heterogeneous network.”

In other words, by virtue of being in such a network, where one’s identity, trustworthiness, and reliability can be readily assessed, people may access more credible information as well. Although seemingly obvious now, their 2004 vision of “a scenario in which social networking software plays an increasingly important role in our lives,” was clearly prescient.

Some leading academic researchers, including Harvard’s Robert Putnam, Tom Sander, and Cass Sunstein, continue to question whether social media’s filtering function can really be adapted to help solve our credibility deficit and trust dilemma. But many others now recognize and accept the early but suggestive signs of the emerging media’s filtering capabilities. Zealots and skeptics alike, however, agree with Putnam, who notes that “although we are a decade into the Internet and eight years into online social networking,” more research into the delicate interplay between trust and persuasion, and how they actually function in an online environment, is still sorely needed.





Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.

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