‘Next Steps in Social Media’ was the title on the programme; the speaker (Dr Paul Coulton) had apparently wanted to call it something much more earthy…
This was a seminar organised by InfoLab21, and I don’t remember academia being so much fun. For example, Dr Coulton has a database full of tweets referencing the Royal Wedding (what insights is he planning to mine from those?) and showed us a number of slides tracking the flow of tweets and Facebook likes during the course of the X Factor.
Popular culture? Well, yes, but a long way from the popular perception of media studies. His analysis demonstrated, for example, that the volume and rate of tweeting about the X Factor was not reflected in behaviour and in the actual results: one candidate, although with a significant quantity of social approval, actually received fewer votes. However, even if social approval can’t be used to predict the result, business decisions can usefully be made—and no doubt are being made by the media moguls—by analysing the difference between the demographic using social media to express their views, and that which acts.
The seminar discussed theories of how social networks are designed to meet some of our basic psychological needs. For example:
- Facebook supports the need to maintain close ties within a group by ‘grooming’ behaviour; small social interactions that recognise the ‘other’ as significant, and reassert the ties between individuals
- Twitter supports our love of gossip: he said this; she did that; pass it on.
If you can understand something of human psychology, then you can see how our behaviour on social networks can be – and is being – manipulated into behaviours that can benefit someone else, such as a company. Often these behaviour manipulations are overt, or can easily be spotted with experience… if you do X, you’ll get Y and we’ll get Z.
But sometimes it is less clear to the individual. Without at least a superficial understanding of some psychological theories of reinforcement, for example, individuals may well remain ignorant of the extent to which they are being manipulated: such as by being rewarded with badges for repeated behaviours (for growing 5 different kinds of tree in Farmville, for example, or by returning repeatedly to check in at the same location to retain their mayoral position via FourSquare).
In another example, people may not be aware that they are training themselves into addictive behaviour by repeatedly checking for new email, or retweets; the intermittent reward is more satisfying than if they were rewarded every time.
Manipulation is of course true of offline activity as well, and for all that our children are categorised as digital natives, this kind of hidden persuasion online may remain hidden from them, just as it may be offline. My father tells of a colleague who educated his children to ask themselves ‘what’s the lie?’ every time they saw an advert. While I wouldn’t go this far, I do think that an understanding of how such things work is valuable.
And that, I think, should be at least part of the point of ‘media studies’.
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