What’s your thesis again?

Having recently completed my doctoral work a common question is “what is your thesis actually about again?” Well, here it is.

In my thesis (link) I look at the idea of the opinion leader – an average citizen who happens to care a lot about politics and pays attention to current affairs. In communication theory we assume opinion leaders act as a bridge between the political elite (think politicians and journalists) and the general public who don’t pay very close attention to what is going on politically. What I find is that digitally enabled opinion leaders actually work very hard to use their channels of communication to avoid anyone who is not already politically engaged. Digitally enabled opinion leaders (the one’s I interviewed at least) don’t like to be the bridge.

Let’s take a beat to unpack this.

Who cares if opinion leaders are or are not acting as a bridge?

You do! We know that there is a widening gap between the politically aware and unaware (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). We know people use digital channels of communication to avoid information they dislike or are not interested in (Prior, 2007). And we know that when people are not aware policy making becomes less responsive to citizen’s needs (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996) and people feel disconnected from their political system (OECD, 2011). In other words, democracy stops working (Dahl, 2000).

What makes any of this interesting or relevant now?

We’ve got a bunch of new channels of communication available to us – that’s all of us, elite, opinion leader or average Joe who hears JT and thinks Timberlake but not Trudeau.

More channels means more opportunities for sharing information and opinion. It also sometimes means new approaches to communicating politically (just think about citizen journalism or hashtag campaigns.) When it comes to opinion leaders, we don’t have a grasp on what channels of communication they are using, how or with what impact. I am talking about Facebook and Twitter sure, but even text messaging and email still need to be included.

Note: I base my work in the context of what Chadwick calls the hybrid media system (2013). Basically, Chadwick explains that lots of different political players have access to lots of different (and often overlapping) tools and tactics of communication. Opinion leaders are one kind of political player.

Fine, but why do these new channels impact the role of the opinion leader?

A lot of people have studied how opinion leaders go about informing the general public and it comes down to personal influence (see Katz, 1957 for an initial review). They use social pressure and social support to change the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of their everyday associates. This is normally done via face-to-face interpersonal communication since other options like broadcast are out of the question (a printing press has a rather large price tag).

But, you say, social media is cheap. Email is cheap. You’re right. New technologies throw the whole theory into question because we don’t actually know what opinion leadership looks like once we’ve got new channels.

What we do know is that these channels of communication open the door for accessing wide segments of the population via interpersonal (emails with mom), impersonal (broadcasting) and quasi-personal (mentioning someone on Twitter) communication.

The thing is, we used to assume that opinion leadership works because opinion leaders have a special social tie to the people who they influence. They know them well and interact with them regularly. There are a bunch of social influence theories that help us understand why we are more likely to be influenced by people who are like us and people who we spend a lot of time with – wanting to be a cool kid, for example, is pretty hardwired in our brains.

We also know that the most new information comes from people with whom we have only a weak tie, like the colleague from another city you only see in person during the annual staff retreat or the man who sells you veggies at the market (Grannovetter, 1973). That is because of a social phenomenon called homophily which basically means we surround ourselves by people like us – you know, birds of a feather flock together (McPhersen, Smith-Lovin, Cook, 2001).

So, where do people who are not interested in politics get political information from? Possibly weak ties. What information is likely to change the opinion of someone whose closest friends all think like them? Probably information from weak ties.

I’m lost, don’t you study social media?

Yup. Here it is, social media allow us to access and maintain close personal ties in new ways. Social media also allow us to access new ties and connect with people who have very diverse experiences, opinion and access to information. I wanted to know the impact of those channels (and other digital media) on the role of the opinion leader. When they talk about politics are they still able to be a bridge when they don’t have to rely on face-to-face communication? Is their influence greater because they can reach a lot more weak ties or is it limited because they try to communicate in a way that doesn’t let them capitalize on their social placement (it would be like the cool kid going to a new school and seeing if anyone starts to dress like them).

So, what do digitally enabled opinion leaders do?

Well, they make use of a lot of channels of communication for accessing information. Importantly this consistently includes accessing at least some mainstream media on a daily basis (from following them on Twitter to subscribing to the online version to turning on the radio).

When it comes to sharing information two distinct strategic approaches emerge. Some opinion leaders, who I call enthusiasts surround themselves with others who are equally passionate about politics. They use channels like Twitter and discussion boards to hone their arguments and to get a sense of what people with conflicting opinions think. It is something of an echo chamber of the politically engaged. On the other hand there are champions who act much the same except in situations of heightened political tension like a scandal or an election. Then these champions take it upon themselves to use every channel and tactic of communication they can to try and inform and influence people who are uninformed. They borrow the strategy of communications professionals and political elite to get their message across when they think it matters most.

Both enthusiasts and champions are trying to avoid the social risk of talking about politics with someone who won’t care.

What does this mean?

  1. Digital channels of communication are enabling a highly strategic opinion leader.
  2. Personal influence is not necessarily tied to interpersonal communication and so we need to think about the different types of influence these opinion leaders employ.
  3. Digitally enabled opinion leadership today is contributing to a much wider phenomenon where the vast majority of the public only become informed of political issues at moments of heightened tension (what I’ve been calling a just-in-time informed citizenry).

Communication theory and strategy both need to be responsive to these shifts.

 

A note on methods.

I am quite the methods geek which means a big part of my doctoral work was figuring out the best way to measure these things. I collected about 411 000 #CDNpoli tweets and created a friendship network of the users. Next, I conducted an online survey among #CDNpoli users. Finally, I did an in depth analysis of the communication practices of 21 opinion leaders from that network and 26 of their associates through interviews and analysis of Twitter and Facebook activities. There are obviously a lot of advantages and disadvantages to this mixed-methods approach so if you want to know more I am happy to chat. I’ve also published two journal articles on my methods and am happy to send you a copy of my thesis if you want to tackle the 336 page PDF.

Research questions.

In case you are interested,

RQ1 What are the modes of access to and dissemination of political messages by digitally enabled opinion leaders?

RQ2 What drives channel choice among digitally enabled opinion leaders when disseminating political information?

This question is broken down into six sub-questions (in my theory chapter I connect each to a specific body of existing research beyond the broader bodies of work noted above):

  • RQ2.1 How does the richness/leanness of media channels influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choice?
  • RQ2.2 How does the social appropriateness of exchanging political messages (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.3 How does the political climate influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.4 How does one’s sense of community (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.5 How does the strength of social ties to their audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.6 How does knowledge about one’s audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?

RQ3 What are the impacts of the channel choices made by opinion leaders on their political role?

References:

  • Chadwick, A. (2013). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.
  • Dahl, R. A. (2000). On Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans don’t know about politics and why it matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6), pp. 1360–1380.
  • Katz, E. (1957, March). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to date report on an hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 21 (1), 61–78.
  • OECD. (2011). Civic engagement and governance (How’s Life?: Measuring Wellbeing). OECD Publishing.
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Internet School Podcast!

Last week I got to chat with two future Masters of the Internet (they are in the MSc in the Social Sciences of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute aka OII). They are starting up an awesome new podcast called the Internet School Podcast, or ISP for short (get it?). Here it is!

Why is this podcast so awesome? These two (brilliant and articulate) women are taking a look at the impact of the Internet of social life is a really interesting way. They have a perspective that you just can’t get elsewhere. They are young and eager. They are living and studying in the heart of Internet studies (ok, ok, I may be a little bias towards the OII…) but instead of burrowing down into the depths of academic study they are opening up and looking out at the world. They are connecting academia, news, and their own experiences as Internet users to reflect on what this all means.

Check it out.

ISP

Confession time: I forgot about email!

In my research I am trying to understand the political communication patterns of digitally enabled citizens. I sampled from the #CDNpoli Twitter network but my interest goes beyond Twitter. I have gone to great lengths to include a wide range of social media and non-digital channels of communication in my list of tools I always ask about. What I didn’t include was email.

Of course email consistently came up in interviews and once I realized my mistake I added it into the list of things I wanted to hear about. To be fair, I also hadn’t included Vine but I think it is safe to say, given usage rates, that one is a bit more understandable.

Now, forgetting about email could be written off as a silly error of a young researcher, but I like to think I am pretty rigorous when it comes to methods. I looked at multiple nationally representative surveys, I did a deep dive into the literature, I sought out advice from many experienced researchers — yet I still did not realize the channel was missing until I got into the field.

I think the problem is that I bought into the idea of “new” and “old” forms of communication. Of course, we don’t use those words anymore. “New” is taboo, the cool term is “social.” But the result is the same, we categorize types of communication tools/channels in specific ways so a given term broadly includes a certain range of tools. These categories are useful because they allow us to reduce complexity and to compare across types.

But there are a few issues. “Social,” is a pretty limited subset of digital communication technologies, and for most, email is not one of those. Further, email isn’t all that new anymore. From my small sample alone, multiple interviewees got their first email accounts in the 1980’s, over a quarter of a century ago!

Unfortunately email is without a home in the most common dichotomous (two options, this or that) categorization schemes. Email is not an “old” channel of communication either. “Old” is reserved for paint on slabs of rock and fireside stories, right? Ok, ok, maybe the printing press, radio, television and telephone count too.

Clearly I’ve only glossed over these categorizations and there are a lot of factors (like acts the technology affords its users, or integration of technology into domestic life) that I’ve not discussed. Maybe I did just make a silly grad student mistake, but for me there is an important lesson here: categorization is a moving target and when we compare the newest to the “old” we risk forgetting about the middle ground. That middle ground, in the case of email, just so happens to be a potentially important site of communication, an indicator of technology adoption, and/or an intervening variable in other communicative processes.

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A note on mistakes.

I was told recently that, particularly as a grad student, having a blog like this is “brave.” I am opening up my process to you all. You get to judge me based on my incomplete projects. Perhaps more pointedly, employers get to judge me on incomplete thoughts and ideas which is a risk. That said, I think the benefit to me, my study participants and potentially (read: hopefully one day) others outweighs the risks.

I think working out my ideas in a non-journal article or thesis chapter format makes my ideas clearer and arguments stronger.

I think writing for a non-academic audience makes my work more accessible to my participants and the broader population I am interested in which has positive implications for both informed consent and ensuring validity.

I think opening up the black box of the academic process can be valuable for academics, particular us newbies, trying to sort out the next steps and for potential employers looking for people who’s workflow fits with the values of their institution.

Research Update 3: To the field!

I did it. This spring I went out and spoke to people. Real, actual, breathing human beings. In the flesh.

I am really interested in how people are (or are not) making use of social media tools in their everyday political lives. I am particularly interested in those politicos who can’t seem to get enough information about current affairs and always seem to be in the know – but – who are not professional political players. I am talking about opinion leaders. They are the ones always telling you about what the next important policy decision is, how Canada should be dealing with climate change, whether a gun registry is good or bad, etc..

So, this spring I left my cozy (read: overly hot and poorly ventilated) Oxford workspace and headed home. I traveled across Canada to speak to 23 opinion leaders from four different cities/areas: Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver/Victoria. Here are some things I learned:

  • Fieldwork is exhausting, possibly more exhausting than the other kind of work on fields I do (which is really saying something if you have ever played 80 minutes of rugby). I made the mistake of thinking, oh, my interviews should take about 1.5-2 hours, I’ll book off 2.25 hours and be fine. No. I needed 3 hours in the room and then a good long run (or Netflix marathon) to recuperate after each.
  • People like to tell stories, even when they have nothing to do with your questions. Some times these stories are really interesting. Some times you inadvertently find out that a person’s everyday political chat has been digital since the 80s and that your interviewee is part of a discussion group that transitioned from BBS to listserv to private Facebook group. Other times you learn a person recently lost their main weed supplier.
  • Prepare to be flexible. Times change right up to the last minute, technology fails right before you are about to start the interview, people just can’t wrap their head around what you are trying to get them to do – there are a lot of reasons to be very prepared for the interview to take a very different path than originally planned. Rather than an interview schedule and notes sheet I thought of the paper on my clipboard as a data container. The pages were partitioned according to the information I needed to gather so that if things went off track I knew exactly which holes I needed to go back and fill before time ran out.

With the interviews complete I am now diving into data analysis. I’ve got NVivo for Mac set up and the first of my interviews have been coded. The schedule is, of course, a bit of a mess at this point – but the initial themes are intriguing and everyday there is very tangible progress to be chronicled.

It is a very different feeling than days of familiarizing your self with the literature. It is exhilarating.

Interview Materials

Research Update 2: Summer at the Social Media Lab

From being cited in an Anonymous press release and speaking live on Sun TV, to attending my first slue of conferences and giving my first public lecture, this summer certainly has been full of excitement!

Last I checked in I’d just completed my Transfer of Status, the first milestone in my PhD program. I left Oxford for the summer, sites set on home (Nova Scotia, Canada), where I took up a position as a Visiting Scholar at the Dalhousie Social Media Lab from the end of June through to the beginning of October.

While at the Lab I focused primarily on my own work including preparing for multiple conferences and identifying my list of potential interviewees. I was very fortunate to have been welcomed with open arms — I had the opportunity to present my early thesis work to faculty and students within the Computer Science Faculty, the Information Management Faculty, and to political science undergraduate students.

I also helped the Social Media Lab organize their annual conference, this year called the Social Media and Society 2013 Conference. (I presented work Devin Gaffney and I have been doing on identifying influentials in Twitter networks).

Most recently, I took the lead on the Twitter analysis of the Nova Scotia Election, at the Social Media Lab. We wrote a number of blogs (here, here, and here), and will hopefully produce an academic paper in the coming months.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from this summer, I think it is the importance of connecting with people from all over. Every time I said yes to an interview, a conference, or a speaking engagement, I met new and interesting people with new and interesting perspectives. I’ve been able to start to build a base which can be hard to do when you get stuck in the Oxford bubble.

One of the things that makes me a particularly efficient DPhil student is my focus. When I set out a list of goals for myself I commit fully to the tasks required to achieve those goals. It is easy to spend hours in the office only to be so exhausted at the end of the day I can barely drag myself to rugby training and then home to bed. The last thing I want to do is go to a lecture (however interesting it may be) or a reception (regardless of what yummy treats are on offer) where I have to look presentable and say semi-intelligent things.

Clearly those periods of intense focus are important, but connecting with others – that is a big part of what I want to do also. If I want to help bridge the gap between academic and the general public, I need to be able to find times and places that facilitate that interaction. This summer has been a wonderful step in that direction.

Up next?

I am back in Oxford running Research Methods workshops for MSc students here at the OII, working as a Research Assistant on Bill Dutton’s Fifth Estate project, and working on the literature review and methods chapters of my thesis.

I've been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.

I’ve been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.