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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Research Update 5: Sprint, sprint, submit.

When do you plan to hand in? That evil question every doctoral candidate is peppered with pretty much from day one. You fumble around and propose a date. Even the most determined candidates are only guessing. The date is years away but slowly it creeps up.

You submit a chapter at a time and you present pieces of your work here and there. Eventually it is time to string it together. If you are like me, this is a pretty invigorating but all-consuming process. I worked in three four day chunks bringing things together and writing an introduction and conclusion (the first of which would be re-written and the second scrapped entirely). Those days were long and lonely.

I submitted and sat at my desk. I had stacks of cereal bowls and days worth of water glasses. I was in my pyjamas and had not been outside save to buy lunch from Whole Foods each day (the extra 5 minutes to the student friendly priced grocery store was just too valuable). I had expected to be elated that a full draft had been submitted but I was anxious instead. I still can’t pin-point why, but my stomach was in a knot and I pretty much just wanted to curl in bed and cry. Instead I took a shower. Then I curled up in bed.

A few weeks later comments were back from my two supervisors and it was time for sprint 2. Head down and off I went. This time I was also launching a non-profit organization aimed at increasing youth voter turnout. My days were as long but a little less lonely and a little more balanced. I took about three weeks. This time my feelings were much clearer. Happiness.

My supervisors and I talked about my timeline for submission. About how much time they each needed to read my penultimate draft and about how much time I needed to make corrections. Miscommunication or miscalculation, this caused me the most stress. Suffice it to say: you all need more time than you think. References will get mangled when you compile your document, other deadlines will come up and supervisors will need more time than anticipated, people will be on vacation, etc..

Most of my revisions came back to me on Saturday. I submitted on Wednesday. My final sprint was 4.5 days and I tell you, it felt like a month (or 7). Multiple times I considered postponing submission, once I thought about never submitting (I could be happy working at a burger joint, couldn’t I?) but mostly I thought about needing to just get it done. I could have kept working on it for weeks. I could still be working on it. I think I might feel like I could always still be working on it. Ultimately I didn’t have a choice – I was fortunate enough to be invited for two campus interviews and both were imminent which meant I needed to submit.

So, I submitted.

I thought I’d submit and simply feel happy. Maybe a little relief.

I felt those things but I also felt frustrated and angry and sad and anxious and proud and hopeful and giddy and silly and smart and bewildered. I was so completely overwhelmed.

But, it is submitted.

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Trace Interview Workshop at #SMSociety15

This morning Devin Gaffney and I ran a workshop on trace interviews at the Social Media and Society Conference. Trace interviews involve collecting and visualizing trace data (in this case, social media data, like tweets or likes). The researcher brings visualizations into the interview setting and invites the interviewee to help interpret the data. Since the interviewee is the person who left the trace data in the first place, their insight is valuable for understanding the context of communication, the validity of data and the meaning behind traceable online interactions.

Heather Ford and I describe the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in our International Journal of Communication article.

You can also check out the slides we used for this workshop. I will add a full bibliography shortly.

This is a mixed-methods approach in development. We would love to hear your feedback, suggestions, questions and concerns. We’d also love to hear about other research using similar techniques. Feel free to comment below, tweet or email.

Here is a simple network graph which visualizes the relationships among some of our workshop attendees. Each node (circle) is an attendee. The edges (lines) represent times one attendee has mentioned the other.

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New paper! Trace Interviews (in IJoC special on #qualpolcomm)

Last spring Heather Ford and I attended an ICA pre-conference on qualitative political communications researcher. The conference organizers went on to coordinate a special issue of the International Journal of Communications and invited us to contribute.

Our piece, along with the rest of the issue (which is pretty much just full of wonderful) is available free! Check it out.

Thanks so much to the incredibly hard working team of editors! Follow them: @mj_powers, @rasmus_kleis, @davekarpf and @kriessdaniel

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Research update 4: Confirmed, I am not down a rabbit hole.

At Oxford the last step before you submit your final doctoral thesis is called “Confirmation of Status.” Essentially it means: you think you have collected all your data and made a solid plan for writing, we are going to check you haven’t completely gone off the rails. You submit two full chapters, abstracts for all the rest and a plan for when you are going to finish writing. The experience has the potential to be fundamentally crushing. This is normally the first time anyone other than you and your supervisor reads your work as a (soon to be) whole.  While the fear of having turned down the wrong path is heavy, the experience can also be invigorating. They read your work and try to see the full story you have been dedicated to telling!

For me, Confirmation was just that, invigorating. I had exceptional assessors who had clearly not only read but taken time to think about what I had written. They were motivational even in their critiques and concerns. They were open to my explanations and treated the interview as a conversation about how this work could become as meaningful as possible.

I am looking at how political opinion leaders in Canada source and share political information. In particular I focus on what motivates these opinion leaders to choose different channels of communication for sharing facts and discussing politics (e.g. why Facebook over face-to-face conversation, or text message over Twitter). These opinion leaders are thought to be important political players because they help keep the non-engaged citizenry politically aware through personal influence. Since opinion leaders have a lot more channels of communication to choose from, the mechanism of influence is in question.

My assessors and I left the interview most excited about the strategic approach my interviewees take when it comes to communicating about politics. I am also pretty excited about the “trace interviewing” approach Heather Ford and I developed which helps contextualize social media trace data and gives a voice to the creator of those traces/acts of communication. We bring visualizations of a person’s social media data into an interview setting and jointly interpret those data which means we can explain things like why a person tweeted what they did and what that person thinks a Facebook like actually means. (Note: our paper is in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of International Communication but you can email me for a draft copy.)

Since passing confirmation at the start of February I’ve been busy writing back in Toronto where I am living for the year. I work out of the iSchool at the University of Toronto most days but also spend time at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communication.  I’ve also had the opportunity to present parts of my methods and discussion chapters and am headed to a doctoral workshop for late stage candidates at Princeton next month. It never ceases to amaze me how much easier it is to write once I have presented to an audience.

Desk at U of T

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

Mediated existence (and the failure of ‘no more Facebook’ resolutions)

Note: modified from lecture 2, MGMT 3603, Winter 2015.

It is rather pedestrian to say the Internet matters. It impacts our lives in countless ways. From how we bank to how we procrastinate to how we find love. We use the Internet to connect with colleagues around the world, to share pieces of our lives with friends and family via social media, to learn about new things, to entertain ourselves – the list goes on.

Thinking about the ways the Internet impacts our daily lives, one can imagine that the invention of the printing press similarly invaded most corners of human existence. Newspapers for information, books for entertainment, posters for marketing and passbooks for banking. Again, the list goes on. But that is not necessarily how print media were perceived.

For many, books and other media were long thought of as being on the outskirts of existence. They were tools that could be used or could be ignored. They were not crucial to life, at the heart of existence or the core of social interaction. In a CBC interview with the well known Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan, this very point is underlined. McLuhan is asked about the seemingly obvious fact that media are quite separate from human life. He rejects the accusation and instead asserts: “The media are at the heart of our lives because they work through our senses.”

What he means is this, without media we interact with the world around us via sight and sound and touch and taste and smell. Media allow us to extend those senses beyond our immediate surroundings. Like a ladder making us taller, or a car making us faster, media technology modifies our ability to connect with the world in important ways. The printed word allows us to speak permanently and hear the past. The television allows us to see into cities from far away and the living rooms and lives of others. We can see what is happening across the ocean because we can turn on a television (or, today, stream BBC World).

Assuming you can get behind the idea that interacting with the world is pretty core to human existence, media have to be seen as at the heart of our lives because media let us interact. Media are not simply found on the edges of life, at least not for those who want to be connected to society.

Thinking about it in the context of current media availability and in the cultural context of a western democracy like Canada, there are a lot of technologies we might like to think are disposable but in practice we can’t seem to shake.

The somehow classic, ‘I will spend less time on Facebook’ New Years resolution is a prime example. Sure, you can say I’ll spend less time on it but then a Professor assigns group work and you need an easy way to connect. You either need to use Facebook or find some other tool that is likely rather Facebook-like in order to ensure all group members stay connected consistently.

Similarly, you may say you want to protect your privacy and put less information online, but then you are job hunting and every company you apply to expects a LinkedIn profile and links to your blog.

Now, there is certainly a debate to be had about what media are central and which are not, how that differs for people cross-culturally and over time – the point is that much of our lives are mediated and will always be mediated.

From the business perspective, being tuned in and central to social life is invaluable. A business needs to be situated in such away that many people can find it and interact with it — that is whether it be finding new funders, maintaining relationships with suppliers, attracting customers or, quite frankly, most any other step in a business’ life cycle. For a time that meant an add in the Yellow Pages and good recommendations through customers. Then TV and radio spots were added to print advertisement and now online visibility has become crucial. We can’t escape a mediated life. 

In a course I teach called Beyond Google at Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management we are exploring these themes and taking it a step further. We are interested in understanding the various ways the Internet impacts and can be used within information management. The majority of this online class happens in a closed Blackboard Learning environment but periodically I’ll post some of the content here. Feedback welcome!

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee Lifetime Achievement Award

On November 7th 2014 I had the great pleasure of presenting Sir Tim Berners-Lee the OII Lifetime Achievement Award. Below is a copy of my remarks:

Good evening, my name is Elizabeth Dubois and I am a doctoral candidate at the OII. I am delighted to present the final award of this evening to the creator of the world wide web. Fun fact, I just so happen to be the same age as the world wide web.

Despite what a recent Twitter photo and t-shirt suggest, the inventor is Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

In 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN and proposed a project that would allow users of the Internet to share documents and information in a globally-standardized and open fashion.

By 1994, the world wide web and I were both five. I was busy trying to convince my mom to bring my pesky baby sister back to the hospital she came from, because, quite frankly, the shouting was bothersome. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on the other hand, was making it possible for the world to bring new information and ideas into their homes to an unprecedented degree. 1994 is the year Professor Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium which keeps the web we know and love running in a standardized way.

Over the ensuing two decades Sir Tim Berners-Lee articulated a vision of a World Wide Web which is open and free. He has directed the World Wide Web Foundation, been deeply engaged in open government data initiatives, advocated for a semantic web, taught, researched, and written – spending time most recently at MIT and the University of Southampton.

He has explained to us what it means to be connected.

He has equipped us with the tools we need to exchange information and communicate freely.

And, he has demonstrated to us that sharing information can be more valuable than controlling it.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, knighted in 2004 and a recipient of countless other awards and honours, has exhibited a commitment to making our lives better through the development of technology.

On Twitter he states, or perhaps implores, “let the web serve humanity.”

And so, in awe, we honour him tonight. Please join me in thanking Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his service to humanity as one of the most transformative figures, certainly in my lifetime if not everyone’s here, in the realm of information and communication technologies.

Thank you.

OII Awards

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