No place for news in social network web sites?1



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No place for news in social network web sites?1

Mike Thelwall

Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group, School of Computing and Information Technology, University of Wolverhampton, Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton WV1 1SB, UK. E-mail: m.thelwall@wlv.ac.uk

Tel: +44 1902 321470 Fax: +44 1902 321478


Abstract

Purpose To assess the extent to which the news is discussed in social network web sites.

Design/methodology/approach This article reports a quantitative analysis of the text of 26,953 Live Spaces from September 2006 to February 2007 using a heuristic designed to detect news discussions. In addition, a comparative link and page analysis of 20 general popular social network environments (e.g., MySpace, Facebook) and 11 popular blog environments (e.g., Typepad, Blogger) is presented.

Findings The text analysis suggests that news plays little role in most Live Spaces, but the link and page analysis suggest that the key difference is less between social network environments and blog environments than between free standardised environments (e.g., MySpace, Blogger) and professional or semi-professional blogs, with the former tending to carry relatively little news-related content.

Research limitations The methods used are exploratory rather than giving definitive conclusions.

Practical implications Those interested in public reactions to the news should focus on blogs and blog-like social network sites rather than general social network sites, and should expect only a tiny proportion of the discussions to be news-related.


Originality/value Although the role of blogs in reporting, discussing, and making the news has been frequently analysed, this is the first study about the extent to which general social networking sites engage with (mass media) news.

Introduction

Blogs, web sites containing a series of dated postings in reverse chronological order, are now recognised as being sometimes influential in politics and the news (e.g., Elmer et al., 2007; Smith, 2006; Trammell & Britton, 2005; Wall, 2005). The most popular ‘A-list’ blogs (Trammell & Keshelashvili, 2005), such as instapundit.com, have hundreds of thousands of weekly readers. Many journalists now maintain blogs as part of their job, and sometimes amateur bloggers even create news that is later picked up by the mainstream media, as in the case of Senator Lott (Thompson, 2003). Blogs seem to be an opportunity for increased democracy: potentially a medium which enables the public to debate with each other and even with their representatives (Coleman, 2005). Blogspace is thus possibly a new virtual “public sphere” (Habermas, 1989) in which politics and other events can be widely discussed, although it is not clear whether blogs primarily support genuine debate or mainly promote discussion within communities of like-minded individuals (Sunstein, 2004; Thompson, 2003).

By 2007, general purpose social network environments, such as MySpace, had become more common than blogs; for instance MySpace was the top visited site for U.S. web users (Prescott, 2007). Many social network sites contain blogs as part of their functionality and so it is logical to ask whether social networks engage with the news as much as blogs, especially since there has been considerable discussion of news blogging and very little discussion of news in social networks. Do social networks continue and extend blogs’ news coverage or do they represent a step inwards from the political to the personal? In other words, if people switch from blogging so social networking – either by changing site or because their blog site adds social networking functionalities – will this reduce the amount of news-related discussion that they post online, particularly for political news? This is an awkward question to answer since the majority of blogs have a different character to the most-read blogs: in the past the majority of blog authors were probably U.S. college students (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, & Wright, 2004) and most blogs are probably essentially personal online diaries that are of interest only to the authors and their friends (Herring, Scheidt, Kouper, & Wright, 2006).

No research has systematically investigated popular general social networks (defined below) to discover the extent to which news-related topics are discussed. Only one previously published paper on social networks seems to touch significantly on the news, although its goal is to discuss the ethics of publication and policing of blogs and social network sites (Snyder, Carpenter, & Slauson, 2006). Hence there is a lack of knowledge about the relationship between social network sites and the news; for instance: is the news extensively discussed in popular general social network sites or is it ghettoised to digg.com and blogs? The focus on popular general social network sites rather than specialist news sites is a deliberate one, motivated by a desire to investigate whether news-related debate is taking place amongst a wider public than those with a particular interest in politics or the news. If there has been a genuine upsurge in news discussion triggered by the increasing use by the population of many nations of social network environments then this would have important implications for democracy. Western-style democracy focuses around occasional elections and has been consequently been criticised as being superficial and media-driven (Curran, 2005; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Schudson, 2003, p. 46). An upsurge in popular ongoing news debate could potentially undermine the power of the media and widen democracy in the sense of allowing more people to publicly debate governmental decisions more often. Conversely, an increasing volume of online news debate may give new opportunities for the media and politicians to use data mining techniques (e.g., Gruhl, Guha, Kumar, Novak, & Tomkins, 2005; Thelwall, & Stuart, 2007) to directly discover and react to public opinion, either by responding to pressure or by developing more effective or targeted persuasion strategies. The information gained from online investigations into news discussion would be much more valuable and persuasive if it was known that a significant percentage of the population engaged in online news-related discussion, rather than just a small active minority.

Although not attempting to provide definitive answers to the complex issue of the extent to which news is discussed in general social network sites, the following questions are addressed as a preliminary step in this extended pilot study.


  • Do news events appear amongst the major topics of discussion in general popular social network environments?

  • Are major news events debated in common general social network environments significantly less than in blog environments?

Note that the term “social network site” is ambiguous: it could refer to the space of an individual user or a large social network environment like MySpace. In this article, the word “site” is used for both contexts but “environment” to avoid ambiguity when referring to a social network environment, and “space” for all of the content created by an individual user.



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