Tag Archives: social network

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How science is presented and consumed on Facebook

This post is a breakdown of the Pew study titled The Science People See on Social Media, published March 21, 2018. Without further ado…

In an effort to better understand the science information that social media users encounter on these platforms, Pew Research Center systematically analyzed six months’ worth of posts from 30 of the most followed science-related pages on Facebook. These science-related pages included 15 popular Facebook accounts from established “multiplatform” organizations … along with 15 popular “Facebook-primary” accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.

Is popularity the best way to judge if a Facebook page counts as a page about science? Popularity is an easy measure but it often almost exclusively represents a section of the ‘market’ skewed towards popular science. Some such pages from the Pew dataset include facebook.com/healthdigest, /mindbodygreen, /DailyHealthTips, /DavidAvocadoWolfe and /droz – all “wellness” brands that may not represent the publication of scientific content as much as, more broadly, content that panders to a sense of societal insecurity that is not restricted to science. This doesn’t limit the Pew study insofar as the study aims to elucidate what passes off as ‘science’ on Facebook but it does limit Pew’s audience-specific insights.

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… just 29% of the [6,528] Facebook posts from these pages [published in the first half of 2017] had a focus or “frame” around information about new scientific discoveries.

Not sure why the authors, Paul Hitlin and Kenneth Olmstead, think this is “just” 29% – that’s quite high! Science is not just about new research and research results, and if these pages are consciously acknowledging that on average limiting their posts about such news to three of every 10 posts, that’s fantastic. (Of course, if the reason for not sharing research results is that they’re not very marketable, that’s too bad.)

I’m also curious about what counts as research on the “wellness” pages. If their posts share research to a) dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the page authors’ worldview or b) popularise studies that are, say, pursuing a causative link between coffee consumption and cancer, then such data is useless.

From 'The science people see on social media'. Credit: Pew Research Center

From ‘The science people see on social media’. Credit: Pew Research Center

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The volume of posts from these science-related pages has increased over the past few years, especially among multiplatform pages. On average, the 15 popular multiplatform Facebook pages have increased their production of posts by 115% since 2014, compared with a 66% increase among Facebook-primary pages over the same time period. (emphasis in the original)

The first line in italics is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not a discovery. This is because the “multiplatform organisations” chosen by Pew for analysis all need to make money, and all organisations that need to continue making money need to grow. Growth is not an option, it’s a necessity, and it often implies growth on all platforms of publication in quantity and (hopefully) quality. In fact, the “Facebook-primary” pages, by which Hitlin and Olmstead mean “accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet”, are also driven to grow for the same reason: commerce, both on Facebook and off. As the authors write,

Across the set of 30 pages, 16% of posts were promotional in nature. Several accounts aimed a majority of their posts at promoting other media and public appearances. The four prominent scientists among the Facebook-primary pages posted fewer than 200 times over the course of 2017, but when they did, a majority of their posts were promotions (79% of posts from Dr. Michio Kaku, 78% of posts from Neil deGrasse Tyson, 64% of posts from Bill Nye and 58% of posts from Stephen Hawking). Most of these were self-promotional posts related to television appearances, book signings or speeches.

A page with a few million followers is likelier than not to be a revenue-generating exercise. While this is by no means an indictment of the material shared by these pages, at least not automatically, IFL Science is my favourite example: its owner Elise Andrews was offered $30 million for the page in 2015. I suspect that might’ve been a really strong draw to continue growing, and unfortunately, many of the “Facebook-primary” pages like IFLS find this quite easy to do by sharing well-dressed click-bait.

Second, if Facebook is the primary content distribution channel, then the number of video posts will also have shown an increase in the Pew data – as it did – because publishers both small and large that’ve made this deal with the devil have to give the devil whatever it wants. If Facebook says videos are the future and that it’s going to tweak its newsfeed algorithms accordingly, publishers are going to follow suit.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

So when Hitlin and Olmstead say, “Video was a common feature of these highly engaging posts whether they were aimed at explaining a scientific concept, highlighting new discoveries, or showcasing ways people can put science information to use in their lives”, they’re glossing over an important confounding factor: the platform itself. There’s a chance Facebook is soon going to say VR is the next big thing, and then there’s going to be a burst of posts with VR-mediated content. But that doesn’t mean the publishing houses themselves believe VR is good or bad for sharing science news.

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The average number of user interactions per post – a common indicator of audience engagement based on the total number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts. From January 2014 to June 2017, Facebook-primary pages averaged 14,730 interactions per post, compared with 4,265 for posts on multiplatform pages. This relationship held up even when controlling for the frame of the post. (emphasis in the original)

Again, Hitlin and Olmstead refuse to distinguish between ‘legitimate’ posts and trash. This would involve a lot more work on their part, sure, but it would also make their insights into science consumption on the social media that much more useful. But until then, for all I know, “the average number of user interactions per post … tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts” simply because it’s Gwyneth Paltrow wondering about what stones to shove up which orifices.

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… posts on Facebook-primary pages related to federal funding for agencies with a significant scientific research mission were particularly engaging, averaging more than 122,000 interactions per post in the first half of 2017.

Now that’s interesting and useful. Possible explanation: Trump must’ve been going nuts about something science-related. [Later in the report] Here it is: “Many of these highly engaging posts linked to stories suggesting Trump was considering a decrease in science-agency funding. For example, a Jan. 25, 2017, IFLScience post called Trump’s Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means was shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook and had 62,000 likes and other reactions.”

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Highly engaging posts among these pages did not always feature science-related information. Four of the top 15 most-engaging posts from Facebook-primary pages featured inspirational sayings or advice such as “look after your friends” or “believe in yourself.”

Does mental-health-related messaging on the back of new findings or realisations about the need for, say, speaking out on depression and anxiety count as science communication? It does to me; by all means, it’s “news I can use”.

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Three of the Facebook-primary pages belong to prominent astrophysicists. Not surprisingly, about half or more of the posts on these pages were related to astronomy or physics: Dr. Michio Kaku (58%), Stephen Hawking (58%) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (48%).

Ha! It would be interesting to find out why science’s most prominent public authority figures in the last few decades have all been physicists of some kind. I already have some ideas but that’ll be a different post.

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Useful takeaways for me as science editor, The Wire:

  1. Pages that stick to a narrower range of topics do better than those that cover all areas of science
  2. Controversial topics such as GMOs “didn’t appear often” on the 30 pages surveyed – this is surprising because you’d think divisive issues would attract more audience engagement. However, I also imagine the pages’ owners might not want to post on those issues to avoid flame wars (😐), stay away from inconclusive evidence (😄), not have to take a stand that might hurt them (🤔) or because issue-specific nuances make an issue a hard-sell (🙄).
  3. Most posts that shared discoveries were focused on “energy and environment, geology, and archeology”; half of all posts about physics and astronomy were about discoveries

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

The blog and the social media

Because The Wire had signed up to be some kind of A-listed publisher with Facebook, The Wire‘s staff was required to create Facebook Pages under each writer/editor’s name. So I created the ‘Vasudevan Mukunth’ page. Then, about 10 days ago, Facebook began to promote my page on the platform, running ads for it that would appear on people’s timelines across the network. The result is that my page now has almost as many likes as The Wire English’s Facebook Page: 320,000+. Apart from sharing my pieces from The Wire, I now use the page to share my blog posts as well. Woot!

Action on Twitter hasn’t far behind either. I’ve had a verified account on the microblogging platform for a few months now. And this morning, Twitter rolled out the expanded tweet character limit (from 140 to 280) to everyone. For someone to whom 140 characters was a liberating experience – a mechanical hurdle imposed on running your mouth and forcing you to think things through (though many choose not to) – the 280-char limit is even more so.

How exactly? An interesting implication discussed in this blog post by Twitter is that allowing people to think 280 characters at a time allowed them to be less anxious about how they were going to compose their tweets. The number of tweets hitting the character limit dropped from 9% during the 140-char era to 1% in the newly begun 280-char era. At the same time, people have continued to tweet within the 140-char most of the time. So fewer tweets were being extensively reworked or abandoned because people no longer composed them with the anxiety of staying within a smaller character limit.

But here’s the problem: most of my blog’s engagement had already been happening on the social media. As soon as I published a post, WordPress’s Jetpack plugin would send an email to 4brane’s 3,600+ subscribers with the full post, post the headline + link on Twitter and the headline + blurb + image + link on Facebook. Readers would reply to the tweet, threading their responses if they had to, and drop comments on Facebook. But on the other hand, the number of emails I’ve been receiving from my subscribers has been dropping drastically, as has the number of comments on posts.

I remember my blogging habit having taken a hit when I’d decided to become more active on Twitter because I no longer bore, fermented and composed my thoughts at length, with nuance. Instead, I dropped them as tweets as and when they arose, often with no filter, building it out through conversations with my followers. The 280-char limit now looks set to ‘scale up’ this disruption by allowing people to be more free and encouraging them to explore more complex ideas, aided by how (and how well, I begrudgingly admit) Twitter displays tweet-threads.

Perhaps – rather hopefully – the anxiety that gripped people when they were composing 140-char tweets will soon grip them as they’re composing 280-char tweets as well. I somehow doubt 420-char tweets will be a thing; that would make the platform non-Twitter-like. And hopefully the other advantages of having a blog, apart from the now-lost ‘let’s have a conversation’ part, such as organising information in different ways unlike Twitter’s sole time-based option, will continue to remain relevant.

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Ello! I love you, let me jump in your game!

This is a guest post contributed by Anuj Srivas. Formerly a tech. reporter and writer for The Hindu, he’s now pursuing an MSc. at the Oxford Internet Institute, and blogging for Sciblogger.

If there were ever an artifact to which Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ would be best applicable, it would be Ello. The rapidly-growing social network – much like the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ – is quickly turning out to be something of a Rorschach test: people look at it and see what they wish to see.

Like all political slogans, Ello’s manifest is becoming an inkblot onto which we can project our innermost ideologies. It is almost instructive to look at the wide range of reactions, if only for the fact that it tells us something about the way in which we will build the future of the Web.

Optimists and advocates of privacy take a look at Ello and see the start of something new, or view it as a chance to refresh the targeted-advertising foundations of our Web. The most sceptical of this lot, however, point towards the company’s venture capital funding and sneer.

Technology and business analysts look at Ello and see a failed business model; one that is doomed from the start. Feminists and other minority activists look at the company’s founders and notice the appalling lack of diversity. Utopian Internet intellectuals like Clay Shirky see Ello as a way to reclaim conversational discourse on the Internet, even if it doesn’t quite achieve it just yet.

What do I see in the Ello inkblot? Two things.

The first is that Ello, if it gains enough traction, will become an example of whether the free market is capable of providing a social network alternative that respects privacy.

For the last decade, one of the biggest debates among netizens has been whether we should take steps (legal or otherwise) to safeguard values such as privacy on the Internet. One of the most vocal arguments against this has been that “if the demand for the privacy is so great, then the market will notice the demand and find some way to supply it”.

Ello is seemingly the first proper, privacy-caring, centralized social network that the market has spit out (Diaspora was more of a social creation that was designed to radically change online social networks, which was in all likelihood what caused its stagnation). In this way, the VC funding gives Ello a greater chance to provide a better experience – even if it does prove to be the spark that leads to the company’s demise.

If Ello succeeds and continues to stick to its espoused principles, then that’s one argument settled.

The second point pertains to all that Ello does not represent. Sociologist Nathan Jurgensen has an excellent post on Ello where he lashes out at how online social networks are still being built by only technology geeks. He writes:

This [Ello] is yet another example of social media built by coders and entrepreneurs, but no central role for those expert in thinking about and researching the social world. The people who have decided they should mediate our social interactions and write a political manifesto have no special expertise in the social or political.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. One of the more prominent theories regarding technology and its implications is the ‘social shaping of technology’. It theorizes that technology is not born and developed in a vacuum – it is instead very much shaped and created by relevant social groups. There is little doubt that much of today’s technology and online services is skewed very disproportionately – the number of social groups that are involved in the creation of an online social network is minuscule compared to the potential reach and influence of the final product. Ello is no different when it comes to this.

It is a combination of these two points that sums up the current, almost tragic state of affairs. The technology and digital tools of today are very rarely created, or deployed, keeping in mind the needs of the citizen. They usually are brought to life from some entrepreneur’s or venture capitalist’s PowerPoint presentation and then applied to real world situations.

Is Ello the anti-Facebook that we need? Perhaps. Is it the one we deserve? Probably not.

A revisitation inspired by Facebook's opportunities

When habits form, rather become fully formed, it becomes difficult to recognize the drive behind its perpetuation. Am I still doing what I’m doing for the habit’s sake, or is it that I still love what I do and that’s why I’m doing it? In the early stages of habit-formation, the impetus has to come from within – let’s say as a matter of spirit – because it’s a process of creation. Once the entity has been created, once it is fully formed, it begins to sustain itself. It begins to attract attention, the focus of other minds, perhaps even the labor of other wills. That’s the perceived pay-off of persevering at the beginning, persevering in the face of nil returns.

But where the perseverance really makes a difference is when, upon the onset of that dull moment, upon the onset of some lethargy or the writers’ block, we somehow lose the ability to set apart fatigue-of-the-spirit and suspension-of-the-habit. If I no longer am able to write, even if at least for a day or so, I should be able to tell the difference between that pit-stop and a perceived threat of the habit starting to become endangered. If we don’t learn to make that distinction – which is more palpable than fine or blurry most of the time – then we will have have persevered for nothing but perseverance’s sake.

This realization struck me after I opened a Facebook page for my blog so that, given my incessant link-sharing on the social network, only the people who wanted to read the stuff I shared could sign-up and receive the updates. I had no intention earlier to use Facebook as anything but a socialization platform, but after my the true nature of my activity on Facebook was revealed to me (by myself), I realized my professional ambitions had invaded my social ones. So, to remind myself why the social was important, too, I decided to stop sharing news-links and analyses on my timeline.

However, after some friends expressed excitement – that I never quite knew was there – about being able to avail my updates in a more cogent manner, I understood that there were people listening to me, that they did spend time reading what I had to say on science news, etc., not just from on my blog but also from wherever I decided to post it! At the same moment, I thought to myself, “Now, why am I blogging?” I had no well-defined answer, and that’s when I knew my perseverance was being misguided by my own hand, misdirected by my own foolishness.

I opened astrohep.wordpress.com in January, 2011, and whatever science- or philosophy-related stories I had to tell, I told here. After some time, during a period coinciding with the commencement of my formal education in journalism, I started to use isnerd more effectively: I beat down the habit of using big words (simply because they encapsulated better whatever I had to say) and started to put some effort in telling my stories differently, I did a whole lot of reading before and while writing each post, and I used quotations and references wherever I could.

But the reason I’d opened this blog stayed intact all the time (or at least I think it did): I wanted to tell my science/phil. stories because some of the people around me liked hearing them and I thought the rest of the world might like hearing them, too.

At some point, however, I crossed over into the other side of perseverance: I was writing some of my posts not because they were stories people might like to hear but because, hey, I was a story-writer and what do I do but write stories! I was lucky enough to warrant no nasty responses to some absolutely egregious pieces of non-fiction on this blog, and parallely, I was unlucky enough to not understand that a reader, no matter how bored, never would want to be presented crap.

Now, where I used to draw pride from pouring so much effort into a small blog in one corner of WordPress, I draw pride from telling stories somewhat effectively – although still not as effectively as I’d like. Now, astrohep.wordpress.com is not a justifiable encapsulation of my perseverance, and nothing is or will be until I have the undivided attention of my readers whenever I have something to present them. I was wrong in assuming that my readers would stay with me and take to my journey as theirs, too: A writer is never right in assuming that.