No Alarms and No Surprises (Please!)

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation about the effects of social media – and Facebook in particular – on how we experience reencounters. My conversation partner, who is not on Facebook, told me the story of how she stumbled upon an old friend she hadn’t seen for years and how they went for a drink to tell each other what had gone on in the last couple of years. The updates my conversation partner received from her old friend were very interesting and surprising. Her old friend had a family now with two kids and seemed to be in a completely different life situation than some years ago when they had last met.

Now, we discussed the implications of Facebook on such (random) reencounters. We came to the conclusion that Facebook would have taken out the surprise and newsworthiness of that random encounter. Had my conversation partner had a Facebook account, she would have been updated about most major life events of her old friend (who is on Facebook). She would have known that her old friend had founded a family and born two kids. She would have been “prepared” and in the know when she stumbled upon her old friend. At the same time, the conversation with her friend would have been much more boring, predictable and less revealing – and in the end less exciting.

So, being connected to many friends on Facebook has its upsides, especially for those who are very interested in their less immediate social environment. It keeps us updated and is quite useful in many situations. On the other hand, it makes spontaneous reencounters more predictable (+ it can lead to awkward situations when you or your counterpart know “too much”, i.e. more than the social norm of what’s to be expected by checking your Facebook once in a while). It decreases the excitment of certain social interactions.

A suggestion could thus be: Always keep a couple of “mysterious” friends who are not on Facebook! It makes your life more exciting. Or alternatively: Don’t overcheck your Facebook friends!

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Social (Media) Ties – It’s Complex Multiplex

Reading social media studies and social network (analysis) literature I am regularly surprised at how unidimensional the operationalization of social connections is. Ties are often just treated as present or absent – but not as a “channel” for interaction flows that occur more or less intensly, depending on the type of relation. A Facebook “friendship” or a reciprocal Twitter following/follower relationship serves as an invitation to interact and exchange content. This content can have various forms: likes, shares, comments, wall posts (e.g., birthday wishes), private messages, chats, picture tags etc. The content flow between “friends” or followers – not just the mere presence/absence of the connection – should be considered when analyzing the relations. Hence, the activation/latency question requires more attention. Of course, such an analysis of content flows is very complex since it entails the combination of different data types and also poses serious privacy risks.

Another aspect of the unidimensionality in thinking about social connections concerns the neglection of mulitplexity. Multiplexity describes the existence and interplay of different types of ties in social networks. For example, co-workers can have friendships, advice ties, trust relationships and online communication connections with one another and some of these tie forms might overlap: A friend might also (but need not necessarily) be someone I trust or communicate online with. When several forms of relations overlap, we have multiplexity.

I think the interesting thing about multiplexity is not so much the overlap but the interaction between different types of ties. Let’s transfer this thought to social media and let’s assume that there exists a “like – private message” multiplexity between me and one of my Facebook friends. How does the fact that I write personal messages with my friend affect my propensity to like his/her stuff and vice versa? Do I like more of his/her content because I write personal messages? Do I like less of her/his content (because I might assume that personal messages form a container to convey my opinions in a more comprehensive and personal way)? Or is there no effect? Such questions about multiplexity merit more in-depth analysis.

We can borrow the multiplexity concept from social network analysis and transfer it to other areas. One research domain where it makes sense to use multiplexity as a framework is online participation. Many Internet users participate in various contexts: They share interesting articles on Twitter, comment their friends Facebook photos, do some online voting and engage in a discussion board of their topic of interest, let’s say silent movies from the 1919-1921 period. Such multiplexity in participation can stand next to each other without interacting (I don’t want to bother my Twitter followers with boring 1919-1921 silent movies or bombard my Facebook friends with links to – for them – uninteresting articles). However, interaction or mutual influence can also occur. If I’m smart and context-aware enough, I can conciously bring in skills and knowledge acquired from one participation area to the other. For example, the etiquette for a “good” Facebook photo comment can be adapted to provide a great post in the 1919-1921 silent movies discussion board or to cast a sensible vote in an online voting. Such a transfer might also happen unconsciously and subtly, though – and I think that’s the more interesting form. How could we investigate such interplays and subtle influences? I don’t know exactly (and would have to further think about it) but qualitative and especially ethnographic approaches are probably most suitable at this point.

Summed up, multiplexity is a good, yet not enough used concept. Its increased application in social media and Internet questions could lead to insightful results.


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WhatsApp with Facebook? The Ramifications of the New Teen Social Media Logic

The teen mass exodus from Facebook has been widely covered in the media (e.g. It’s real and the numbers don’t lie. Many teens today don’t care much about Facebook – not nearly as much as the teens of 5 years ago, when Facebook got big in Europe.

Also in Switzerland (where I live) many major news outlets covered the fact that teens don’t use Facebook at all or not very actively. According to these stories teens prefer WhatsApp. Especially the group chat option allows more privacy and better selectivity of audiences (context collapse can therefore be vastly avoided in WhatsApp). Next to WhatsApp, which is by far the most popular platform in Switzerland, other mobile applications, such as Instagram or Snapchat, have surmounted Facebook in popularity among teens.


Let’s have a brief look at the key characteristics of the old and new champion. Facebook is more versatile and powerful than WhatsApp. It has almost everything computer-mediated communication can offer and works on a range of different devices (mobile, tablet, laptop etc.). WhatsApp, on the other hand, is very restricted and optimized for smartphones. That’s at the same time the big strength of WhatsApp: It keeps the user focused, is very easy to use, and has no distractions. Assumedly, it allows for more immediate and direct interaction. Now let’s look at the communicative affordances of the two. Facebook is tailored to semi-public, relatively large audiences – often several hundred “friends”. WhatsApp, by contrast, serves the needs of interpersonal communication or small group conversations.

What does it mean when many teens use WhatsApp instead of Facebook? Is it good or bad? I know, it’s both and it depends but today I want to stress the negative consequences.

  • Facebook is by far the most important social network site among adults. Once teens enter the workplace, start an apprenticeship or go to college, they will be confronted with Facebook over and over again. Having experience in using the platform, having made mistakes early on, having established a network at the time, and feeling comfortable in using Facebook are a big asset in such circumstances.
  • Facebook is the better curation tool. Due to its platform-versatility its less subject to data loss.
  • Facebook is the “more demanding” tool because of the large audiences most users have to manage. In this vein, Facebook is better than WhatsApp for developing “social capital management skills”. In later life, knowing your network and being context-specific and flexible might be very useful. If teens can learn this via Facebook early on it helps them in their adult lives.
  • Facebook offers more in terms of internationality. When teens go on holiday or get to know new people, it’s the better stay-in-contact instrument. It’s much easier to stalk acquaintances and keep informed about their whereabouts without becoming active themselves. Or in other words, Facebook is more information-rich.
  • Summed up, exaggerated a great deal and in the words of the infamous Alexandre Koyré, going from WhatsApp to Facebook is like a step “from the closed world to the infinite universe”. WhatsApp is a closed sphere, restricted to a inner circle of friends. Facebook is big, messy, confusing, overloaded with annoying commercials and bland status updates. It’s become hard if not impossible for many to separate the wheat from the chaff on Facebook. In the end, however, such an infinite universe has much to offer and is more thought-provoking than what happens in the closed WhatsApp world.


My fear is that WhatsApp – especially in its group chat modus operandi – reinforces existing social structures and is more anti-intellectual and closed-world than Facebook, let alone Twitter (which is itself more stimulating, serendipity-enducing and “intellectual” than Facebook). Teens who acquire Facebook skills early on get more out of these skills later on in their lives than teens who acquire WhatsApp skills. It would be very interesting to check the social background of WhatsApp teens vs. Facebook teens and the developmental paths of both. If it turns out that WhatsApp teens are from lower socio-economic strata, it would be an interesting instance of the second level digital divide – where certain applications can reinforce social inequalities by their afforded communication practices.

In the end, the participatory potential of various social media differs A LOT: WhatsApp is at the lower end of the spectrum, Facebook somewhere in the middle (with a huge standard deviation, though), Twitter at the upper end. Finally, blogs, online communities as well as more collaborative forms of crowdproduction, such as crowdsourced art, occupy the top positions in terms of their participatory involvement. Information and communication technologies are heavily socially loaded. We should start to (empirically) investigate the specific social code and consequences of the new teen social media logic.

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The Visibility Divide

Studies on the digital divide have increasingly shifted from access to skills, uses, motivations, and participation. Thus, not only the differences in access to modern ICTs matter but also the differences in how users apply these ICTs for constructive and productive purposes. 

The participation divide describes the social inequalities between those who contribute actively on the Internet and those who use it passively. What does actively and passively mean in this context? That’s quite a valid question, since the boundaries are blurry and hard to define. If we operationalize participation as content creation, we can open a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy. In this sense, maintaining a regular blog is more participatory than updating your Facebook status once in while, which, in turn, is more participatory than Googling your time away and watching cat videos on Youtube. 

Focusing on the participation divide, some evidence suggests that the demographic inequalities characteristic of previous divides – e.g., access and skills – are more nuanced in the case of online content creation ( Users with high socio-economic status (SES) are not necessarily more participative and active than those from lower status. Different forms of content on the Internet need to be distinguished, as not all of them share the same social structuration: The people who contribute in political online communities are different from those engaging in idea and open innovation contests; uploading own songs on Youtube differs from giving advice in health forums, when it comes to the demographic composition… And different domains of participation as well as social groups who engage online might not all gain the same attention – which leads me to the core of this post.

A neglected aspect within research on the participation divide has been the visibility and outreach of user-generated content. Not all content is created equal. Some people reach a huge audience with just a few tweets, others reach a tiny segment with thousands of tweets. Are the former still less participatory than the latter? Or in other words, is online content without much visibility and impact still valuable? And how can research on online participation deal with this impact/visibility question? Jen Schradie wrote a very thoughtful piece on a similar matter some months ago ( Many aspects of this visibility/outreach divide tap into questions of big data and representation. 

A tentative hypothesis deduced from the previous paragraphs could thus be: Users with high SES are – ceteris paribus – better equipped to reach a large audience with their online participation compared to lower SES users. 

Why should that be the case? Well, the mechanism lies in digital skills, self-efficacy, and social capital (I might elaborate the argument in more detail in a later post). Anyways, it would be worthwhile to research the visibility divide, as a sub-divide of the participation divide. 



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How important is the title of academic publications? In my opinion, it’s very important. In times of information overabundance one often must select quickly based on limited cues, such as the abstract, keywords, or conclusion. In such situations, the title is the author’s first – and maybe only – argument. So, you have to make it good and memorable. Researchers should take enough time to find a catchy and fitting title. Often, the best and most cited papers also have a clear, appealing title. I think that’s no coincidence because a good title implies carefulness in the construction of the argument, which is essential for an excellent scientific text.

Some of the blockbuster papers in my field (communication, Internet studies) indeed carry strong titles:

  • Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life (boyd, 2007… and yes, this ♥ must really be a ♥ and not something stupid like “(heart)”, “(Heart)” or “heart”)
  • The benefits of Facebook “friends”: Social Capital and college students’ use of online social network sites (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; the title says it, the sub-title specifies it, and all the main ingredients – Facebook, social capital, college students and online SNS – of the paper are already there, which makes it easily searchable)
  • Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation” (Hargittai, 2010; very nice wordplay + the question mark points to the main research question of the paper)
  • Does the internet increase, decrease, or supplement social captial? Social network, participation, and community commitment (Wellman, Quan-Haase, Witte, & Hampton, 2001; not terribly creative, either, but the the title contains the essence of the paper)

Unfortunately, many papers in my field have boring or dull titles. Two casually picked examples are Bruce Bimber’s paper Information and Political Engagement in America: The Search for Effects of Information Technology at the Individual Level and Homero Gil de Zúñiga, Eulalia Puig-i-Abril and Hernando Rojas’ article Weblogs, traditional sources online and political participation: An assessment of how the Internet is changing the political environment. Don’t get me wrong, these are super papers but their titles are just not very sexy and at the edge of being too long. It’s true, better a boring than meaningless or “void” title (the two boring examples are at least indicative of the content and therefore neither meaningless nor void). But why not have both (combined) when it’s possible? The creative part AND the rigid part.

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The problem with motives

Many studies in media and communication look at motives. Especially the Uses and Gratifications literature focuses on psychological and social motives. Such studies ask why people watch TV, why they read newspapers, or why they engage in online communities. The answers they come up with (using surveys or qualitative interviews)  are often quite obvious: information, entertainment, communication, transaction etc. These main motives can be subdivided into smaller categories, such as staying up-to-date, learning about new events, or challenging existing assumptions within the information motive, and killing time or being excited within the entertainment motive. 

What do we learn, for example, when we know that scholars use Twitter for public relations (linking to own papers) and conversation with peers mainly? Not much. I’m always quite dissatisfied with such “So what?” findings. In my understanding of social science – and I might be biased because of a sociological background – we shouldn’t stop there. Instead, we should ask: “What are the underlying mechanisms why certain individuals have such and such motives?” Anwering this question encompasses going back to “real” sociological and psychological theories, such as the habitus concept, social cognitive theory, personality psychology or social network and social capital theory. In this sense, motives are only an expression of underlying social and psychological structures. Incorporating the motives into a broader framework could overcome the “So what?” challenge of motive research. 



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Slow-thinking and the absolute need for time (With Pierre Bourdieu)

Recollecting Philosophy

In an earlier blog post I contrasted the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, with the public figure and autodidact Alexander Bard. The main topic in that post concerned the ”Internet Revolution” and changes in the new society, but an important side-topic concerned slow-thinking versus fast-thinking, and the latter mentioned is something I intend say some more words about here.

Bourdieu once got to hold a speech in television and then he used his time to speak about the dangers of television. He especially warned of fast-thinkers. Bourdieu claimed that ”television rewards a certain number of fast-thinkers who offer cultural ‘fast food’–predigested and prethought culture–”. Pierre Bourdieu – On Television

The criticism of fast-thinking, and it’s comparison to the ”predigested” and ”fast food” is something I’m intending to look deeper into in this post.

Can there really be anything good about ”slow-thinking”?

Perhaps the most important thing, I mean, is to actually…

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