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The Demise of Social Media And The Return Of Mass Media

October 8, 2012

By Tom Foremski

There have been quite a few studies lately on what people Tweet and post on Facebook, and the large number of links that people share. Invariably, the links that most people share belong to large media organizations — what used to be called mass-media.

For example, Nate Silver recently analyzed links to news sources and found that of the top 30 news sources, nearly all were traditional large news sites such as AP or New York Times, only TMZ and Politico were new.

A recent Yahoo! Research report found just 20,000 elite Twitter users produce 50% of Tweets (Twitter has 150 m users). Sounds very mass-media like to me, I bet 10,000 of those users are journalists Tweeting about their stories.

Yet we seem to have convinced ourselves that we are living in the age of “social media” where citizen journalists are producing tons of great content and upsetting the balance of power in the media world.

Where? I don’t see it.

I see a world of mass media where a few large media brands still control most of the media output and thus the conversation around the topics that they choose.

Where is the social media?

For example, in my sector Techcrunch, GigaOM, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, etc, are media organizations with publishers and editors and all the infrastructure of any traditional news publication. Long gone is the time when you could describe them as “blogs” — they are no different than any other media company.

Where is the social media?

Very few people write blogs or produce any type of media these days, people seem to prefer clicking a “like” button, or retweeting someone else’s content.

It would be more accurate to describe this as social distribution of media — it most definitely is not social media.

Even Twitter founders such as Biz Stone say Twitter is more about consuming media via shared links rather than people creating original content in the form of Tweets.

And on Facebook I see a lot of mass media links in what my network shares and very little that could be described as social media.

People are behaving like an online newspaper delivery boy. That’s not as compelling as the original promise of social media, and its implied challenge to the powerful owners of mass media. Weren’t we, the people, back in charge through social media? Hadn’t we done away with the “gate keepers” of mass media?

It certainly doesn’t look that way.

So, shouldn’t we retire the term social media?

We should call it what it has now become: social distribution of (mass) media.

It’s a sad end to a promising start of what could have become a new era in media.


Study Shows How Social Media Amplifies Mass Media

Social media is touted by many as a way to get around the gatekeepers of media, the traditional old order of mass media setting the agenda for society has been tipped onto its head.

Not really.

A study from Yahoo! Research “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter | Yahoo! Research” found this:

We find a striking concentration of attention on Twitter—roughly 50% of tweets consumed are generated by just 20K elite users—where the media produces the most information, but celebrities are the most followed.

And as for diversity of opinion?

We also find significant homophily within categories: celebrities listen to celebrities, while bloggers listen to bloggers etc…

It’s an interesting scientific paper. I stress scientific because the analysis is made through statistical analysis of large numbers of people and according to well tested academic principles. These are not the pontifications of social media “gurus”.

Proof for Two-Step Flow Theory

The study analyzed 5 billion tweets and examined the relationship between users.

It found that there are about 20,000 “elite” users that are the source for 50% of Tweets but they rely on a large number of intermediaries, about 500K.

Interestingly, these results are all broadly consistent with the original conception of the two-step flow, advanced over 50 years ago, which emphasized that opinion leaders were “distributed in all occupational groups, and on every social and economic level”…

… given, in fact, that a service like Twitter was likely unimaginable at the time it is remarkable how well the theory agrees with our observations.

Mass media continues to exhibit its mass effect even in a world full of lots of competing media:

Although audience attention has indeed fragmented among a wider pool of content producers than classical models of mass media, attention remains highly concentrated, where roughly 0.05% of the population accounts for almost half of all attention.

There’s lots more of interest in the paper, such as:

We find that the longest-lived URLs are dominated by content such as videos and music, which are continually being rediscovered by Twitter users and appear to persist indefinitely.


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