How much are we influenced by a post's popularity?

When you scroll through your Facebook news feed, the Twitter timeline or the Reddit front page, what do you see? Probably a lot of pictures, statuses, posts and articles. You probably know that if something gets 'liked' on Facebook, it will show up on your feed. If it gets liked a lot, it stays there. But did you ever consider how much you might be influenced by the number of likes or shares on something?

Consider this: On Facebook, you're scrolling through and you happen to see that three of your friends liked an article about why it's important to drink water. You agree that water is important, it seems obvious and you don't really give it a second thought. Later in the day, you're still on Facebook, but this time you see an article titled "Is soda really bad? What the bottled water industry doesn't want you to know..." It has 40,00 likes.

Now, you know that water is better for you. It's something you've heard over and over as you grew up. But 40,000 likes on a post? What did that author find out? Is there really a problem with the water industry? Is soda that bad? With that many people seemingly showing support for that article, some of these questions might occur to you. That article, with a viewpoint you hadn't previously considered, just might be worth a look.

This is strictly an issue with newer forms of media. Though news outlets have historically set the agenda by determining what would and would not be published, there has never been a way for readers to interact with those stories and decide which they felt were the most important until now. This can be good and bad.

It's hard to argue against increased audiences determining what they feel is the most important. News aggregators like Reddit are entirely based on system of  "Upvotes" and "Downvotes," essentially a system of likes and dislikes, selected by the users. The more popular posts get pushed to the top, and what people don't like is quickly thrust to the bottom and out of anyone's mind.

Ideally, great content should be put out and people should decide which of those pieces of content really matter. Unfortunately, as soon as there was a way to change the agenda, businesses found a way to twist it to their advantage. There is a lot of spam on Facebook and one study found that one in 10 twitter accounts were fake. These are essentially programs created that can give extra followers to a promotional account, making it seem more credible, or accounts that ad likes to a posting, making it stick around longer.

It can be tough to tell when someone is taking advantage of that system, but the more important question is does it matter? Are you going to be more influenced by something that's liked or retweeted a lot compared to something that people aren't paying attention to, even if that small post is more in line with your current thinking?

(Discussion question based on a conversation with Klive Oh, a Merrill College lecturer doing research on this subject)


Jared Wasserman said...

I think you bring up an interesting point that news is going to inevitably gear itself toward stories that generate the most views-- it is a business after all. Even during the stone ages of morning edition newspapers, stories that would generate a buzz around town were going to be put on the front page. The only change is that organizations now have the technology to know what is gaining traction on their websites mere minutes after a story is posted.

During our visited to USA Today, one of the veteran reporters said that if we put, "Amy Adams reveals nude photographs" as the top story on their website it would obviously attract more readers. However, as a world-renowned distributor of news, her publication has a responsibility to report on things that matter, not just celebrity clothing transgressions. It is up to the reader to decide where they want to go for their news-- whether current world events matter to them, or they just want to see the box score from last night's basketball game. Sheer page views may drive advertisers and generate even more traffic for a given website, but enough serious news publications still exist to counteract that with "real stories."

Natalie Tomlin said...

Your post brings up lots of important points about the future of journalism. There is definitely a balance that news organizations sometimes struggle to achieve - the balance between presenting information that they know will be popular and presenting the information that their audience needs to know. No matter how much the audience can participate with and influence the news, I think journalists still have a social responsibility to inform the audience about what they need to know to make informed decisions. Like the executive producer in HBO's "The Newsroom" said, “There’s nothing more important in a democracy than a well informed electorate. When there’s no information or, much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions and clobber any attempts at vigorous debate.”

I think the tracking technologies and interactivity of news today is mostly beneficial for news organizations and their audiences, but it can certainly be abused. Also, personalizing your news too much can place you in a filter bubble and leave you with a narrow scope of information. Whether the organization or search engine is personalizing your news based on your Internet history or whether you are personalizing it yourself (i.e. getting news from people/groups that you follow on social media, selecting RSS feeds, looking only at posts with the most likes/up-votes etc.),it can be detrimental to limit yourself based on what's the most popular or what parallels your views. While likes and up-votes do signify popularity and news-worthiness, they should never completely dictate what consumers read and what journalists publish.