Patient Advocates in the Internet Age: a threat to traditional notions of authority in health care?

November 7, 2010

Abstract

The Internet, with its many modes of publication, has facilitated the growth of high profile patient advocates by giving them a powerful platform from which to be heard. Their success in garnering a sizable audience of chronic health sufferers is playing a central role in challenging traditional notions of authority in the health care field.

This paper will specifically look at the example of thyroid disease to demonstrate how the more prominent patient advocates make use of these publication methods and how this has cemented their position as a new form of authority in the health care arena. Research including a review of relevant academic research and study of advocates’ blogs, websites and message boards has provided the insights and evidence for this paper.

By looking at the cultural and technological context which has given rise to this development, this paper seeks to demonstrate that the patient advocate is a new form of authority, challenging traditional notions of authority in health care by harnessing publication methods on the Internet to speak to and actively engage with an audience. Medical authority will be defined for this purpose using a philosophical and sociological framework.

This paper contributes to the body of related existing academic literature which has examined the impact of the Internet on traditional models of health care. By specifically focusing on the examples of patient advocates in the area of thyroid disease, this paper will demonstrate that traditional notions of authority in health care are being challenged.

Keywords: Internet, authority, patient advocate, health care, medical, thyroid, doctor.

View this document on Scribd

ARIN6901: “Big Society” in the UK: tapping weak ties and the ‘influentials’ for results

October 9, 2010

In a situation remarkably similar to our own Australian federal election, the UK population were also on tenterhooks for weeks in May of this year as they waited for an outcome to their General Election. Eventually, a coalition was formed by David Cameron’s Tory party and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. One of the central policies of the Tories is “Big Society” – misunderstood during the election but still central and still in the planning stages. It is explained here by Tory team member Ian Birrell:

At its core, the big society is an attempt to connect the civic institutions that lie between the individual and the state – and these range from the family and neighbourhood to churches, charities, libraries, local schools and hospitals. It is born out of recognition that our centralised state has become too big, too bureaucratic and just too distant to support many of those most in need of help, and that it deters people from playing a more active role in public life.

In political terms, this means passing power to the lowest level possible: radical public service reform, so that schools, social services, planning and even prisons are more responsive to the needs of those using them; and social action, to encourage more people to play a role in society. Not just charities, but neighbourhood groups, workers’ co-operatives, social enterprises and, yes, businesses. (Birrell, 2010)

So, the general idea is to allow the execution of power to filter down to the lower, more connected levels of society, rather than just being something that is executed “up there” in the upper echelons.

Naturally, the question is: how can this be implemented?

It comes down to investigating the existing network structure of different communities, pinpointing those considered ‘opinion leaders’ or as ‘influentials’ in sociological terms or network terms, to create effective change, rather than maintaining superstructural agencies that are far removed from the reality and nuances in these varied communities.

Respected thinktank, the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has published a report entitled Connected Communities based on the findings from a year of research. The report makes detailed recommendations around Big Society, encouraging the use of social network analysis in addition to older approaches to public policy in order to achieve effective community regeneration (RSA, 2010).

The report identifies what are known as ‘linchpins’ in different communities that took part in the research, recommending that these people can play pivotal roles in new policy development and implentation. The linchpins may already be involved in their own community-building projects or may just be well connected enough to allow for the advancement of new policies and projects.  ‘Linchpins’tend to be well-connected, likely to be based on many ‘weak ties’ in Granovetter’s terminology,  and as defined by the RSA, appearing to fit neatly with the ‘opinion leader’ archetype originally proposed by Katz and Lazarsfeld in 1955 and described by Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds as “individuals who are highly informed, respected or simply ‘connected’” (2007: 442). In an article looking at how diffusion can occur much faster when initiated by opinion leaders, Valente and Davis identify many studies which indicate the importance of these opinion leaders in utilising the power of interpersonal contacts in influencing adoption behaviour.

So, there is a rich history of studying diffusion after the fact – it will be very interesting to see how successful a program will be that has been established from the start with a network theory approach to diffusion in a community setting.

 

References

Birrell, I. (2010) ‘Big society’? Let me explain
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/oct/08/big-society-i-wrote-speech
Last accessed: 9/10/10

Rowson, J., Broome, S. and Jones, A. (2010) Report: Connected Communities: How social networks power and sustain the Big Society
Accessed from: http://www.thersa.org/projects/connected-communities#key
Last accessed: 9/10/10

Valente, T.W. and Davis, R.L. (1999) ‘Accelerating the Diffusion of Innovations Using Opinion Leaders’ in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 566, pp. 55-67

Watts, D. and Dodds, P. (2007) ‘Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation’ in Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 34

Williams, R. (2010) ‘Big society’ facilitators are found within communities
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/sep/15/big-society-community-networks
Last accessed: 9/10/10

ARIN6903: The Human Printer: You are a gadget

September 29, 2010

I heart Twitter. I was slow to jump on the 140 character bandwagon but as soon as I got into the swing of things, there was no stopping the tweets.  On reflection, what I like about it most is not the time it sucks from my hands, it’s not the inane innermost thoughts of people I don’t know. No, it’s the fact that I can follow almost anyone – that is, those with an unlocked account – and there’s no need for reciprocation. It’s like a modern, digital version of free love. Or something.

Enough rambling and back to my point about being able to follow anyone.  What that actually means is that I’m exposed to all sorts of bizarre and fascinating tidbits of information that I can choose to explore further if the tweeter has managed to convey the larger topic within the 140 character constraint. This morning in my feed was this simple tweet:

“wow. just … wow. http://www.thehumanprinter.org”

So, as you can guess, I was intrigued enough to follow the link to find out what this human printer might be. As you can probably work out, The Human Printer is an artist, Louise Naunton Morgan, who mimics a digital printer to re-create images that are sent in to her by people wanting her to create some art for them.

What I found interesting and a little contradictory is that she is mimicking a style that she is critical of:

“Today technology plays a huge role in everyday life…we have constructed these machines to aid our lives, making simple productions/tasks easier to accomplish. Our environment is now scattered with machine made artefacts, computer developed images and autonomous interactions—We are losing the essence of human production and craft to the machine, resulting in a soulless utilitarianism.”  (Charlesworth, 2010)

However, even though it seems contradictory on the surface, the point of “reclaiming the lost art of production” does seem to be something that the artist can achieve with this project since it makes people aware of both the similarities and differences between a human and a machine performing the same task.

The limitation of the digital printer in that it can only produce colours in CMYK halftone is something that Morgan replicates in her work. It appears that Morgan’s is a rejection of what Jaron Lanier refers to as “lock-in” in his 2010 book You are not a gadget. Lock-in is a point during the development and adoption of a new technology where the features and constraints of the new technology are based on the assumed need for it to be compatible with older technology (Lanier, 2010). I don’t know what the exact reasons are that have led to the particular constraints of digital printers, but I do know that the constraints of digital printers obviously affect what we can do with the technology and to an extent, mandate what is possible.

Morgan’s project seems to be an attempt at reclaiming the human element in technology and highlighting our interaction with it rather than succumbing to what Lanier describes as a “wave gradually washing over the rulebook of life”. (Lanier, 2010: 9). I also think it’s part of a wider movement of artists rejecting digital technology for more analogue methods, which can be seen in the music of bands such as The White Stripes and Air with their expensive vintage Moog keyboards.

The Human Printer

The Human Printer

References:

Charlesworth, J. (2010)  The Human Printer Exhibition at KK Outlet,
Accessed from: http://www.core77.com/blog/events/the_human_printer_exhibition_at_kk_outlet_17481.asp
Last accessed: 29 September 2010

Lanier, J. (2010) You are not a gadget,
New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Naunton Morgan, L.(nd) The Human Printer
http://www.thehumanprinter.org

ARIN6901: Using the “Friendship paradox” in Social networks to predict epidemics

September 17, 2010

The metaphor of ideas, innovations or movements diffusing throughout a network as a type of disease, as seen by use of descriptive words such as epidemics or infectious as Duncan Watts identifies, has been criticised by Duncan Watts in the midst of such a metaphor assuming normative status in the wider population.  Watts asserts that the spread of a disease contagion in a network works on a different mechanism to that of a social contagion and explains the logic of this in his 2003 book Six Degrees: The Science of a connected age.

In a recent development in this debate, specifically looking at the relationship between disease outbreak and social networks, Harvard medical professor and sociologist Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, have put forward a proposition that the so-called “Friendship paradox” holds the key to predicting the movement of diseases throughout a network, with potentially enough forewarning to enable prevention of an epidemic. Interestingly, and this is where he differs in his views from Duncan Watts, he believes this same rule can be applied more widely, to areas such as product adoption, and to the spread of social norms and information. It is the Friendship paradox application to diffusion that is the new discovery.

Since mapping an entire network may be extremely expensive or unethical, if at all possible, Christakis and Fowler decided to apply the Friendship paradox in order to predict the spread of the flu amongst Harvard students. The Friendship paradox holds that if you randomly choose a person from a group, and then look at that person’s friends, those friends will have more friends themselves than that original person does. In short, according to Christakis, “your friends have more friends than you do” (TED Talks, 2010).

The methodology involved the selection of an original random group of 319 undergrads who each nominated up the three friends, which produced a second group of 425 friends. The second group were found to be more central in the connections amongst Harvard students owing to the Friendship paradox. By monitoring flu infections in a set period, they found that on average, the second group developed the flu approximately two weeks prior to the random group using one method of detection, and a full 46 days prior to the epidemic peak by using another method (University of California, 2010).

Phase Diagram Harvard Study

Phase Diagram Harvard Study showing the point of diversion between the two groups

So, what this means is that the spread of a disease can be tracked by locating the better connected members of a network (the second group) and then identifying who they are connected to as these people will be the ones who can benefit from this advanced warning. Christakis in his TED Talks video does qualify the actual number of days of advance warning depends on a number of factors including the nature of the pathogen or even the specific structure of the human network.

Support for the study results has come from John Glasser, a mathematical epidemiologist at the Centres for Disease Control in the U.S., who said

“This study may be unique in demonstrating that social position affects one’s risk of acquiring disease. Consequently, epidemiologists and social scientists are modeling networks to evaluate novel disease surveillance and infection control strategies.” (University of California, 2010)

Christakis and Fowler conclude that this type of network analysis is a more effective means for disease control than more traditional methods which are usually one to two weeks behind in tracking the outbreak rather than in advance as the Friendship paradox method appears to be capable of. Applying the Friendship paradox method more widely could be done by marrying the method with Google Trends search data (that is, with flu-related search terms) to map the emergence of a flu epidemic (Christakis and Fowler, 2010).

My critique of Christakis’ TED Talks presentation is that he glosses over the many ethical and logistical complications of applying the Friendship paradox in an effort to garner interest in it. However, it is important that this information is promoted and TED Talks is an effective way of spreading it to a diverse audience.

In attempting to make sense of the findings, I have concluded that in the case of disease epidemics, the key is that disease spread is due to the quantity of links or ties that someone has and a smaller number of degrees on average, whereas with social innovation or information that Granovetter discusses, that is due more so to the diversity of ties than the quantity of ties (however, that being said, diversity of ties can also sometimes equate to a high number of ties).

Clearly there is much opportunity for research to build on these results, however the challenge will be to repeat the results on a larger scale and in other areas apart from a flu outbreak in a relatively closed community such as Harvard. Application in the real world with tangible positive results is the aim.

References

Anonymous (2010) ‘Infectious personalities’
The Economist. London: May 15, 2010. Vol. 395, Iss. 8682; p. 89

Christakis, N.A. and  Fowler, J.H. (2010) ‘Social Network Sensors for Early Detection of Contagious Outbreaks’ in PLoS ONE, 5(9): e12948 DOI:
Accessed from: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1004/1004.4792.pdf
Last accessed: 17 September 2010

Granovetter, M. (1973)’The strength of weak ties’ in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78. No. 6, pp. 1360-1380.

TED Talks (2010) Nicholas Christakis: How social networks predict epidemics
Accessed from: http://www.ted.com/talks/nicholas_christakis_how_social_networks_predict_epidemics.html
Last accessed: 17 September 2010

University of California – San Diego (2010, September 16). ‘Friendship paradox’ may help predict spread of infectious disease in ScienceDaily.
Accessed from: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100915150949.htm
Last accessed September 17, 2010

Watts, D. (2003) Six Degrees: The science of a connected age,
New York and London, Norton.

ARIN6903: Lady Gaga as the embodiment of remediation

September 15, 2010

Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is big. Very big.  Six million Twitter followers, 17 million Facebook friends, 15 million album and 51 singles sales (The Guardian: 2010), hundreds of millions of YouTube views….and so on.

The music itself is standard catchy modern pop – it’s nothing that unique to write home about. What makes her stand out are all the extra things that come with the music – the outlandish outfits (meat dress anyone?), the constant profession of being an outsider, the spectacle of her live performances and most importantly, her mastery of many different forms of media in which she brings her fans with her into the vortex of fame.

Lady Gaga Meat Dress

Lady Gaga Meat Dress

Her success is due to this mastery of media, without which she would still be plain ol’ Stefani Joanne Germanotta.  The success is not due to the music which is rather bland and formulaic.  She does have a beautiful voice, which you can sense watching her pre-fame performances, but this gets lost in the hype machine.

Gaga is so heavily stylised and has appropriated from so many genres, icons and cultural references that it’s hard to know who the woman behind the mask is. But that’s just the way she likes it in her quest to become a modern icon. Feminist icon Camille Paglia last week weighed in to the debate, calling Gaga a “ruthless recycler of other people’s work”. (Paglia, 2010)

It’s for these reasons that Gaga makes for a fascinating study for media theorists curious about her impact on pop culture, media and society in general.

This brings me to the concept of “remediation” as espoused by Bolter and Grusin which I want to extend here to an individual, rather than simply media forms. Gaga is everywhere, constantly in the press for her latest controversial outfit or performance. She has transcended the archetype of the female pop singer to become almost her own medium and is increasingly hypermediated whilst she remediates pop music. She perfectly fits what Bolter and Grusin identify as a desire to get to the real via hypermediation (1999). She states that Lady Gaga is not a character, but is her real self.

Gaga references fame and media constantly in her own media artefacts – her breakthrough album was called The Fame Monster, its big hits included Paparazzi and Telephone and her latest song is called Living on the Radio, as though she recognises she is nothing without the media she so heavily employs.  She has multiple websites which are all cross-referenced and embedded with different media types showcasing her presence on other websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. She also has a massive merchandising operation.

Lady Gaga's hypermediated website

Lady Gaga's hypermediated website

Elle Bedard writes that “Sometimes she resembles other pop stars, sometimes a character from Japanese animation, or a Roy Lichtenstein print.”(2010:1)

Just some of the influences she has appropriated as she constructs her identity are:

Surrealism in the form of the meat dress she wore this week, her past outfit featuring a lobster headpiece and, come to think of it, pretty much most of her creative output

Madonna, mostly via her fashion choices, prolific output and ubiquituity

Grace Jones via her stage costumes

Queen via her choice of name inspired by their 80s hit Radio Gaga.

Andy Warhol who she has acknowledged as an influence and refers to when discussing aspects of fame

Gaga Pop Art magazine cover

Gaga Pop Art magazine cover

For those of us old and cynical enough to recognise the endless cultural references she makes, the hypermediation is quite obvious and almost jarring – I believe for this group of people the “real” that is attempted is not achieved. For her younger fans, this is all completely new and I think that they experience Gaga as “real”. Awareness of this mediation is just not part of the experience for them, it is invisible.

Adding to the debate by exploring Gaga as a character or an individual, Bedard quotes Baudrillard to assert that Gaga is “pure simulacrum, “a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”  Put differently, Lady Gaga does not exist.” (2010: 1)

Gaga is a one-woman media industry and it’s hard to believe she really only came to prominence in the last two years. I’m beginning to wonder how many clones of herself she has just to manage her overwhelming media presence.

References

Bedard, E. (2010) “Can’t Read My Poker Face”: The Postmodern Aesthetic & Mimesis of Lady Gaga
Accessed from: http://gagajournal.blogspot.com/2010/08/cant-read-my-poker-face-postmodern.html
Last accessed: 15 September 2010

Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R.A. (1999) Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, Mass;  London: MIT Press

Paglia, C. (2010) Lady Gaga and the death of sex
Accessed from: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/magazine/article389697.ece
Last accessed 15 September 2010

The Guardian (2010) Pass notes, No 2,843: Lady Gaga
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/sep/08/pass-notes-lady-gaga-meat-bikini
Last accessed: 15 September 2010

Other reading

Gaga Stigmata – theoretical analysis of all things Gaga
http://gagajournal.blogspot.com/

ARIN6901: Twitter: Weak ties and a low degree of separation make for an effective diffusion tool

September 13, 2010

The exploration by Caroline Haythornthwaite in regards to use of media and how this relates to the strength of ties is seamlessly applicable to Twitter. According to Haythornthwaite:

It is argued from the research literature and studies by the author that where ties are strong, communicators can influence each other to adapt and expand their use of media to support the exchanges important to their tie, but where ties are weak, communicators are dependent on common, organizationally established means of communication and protocols established by others. Due to this differential use of media, a new medium that adds means and opportunities for previously unconnected others to communicate will have positive effects on weak ties and weak-tie networks, in particular by laying an infrastructure of latent ties (ones that exist technically but have not yet been activated), and providing an opportunity for weak ties to develop and strengthen.
(Haythornthwaite, 2002:  p.1)

Twitter is a non-reciprocal social networking service – people can “follow” others yet that person being followed is not obligated to follow them back. According to a Korean study which analysed 41 million user profiles and 1.47 billion follower/following relationships, only 22% of connections on Twitter are reciprocal and an astounding 68% of users are not followed by anyone that they follow (Lardinois, 2010). I am sceptical about that last figure however.  Although other SNSs also do not require reciprocal relationships, Twitter has the lowest rate of these.

So, going back to the notion of network ties, I believe Twitter’s organisation favours weak ties and this is likely one of the reasons it has become so heavily adopted – it is currently used by 93 million people (Kiss, 2010). Since the relationship does not have to be reciprocal, a major barrier to participation has been removed, allowing for a larger number of connections to be made that would not otherwise be possible.

Haythornthwaite also introduces the idea of “latent ties” defined above. Twitter can most definitely be seen as a provider of latent ties and the conversion of latent ties to weak ties is so straightforward due to the non-reciprocal nature of participation.

The Korean study also found that on Twitter, the average degree of separation between two randomly selected users is 4.1, significantly smaller than the result of six in traditional “real world networks” discovered by Stanley Milgram and known as “Six Degrees of Separation”. The combination of the weak tie-emphasis and the smaller degree of separation suggest that Twitter is an effective way of diffusing information across a wide area via the simple practice of the “re-tweet”.

This leads me to wonder if eventually a scenario of zero degrees of separation may be reached by future SNSs in a scenario where everyone is always connected to each other via an ubiquitous network. It may not be something out of a freaky science fiction novel.

References

Haythornthwaite, C.(2002) ‘Strong, Weak, and Latent Ties and the Impact of New Media’,
The Information Society, 18: 5, 385 — 401

Kiss, J. (2010) One in ten UK web users visit Twitter.com
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/pda/2010/aug/11/twitter-growth
Last accessed:  13 September 2010

Lardinois, F. (2010) Study: Twitter Is Not a Very Social Network
Accessed from: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/study_twitter_isnt_very_social.php
Last accessed:  13 September 2010

ARIN6903: Internet activism – Facebook group reclassifies Tony Blair’s memoirs in bookstores

September 5, 2010

Last semester I wrote about Internet protest for the Internet Cultures and Governance class:original post here.

One of the criticisms raised about Facebook being used to organise groups was that it is often used for the most inane types of “support movements” and “protests” – eg. “Can this sausage roll get more fans than Cheryl Cole?”

I was interested to read this morning The Guardian reporting that in the UK, members of a 5000-strong Facebook group are encouraging people to go into their local bookstores and “reclassify” Tony Blair’s new autobiography by moving it from its assigned section to another section, for example to the crime section. The idea is to conduct a legal, subversive protest to get people thinking about Tony Blair’s alleged war crime: the war on Iraq.

Clearly, it’s not enough to simply set up a Facebook group to make an impact, the subject of the protest needs to be something that is genuinely in the interests of society and the tactics used need to be original, rather than simply setting up the group and making a few announcements. In the UK, Tony Blair is an incredibly divisive figure, attracting derision for involving the UK in the Iraq war on what appears to be flimsy reasoning. Moving his autobiography to the crime section keeps this controversy in the headlines, makes people think about how an event (the war) is perceived as legal or illegal and takes some of the gloss from Blair’s book launch.

References:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/sep/05/tony-blair-memoirs-facebook-group

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=150746811621277

ARIN6901: Product and service design at the expense of the network

September 5, 2010

A couple of recent news articles have pointed to the need when developing new products or services to pay attention to the importance of networks and network features – either real social networks (not simply SNSs) or technological networks – more so than product or service design.

The Guardian reports on the latest release of Amazon’s Kindle eReader product, presenting the argument that manufacturers who pay heed to the needs of a networked society will be the winners, as opposed to those that weight their investments heavily towards marketing, hardware and software design. The argument is that the Kindle is superior to competitor products such as the iPad because of its connectivity – by default, it comes with both 3G and WiFi. Amazon also released iPhone/iPad apps to allow Kindle owners to synchronise their eBook purchases on more than one device. These aspects are viewed as part of a seamless end-to-end system of downloading and reading eBooks. The new Kindle also includes an “experimental browser”: http://ireaderreview.com/2010/08/25/kindle-3-browser-photos-video/  Is this an iPad killer in disguise?

Calling into question the strength and value of ties on SNSs such as Facebook and Twitter, tech blog TechCrunch has also published an article highlighting the benefits for tech companies in developing products based on people’s existing social networks. Identifying that mobile phone contacts are a better indicator of an individual’s social graph , TechCrunch praises companies willing to “go mobile first, web second” rather than viewing mobile contacts as an inferior representation of someone’s social graph compared to Facebook and Twitter contacts.

TechCrunch has also criticised Apple’s new Ping service, a social recommendation feature added to iTunes in the last week, arguing that it is just a driver to increase sales in the iTunes store and lacking features that would take advantage of personal networks (for instance, Ping has no integration with Facebook due to lack of an agreement and a user’s existing music collection is partitioned from Ping).

Relating this back to the readings for this course, van Dijk believes that for most new media manufacturers, “a device perspective (hardware) or service perspective (software) is taken instead of a social and contextual perspective” (2006: 92), arguing that there is a disjoint between what producers make and what consumers want. This is clearly the case with the examples outlined above and it will be interesting to note in the next couple of years which of the above will scale the heights or be abandoned en masse.

References:

Naughton, J. (2010)As the reborn Kindle proves, looks don’t count for everything
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/aug/29/kindle-ipad-ereaders-john-naughton  Last accessed: 2 September 2010

Schonfeld, E. (2010) The Problem With Ping
Last accessed: 2 September 2010
Accessed from:  http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/03/problem-ping/

Siegler, M.G. (2010) The Real Social Network: Your Mobile Contacts
Last accessed: 2 September 2010
Accessed from: http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/04/mobile-contacts-social-network/

van Dijk, J. (2006) The Network Society,
Sage Publications, London.

ARIN6901: Weak ties in the age of ubiquitous Social Network Services

September 1, 2010

Outline of Blog theme

After much consideration, the posts on this blog for Network Society will primarly focus on three significant concepts within network theory: the concept of social ties as initially developed by Granovetter, the small-world theory or Six Degrees of Separation, based on the work of Stanley Milgram and finally, the idea of information diffusion through networks. Narrowing focus and tying these themes together, I will take a specifically human approach to the blog posts, looking for instance at how humans perceive networks and how their participation within networks informs their experiences.

Weak ties in the age of ubiquitous Social Network Services

As the number and usage levels of social network services (“SNS”) continue to rise exponentially (Facebook for example just reaching 500 million users in only six years(1)  and Twitter going from a few thousand users after a few months from launch in 2006 to over 100 million(2)), greater levels of analysis and discourse are taking place in the area of Social Network Analysis (”SNA”) in an attempt to make sense of the impact of these services on traditional social networks and other networks.  New media and network theorists are applying seminal concepts from sociology and SNA to the study of services such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, amongst others.

Established work such as that by Granovetter (1973) in defining different types of social ties and Goffman in outlining what constitutes identity performance (1959) have been variously applied by modern theorists including danah boyd, Erika Pearson and Carolyn Haythornthwaite to form a view of interaction modes within online social spaces. In particular, media type and the interrelation with strong and weak ties is investigated at length.
According to Granovetter, ties are characterised by factors such as time, emotional intensity, reciprocity and intimacy. These factors are simultaneously independent, yet interrelated (Granovetter, 1973). Further, weak ties are beneficial as they signify difference between the two individuals connected, as they are not connected by a strong common factor. This difference results in impressive opportunities for social mobility and information diffusion (Granovetter, 1973).

Using Granovetter’s framework, Haythornthwaite posits that the Internet’s power is in making connections between people where none previously existed and the resultant establishment of weak tie networks (Haythornthwaite, 2005).  This is due to the access to a wider set of connections that this type of technology allows and a removal of social risks associated with contacting “unknown” others (Haythornthwaite, 2002). Haythornthwaite is particularly interested in the intersection of the social with technological developments in their effect on tie strength: creating new ties and changing the status of weak tie to strong and vice versa.

Since the adoption of different SNS is a relatively new phenomenon, I argue that use may lead to a distortion of the accepted constitution of weak ties and lead to a confusion between what someone’s weak ties are as opposed to their strong ties. New norms and forms of etiquette are in a state of flux, leading to some confusion around social rules. The features of SNS facilitate a level of intimacy between acquaintances not previously possible, for example the sharing of personal photographs and innermost thoughts. In studying the SNS “Friendster”, which enjoys high usage particularly in Asia, researcher danah boyd pointed out that due to the generic label of all connections as “friend”, the tie strength of ties is ambiguous. Further, the majority of connections on Friendster are actually weak, with people connecting with others who they simply recognize, a situation that would not occur outside of SNS (boyd, 2008).

However, boyd has demonstrated that the users of Friendster are able to work around the limitations presented by this ambiguity, by using forms of play and experimentation to create their own set of norms. This observation mirrors that of Haythornthwaite who identifies a “social construction of media use” (2002: 6) with listservs and news groups in particular, allowing for simple text based technologies to express greater levels of nuance and emotion. These findings suggest that the use of media in a social context is constantly in a state of adaptation, and can extend to the a fluidity in the definitions of weak and strong ties.

This is an area of study that is continually growing. With the adoption of  SNS in a broader range of areas other than the strictly social, for example in business and government, more research will be done in the coming future in order to understand the impacts of these services and to make constructive  recommendations for their use. The benefit of time will also serve to provide deeper insights than those already produced.

1. Arthur, C. and Kiss, J. (2010)  Facebook reaches 500 million users
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/jul/21/facebook-500-million-users
Last accessed: 31/8/2010

2. Arthur, C.(2010) See how Twitter grew – and find out what made it explode
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/aug/27/twitter-growth-interactive
Last accessed: 31/8/2010

References:

Arthur, C.(2010) See how Twitter grew – and find out what made it explode
Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/aug/27/twitter-growth-interactive
Last accessed: 31/8/2010

Arthur, C. and Kiss, J. (2010) Facebook reaches 500 million users
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ARIN6903: North Korea expands its propaganda machine on social networking sites

August 23, 2010

Propaganda is as old as humankind itself and covers a vast array of subject matter, from religion to race, politics to pollution, advertising to Al-Qaida. What comes to mind when the word propaganda comes up may depend on where you were raised. For me, I think back to high school history lessons about the Nazi Third Reich in 1930s and 40s Germany, when Joseph Goebbels produced thousands of pieces of propaganda aimed at maintaining the stranglehold of the Nazi party. Of course, those nations fighting against Germany in the Second World War produced their own powerful anti-German and anti-Japanese propaganda.

In Australia, we are no strangers to both benign and more damaging propaganda, in recent times being urged to “Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat” on the one hand, and on the other, during the years of the White Australia policy (which lasted in some form from the 1950s all the way up to 1973), newspaper readers would have seen Phil Ray’s “Asian Octopus” staring back at them from the pages,  with each octopus tentacle representing a supposed “Asian evil”.

Asian_octopus

That brings my post to more modern times, with the news just last week that the state of North Korea (@uriminzok) has joined Twitter in an effort to spread its propaganda across another medium and further around the globe. The diplomatically isolated state has also set up accounts on those other Web 2.0 behemoths – YouTube and Facebook. So, with my studies in mind, I duly signed up to follow North Korea on Twitter, set them up as a “friend” on Facebook and viewed some of their YouTube clips. True to the nature of propaganda being a one-way communication flow, the North Korean Twitter account indicates that they have 10,000 odd followers, yet they are not following anyone.

As could be expected, the press have picked up on North Korea’s entrée to the social networking world with The New York Times reporting that:

In one clip, it called Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a “minister in a skirt” and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates a “war maniac,” while depicting the South Korean defense minister, Kim Tae-young, as a “servile dog” that likes to be patted by “its American master.”

The propaganda war between North and South Korea had been stopped in 2000, but in May of this year it was resurrected after South Korea blamed North Korea for the sinking of a warship which killed it 46 sailors.

In  a quote that surely indicates that propaganda’s impact depends on its audience and the context in which it situated, Yoo Ho-yeol, an expert on North Korea at Korea University in Seoul was quoted as saying:

“I don’t think this propaganda from the North will have any significant impact among South Koreans. “People watch this for fun, not to be influenced.”

North Korea's Facebook account

North Korea's Facebook account

North Korea's Facebook Account

North Korea's Facebook Account

North Korea on You Tube

North Korea on You Tube

Although I believe the Internet to be a major influence in societal and technological terms, I also believe that in many ways it is an extension of what has come before, allowing propaganda to spread in a new medium, rather than reinventing the wheel.

One way in which propaganda may benefit in terms of spread, is the Wikipedia site’s editorial processes which are heavily criticised by many observers including Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur. The New York Times has reported that “Insider Editing”, the practice where companies or organisations that find elements in their Wikipedia entry to their dislike edit the entry. Prominent examples have included a computer originating at ExxonMobil responsible for editing a page dealing with the 1989 Exxon-Valdez Alaskan oil spill and PepsiCo editing information critical about Pepsi’s effect on health. A monitoring programme called WikiWatcher attempts to monitor these edits by matching up the IP address where the edits originate with the name of the network owner.

There are of course, many many other examples of how Wikipedia is being used as a propaganda tool. One very controversial one is the move by two Israeli organisations to establish Zionist Wikipedia editing courses, in the belief that online, Israeli activists are vastly outnumbered by pro-Palestinians. They have identified hundreds of Wikipedia entries they believe to be either inaccurate or slanted to paint Israel in a poor light. Previously, a group that planned to secretly edit Wikipedia pages was banned from the site, hence a more transparent approach by these newer organisations.

References

http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/08abolition.htm

http://dl.nfsa.gov.au/module/1582/

http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/cartoons/

http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/monographs/Kendall/Chapter_one.htm

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/world/asia/17north.html?scp=1&sq=korea%20twitter&st=cse

Keen, A. (2008) The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.  Doubleday, New York.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/technology/19wikipedia.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/18/wikipedia-editing-zionist-groups