Why does information flow in networks?

People like Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite have contributed significantly to advancing the analysis of the impact of networks on society. Well before Barabasi, Watts, and Strogatz arrived on the network scene, sociologists (and social psychologists) such as Granovetter, Wellman, and Milgram were developing models to understand how people connect. As a result of this work, terms like “six degrees” and “strong/weak ties” and “networked communities” have become mainstream.

With an understanding of how people are connected we can also gain insight into how information flows through a network. I’m sure you’ve seen analysis of the social networks of board of directors at different companies. Valdis Krebs addresses this in Overlapping Networks:

It is usually beneficial to be connected to those who have a good view of what is going on. Information and knowledge is often shared [intentionally or unintentionally] with trusted others, close by. Information leaks and flows, but never too far. Board members who are connected to other highly-aware Board members, have a higher probability of finding out more — but the range is limited.

Basically, our position in a network, and the overlap with other networks, influences the type of information and people that we can access. This example of the tweets following Bin Laden’s death give a good sense of the structure of information flow.

While networks have always been the backbone structure of society and knowledge, they were situated just underneath the consciousness of most people as the experience of life itself pushed networks to the background. Let me give an example. A farmer in 250 BC would teach his children how to farm (networked learning). The farmer’s family was part of a larger network: religious, agriculture (selling, buying), social, entertainment, and so on. Their position in society was determined by their networked background such as: who they knew, who their parents knew, their connection to community leaders, and their involvement in the army. However, the experience of being part of a network was not fully conscious or even explicit. What mattered was who you knew and your role in society – but the daily experience was likely not an explicit one of “I’m connected by 3 degree to person X”. The key here is the explicit, rather than experiential, encounter of networks.

Today, in contrast, our networks are explicit in tools like Facebook, Twitter, email, and LinkedIn. Most of these services give users the ability to analyze how they are connected to others. We are very aware of how we are connected. Even the act of connection forming requires explicit activity from a person : “Follow X” or “Accept friend request from X”. The online formation of networks is more directive than the offline experience. This morning, while at a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast, I met several people that I’d known by name but had not met before. I followed the social protocol of introduction, shaking hands, and polite conversation. While a connection was made, it wasn’t explicit and didn’t carry with it any lingering sense of connectedness. When I follow someone on Facebook or Twitter, the connection seems more real, more intentional.

The daily reality of being connected naturally raises questions about influence of an individual within a network and how information flows within that system. Klout analyzes influence. SNAPP analyzes the social networks that underpin interaction in a learning management system. Researchers can gain insight into how information flows through a company by email analysis. The prevalence of social network tools and the attention now devoted to analyzing the shape and attributes of those networks – and the evaluation of how information flows – overlooks an important question: Why? Why does information flow as it does? Why does a person decide to share information with her network?

Networks can be analyzed quantitatively to determine connectedness, structural holes/folds, degrees of separation, centrality, small worlds, and so on. I’m interested in the qualitative aspects of information flow. Why did you decide to post on your friend’s Facebook wall? Why did you decide to retweet a resource? Why did members of your network decide to retweet your comment?

What are the qualitative aspects of information objects that determine its likelihood of being shared or amplified within a network?

Let’s consider three elements that are involved in addressing the question of “why does information flow” in a network:
1. The individual. If someone has a large following on Twitter, their message will reach larger numbers of people. However, this is an analysis of how information flows – it flows better when more people hear it. Again, why did the person decide to post the message in the first place? Or, for that matter, how did the person get to have many followers? Artists like Lady Gaga acquire followers simply by fame. They don’t provide much insight into why people have different numbers of followers on Twitter. It’s a spillover of their fame in other spaces.

Let’s look at someone like Alec Couros on Twitter. He has 12000 followers. I have 7400 followers. He has posted over 55000 tweets (wow!). I’ve posted 8300. What are the activities of a person like Alec that give him the higher follower count? i.e. – qualitatively, how does Alec differ from others in his activities on Twitter? Does he have more followers because he posts more often? Because he is talented at engaging with individuals? Is it because he replies to more of his followers than I do and that’s why they continue to follow him? Does he participate in more network sub-clusters (such as the #edtech, #phd, or #learn hashtag communities)? Maybe he’s just a nicer person than I am and people pick that up in his tweets.

Clearly, the activities of an individual plays a role in why information flows…

2. The Context. Context also influences why information spreads. For example, Sohaib Athar live tweeted the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. His followers shot up to over 104000 within days. The Bronx Zoos Cobra has over 240000 followers as the voice of the escaped (since captured) Bronx Zoo Cobra. During BP’s Gulf oil spill, the BP Global PR account on Twitter gathered over 170000 followers as it mocked BP. On a far smaller scale, I did a presentation at TEDxNYED (video here) in 2010 and added over 100 followers in one day. TEDxNYED served as a bridge into the K-12 community that I’m not very involved with. I’d love to see an analysis of follower counts in different communities. The K-12 community seems better connected and more active on Twitter than the higher education community. Does a K-12 twitterer have a better chance for quickly building followers than someone in a poorly connected field?

3. The Message. This is really the heart of what I’m trying to understand. What are the qualitative attributes of a message that influence why it is shared. Two attributes come to mind readily:
-Relevance – a tweet about something happening today is more valuable than tweeting that Pearl Harbour was attacked.
-Resonance – this is a complex/fuzzy concept that I haven’t fully wrapped my head around but I know it’s important. When someone posts a link or comment on Twitter, and it resonates with me (fears, interests, beliefs), the prospect of retweeting is increased.

Let’s look at a simple coding scheme of what types of messages people post on Twitter:

a) to express agreement
b) to express outrage
c) humour
d) social grooming (I have an iPad, I met person X today, I went for a run, I ate fruit for breakfast)
e) self-promote
f) raise awareness – general information sharing about topics that might be be relevant for network members

Looking at that list – what would you add?

Suggestion: Let’s create a coding scheme (we can do inter-rater validation if it makes people happy) on why things get posted to and shared on social media (Twitter, FB seem the best candidates).. If we have a coding scheme, we can randomly analyze the posting habits of people on Twitter (i.e. who is completely self-absorbed by self-referential tweets). No doubt, the coding process would be better if it was automated (that way we could evaluate the impact of RTs) – sentiment analysis is a big area of focus for social media firms. Not only are media firms interested in who is talking about GM or BP, but what are the emotions behind posts on Twitter/FB?

Educators are paying attention to social media. The surface level network infatuation won’t generate much value in the long run. Getting at the qualitative aspects of why information flows through networks is a more lucrative direction to consider in transitioning social media use for self and network awareness.

6 Responses to “Why does information flow in networks?”

  1. Hi George,
    Interesting idea to create a coding scheme. Stephen Dann published a typology of twitter conversations in the Dec 2010 issue of First Monday http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2745/2681
    Another possibly relevant typology is from Forrester Research, which you may have seen http://gumption.typepad.com/blog/2010/01/conversations-and-conversationalists-in-social-media.html

    The coding scheme could be potentially extended to include a typology of all three dimensions that you outline here – the individual, the context, as well as the message.

  2. Maritza says:

    The number of followers isn’t everything. In fact, with the large number of auto-followers and spammers following people on Twitter, I think pure follower count is not a very useful metric on it’s own.

    Have a look a the flow analysis of the recent social media coverage around Osama Bin Laden – the tweet that got the most traction in the network was from somebody with just over 1000 followers!

    http://blog.socialflow.com/post/5246404319/breaking-bin-laden-visualizing-the-power-of-a-single

  3. I would add “Future thinking/orientation” and “Serendipity” in the list (next to Relevance and Resonance).

    Future thinking is an important when thinking about information flow and sharing in social networking environments. We are not just interested in what we are, but what we will be tomorrow or next week. At the same time our curiosity drives us – we are always hungry to discover something new and meaningful.

    By sharing information about our needs, interest and intention, other people become part of the information flow that affect our own future hopes, wishes and expectations. They help us to open up our future horizon. http://www.futureful.com/2010/09/15/how-to-open-up-personal-future-horizon Shared future thinking shapes our personal and shared futures.

  4. Adrian says:

    It’s important also the strength of the connections as degree of friendship, interests, etc. Being bombed with tweets or posts, people arrive to be selective in what they read, in the end I would expect they look for catchy words or images (like I do). Sometimes I feel that isn’t important the message as a whole, but catchy words like the name of a personality, something related to past or future, something trendy, a common idea, something heard on the radio or TV, news, etc. We can also talk about synchronicity, convergence or hazard.

    The number of friends or posts can be misleading, is like putting gold, sand, money and fruits together and applying the same measuring scale. Numbers give us a feeling of what’s happening, but they can be misleading when the contexts are missing. Are required techniques that help identify the context and perform context-based analysis.

  5. Lisa M Lane says:

    Alec is very nice. (You’re very nice, too!) He also posts tons of links, in all your categories.

    I’d add frustration/commiseration posts – I get more response to these than anything in my network. And connected might be social support posts (someone is ill, or taking care of someone who’s ill, etc).

    I think of the woman who posted the Space Shuttle picture the other day. She suddenly got over 1,000 new Twitter followers: http://mashable.com/2011/05/16/endeavour-launch-twitpic/. She commented that she hopes they like sports! So maybe some following activity is a sign of respect or appreciation, rather than a desire to network; more like a Facebook “like” than a real connection. Just a thought.