I don’t have the time or capacity to sort through the many articles that appear in the academic journals on social media, and I suspect many of you don’t either. But shifting the practice of social media marketing from stories to evidence is, in the long run, a more sustainable model to have impact.
John Wihbey of the Journalist’s Resource (JR), Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, has done an admirable job for us this year in putting together a top 10 list of social media research articles (and thanks to @jbenton for bringing it to my attention!).
You can find the full list and links at the Neiman Journalism Lab site.
What I focus on here are the results of one of these studies on “Structural diversity in social contagion” that involved 10 million Facebook users. It has significant implications for using social media for behavior change. As described at JR:
The study’s findings include:
- A person is much more likely to join Facebook if that person has friends on Facebook who do not know each other — a structurally diverse network — than if that person’s friends are all connected on the site. “The number of distinct social contexts represented on Facebook … predicts the probability of joining.”
- An invitation to join Facebook that listed four unrelated site users sent to a potential user was more than twice as likely to prompt the individual to join than an invitation that listed four connected users. “It is not the number of people who have invited you, nor the number of links among them, but instead the number of connected components they form that captures your probability of accepting the invitation.”
- Once a user joins Facebook, the structural diversity of his or her network also impacts the level of engagement: more active Facebook users have friends on the site spanning numerous social circles. “Simply counting connected components leads to a muddled view of predicted engagement…. However, extending the notion of diversity according to any of the definitions above suffices to provide positive predictors of future long-term engagement.”
The researchers conclude that “these findings suggest an alternate perspective for recruitment to political causes, the promotion of health practices and marketing; to convince individuals to change their behavior, it may be less important that they receive many endorsements than that they receive the message from multiple directions.”
What caught my attention is the validation of an idea I have talked about for several years – media multiplexity. Three points I have made bear repeating for social media practitioners, especially those engaged with using social media for behavior change:
- People are rapidly learning how to incorporate new media and social networking into their daily lives. As they become more comfortable, and in control, of these experiences, it will be the change agents and organizations that learn how to work with the 'social' context of these media that will be most successful. [Social media and social ties]
- Social technologies succeed when they fit into the social lives and practices of those who engage with the technology. [Introduction to social media]
- Focus on using social media to take advantage of the connections people have with each, not to reach people in new ways. [Developing strategies for social media]
What the findings of this study suggest is that we need to understand people’s social networks (online and off) and then uncover ways in which the disparate networks a person has can be engaged for change. The other implication is that people who are fairly insular in the networks they have (for example, all their friends know each other) are going to be much less open to our offers for change and also less likely to be participating on social network sites. Shifting from thinking about 'messages that will change people' to 'networks that support people changing' is a big change for many researchers and practitioners. To start thinking about social networks and change, take a look at Maybe IT IS all about social networks.