Someone Said Something on the Internet!!! : Why Stories about Social Media Can Fail Us

by michael_simeone


To begin, let’s introduce two interconnected challenges attendant to the task of explaining what happens on social networks.

A narrative problem: Telling stories about activity on networks poses a narrative problem. Narratives are good at unfolding sequences of events, or arranging events into a sequence for communicative purposes.  Networks are capable of a kind of simultaneity and interconnectedness that narratives can struggle to adapt and explain.

A representational problem: When it comes to social media networks, trying to figure out what relevance social media activity has on other realms of culture and behavior can be a tough out.  What a group of tweets really means depends on things that social media can often conceal: history, location-dependent context, non-social-media social environment, etc.  Whether research investigator or critical reader, we know that only looking at social media data can be terribly misleading. We pay attention to maps of geolocated tweets, for instance, but one study observed that 20 percent of Twitter users disclose their location, but depending on what groups one works with, that number can dip lower (close to 1 percent).  And there is no way to precisely predict the distribution of users who do or do not share their location (we surely can try, but this remains a known uncertainty). Add to this mix the 140 character limit per individual tweet and we might be hard pressed to figure out what’s actually there in a batch of Tweets.

But that’s no reason to proclaim that social media stories and analysis have no value.  It just means any social media stories and analysis need responsible embedding within other information.  Otherwise, we don’t know what we’re looking at other than “someone said something on the internet.”  That leaves us with a lot of ambiguity.

When I wrote about the racist, sexist tweeting reported by BuzzFeed, I wanted to call attention to the ways that copy/pasting or embedding tweets as a way of reporting or calling attention to events is an unhelpfully simplistic way of starting a public discussion about a given social media trend.  We know that there is limited data within social media alone, but by reporting Tweets by merely listing half a dozen tweets implies a representative quality to a tweet that may not exist.  For instance, the article in question headlines the Twitter activity at U of I with “After Being Denied A Snow Day, University Of Illinois Students Respond With Racism And Sexism.”  The piece goes on to list 11 total tweets that ranged from cruelty to hate speech, followed by 9 tweets and a few comments by U of I alums that condemn the activity of the anti-Chancellor tweeters.  7 of the 11 spotlighted hate-tweeters have since deleted their accounts.  But this approach of “balancing” an approximately equal number of pro and anti tweets, with each group ranging in intensity, is very limited. First, let’s appreciate the good things this story did: 

1) Called attention to hateful and reprehensible conduct so that it could be addressed, discussed, and punished. It also ended up being, for what it’s worth, a “teachable moment” at the University

2) I’m open to other things to list here.

Now, let’s look at some of the bad things that happened:

1) In a platform defined by connections with other users, we get no sense of the diffusion of the ideas in question. All we know is that some people said some things, and others tried to correct them.  This is a story about activity on a social network, so please, show us the network!

2) As a result of 1), the headline is essentially “someone said something outrageous on the internet.”  People in turn respond with outrage.

3) Our collective response as citizens/consumers of this information is left without the proper tools and knowledge.  If 50 people said terrible things on Twitter, it makes a big difference if they were a) largely ignored; b) retweeted by a zealous few; c) massively propagated across a social network; d) condemned by a vocal few; e) widely condemned by an emergent coalition; f) barely condemned at all.  How we may go about contextualizing and addressing this activity and the agents involved depends on how it happened, not merely that it happened.

And so the business of “reporting” tweets alone is suspect.  If we want to draw conclusions from social media, whether our ambitions are journalistic or academic or both, we should have to consider social media activity within a network context. And this is at bare minimum, really.  There are many cultural, social, and historical dimensions that can and should be added.  If we do not have this context, we are much more likely to answer outrage with outrage.  Someone said something terrible, we are horrified, and we wait for the cycle to repeat.

By examining these things I wish to see our relationship to social media transform.  It can be an incredible resource, but it also a very complex system, layered on top of so many other complex systems.  To insist on representing social media “stories” linearly could be just fine in some scenarios, but it risks harmfully misrepresenting what is happening or what happened.  Without context (informational, cultural, etc) we are left at the mercy of headline writers.  We should demand more out of any “story” that uses Twitter as evidence.

To return to this BuzzFeed piece, which I like for its early action but dislike for its presentation.  “After Being Denied a Snow Day, University of Illinois Students Respond with Racism, Sexism” does not tell the story like “After Racist, Sexist Responses to Snow Day Decision, University of Illinois Yet Again Conflicted on Racial Issues .”  The latter takes fuller consideration of social media activity (detailed previously) and gestures towards the institutional and cultural history of the place. The former uses half a dozen tweets to generate outrage.   If we want to address a brutal but complex institutional problem (like racism), nuance is our friend.  And, as it emerges, a lot of writing about social media just doesn’t supply enough.  In some situations, some may care less, but Justin Bieber saying something foolish on Twitter probably shouldn’t receive similar reportage as evidence of institutionalized white privilege at a major University.  “Here is a trend” is one way to tell a story. “What exactly is this trend?” will better serve us all.

In the predicament of making social media more legible to help sustain a deliberative public environment, I believe we’re all on the same team.  I fervently believe that a site that lists a story entitled “17 Signs You’re in a Relationship with a Burrito” can also bring meaningful and impactful news.  I just think that’s what it means to be a hub for a lot of heterogeneous information. So too do BuzzFeed staffers believe this, who say things like “The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it.”