Commentary

Does Social Media Actually Discourage Sharing?

Among the many utopian promises attached to social media is the idea that it is democratizing media by enabling more people to create and share content -- but this conventional wisdom may be all wrong, according to a new study which suggests the ease of sharing (especially with the spread of mobile devices) actually discourages people from doing so. This is basically the result of a form of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which so many content creators overuse social media that it floods the zone, making it difficult to break through the clutter. 

The study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business -- titled “Competing for Attention in Social Communication Markets” and published in an upcoming edition of Management Science -- set out to investigate the reasons for the low number of content creators in proportion to overall social network usage. For example, just 10% of Twitter users are responsible for 90% of tweets sent on the network, and the vast majority of blogs are abandoned.

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The study suggests this dynamic is in fact the result of communication becoming easier over time. The researchers argue that social media users create and share content in return for intangible rewards like status, prestige, and self-esteem, reaping these rewards with relatively little effort compared to previous forms of communication: “Individuals can easily communicate with their entire social network, whereas traditional word-of-mouth communication involves incurring costs that are marginal to communicating with each additional individual.”

Ideally, they would be able to share this content with a large number of people and get their undivided attention, "but as the technology develops, more content creators are drawn to the system and the effort required to reach the “receivers" begins to increase. In fact, they cite data from Lifehack showing that the average network user receives around 54,000 words of content and seven hours of video per day -- obviously far more than they can cope with.

In short, the authors write, “social communication incentives diminish even as the reach or the span of communication increases. As the span of communication increases, competition between senders for receiver attention becomes more intense resulting in senders competing with greater equilibrium messaging effort.”

Seeing the huge amount of competition and the difficulty of cutting through the clutter, most content creators make the rational decision to drop out -- while a small number go into overdrive, which only makes the environment more cluttered.

1 comment about "Does Social Media Actually Discourage Sharing?".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, March 12, 2015 at 1:50 p.m.

    Not sure why it's important to justify the natural occurrence of the Power Law Distribution. No one really expects a normal distribution of contributions. Users are not disincentivized when the crowd's wisdom is sparsely contributed. Wikipedia is self-healing, even if only a handful of volunteers do most of the work. You might as why wonder why question the "long tail" of products on Amazon or eBay, i.e., the ones that so few people buy.

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