Network Effects and User Generated Information: the Tangibles of Social Media and the Internet

Being on the computer all day or even just a couple hours a day is not something anyone brags about.  In fact, many people are ashamed of how much time they spend on the internet and they most definitely do not want to be associated with looking like this.  The idea of spending hours mindlessly browsing social media seems like a waste of time, but there are tangible impacts involved with spending “too much time” on social media and forums.  With over 3 billion people, the Internet is the largest source of information in the world and has the biggest network effect known to man.  Many belittle social media and website impact like “Twitter Activism”, but there are undeniable benefits that exist.

The most obvious compounding of information together on the internet is Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is a completely user entry based data source, competing with the traditional encyclopedia.  During the early stages of development and release of the website, many did not consider Wikipedia a reliable resource (wait how come Wikipedia is allowed to write its own history).  Today, many higher education institutions still do not recognize Wikipedia as a reliable form of information for papers or research.  However, Wikipedia has gone from a concept to the 6th most visited website in the world, providing information to billions at a quick search.  The ability to post information on the Internet far reaches Wikipedia, with HowTo, WebMD, and many other niche websites.  The ability to learn new skills or information with such easy accessibility has given the ability for people to accomplish more.

The power of network effects and the ability to collaborate information is seen on many instances, first starting with Tumblr.  An anonymous Tumblr account kept posting blurbs and thoughts about depression and a girl named Jackie Rosas had been following the account for about a year.  One day, the girl posted that she was going to end her life and Rosas immediately contacted the police and suicide hotline.  However, the only information about the anonymous person was her first name.  With the help of the police and the local high school principal, the group was able to determine her identity the person and her home.  Soon afterwards, the police went to her home and discovered that she took a dangerous amount of pills.  The girl was rushed to the hospital and saved, all through Rosas’ immediate action.  Without the far reaching network effects of Tumblr, the post might have never been seen and the mystery girl might never have been saved.

On the flip side of the coin, the power of collaboration and network effects can have huge

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Sunil’s Facebook account a month before the accusations

negative effects due to the fact that anyone can make an impact.  One of the biggest missteps on Reddit was the false accusation of Sunil Tripathi as one of the Boston Marathon bombers.  Reddit made impacts in other cases like Aurora movie theater shooting and began to dig up information to locate the Boston bomber.  However, the website incorrectly identified Sunil Triphati as one of the suspects, basing it off information that he had been missing for a month.  Many other news sites picked up the information as reliable and began incorrectly insinuating Triphati as a bomber.  Sunil’s family was sent death threats, racist messages, and harassed during the duration of the witch hunt and in the end, Sunil was not a suspect but actually deceased.  The power of collaboration leads to dangerous consequences like mob mentality and witch hunts.  Just as easily as information is posted, incorrect information is just as likely to be posted.  The problem with forums, websites, and social media is that the top comments and posts are not necessarily the correct ones but are almost always the popular ones.  Reddit comments are default sorted by upvotes while “controversial” comments are frequently a lot less while on Facebook the posts are sorted by high number of likes (not even a method to see “controversial” comments).

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Most people browse the “hot” tab, controversial is fourth down the list

I believe that there are more positive impacts than negative impacts with the network effect and the conglomeration of information.  There are many fundraisers, subreddits, activism fads (Ice bucket challenge), and public service announcements that make a good difference only possible with the network effect and information.  Does that mean I believe humans are naturally good willed or smart?  Not necessarily (that’s a philosophical can of worms that would take too long to discuss).  Information on social media platforms needs to be considered in a unique lens.  Before accepting any new information, people must consider the lens of the person who posted, the objective of the post, and his or her own internal knowledge (as a comparison point). A professor at Harvard University, Gary King, stated that “Big data is not about the data” but is in fact about the analytics that result from it.  A larger amount of information, opinions, and data is objectively better.  It’s up to the user to properly interpret and use it instead of accepting it for face value.

2 comments

  1. Lots of interesting examples in this post. I’ve done ALOT of research on Wikipedia and I could probably fill a whole course just talking about the weird intricacies about the site. In the future, you might consider focusing your blog posts a bit more. Each of the examples you cited could have been the subject of an independent blogpost that went into each of the issues in greater depth.

  2. You make some good points about the pros and cons of social media. The potential to save a life or create a mob mentality, based on false information – all with the same tool set. Social media is gasoline on the fire; hopefully, there are more fires to benefit than there are to harm. As citizens, we can play a role to make sure the pros outweigh the cons.

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