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In the past, the opportunity to be a publisher or a broadcaster was open to a select few. Now anyone can become a global media brand. The job of finding, producing and distributing content has extended from the newsroom to the street. In some countries, traditional, mainstream media has got lazy; they stopped trying many years ago. They failed to take account of changing audience behavior.

The technology advanced and the tools were developed to enable anyone to research, create and disseminate content. And some traditional mainstream media companies—not all, but some—failed to see the significance.

Social-Media-EssayAnd there is social media. At first there was a cacophony of noise that was hard to follow. But then those designing social media tools got smarter, and social media became more focused and personalized through tagging, lists, and other filters. The noise was reduced and meaningful communication and instant participation enabled. It empowered the individual who had a story to tell with the tools to proclaim their news to the world. But still, some traditional, mainstream media organizations failed to respond. And the audience moved away and found a new home in their preferred social networking space, where they met like-minded individuals and formed communities. Those bonds grew. Individuals who were once loan voices—sometimes heard, often ignored—became recognized. Based on the quality of the content they produced they began to gain followers through peer group recommendation. Those followers responded, added value to what was being said, and shared the information with their contacts. And with smart tagging, it all went viral. They lost touch with their audience.

And as this happened, a new middle media, made up of informed bloggers and social networkers, began to develop. These were individuals who wrote and broadcast with authority, not because they were paid to do so, but because they had knowledge and a passion that they wanted to share with the world. Gradually, networks began to be built; experts linking their skills and sharing information. At the same time—in some newsrooms—tired, lifeless professional journalists were rewriting news releases and handouts, or copy/pasting the news wires, publishing and broadcasting the resulting content and pretending it was journalism.

The traditional, mainstream media organizations that get it right are those that have formulated a social media strategy based on taking note of changing audience behavior. For many, social media is now a central part of the newsgathering, news production and news distribution strategy. They have joined the global social media conversation and contribute to that conversation. They ask questions and answer questions, and the content they produce contains audience input which the audience trusts and, because it is about the issues that concern them, they comment, add value and share. Because of that, the media landscape will never be the same again. Traditional media that fails to recognize and respond to this ongoing change is probably doomed. However, the continued growth of social media could awaken those traditional media houses that have failed in their duty to inform the public debate. It could signal the end of copy/paste journalism and result in a flourishing of vibrant people-focused journalism. Social media could go down in history as having been the resuscitator that jolted mainstream media back to life.

Social media has existed in various forms for several decades, but came in to mainstream notoriety in the first decade of the twenty-first century with the debut of a number of sites (e.g. MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc.) that soared in popularity and access. While still in its infancy, social media is impacting the way individuals communicate with one another and creating disruption across the media industries.

Social media has taken on greater importance by capturing the attention and interest of consumers, marketers, advertisers, and businesses. While the number of social media users changes literally by the hour, it is clear millions of people are using social media around the world. The wide adoption of social media has created more confusion and challenges for the media industries, as social media has become yet another platform to engage and interact with consumers. Media companies do not have a choice; they must now include social media as part of their overall digital strategy.

For commercial enterprises, the emerging set of new technologies and forms of communication in social media are leading to a whole new channel of interaction with customers, partners and employees. Given that 39 % of the fastest growing companies in the US have implemented e.g. blogging compared to only 11.6 % of Fortune 500 companies (Barnes and Mattson 2008), it cannot be ignored that social media can offer businesses a competitive edge. Today the potential of customer contributions and recommendations for products and services is more highly valued than ever before. In fact, Gartner estimates the amount of money spent annually on enterprise social software—also referred to as “Enterprise 2.0” by McAfee (2006)—will reach 1.06 billion US dollars by 2012 (Gibson 2009, eWeek, 26, p. 16). By definition, concepts like microblogging and social networks require unique communications and knowledge in addition to traditional advertisement strategies.

Social Networks

In existing relationships, social networks are vital for the exchange of resources such as information, an essential concept of social media.

“When a computer network connects people or organizations, it is a social network. Just as a computer network is a set of machines connected by a set of cables, a social network is a set of people (or organizations or other social entities) connected by a set of social relations, such as friendship, co-working, or information exchange.” (Garton et al. 1997)

The term social network was coined by Barnes (1954; cited by Wasserman and Faust 1994), who described it as nodes representing social entities (e.g. individuals or departments of an organization), which in turn are denoted as actors. Social relationships are linked by ties including interactive, political and economical relationships between pairs of actors.

The real-world networks present in a wide range of application fields are described by Barabasi (2003). These networks are established by nodes and directed or undirected links between pairs of nodes. In the case of undirected links, the degree of a node indicates the number of links connected to that node, whereas the concepts of in-degree and out-degree describe the same characteristic for a node in a network composed of directed links. A path in the network determines a sequence of nodes connected by links. The distance between two nodes is defined as the number of nodes on the shortest path connecting these nodes (Harary 1967).

Barabasi and Albert (1999) used the term “scale-free networks” to describe large real-world networks. Scale-free networks, like the World Wide Web, consist of a few nodes with a comparatively high degree of termed hubs and a large number of nodes with a small degree resulting from the preferential attachment of links to nodes that already show a large number of incoming links. Social networks can be characterized as scale-free networks based on links between individuals within a community who know each other. Large interpersonal networks are scale-free since there are particular individuals in the network who are more favored by others and thus more frequently connected to due to specific social relationships (Lehel 2007, p. 36).

From the individual user’s standpoint, online interpersonal networks are established on social software platforms and focus on one individual, the focal person and his or her relationships with other individuals. These relationships with others are referred to as egocentric networks or personal networks, respectively (Haythornthwaite 1996; Wasserman and Faust 1994; Wellman 1999). Personal networks also represent role-based relationships in a particular social context, including close relationships such as friendships, affiliations and formal relationships (e.g. co-workers).

Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis (SNA) is an interdisciplinary research field that is based on the assumption of the importance of relationships among interacting units. The social network perspective encompasses theories, models, and applications which are expressed in terms of relational concepts or processes. Along with a growing interest and the increased use of network analysis, a consensus has arisen on the central principles underlying the network perspective. In addition to the use of relational concepts, the following aspects can be noted as relevant:

  • Actors and their actions are viewed as interdependent rather than independent, autonomous units.
  • Relational ties (linkages) between actors are channels for the transfer or “flow” of resources (either material or immaterial).
  • Network models focusing on individuals view the structural network environment as a provider of opportunities for or constraints on individual action.
  • Network models conceptualize structure (social, economic, political, etc.) as lasting patterns of relations among actors.

The unit of analysis in network analysis is not the individual person, but an entity consisting of a “collection” of individuals and the links between them. Network methods focus on dyads (two actors and their ties), triads (three actors and their ties) or larger systems (subgroups of individuals or entire networks) (Gretzel 2001; Wasserman and Faust 1994).

Wasserman and Faust (1994, p. 21) state that social network analysis can be characterized as a “generalization of standard data analytics techniques and applied statistics” since mathematical models are used to formalize metaphorical terms like popularity, social position and isolation. Mitchell (1969) defines three the levels, frequency, intensity and durability, to define the quality of interpersonal relationships, which are also subject to social network analysis. The social relationships of an interpersonal network can be visualized by a sociogram, a chart that plots the structure of interpersonal relations (Moreno 1937).

Information Exchange in Social Networks

Active ties between actors can be characterized by social interaction including the exchange of resources (e.g. information). Interpersonal relationships based on the exchange of information are defined by content, direction and strength attributes (Haythornthwaite 1996).

Information and knowledge are considered as content within the scope of their exchange in a social media environment. Haythornthwaite (1996, p. 326), for example, noted that “relationships can cover the sharing, delivery, or exchange of a wide variety of resources, including information.”

The direction of information exchange relationships describes the way information is transferred between pairs of individuals. If the information being considered flows in both directions, the underlying relation is referred to as undirected or symmetric. Otherwise it is referred to as directed or asymmetric.

The intensity of a relationship is indicated by its strength. In such, a relationship with frequent transfers of information is considered stronger than one in which information is rarely exchanged. Furthermore, the strength of ties refers to the cumulative strength of all of the different social relationships between two individuals which is also affected by the continuity of the relationships (Haythornthwaite 1996). A close relationship with frequent exchange of information denotes a strong tie that implies, e.g., a sense of trust between the respective individuals. By contrast, a loose form of contact generally equates with a weaker tie. Individuals who are linked to another person by strong ties are also likely to share a large number of strong ties to other people (Granovetter 1973). On one hand, those linked by strong ties to the focal person tend to have access to the same information and therefore do not represent sources of new information. On the other hand, Granovetter (1973) observed that weak ties are essential in order to establish connections between different interpersonal networks and thus obtain new information.

For the appropriate measurement and analysis of information exchange in social networks, primary characteristics such as cohesion, structural equivalence, prominence range need to be examined and is not subject of this paper.

One primary aspect of the measurement and analysis of information exchange in social networks is that of brokerage. Brokerage can be measured by the actor’s betweenness, which describes if an actor owns the role of an intermediary connecting clusters and cliques in the network. According to Burt (1992), these actors maintain an essential role in filling in the structural holes between clusters in the social network if these areas of the network have not yet been connected. The outcome of this for the exchange of information in social networks is that an actor who has taken on the role of a broker is able to deliver information from one cluster to another, and thus maintain the control over the information flow, although he or she does need to be able to authorize the information disseminated to others, which is referred to as information legitimation, as in the case of e.g., digital rights management (Haythornthwaite 1996).

Range indicates the number of sources an actor has access to. It depends on factors like the size of an actor’s personal network and access to other interpersonal networks. The range of an actor is determined by his or her direct and indirect ties with other actors in the available networks.

Analyzing information exchange relationships by measuring the aforementioned characteristics of social networks also reveals the information routes along which information flows between actors (Haythornthwaite 1996).

Social Media Software

Social interaction on the World Wide Web, including the behavioral and cultural patterns of the people using social software, can be described as social media. Social software represents a significant class of “Web 2.0” applications that can act as mediators for interpersonal communication and the exchange of information (Evans 2008, pp. 33–34). Online tools that people use to share content, profiles, opinions, insights, experiences, perspectives and other forms of media itself, thus facilitating conversations and interaction online between groups of people, can be described as social software. These tools include weblogs, message boards, groups, podcasts, microblogs, lifestreams, bookmarks, networks, communities, wikis and video blogs. Tepper (2003) asserts that the development of social software has been enhanced by a great increase in the number of individuals using social software. The implementation of these tools within a corporate environment is referred to as Enterprise 2.0.

A prominent characteristic of social software is the foundation of online social networks between users. Existing real-life personal networks of users form a basis for establishing networks on social software platforms. In such, online personal networks can represent a real-world context including social interaction by using social software and overlapping with interaction in the physical world. On the other hand, social software enables users to build entirely new relationships online. Characteristics of these relationships depend on the kind of social software and available services. The services provided are for interpersonal or group communication use, the support of metadata management, information and user search functionalities, publications, sharing, subscriptions, commenting and collaborative classification. They ultimately allow individual users to link, exchange and organize information as pieces of content with selected contacts in a social network based on social software (Lehel 2007).

Since functional features and information models of social software reveal limitations from the individual user’s perspective, the user-centered social software model proposes an integrated view on all available information by encompassing services for the acquisition of relevant information, controlled information dissemination to selected contacts and flexible metadata and semantic information relation management concerning the organization of distributed personal information.

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