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How and Why Some Issues Spread Fast in Social Media

Authors:
  • Ex- University of Jyväskylä

Abstract

available in open access here http://ojcmt.net/articles/51/516.pdf
Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies
Volume: 5 Issue: 1 January- 2015
© Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies 90
How and Why Some IssuesSpread Fast in Social Media
Boyang Zhang, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland
MaritaVos, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland
Abstract
This paper brings together current insights from various disciplines into the spreading of
social media posts.By astructured literature review of peer-reviewed literature 39 recent
articles on diffusion in social media were located. The search spanned 10 years, although all
the papers found were published after 2009, indicating that the examination and observation
of spread patterns in social media is still in an early stage.
The analysisfocused on spread patterns and factors that may explain how rapidly issues
spread in the online environment. Based on the findings, from an organizational perspective a
model is constructed and directions for future research are suggested.The model focuses on
characteristics of the issue, of the social media involved, actor resources and general factors.
A better understanding of how social media posts spread helps organizations to be prepared
for upcoming issues and crises, such as launching early rumour detection to prevent losses in
organizational and brand image.
Keywords: Diffusion, spreadpatterns, social media, monitoring
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Introduction
The aim of this paper is to clarify the diffusion patterns and factors that explain the spread of
issues in social media. This can help organizations to interpret the results of social media
monitoring and decide on the necessity for social media interventions. To this end, the paper
adopts a broader perspective, collecting insights from various disciplines on diffusion in
social media.
Social media allow people to build social networks using internet applications that provide
users with a variety of exchange platforms (Nadeem, 2012; Wang, 2012). This has led to an
explosive growth of social media posts. For organizations, the rapid development of social
media brings not only insights into customer opinions and new ways to spread their own
viewpoint(Kumar & Mirchandani, 2012), but also rapid diffusion of possibly unexpected
topics, such as negative electronic word-of-mouth messages (Zhang, Jansen, & Chowdhury,
2011). Nowadays, the universal use of social media has become apriority in order to improve
organizational performance and enhance communications with users (Fan, Geddes, & Flory,
2013). Social media may strengthen organizations ability to reach a large audience. However,
alongside opportunities,social media interaction also brings challenges, e.g. “the advent of
consumer-generated content and its rapid diffusion takes much of the control over messages
away” (Farshid, Plangger, & Nel, 2011, p. 228).
Issues are topics discussed publicly (Coombs, 2002), in issue arenas that can be traditional
news media and new online media (Luoma-aho &Vos, 2010). They can pose problems or
opportunities for an organization, as the topics discussed may be linked to an organization
and affect the interaction with public groups. Issues are not owned or defined by
organizations. As Heath (1998, p. 275) puts it, “In this era of cyberspace, the Internet and
Web have come to be a powerful arena for such discussions which do not allow media
reporters, editors, and news directors or governmental officials to be the final power in
determining whether issues discussants can have their voices heard”.
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Although organizations realize that they are not in control of the spread of issues in social
media, for issues management purposes they need to be aware of what might be coming.
Monitoring discourse on topics related to a certain organization may reveal a number of
topics, but which of these are likely to grow fast? Predicting the growth of issues requires a
better understanding of the ways in which issues spread in social media, for example insight
into spread patterns, and factors that may explain rapid issue growth. What makes ideas or
issues stick, a phenomenon known as ‘stickiness’, can be modelled as the probability that a
post is passed on to others (Romero, Meeder, & Kleinberg, 2011). Hence, as stated by Rogers,
Chapman, and Giotsas (2012, p. 120) it is crucial to understand the type of content that is
likely to be shared”.
The theoretical basis for this paper is based on a structured literature review. Below, the
method used to selectthe literature for review is described, and the insights are reported.
Finally, a model is constructed, and conclusions are given.
Structured Literature Review
Following a literature search, key sources in refereed journals were identified and analysed to
find recent insights on the ways in which issues spread in social media and the factors that
may enable or hinder fast issue growth. The method of a systematic literature review was
chosen to provide a consistent knowledge base, adopting explicit procedures and including
documentation of the selection criteria (Sümer, 2011). After trying out different keywords, the
words “social mediaand [diffusion or disseminat* or prognos*] and [issue or "information
spread*" OR message*] were chosen. The searchincluded the databases EBSCO and
ProQuest andspanned 10 years. Initially, 62 papers were identified, and after scanning for
relevance based on the keywords, thisyielded 31 articles from 2010-2013. Snow-balling
added 8 more articles. A total of 39 articles (marked with an asterisk in the list of references)
were further analysed.
The content of the articles was scrutinized in a thematic analysis using a dataextraction table.
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The analysis focused on the following research questions:
(1) How are issues diffused in social media, according to the literature?
(2) What factors, according to the literature, influence the spread of an issue in social
media?
The findings show increasing research attention to the spread of social media posts. Of the
refereed articles found, 6 were published in 2010, 7 in 2011, 17 in 2012 and 9 articles up to
mid-2013, when the search ended. The journals showed a wide range, four journals yielding 2
articles (Behavioural scientist, Physical Review, Vaccine and PLoS ONE) and several
journals one article. In this way insights from various disciplines were gained. Below, we
report the findings on viewpoints concerning diffusion in social media, how issues spread in
social media and,what are the enablers and barriers to this, according to the literature.
Viewpoints on Diffusion in Social Media
The point of departure of this study was to clarify insights in the literature on the spread of
social media posts. Each article found revealed a different and often unique angle on the topic,
making it difficult to form a clear picture of the state of play. Therefore, we first reflect more
deeply on the different objectives of the investigated publications in investigating the spread
of social media posts.
In the investigated literature drawn from a variety of disciplines the reasons for studying
diffusion in social media, show considerable diversity. Many authors were keen to find out
how messages can be spread rapidly and widely on the web:some had advertising goals in mind
(Li,& Shiu, 2012; Williams, Crittenden, Keo,& McCarty, 2012; Zhang et al., 2011), while
others sought to engage people in an educational health campaign (Bosley, Zhao, Hill, Shofer,
Asch, Becker,& Merchant, 2013; Desai et al., 2012) or a political campaign (Bronstein, 2013).
However, some researchers were interested in finding ways of reducing the diffusion in social
media, in order to counteract incorrect messages. This concerned false rumours about
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organizations, or messages that could be detrimental to the health of the receivers (Lau,
Gabarron, Fernandez-Luque,& Armayones, 2012), for example vaccine-critical blogs (Keelan,
Pavri, Balakrishnan,& Wilson, 2010) or videos on YouTube (Robichaud et al., 2012).
Other authors were not interested in spreading a message widely, but rather at a more precisely
targeting of message content (e.g. Cain, Romanelli, & Fox, 2010). Finally, for some authors,
the focus was not on social media interventions but on collecting evidence about the evolving
needs of public groups so as to reveal problems at an early stage and thereby support risk
communication and management (Hiltz, Diaz,& Mark, 2011).
In all of the above cases, a better understanding of the factors that influence the spread of issues
in social media may,depending on the purposes of the organizations and their communication
policy, facilitate decision-making on tailored communication strategies. The importance of
monitoring the social media environment has been underlined (Ruggiero &Vos, 2014).
Monitoringprovides a picture of the situation at a certain moment, but does not per se reveal
which of the issues found will spread fast. To do this would involve repeated measurement to
extrapolate trends. However, while this may enhance quantitative understanding of the spread
of issues, a fuller understanding would also need a qualitative approach to reveal the factors
behind the (expected) success of some issues, and the (expected) failure of others, in achieving
rapid and wide dissemination. Therefore, ongoing monitoring activities and a better
understanding of issuespread in social media and the factors that may enable or hinder
dissemination, are important for organizational decision-making.
How Social Media Posts Spread
In the social media environment, the organization does not need to seek out all the relevant
stakeholders, as social media users are linked in various ways and messages may find their
way via searches as well as, for example, followers or friends (Bronstein, 2013;
González-Bailón, Borge-Holthoefer, & Moreno, 2013). Moreover, users often produce and
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initiate the spread of issues themselves. In the following sections, we summarize how issues
spread in social media, as described in the literature.
Cascading
In the literature, spread patterns are seen as directed by the paths along which messages travel
in social media. Various authors (e.g. González-Bailón, Borge-Holthoefer, & Moreno, 2013)
have conceptualized this as cascading, a process by which a particular message is passed to a
first group of receivers who then pass it on to the next, and so on, until an extensive network
is built up. Generally, by standing out in social media, cascading allows users to contribute to
a virtually unlimited process of diffusion. In micro blogs such as Twitter, people have
followers, and therefore any message emitted from a node will immediately be available to
anyone following the tweet sender (Borge-Holthoefer, Rivero, & Moreno, 2012). By a simple
retweet, messages spread, embarking on numerous different paths (Bosley et al., 2013;
Stefanidis, Crooks,&Radzikowski, 2013; Stieglitz,& Dang-Xuan, 2013; Zhang et al., 2011).
The concept of cascading suggests that posts that are passed on may multiply. However, not
all posts will be shared by cascading. Empirical research on Facebook did not show evidence
of cascading as such, but rather the colliding of shorter chains while a threshold amount of
start-nodes were needed in order to spread apost wider (Rogers et al., 2012).
Spread Pattern Analogies
According to Banerjee and Agarwal (2012), the spread pattern in social media can be
compared to a stream of ants using swarm intelligence, meaning that the ants do not move in
a random way but follow the intelligence of the swarm, making their behaviour easier to
predict. Similarly, by observing the interactions within a certain phase one can predict the
future behaviour of a large number of users in the online environment.
More often,with its characteristics of self-replication and fast diffusion, the spread pattern in
social media is compared to a virus, and the speed of spreading addressed as the ‘infection
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time’ of individuals (Doerr, Blenn & Mieghem, 2013). For example, Coombs (2002) uses the
concept of ‘issue contagion’ to address the spread of issues. In epidemiology, the spreading
of viruses is, for example, related to contact probability and frequency, based on a model
developed by Reed and Frost in the 1920s. In recent years, this model has inspired the
development of mathematical models for the spread of messages in social media (see a later
section).
Like the spread of viruses, the diffusion of social media messages may start in a particular
location and then spread to others. To analyse the diffusion of messages, starting for example
in a local event, geo-location can be used, as was done in the case of political communication
on Twitter (Stieglitz,& Dang-Xuan, 2013). However, currently only a small proportion of
social media messages is geo-located.
Comparing Message Reach to Adoption of Innovations
In the literature, the number of people reached by a social media message is often explained
by reference to the model of diffusion of innovations as developed by Rogers (1995), who
defined diffusion as a process by which an innovation is communicated through certain
channels over time amongst the members of a given social system. His model shows a normal
(bell) curve with successive groups of people adopting the innovation. The model was also
applied by communication scholars, for example, to investigate the diffusion of news among
the public (Valente,& Rogers, 1995). To apply this model to hypes in social media, the
consultancy firm Gartner extended the curve after the peak of inflated expectations to show a
steady plateau of productivity (Fernando, 2010).
The literature shows that spread patterns do not always follow the normal curve, as the
structure of networks and their paths for diffusion differ, as also do the positions of those who
trigger the diffusion and help disseminate the message (González-Bailón et al., 2013). Time
intervals also need to be considered as, particularly in the initial stage, there may be a time
lag in the passing of a message (Fan, Geddes, & Flory, 2013). Similarly, long power outages
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may also result in unexpected time lags. More importantly, a study on the reputation of the
brand Toyota showed that the content of a social media postchanges as it is passed on, and
may become more positive, neutral or negative (Fan et al., 2013). This adaptation in the
process of passing on social media posts was also noted in the activism engendered during
the so called Arab spring, when resistance leaders reconstructed messages to suit their needs,
after which the local message was recreated for a global audience (Newsom & Lengel, 2012).
This shows that the spread of social media posts, rather than passing on a package, can be
seen as an interaction between various actors.
Network Patterns and Roles
The way issues spread depends on the roles of the actors in the network. According to
Castells (2008, p. 152), a network can basically be seen as “a set of interconnected
nodes”.Some individuals are more connected than others, so connectivity is not equally
distributed across the network. In the network of micro blog followers, only a few highly
connected nodes act as hubs (Borge-Holthoefer et al., 2012). A hub has a dominant position
in a network, as it functions as a gatekeeper (Gruzd, Wellman, & Takhteyev, 2011), deciding
whether to pass on or not pass on social media posts to other users.
It has been suggested that, in particular, weak links are important for diffusion in the online
environment (Granovetter, 1973). However, in social media the role of weak links needs to
be specified. Empirical research in the social media environment showed that weak links do
not speed up diffusion, but “act as bridges to connect isolated communities” (Zhao, Wu,& Xu,
2010, p. 2). Diffusion may stagger to a halt if connections are bounded; in such instances,
wider links with other networks are important for the growth of an issue.
Mathematical Models
To predict the spread of social media posts, various authors (e.g. Laskela, 2010) have
developed mathematical models to describe the relationships between the variables that
influence diffusion. Such quantitative models often focus on the speed and number of nodes
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reached or patterns occurring, rather than what kinds of issues are shared and what kinds of
people are reached. According to Zhao et al. (2010), such models, based on relational data,
provide an estimation of random diffusion, although it has proved difficult to include all the
complexities of real world exchange on the Internet.
According to Kumar and Mirchandani (2012) only few attempts have been made to define
message spread, influence and impact in relation to marketing or communication
management. They tried to predict the ability of influencers to generate viral spread, based on
e.g. the number of times a message was forwarded and the number of comments or replies
received. Along similar lines, Li and Shiu (2012) designed a diffusion support mechanism for
selecting endorsers in social media, and tested its performance in measuring user preference
through click-through rate, network influence by re-post rate, and propagation strength by
exposure rate. The above sections show the variety of approaches that exist for determining
how issues spread in social media.
Factors Influencing Dissemination in Social Media
To better understand what influences the spread of social media posts on the web, we further
analysed the selected literature. This yielded various factors that may enable or hinder
dissemination in social media. We then organized these factors, following a research model
of communication in issue arenas (Vos, Schoemaker, &Luoma-aho, 2014) according to
whether they concerned characteristics of issues,media or actors.
Characteristics of the Issues Involved
In a network or micro blog, all users have their own friends or followers. What posts are
passed on also depends on what people like to share with each other. According to Wang
(2012, p. 309), “If the message itself is valid and possesses high social value, it is likely that
the message will be shared by many different users on multiple occasions, thereby increasing
the instances of exposure. In the literature, various characteristics of an issue were expected
to promote dissemination in social media.
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- Considered worthwhile. Content is more likely to be shared in social media, for example by
retweeting,if it is expected to benefit the receiver personally(Borge-Holthoefer et al., 2012), as
for example, with health-related messages. Also favoured is content that increases knowledge
(Desai et al., 2012), as it may provide a solution to a particular problem or offer the receiver
“true value and benefit” (Bates & Riedy, 2012).
- Expresses needs or emotions. If a post relates to needs or emotions it is more likely to be
passed on. “Emotionally charged Twitter messages tend to be retweeted more often and more
quickly” (Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013). This may also apply to emotional experiences
related to a product or service, for example, expressed in blogs, micro-blogs such as Twitter,
and on YouTube ornetworks such as Facebook.
- Has entertainment value or imparts a positive sentiment. Qualities like humour enable the
sharing of posts, for example allowing “participants to move from initial nervousness into
more relaxed and comfortable conversations” (Byron et al., 2013, p. 40). Meanwhile, positive
messages are generated and spread easily. For example, Desai et al. (2012, p. 4) noted in a
study on re-tweeting messages about a conference, that a positive tweet “leaves a good
impression with the reader and increases the likelihood that future tweets will be amplified by
that reader”.
- Has news value. A message that has news value, for example includes eye-witness accounts
during a crisis, is more likely to be passed on (Hiltz, Diaz, & Mark, 2011). News content of
social media messages may be related to a well-known organization (Williams et al., 2012)
and the content positive, negative or neutral (e.g. Fan et al., 2013). It may also concern a
well-known person or celebrity, as Sanderson & Cheong (2010) showed in a study on how
high frequency posting and tweets facilitated the communication of grief after the death of
Michael Jackson.
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- People want to be identified with it. Consumers use social media to engage with brands,
products and services they want to identify with (Williams et al., 2012). What users reinforce,
for example by re-tweeting or ‘likes’, is often shown on their homepage. Since it adds to their
identity, people may be opportunistic in what they wish to show and with whom they want to
be seen to belong. How fast a message travels also depends on societal factors, which
basically turns users into sensors (Stefanidis et al., 2013). Therefore, issues shared in social
media are less likely to include topics related to taboos, as users do not wish to invite gossip
or bullying, as “social media content is incorporated into broader practices of
self-presentation and identity management” (Byron et al., 2013, p. 41).
The way issues take form in social media differs widely from that in news media, as it seems
that people use social media especially from a personal perspective, to express their views,
depict their experiences and share what they perceive around them, for example in
eye-witness reports. Consequently, such motives then influence how an issue is
communicated and takes form in the online environment.
Characteristics of the Media Involved
The particular features of the individual social media may facilitate diffusion of an issue on a
smaller or broader scale. It should, for example, be noted that Facebook and Whatsapp are
based on strong ties and emphasize the strengthening of friendships, while Twitter is
primarily based on weak ties and is suitable for factual exchange (Zhao, Wu,& Xu, 2010).
Social media have various features that enable fast dissemination, including ease of searching,
sharing, and connecting with other users. Therefore, it matters from which social media
platform the issue discussion has originated, although transfer to other social media platforms
is possible and is more easily initiated in some social media than others. Mainly, however,
diffusion depends on ease of sharing, ease of finding what one is looking for, and ease of
connecting in the social media used.
Ease of sharing has to do with how well the online service facilitates exchange. Twitter’s
ability to signpost further materials (Kiernan and Wigglesworth, 2011) makes it easy to pass
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on links to YouTube videos (Robichaud et al., 2012). Facebook in turn facilitates active
involvement with friends, e.g. through ‘likes’ that strengthenrelationships(Rogers et al.,
2012). The use of “likes” has also been used in campaigns to create weak ties.
Ease of finding what one is looking for, or posting matters that can easily be found by others,
for example by using a hashtag on Twitter, is also related to ease of dissemination (Kiernan
and Wigglesworth, 2011).
Ease of connecting may be higher in some social media services than in others (Bronstein,
2013). Users of Twitter are free to follow others, which also results in weak ties while, for
example, WhatsApp is a more closed friendship environment. Consequently, Gruzd et al.
(2011, p. 1294) note, that “connections on Twitter depend less on in-person contacts, as many
users have more followers than they know”. When ease of connecting is high, this may result
in connections to an undeterminable degree and constantly shifting clusters of conversations
that have collapsed the traditional boundaries of space and time” (Farshid et al., 2011, p.
222).
Characteristics of Actor Resources forSocial Media
The actors involved in the issue-spreading process may be more or less connected, and more
or less active in interaction on the web. Therefore, organizationsthat are successful in their
use of social media will devote considerable resources to laying the foundation for their
social media activities and involving other actors (Nah, & Saxton, 2013). They may do this
by building platforms, content and followers, and developing ongoing monitoring and
multi-channel approaches. In social media campaigns, organizations may want to spread
matters widely, rapidly and/or to targeted groups by involving key-stakeholders
(Suarez-Almazor, 2011), including not only policy makers and various public groups but also
intermediaries through which relevant public groups may be reached. An organization can be
supported in its online activities by cooperating with its (business) partners who may, for
example, retweetimportant messages. How many are reached depends on the
interconnectedness of the actors that provide the post or pass it on (Gruzd et al., 2011).
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Organizations can form links with partners to increase their interconnectedness; this may
include other organizations or, for example, bloggers.
Actors who often pass on social media posts to others are known as influencers. Such actors
have the knowledge and willingness to support dissemination, for example, through tweet
amplification (Desai et al., 2012). Following the growing interest in social media,
organizations have begun to attributea profound role to influencers. Influencers with an
established network in social media are also called ‘social endorsers’(Li,&Shiu, 2012).
Authority is attributed to those who are highly influential because they have many links with
well-connected others; for example, if a blogger is highly influential “we would expect his
ideas to propagate to other blogs” (Lawrence, Melville, Perlich, Sindhwani, Meliksetain,
Hsueh,& Liu, 2010, p. 3). Since some bloggers have influence within a community, while
others (also) have influence outside that community, measures are being developed to help
organizations select the most suitableblogs for dissemination (Lawrence et al., 2010).
In social marketing practice, identifying influencers who are highly influential, also called
influentials, is organization- and case-specific (Kumar,&Mirchandani, 2012), and thus the
choice of influencers will often depend on the issue at stake.In purchasing decisions,
customers maybe affected by user-generated content (Stieglitz,& Dang-Xuan, 2013), often
referred to as ‘consumer-generated media’ or ‘consumer-generated advertising’ (Farshid et al.,
2011). In that sense, consumers can be good influencers, as a skilled consumer may offer a
more compelling message that has more credibility than a company-generated message”
(Williams et al., 2012, p. 129). However, Freberg (2012) found that user-generated sources
are not always more effective, as their trustworthiness may be perceived differently according
to users also depending on the topic. In any case, interconnectedness in the online
environment is seen as a resource of actors.
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A Model ShowingFactors that Enable Online Issue Spread
Below, based on the findings reported in the previous section,we present a model of the
keyfactors that influence the diffusion of issues in social media. First, the model shows the
characteristics of an issue that influence its rapid dissemination on the web, as it is
thesecharacteristics that make it more or less attractivefor users to pass the message on.
Second, the model shows the socialmedia characteristics that may also facilitate the rapid
spreading of an issue. It matters from which social media platform the issue discussion
originates, although there may also be transfer among different social media platforms.Third,
the model shows the organizational resources for social media,influencing the preparedness of
the organizationfor social media monitoringthat,depending on the issues management policy,
may be geared towards a better understanding of stakeholder points of view or towards
influencing the spreading of issues.
Next to these factors that relate specifically to the online environment, there are also factors of
a more general nature related to societal developments and organizational reputation.For
example, organizations should consider their vulnerability concerning issues and that issues
related to them may travel more or less rapidly on the web. Such vulnerability could relate to
societal factors or similar crises in the past, in the history of the organization or its (business)
sector. Therefore, organizational reputation should be seen as an important general factor,just
asdevelopments and power relations in the broader social environment that all may influence
the interplay of actors in traditional as well as online issue arenas (Vos et al., 2014).
Together, these factors pull or push the discussion on the issue, explaining the speed at which
the issue travels on the web, as shown in Figure 1. The centre of the model symbolizes the
iterative process of reflection on the spread of social mediaposts to better understand the
outcome of all these influences.Inspired by Rogers (1995) model for the diffusion of
innovations, we assume that in the various stages ofdissemination different actors may be
active in the process, such as early adopters (or, for example, activists drawing attention to an
issue), who may act and be perceived differently from the broader public, which may be
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involved at a later stage. This would call for continued assessment, giving consideration to all
the groups of factors throughout the lifecycle of the issue.
Figure 1.Issue characteristics, media characteristics,organizational resources,
andgeneral factors influencing the spread of an issue in social media.
3. Media
characteristics
3.1 Ease of sharing
information
3.2 Ease of finding
information
3.3 Ease of
connecting
2. Organizational
resources and
aims
2.1 Preparedness for
monitoring
2.2 Cooperation with
partners in social
media
2.3 Engaging
influentials
4. General factors (broader
than the social media)
4.1 Societal and situational
factors
4.2 Organizational reputation
1. Issue characteristics
1.1 Considered worthwhile to share
1.2 Expresses needs or emotions
1.3 Entertainment value or positive sentiment
1.4 News value
1.5 People want to be identified with it
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The specific characteristics of the issue in question may promote or hinder fast dissemination
on the web. Users will be more inclined to pass on a message if it is considered worthwhile for
other users, expresses needs or emotions, has entertainment value or imparts a positive
sentiment, or has news value, orrepresents somethingwith which they want to be identified.
Media characteristics include ease of sharing, finding what one is looking for, and connecting.
As the current trend is in the direction of closed environments (e.g. WhatsApp rather than
Twitter), this may set thresholds for the dissemination (Rogers et al., 2012), cause a less free
flow and hinder possibilities to monitor upcoming issues.Organizational resources and aims
refers to preparedness forsocial media monitoring and activities, utilizing cooperation and
engaging influentials.How these resources are used will depend on the organization’s
communication policy. This should be taken into account, not only with respect to the
organization itself but also with respect to other actors in the issue arena (Luoma-aho,&Vos,
2010). The general factors in the model refer to societal factors that describe whether an issue
relates to current interests, whether other issues are present that may dominate the news, and
history and reputation of the organization.
First, the model can be used to better understand the challenges to monitoringintroduced by
social media. Many organizations will be able to identify and follow a number of issues that
may affect their operations, and the insights collected can help them make sense of a fast
changing environment. When monitoring identifies new issues, the components of the model
can contribute to predictingwhether such an issue is likely to grow. Second, the model can be
used either to influence issuespread, for example by adding value to messages that will make
them attractive for further dissemination or reinforcing messages posted bybusiness partners,
or to decrease the likelihood of further dissemination by counteracting false rumoursor asking
partners to refrain from enlarging attention to the issue. Nowadays, issues are not considered to
be very ‘manageable’. However, the fast moving environment of social media calls for
sensemaking in organizations, reflection on new opportunities, and finding a balance that fits
the organizational policies.
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Conclusions
Social media provide users with new tools forsharing views. Issues can spread rapidly on the
web, calling for anticipatory actions based on insights into spread patterns. Diffusion in social
media is described in the literature, by means of analogies such as cascading or viral spreading,
by comparing it to the adoption of innovations, by reference to network patterns and roles, or
by means of mathematical models.In the literature,various factors,from various perspectives,
are mentioned as influencing issue spread, providing a fragmented and complex picture of the
topic. In this paper,these factors are compiled to provide a more holistic view of this current
topic from an organizational perspective.
The articles that described how issues spread in the media often focused on a particular
instance and the process of diffusion of a single issue or message. A clear event is often the
starting point, for example the crisis that accompanies a product recall. As time goes by, the
diffusion process may break down, or the topic may possibly re-appear in the online discussion
whena related matter pops up. There may be no such clear event at the endpoint, leaving the
possibility of a return of the topic (or a similar one) open. For an organization, an issue is not a
one-time event, and hence monitoring should alsocover successive or overlapping issues.
Limitations
The literature search was limited to refereed journals and, despite spanning 10 years, yielded
only articles published after 2009, showing that the topic is of current concern. An online
search revealed some recent conference proceedings with additional input on thetopic, e.g.
Choudhury, Lin, Sundaram, Candan, Xie and Kelliher (2010) who show how sampling
methods can influence the spread patterns found in the currently large volume of social media
data.
The model presented here may help organizationsto interpret the results of social media
monitoring and to reflect on the possibilities of social media interventions. However, more
research is needed to show which factors are more important than others.For example, in a
Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies
Volume: 5 Issue: 1 January- 2015
© Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies 107
case study published in conference proceedings,Yang and Counts (2010) found that tweets
that came later during the observation period and those that included links often travelled
further in the network. There might also be a threshold for diffusionin social media,
resembling that inepidemiology, wherea minimum number of infections is required to
increase the probability of a disease spreading to the whole network, oras in game
theorywhereaninnovation needs to attract a minimum number of adoptees before its utility for
other prospective usersis at a high enough level to induce them to adopt itas well (Song,
2013).
Directions for Future Research
Current mathematical models focus on the spread of individualmessages, for example, in
random diffusion, whereas the various complexities related to the spread of organizational
issues in social mediahave yet to be taken into account. Changes in messages as they are
passed need to be further investigated, as some authors state that in this process the message
content becomes adapted in a more negative or positive direction, or to suit a broader public
(Fan et al., 2013; Newsom,&Lengel, 2012).
We also argued that transfer within different social media and with traditional news media
needsto be taken into account.Moreover, interference between the traditional news media and
social media is not reflected in the models. For organizations, it is relevant that issue transfer
between social media and traditional news media exists (Meriläinen,&Vos, 2013), although it
has been suggested that this needs to surmount a threshold in order to gain momentum, rather
like the threshold described in the diffusion of posts in, for example, Facebook (Rogers et al.,
2012).
Implications for Practice
When companies monitor social media, the results may reveal various issues related to
organizational policies. However, monitoring in itself does not clarify what issues mostly need
attention. This needs a better understanding of the factors that determinewhether an issue can
Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies
Volume: 5 Issue: 1 January- 2015
© Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies 108
be expected to develop rapidly.The model presented here brings together current insightson
the diffusion of social media posts and provides input for decision-making on communication
strategies and a more critical outsourcing of related monitoring services, by enhancing
understandingof the principles of diffusion.In the social media environment, above all, it is
interconnectedness that counts.
Acknowledgements
This study received partial funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework
Programme under grant agreement number 284927 (project PEP). We thank Professor
JariVeijalainen for critically reading the manuscript.
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Volume: 5 Issue: 1 January- 2015
© Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies 109
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The last few years have seen significant investment in social media as an advertising, marketing and customer outreach opportunity. In the US alone, in 2010, almost $1.7 bn was spent by advertisers on social media marketing, with 53 per cent specifically allocated to Facebook1. Due to the explicit links that users maintain with each other, social media platforms are perceived as a highly suited environment for network-based marketing: word-of-mouth marketing, diffusion of innovation, or buzz and viral marketing2 all aim to take advantage of the relationships between users to facilitate the spread of awareness or adoption. In order to predetermine the effectiveness of such campaigns, it is important to be able to estimate potential return on investment. In particular, the ability to model existing networks, track the propagation of marketing messages and estimate customer exposures and impressions are essential for this purpose. A wide range of techniques to measure notions such as user engagement on such platforms have been developed and there also exists a significant amount of research on modelling contagion and diffusion in network-based environments that can be exploited to generally refine an overall marketing strategy. However, the structure and properties of different social media platforms introduce various constraints on both the means via which data propagate and the visibility of content and nodes, constraints that must be taken into account when modelling or measuring the impact of social media campaigns. Perfect information about exposures within a given graph to a given message will not be available and as such it is important to investigate and define methodologies for diffusion monitoring that are suited to specific platforms.
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In today's media environment, information is not simply passed from producers to consumers, but is mediated by participants of new media cultures, including information on sexual health. In focus groups held in Sydney and regional Australia in 2011, we asked young people aged 16–22 about the potential for sexual health promotion via Facebook and other social media. Our findings point to the complex ways in which young people use social media, and the unlikelihood of traditional take-home sexual health messages having traction in social media spaces. Five key aspects which emerged were: the participatory culture of social network sites; the stigma of sexual health, especially sexually transmitted infections (STIs); young people's careful presentations of self; privacy concerns; and the importance of humour in sexual health messaging. Fears of bullying and gossip (or ‘drama’) were also likely to prevent the dissemination of sexual health messages in this environment. However, humorous online videos were noted by participants as a significant way to avoid stigma and enable the sharing of sexual health information. The young people in our study were interested in sexual health information, but did not want to access it at the cost of their own sense of comfort and belonging in their social networks. Any sexual health promotion within these sites must be understood as a site-specific intervention. Résumé Dans l'environnement médiatique d'aujourd'hui, l'information n'est pas seulement transmise des producteurs aux consommateurs, elle est aussi véhiculée par les participants aux nouvelles cultures médiatiques, notamment l'information sur la santé sexuelle. Dans des groupes réunis à Sydney et dans l'Australie rurale en 2011, nous avons interrogé des jeunes de 16 à 22 ans sur le potentiel de promotion de la santé sexuelle dans Facebook et d'autres médias sociaux. Nos conclusions soulignent la complexité des utilisations des médias sociaux par les jeunes, et l'improbabilité que les messages traditionnels de santé sexuelle suscitent l'intérêt dans les médias sociaux. Cinq aspects clés sont apparus : la culture participative des sites des réseaux sociaux ; la stigmatisation de la santé sexuelle, particulièrement des infections sexuellement transmissibles (IST) ; la présentation soigneuse d'eux-mêmes par les jeunes ; les inquiétudes quant à la confidentialité ; et l'importance de l'humour dans les messages de santé sexuelle. La peur des brimades et des ragots (ou des « drames ») risquait aussi de contrarier la diffusion des messages de santé sexuelle dans cet environnement. Néanmoins, les participants ont cité les films vidéo humoristiques en ligne comme un moyen d'éviter la stigmatisation et de partager des informations. Les jeunes de notre étude étaient intéressés par les informations de santé sexuelle, mais ne voulaient pas y avoir accès au prix de leur propre sentiment de confort et d'appartenance à leurs réseaux sociaux. Toute promotion de la santé sexuelle dans ces sites doit être comprise comme une intervention propre à un site. Resumen En el ambiente actual de los medios de comunicación, no solo se transmite la información de los productores a los consumidores, sino que también ésta, incluida la información sobre salud sexual, es transmitida por participantes de nuevas culturas mediáticas. En grupos focales llevados a cabo en Sydney y Australia regional en 2011, les preguntamos a jóvenes de 16 a 22 años de edad sobre la posibilidad de promover la salud sexual vía Facebook y otros medios sociales de comunicación. Nuestros hallazgos señalan las complejas maneras en que la juventud utiliza esos medios y la improbabilidad de que los mensajes tradicionales sobre salud sexual tengan tracción en los espacios de los medios sociales de comunicación. Surgieron cinco aspectos clave: la cultura participativa de los sitios de redes sociales; el estigmaa en torno a la salud sexual, especialmente las infecciones de transmisión sexual (ITS); la cuidadosa manera en que la juventud se presenta; cuestiones de privacidad; y la importancia del humor en los mensajes sobre salud sexual. Además, consideraban probable que los temores de intimidación y chismes (o ‘drama’) impidieran la difusión de los mensajes de salud sexual en este ambiente. Sin embargo, los participantes mencionaron que los videos humorísticos en línea son una manera importante de evitar estigma y facilitar el intercambio de información sobre salud sexual. Las personas jóvenes en nuestro estudio estaban interesadas en la información sobre salud sexual, pero no querían obtenerla a expensas de su propio sentido de comodidad y pertenencia a sus redes sociales. Toda promoción de salud sexual en estos lugares debe entenderse como una intervención específica al lugar.
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