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In an age where we post, "like" and photograph our way through so many of our daily activities, the power of social media is not up for debate.
Yet, how much do we really know about this relatively new technology (now barely more than a decade old) or what the broader consequences, intended or otherwise, are on how we connect and share ideas with each other?
These questions are central to Montreal researcher Emmanuelle Vaast's newest study of social media, published in MIS Quarterly.
Dr. Vaast, a professor of information systems at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management, has a long history of studying social media use. She recently worked with a research team to explore social media use on Twitter following BP's environmentally disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The goal was to get a clear understanding of who was talking about the oil spill at the time, and how those online voices combined to organically stir up a larger social movement with real-life influence.
"This was intriguing to me because, at the time, Twitter seemed mostly used as a way to react to more mundane, sports or celebrity-related matters," Dr. Vaast says in an e-mail.
In the study, the researchers confirmed that platforms such as Twitter are able to create an emotional response in people that encourages them to work together toward tackling problems. But, critically, our collective voices can only become powerful when multiple users assume different, but complementary, roles in the online conversation.
In analyzing tweets from the oil spill, for example, researchers found people fell into three critical categories:
– Advocates: A small minority of people using the platform to lead others with their messages and intense use of social media.
– Supporters: A slightly larger minority group whose members actively spread the messages of advocates with comments and discussions of their own.
– Amplifiers: The largest of the user groups, these are the people who participate through retweeting and "liking" advocate and supporters posts.
"If one of these roles is missing then the connective action cannot unfold," Dr. Vaast says.
Almost eight years on from the BP oil spill, social media has only grown more influential as a rallying point for social change — from the viral spread of negative messaging in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (now thought to be the work of Russian trolls) to the swift rise of the #MeToo movement and, more recently, gun-control advocacy led by student survivors of a deadly high-school shooting in Florida.
Generating action boils down to one key lesson.
It's not only how each of us choose to use social media that matters, but also "what others do," says Dr. Vaast.
The study was co-authored by Hani Safadi from the University of Georgia, Liette Lapointe from McGill and Bogdan Negoita from HEC Montréal.
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