The Flow of Information Through Social Media

danah boyd with a fascinating talk on the realities of information consumption and the flow of information through social media:

The goal is not to be a passive consumer of information or to simply tune in when the time is right, but rather to live in a world where information is everywhere. To be peripherally aware of information as it flows by, grabbing it at the right moment when it is most relevant and valuable, entertaining or insightful.

Moving from Broadcast to Network based distribution:

…Centralized sources of information are powerful because they control the means of distribution. … increasing numbers of entities have been fighting for a smaller and smaller portion of the pie.

With the barriers to distribution collapsing, what matters is not the act of distribution, but the act of consumption.

But the most interesting part of the talk for me was on stimulation and consumption. We consume what triggers a reaction. This is not “the best” or most informative content.

This isn’t inherently a good thing. Consider the food equivalent. Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Power in trafficking information
Power is about being able to command attention, influence others’ attention, and otherwise traffic in information. We give power to people when we give them our attention and people gain power when they bridge between different worlds and determine what information can and will flow across the network.

And one final tidbit on advertising worthy of consideration:
Advertising is based on capturing attention, typically by interrupting the broadcast message or by being inserted into the content itself. Trying to reach information flow is not about being interrupted. Advertising does work when it’s part of the flow itself. Ads are great when they provide a desirable answer to a search query or when they appear at the moment of purchase. But when the information being shared is social in nature, advertising is fundamentally a disruption.

Source: boyd, danah. 2009. “Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media.” Web2.0 Expo. New York, NY: November 17.