Otherwise Engaged: Social Media From Vanity Metrics to Critical Analytics

Author: Ellena Parsons

Today’s WSI Distinguished lecture with Professor Richard Rogers focuses on the pervasive view of social media being a tool from which to gleam ‘vanity metrics’, and how these metrics may be reworked for social research purposes. The lecture was split between these two aspects, with a detailed explanation of factors surrounding the notion of social media vanity metrics, and later discussing how participation in social media networks has changed with the evolution of popular social media platforms into sites which can be critically analysed to assess group and individual engagement with social issues.

Professor Rogers led with an investigation into how social media usage gave rise to certain ‘conditions’ which lead to distracted engagement:

  • The notion of the ‘flickering man’, as someone who mimics the Web surfer model of jumping from link to link. This is in contrast to the ‘contemplative man’, who understands the world sentence by sentence. In a sense, this is non-linearity taking over a linear consumption of data.
  • ‘Ambient awareness’, that is, the way a user will be constantly bombarded with updates, ambient information, and has a remote connection to others.
  • ‘Continuous partial engagement’, where a user does not fully engage with issues and causes as they may have pre-social media, but instead have only a fleeting, often non-committal engagement.

There were a number of proposed solutions to these conditions, among which were the use of so called ‘calm technologies’, which aim to de-metric the social media interface by removing metric stimulus such as badges, notifications, likes and other participatory quantification.

Social networks were contrasted with social networking, with the former being considered a means of presenting the self and navigating interests and current state events, with the latter being very much a working utility which is leveraged for creation of networks for self-value, and example here could be that of work related networking such as LinkedIn. What a person does online is performative in nature, and in vanity metrics terms can be measured in terms of a person’s celebrity, influence and trend-ability. A social media user will treat friends as a fanbase to their microcelebrity status, performing aspects of themselves to spectators, perhaps unwittingly. The notion of the influencer has given rise to what is perhaps the ultimate vanity metric, the ability to influence others into particular behaviours based on your network measure in terms of betweenness centrality weighting.

A proposed thought shift towards seeing social media networks as ‘issue networks’ would allow for the ability to assess a person’s critical alignment. This would challenge the commonly held belief of social media having no value due to its perception as a site for presentation of the self, and so a place for vanity metrics.

The evolution of the popular social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – were then discussed, in terms of how they have changed from their inception through different stages where their primary aims and goals shifted. With Twitter, the original tagline of “what are you doing?” which greeted users about to write a Tweet in Twitter 1, evolved to the more generic “what’s happening?”. Similarly, Facebook moved from a platform of personal interest and self presentation to a social movement of cause interests, involving groups and pages. Instagram, while being noted as the least provocative of all the major social media sites (perhaps in part due to its mostly image centric functionality), has diversified fairly little from its roots in selfie culture to the more recent use of antagonistic hashtags to provoke engagement with so called ‘hashtag publics’. Instagram however, does not escape the metricisation that more data driven platforms are subject to, with Prof. Rogers citing the SelfieCity project, which derives analytical findings from analysis of selfie images.

Prof. Rogers elaborated further on how engagement metrics can be studied to study issues related to social sciences, and discussed a number of stages by which to do this. These were:

  • Study of the dominant voice, which examines dominant and marginal sources.
  • The notion of concern, and which issue is a concern to whom, and who participates in discourse while examining who else stays silent.
  • Commitment which centres around the longevity of a concern, and the persistence of users engagement with the concern.
  • Positioning which examines purposeful use of keywords in contrast to those using neutral language.
  • And finally alignment is the company with which a keyword keeps. This is related to alignment with discourse terms, joining a cause using particular keywords, and a literal “coming to terms” of sorts.

The lecture concluded by a rounding off of the findings from the talk, emphasising how social media is often studied as a site of presentation of the self, but while vanity metrics are a throwaway business measure leading to a perception of low value beyond this context, this lecture challenged this narrative of social media as being without depth of value to social science. As such, social media can be used as a rich source of information to study and critically assess individual and group alignment to causes and issues.

After ending with a question and answer session, Prof. Rogers answered the pertinent question of the week; in light of the Cambridge Analytica furore where personal data was used to manipulate political campaigns, should we be deleting our social media accounts? The answer is no; but we should, as consumers, be demanding better access to our data.

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