In the age of social media, if we’re able to get online, engage with a few tools and connect our ideas to others who sympathise, we’re able to initiate social change. Or that’s the theory.
It’s almost glamorous, really. Not to mention empowering. We can create spreadable hashtags for our #ideas and share them on posters, through speech and online.
But in reality, things might be a bit different. Our trust of, and romance with, social media has been shaken by the #occupy protests that started in New York with Occupy Wall Street. Organisers say the protests have spread to more than 1,400 cities across the globe.
It’s almost as though social media might have cheated on us. But we can’t prove it – we can only dig for evidence where we think it might exist.
Occupy Wall Street, which started on September 17 and continues to gain momentum, is a peaceful display of public frustration around wealth inequality, corporate greed, and the mishandling of the economy in the United States as it emerges from a deep recession. The protesters refer to themselves as the “99%”.
Through media such as Livestream, Twitter and Facebook, as well as in alternative media outlets such as Adbusters, #occupywallstreet and its tens of thousands of participants have only recently broken into the mainstream media.
Even user-uploaded videos of police conflict and mass arrests have had arguably little impact on media attention in the US for such a large-scale, homegrown movement.
In this glorified age of socially-empowered media change, movements such as Occupy Wall Street must still be legitimised by mass media in order to gain a sympathetic audience.
But how do social media help movements such as Occupy Wall Street with their most pivotal need – to be brought to potentially sympathetic audiences?
The case of the missing hashtag
Hashtags are a user-created phenomenon, a system for ad hoc organisation. They help “smart mobs” assemble, and can be easily modified: #occupyeverywhere, #occupyfacebook, #occupySF, even #occupyramsaystreet has popped up.
Hashtags such as #occupywallstreet are not infinitely dispensable, though. And they might not be as “democratic” as people are inclined to believe.
As the Brooklyn Bridge incident, which saw 700 protesters arrested, occurred on October 1, many Twitter users were outraged that #occupywallstreet, the official, and by far the most frequently used hashtag of the movement, never showed in the official Twitter “trending” list – an aggregation of the most popular hash tags used on Twitter. Some demanded an explanation.
It led many to ask for Twitter to be more transparent, but that’s not part of the service the company offers.
“Though I think Twitter should be transparent with its statistics, we don’t need it to be, as Topsy, Trendsmap, and Trendistic can count for us,” Jeff Jarvis, a prominent American media scholar and technology journalist, has argued in response to demands for more information.
Taking this lead, many Twitter users circulated an image and links to a blog that provided “evidence” Twitter was censoring the #occupywallstreet tags in North America using data sources outside of Twitter.
But why did the #occupywallstreet tag trend on these outside sources but not on Twitter itself?
Although #occupywallstreet participants probably divided their efforts between various iterations of different hashtags, some probably misspelling words in the process, this alone cannot explain the lack of “trending” attention.
“It’s most likely because they don’t have access to our trends algorithm and may not have access to the full firehose of tweets,” Twitter’s vice president of communications, Sean Garnett said by way of explanation.
This may seem reasonable, but further investigation provides conflicting evidence.
To really understand what happened, we need to look at the new rules of critical mass media:
1) Users provide Twitter, Facebook and Google with data: what we are thinking, saying, and doing: what we’ve done; what we plan to do; what we’re thinking about doing. Then, through a complex process, they tell “us” what they think we’re doing. It’s a conversation but in the end Twitter, Facebook, and Google still have the final word.
2) Twitter, as with other online social media, both disperses and attracts audience attention. It is collective yet ephemeral, fluctuating as people tune in and log out.
Regardless of what people think, we don’t know which Twitter topics will trend, why some do not, and how this is really determined. Just like Google’s search, it a complex, protected formula – a secret sauce.
Tracing the trends
So what can we do? We can use those “outside sources” mentioned above, where statistics are available.
Oddly, there’s really only one real statistic-based trending analytic tool around: Trendistic
Using Trendistic, I plotted #occupywallstreet on October 1 (at its peak activity to date) against two of the “top” daily trending topics – #whatyouknowaboutme and #october.
These statistics are over the exact same time frame, when #occupywallstreet appeared to go viral on Twitter, directly before and during the NYPD Brooklyn Bridge protest.
The #Occupywallstreet tag never appeared on Twitter but, according to this graph, it conflicted with two topics that did.
This is by no means the final say or a complete statistical analysis. But it’s interesting that the data above contradict the two primary arguments about how topics trend on Twitter, according to the site itself:
1) “It’s already been around”. #October “trended” for most of the day and wasn’t novel by any means. October had a both a higher total percentage and longer baseline and existing time period than #occupywallstreet.
2) “It needs to be very concentrated”. #Occupywallstreet’s percentage differential (or baseline to peak percent of total tweets) was steeper than #whatyoushouldknowaboutme, which “trended” for nearly all of the day.
Unless these data are wrong (taken directly from Trendistic, with the same percentages appearing on other Twitter statistic sites), the stats speak for themselves.
It’s not a conspiracy, but the fact is, as Twitter’s spokespeople stated themselves, algorithms and full access to user’s activity data are not public. Nor do they want it to be. Twitter is a business that must protect its intellectual property.
Revolutionaries, it’s time to leave Twitter behind
What lesson can take from this? In the online world, it’s easy to get a movement started, but it’s harder to interpret what we’ve started or what we’ve accomplished.
It’s not just Twitter, it’s all “transparent” social media.
This means future movements that might be controversial or “revolutionary” are likely to be better off building their own organisation and social media applications.
In the end, if we want to effect social change, we can’t always rely on social media to help us.
Information for this article was taken from publicly available data on Trendistic.