The Social Side of Social Media

Alan J. Daly
University of California, San Diego

Data data everywhere and too many drops to drink

IBM estimates that we create 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of information EACH day (BTW the number is read as 2.5 quintillion if you want to impress your friends)1.  A number that size is hard to get your head around, so let’s try to imagine it in a different way.  The data created every day, that 2.5 quintillion bytes, would fill 10 million Blu Ray Discs, which if stacked on top of one another would be as tall as 4 Eiffel Towers2.  The volume of that amount of data is epic, but not only is the volume impressive, the velocity of which it is created is equally staggering. 

Data velocity estimates suggest that for every minute of every day there are 204,000,000 emails sent, 72 hours of YouTube video uploaded, 216,000 Instagram photos posted, and most importantly for our project, around 300,000 tweets tweeted.  The volume and velocity of the data is incredible, but the variety of the data is equally mind blowing.

Figure 1

Within any 24 hour period the data generated can include: text, audio, video, click streams, sensors, and a host of other forms that get entered by human, machine or bot.  Out of all that production, IBM estimates that 90% of the data is “unstructured” meaning it is a seemingly random collection of photos, cat videos, tweets and logs that are not ordered in any particular manner, nor organized for easy analysis—which makes the job of working in this space challenging.  The volume, velocity, and variety of data generated on the web everyday may have led Mitchell Kapor to famously note that, “Getting information off of the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant,” and we have the wet clothes to prove it.

Kapor’s description may feel very familiar to those of us who attempt to make sense of the daily stream of data that is available and continues to grow every second.  Lest you think that a few kids in their Mom’s basement are generating all of this data, the We Are Social digital report3 may give you pause.  Consider the following, 2.13 billion people across the globe are on social media and in the US 87% of the total population regularly uses the internet with another 193 million being active on some form of social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.).  We live in an increasingly connected and interconnected world, and given this reality, we need new and unique ways to start to make sense of it all and search for important signals in the noise.  In finding our signal we have drawn on network science to guide the work and extend this current project—as the ideas from network science are so critical to the work, a bit more understanding about networks may be helpful.

The “Social” in Social Media

Our first question is how do we parse out and make sense of the information flow and meaning-making that takes place within the growing social media space.  Our collaborator on this project, Miguel DelFresno, has argued that given the ubiquity of online activity and its incorporation into our “real world” lives it makes increasingly less sense to think about “offline and online” worlds.  This has led us to argue that in reality, the offline and online experiences just reflect a larger social continuum in which individuals interact, access resources, and make sense of their world (DelFresno, Daly & Supovitz, 20164).  The important idea from our vantage point is the need to better understand the “social” aspect of “social” media.    

We are social, meaning making creatures and have been since the dawn of time.  In fact, our survival and evolution was based squarely on the idea that we looked out for one another and worked together to shelter ourselves, hunt for food, and raise families.  While we did so in a decidedly offline world back in the day, our lives today are just as social even though in many ways we have traded bricks for bytes and face to face for screen to screen.  In this current reality is about the both the pen and the phone and the degree to which either is mightier than the sword is not always clear.

Today, when we seek to shelter, we turn to members of the Tripadvisor tribe to support our efforts.  When hunting for food, we may take advice and insight from the highly valued clan on Yelp.  Consider how much of our daily lives and decisions take place and are influenced by others in a social space. This is not to say we don’t reach out to tribe members in the “real world”, of course we do, but now we have access to a larger set of actors who are connected and offer us resources.  In this iteration of the project we have taken this social idea to the next level by portraying the set of social ties and the tone of messages exchanged to seek insights.  We have intentionally chosen to privilege the social side of social media and use a sophisticated set of network methods to reveal the often hidden world of relations and make sense of what is being transacted.

On this website we have described the social network approach to making sense of the world (for a refresher click here).  From a social network perspective we are interested in the structure and pattern of relationships that form as individuals interact in a given space.  Like Noah, our work is grounded in pairs, or dyads.  The interactions between two individuals form the building blocks of networks, which can grow to include thousands and even millions.  Examining the structure that results from these interacting dyads can lead to insights about socially influential actors, subgroups of people, and even individuals that are on the periphery of the network.  Our starting point for this work is the relationship, and that jumping off spot differentiates our work from other equally important endeavors that may start from the individual—more on that later.  However, in making sense of the idea of networks, lets make a stop in an unexpected place: the forest.

Growing Social Roots

Many reading this piece will have heard of the World Wide Web, but likely fewer have heard of the Wood Wide Web (AKA by its less fun name, Mycorrhizal Network). You read it right, there is no Elmer Fudd issue here, I am writing about the Wood Wide Web.  Over the years our team has invested in understanding as much as we could about networks and in doing so our learning has taken us far and wide.  One of the most interesting finds came from an excellent article written by Kevin Beiler and colleagues (2010)5 who showed that there was a network of connections among and between trees in every section of a wood (and you thought things were unusual in Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood).  Roots in a wood crisscross and overlap and this line of research indicates that the roots of trees are connected by fungi, which act as links between the root systems of different types of tress.  In essence, these fungi act as brokers connecting otherwise disconnected trees and ultimately creating an interdependent system (see graphic below).

Figure 2

This graphic represents an interconnected and interdependent network between trees at the root level.  The fungi, in their brokerage capacity, support trees to essentially share resources such as sugar, nitrogen, and phosphorus between and among themselves.  Interestingly, this network of connections also provides for a type of early warning system.  If one tree is under attack from a beetle or pest that tree can actually “warn” other trees (both of the same species and other species of trees) to raise a defensive response to ward off the upcoming siege.  Even more remarkable, a dying tree may send its resources out to the larger community of trees for the collective benefit of the wood wide web.  For example, seedlings that may be in a shady location in the wood and require a supplement of energy resources may receive those resources from other healthier trees (in the diagram above larger green nodes are trees that are exchanging more resources).  The notion that trees themselves are surviving and thriving based on a network of connections is a powerful and potentially instructive perspective for our work and the larger effort of understanding people systems.  The Wood Wide Web is important and it grows and continues to thrive based on a set of resource exchanges, but without the individual trees themselves adding to the larger network there can be no exchange and as such we must look at both the network and the individual to understand the flow or resources within a system.  It is this powerful idea of the interplay between the collective and the individual that was instructive to the way we approached this next iteration of project and added a unique perspective.     

The Reese’s Advantage

In the previous iteration of this project we focused almost exclusively on the network aspect of the work and in this version, like the wood wide web, we look at both the forest (collective) and specific trees (individual).  In this sense we are weaving together both sociological and psychological approaches to give us a different level of insights than we may get from privileging just one perspective.  Lets make this idea a bit more explicit and arguably more delicious. 

From an American perspective, fewer things are better than peanut butter.  Those misspent blissful days of our youth when we would eat Peanut Butter by the spoonful or mix it in with its cosmic partner jelly to form close to the perfect sandwich are distant memories for many of us to the glee of cardiologists the world over.  Moving beyond the good ol’ USA, the world’s love of chocolate is undeniable—the smack down between Switzerland and Belgium about whose chocolate is best is epic and competes with classic battles akin to the Montagues and Capulets or for a more contemporary audience any Kardashian dinner.  90 years ago this very year a man named Reese mixed together the creamy awesomeness of peanut butter with the sweet crunch of chocolate and together those two taste sensations are arguably better than they were apart.  From our standpoint this sweet idea of togetherness is one of the main contributions of the current iteration of this project—bringing together both sociological and psychological traditions to make, well, a lower calorie mash up that offers unique insight into this complex world.  So what is the Reese’s aspirational advantage from our perspective?  

 A more integrated (sociological and psychological6) perspective as to how an important educational policy plays out in social media space may provide us with additional analytic purchase.  There is a great deal of work that attends to the psychological/individual aspects of actors, which has been critical in our understanding of a host of phenomena.  This important research focuses on beliefs, perceptions, expertise, education, pathology, etc. all rooted within the individual.  Although the context may be considered, generally speaking, it is not necessarily a core focus of a more psychological approach.  We may consider elements such as beliefs and emotions as properties of the individual and we can examine these properties in an attempt to understand behavior, outcomes, and those instances when things go horribly wrong or right—thank you Positive Psychology! Efforts from this scholarship and practice have produced critical insights and helped to construct a predominant view of the world in which most events are explained through properties of the individuals.

There is another perspective or several hundred more, but who is counting. Although the more psychological approach is grounded in the individual, a sociological7 perspective suggests that it is something about the interaction of individuals with others in groups or beyond. At its core, in an overly simplified version, the idea of the social connections starts with a pair or dyad of individuals and then branches out to a larger system (more on this later). The important bit here is that we recognize that the ecosystem of connections that surrounds all us trees and creates a much larger forest system may influence us in ways we are unaware. This notion is what drove our previous work and still serves as the foundation of this effort, the difference is that we are now adding in concepts and work from the psychological tradition and mixing these two perspectives. Our aim is to unlock what we hope to be important and unique insights that go beyond what each field could bring us on its own—hence the Reese Advantage!

In the previous incarnation of this work we privileged the social network view of what was happening around the Common Core State Standards. This work enabled us to present our research in a unique light and focus on the insights that could be drawn upon when one considers the world a large interdependent forest. In this work we still focus on our social roots of policy interaction, but we now add a more “psychological” dimension in which we rigorously examine the individual use of language within the space and connect that use to more psychological factors such as emotion, drive, and thinking styles. From our admittedly biased viewpoint, we think seeing both the forest and the trees pushes our work and the field of policy a bit further or at least toward some potentially exciting new geography.

So, now having a better insight into how we approached the next iteration of this project let’s dig a bit deeper into some meta-ideas from a network perspective that revealed themselves. 

Robust and consistent nature of the network

One of the most striking findings from this iteration of the project is the consistent amount of activity around the Common Core over the entirety of the project. When we started, we were not sure that the tweet activity would be as active, but to our surprise and glee (yes, we were gleeful) the activity was high. In fact, the activity remains high even to just before Thanksgiving 2016 when we stopped collecting data (this project only reports up April 2016). See the activity below—the spikes reflect the run up to the election.

Figure 3

As we describe on the website here, there was a solid amount of activity in terms of a policy debate and it does not seem to be abating. One of the integral elements of our work is that we were not forming networks based on our opinion of how actors may or may not or should or should not be connecting, we were “observing” their behaviors in social media space. Focusing on the behaviors of the actors and the subgroups of actors they formed also revealed a few interesting patterns of “behaviors” that from our vantage point were worth noting.

One of those patterns was the fact the sub-communities we identified were strong and consistent. The Green, Yellow, and Blue factions (meaning more in group ties than cross group) we observed in our first cut at the data remained, and we noted the rise of a couple of groups we had not seen before—the “Red and Gold” (not to be confused with the school colors of USC). It turned out our Red group was actually a group of Costa Ricans—we left them in the Giant Network analysis to illustrate that the subgroup analysis was behaving as expected. These groups were identified not based on our a priori descriptions, but on their observed social behavior of tweeting, retweeting, and mentioning. The Gold sub community turned out to be primarily comprised of PJNetters, whose “botnet” became of interest as PJNet clearly used ideas from network science (whether the group knew it or not is unclear) and the wood wide web to amplify message and perhaps create some social indebtedness.    

Network Intentionality

It is a fair to say that PJNet’s activity and set of behaviors was an unanticipated discovery based in patterns we noted in the data. Thoughtful analysis by Christian revealed PJNet and how a BotNet strategy was employed to maximize perspective. As you have already read, some actors played very central roles in the network and others, using what we called a “bot-net” strategy, extended their influence through a network of bots that repeated and accelerated messages and perspectives. The idea here is an interesting one from our perspective as it suggests that network science concepts can be used to move, leverage, and amplify message—this implies a type of intentional action, which we will refer to as “network intentionality”.

As you have likely deciphered at this point, we have drawn on social capital to ground our work as described in another part of the website. Two dimensions of social capital have been suggested— structural social capital and cognitive social capital (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 19988). The structural aspect of social capital addresses the network of social relationships that surrounds an individual and offers opportunities for the exchange of resources, which we have drawn upon to examine key influencers and structural communities. The cognitive aspect of social capital encompasses the norms, values, attitudes, beliefs, and narratives of an actor, which influences meaning-making and the ultimate actions of that particular individual (Krishna & Uphoff, 20029). We have also included ideas from psychology to enable us to think more deeply about cognitive social capital and round out our analysis.

The cognitive aspects of social capital are believed to affect the formation of social relationships (Obstfeld, 200510). For example, in a school undergoing major reform, one may imagine that educators’ interpretations of, and beliefs about, the change process may differ, firstly about the specific reform effort itself, and secondly about the people they need to approach for understanding the new expectations and exchanging the necessary information about the reform. This in turn may affect the way in which educators collaborate, and with whom, in terms of making sense of the reform effort.

This idea about the role of social influence on beliefs, and ultimately behavior, is well demonstrated by my UCSD colleague, James Fowler, in his outstanding book Connected as well as in numerous articles. He and his colleagues, in a number of excellent pieces, argue that many aspects of our lives are socially influenced including such diverse areas as happiness, weight gain, and smoking. So, it also follows that our connections in social space may also influence our beliefs on such topics as the Common Core or the role of government in our lives as we have demonstrated in this work. The way in which individuals think about certain shared topics (e.g., their values, norms, beliefs, relationships, etc.) may shape and reflect their social behaviors and the behaviors of others with whom they are connected. We are influenced not just by those with whom we have a direct connection, but from those individuals who are one or more steps away from us, like the support a seedling receives from other trees in the wood. This is what it means to be a part of an interdependent system and again, like the wood described earlier, it is the interplay between the forest and the trees that yields nuanced insights.  

One could argue that PJNet and others engage in a form of “Network Intentionality” (Moolenaar et al 201411). Meaning that individuals have a varying degrees of intentionality for actively seeking relationships, serving as a source of advice, actively brokering relationships between disconnected others, and using social connections to move messages—some act on their networks more or less than others. This idea suggests that an individual has agency in terms of forming, brokering, and dissolving social relationships given their own perceptions and understandings of what makes for a “good” network to reach goals. We are not merely reacting to the set of relationships that surround us, we actually can choose to act on the pattern of relationships should we choose. Success in that action is based in part due to understanding the larger network in which one resides, but regardless one can be intentional or not about forming and dissolving ties. Actors in social media space may have certain beliefs when it comes to forming and amplifying relationships or exchanging resources with others. Those individuals who can capitalize on, or be intentional about, forming networks (such as PJNet) may be better able to position their ideas to reach others in ways that provide a broader forum for their resources—just consider the presence and activity of PJNet over the course of this entire project. In a sense PJNet was highly successful at creating branches and sprouting enough leaves to begin to cover the canopy of the conversation.

An orientation towards strategically connecting others (e.g., the tertius iungens orientation in which the “third connects”, see Obstfeld, 2005) and being intentionally involved in leveraging social relationships may in fact allow some ideas to gain greater traction than others or so that appears to be the explicit strategy used by PJNet.   Research outside the social media space suggests that individuals with greater ability to actively make and sustain relations are perhaps in a better position to access unique information, make meaningful connections, and disproportionally influence idea flows (Felicio, Couto, & Caiado, 200912). The combined idea of structure, social influence on beliefs, and network intentionality seem to be a unique thread in this work. As we move further into the social continuum of offline and online worlds with attention being the new currency, those who are more fluent in the language of networks may be able to create more social capital. There is another network strategy we also saw at work.

Mutual Ties and Social Debt

Another interesting network science concept that is being leveraged in the social media world is an idea around reciprocity. Reciprocal ties are those that are mutual—meaning for example if I indicate that I have a trusting or friendly relationship or share a resource of some sort with someone and they also do the same back to me, we have a “reciprocated” relationship in the same way the roots of the tree and the fungi “support” one another. The development of reciprocal ties between actors has been shown to increase trust and lead to the continuation and deepening of relationships (Daly, 201013). For example in studies of network change over time one of the most consistent findings is that if someone initiates a tie at time point 1 and that time is reciprocated at time point 2 the relationship is likely to be present over time. Part of that has to do with idea that individuals do not like to feel “obligated” to others or in a type of debt and therefore when someone makes a gesture the other is likely to return in kind. So while reciprocity provides an opportunity to deepen relationships, it does come with a social “cost” or “debt”. If someone creates a connection with you there may be an implied social expectation that you act in kind and return the connection. We have all experienced this idea when someone gives you a holiday gift and you did not provide the person a gift in return—the scene is often experienced as awkward as we want to avoid the social debt introduced by gift or lack thereof.

Figure 4

We see this the network science idea of reciprocity playing itself out in social media space, with some actors leveraging this network concept to great success. Consider the case of Instagram. Instagram, like Twitter, is a popular social media site in which you can have followers. If one wants to increase the number of followers one strategy is to create a type of social debt. In other words, you “like” or compliment another person’s picture and they will be more likely to “like” you back or make a comment. So responsive is this strategy is that there are Bots on Instagram (e.g. Instagress) that you pay to act on your behalf. These Bots will randomly like other people’s posts and make supportive comments even if you have no idea to whom the Bot is connecting. This in turn results in those with whom the Bot randomly, and unknown to you, connected liking your posts or even following your Instagram all thanks to social indebtedness. Individuals who among other reasons want to up their number of followers will pay companies such as Instagress to create a social debt—such is the exploitive beauty of the Internet. The role of reciprocity and social debt is grounded in both network science and the roots beneath our feet and reflects yet another strategy users employ in creating networks.

Readin’, Ritin’, Rithmetic, and RELATIONSHIPS

Networks exist in almost all aspects of life from subways, to communication systems, to ecology, to our brains, and even out to the forest. Network science enables us to understand and describe how different elements interact creating larger patterned structures that are often hidden in plain sight, like the roots of a tree in a wood. In our work we are pushing on the idea that it might not always be the number of followers that matter, and in fact the real influencers maybe those with the set of ties and constellation of connections necessary to move and access resources. In this project we have been studying larger social patterns of how individuals connect and how those connections both inhibit and support access to resources and the movement of ideas and it is this core idea that forms the basis of our project.  

As we have argued, we live in an increasingly socially connected world in which people generate data with a breathtaking amount of volume, velocity, and variety. Likely at some point during your day you have connected to a social network to share or find information—maybe you checked in on friends on Facebook or tweeted out something of interest, maybe even about the Common Core, if so, THANKS! Technology provides for almost immediate communication and movement of information through interconnected and interdependent communication networks. In a real sense we live in a networked society and success in this new space will require a host of new skills and proficiency in social network literacy.  

Understanding how to connect to and leverage this larger social infrastructure is critical in moving messages, accessing information, determining veracity, supporting decision-making, and connecting with others for discovery, community, and sharing of viewpoints. Despite the fact that we live in a hyper connected social world we do not systematically and explicitly teach social network literacy skills either in the classroom or in the forest. Those who are able to learn and speak this new tongue or see with this new perspective have an added advantage. Developing fluency and vision in this new language and arboreal sensibility is often left to chance or assumed to be self evident, but based on our years of work in this project we are convinced that given the ubiquity of networks the next literacy emphasis must be intentional and mindful instruction around Social Network Literacy.

Final Thoughts

The last couple of years around this project have been some of my most enjoyable work. As I reflect on what made them so special to me I have to say that it has been the collaboration with my team partners. Jon, Miguel, and Christian have been amazing and we have formed our own densely connected network with all the trappings of the role of the forest and the trees, with me often being referred to as the Asspen (or so my friends tell me this is the correct spelling). From my vantage point, research is a team sport and I could not have asked for a better group with whom to make this work come alive. I am also gratified that we were able to bring the passion for social network theory and analysis to life in a beautiful, engaging and what we hope is highly interesting way. We “flipped the script” on the research endeavor by leading with the public facing work and engaging the wider community first with the project. That has not been easy, as we did not realize what it meant to fully jump into the public pool without our floaties. However, no matter the near drowning, bumps, and bruises along the way we learned, grew, strengthened our own roots, and I think our work as scholars is better for it. We can no longer hide behind rigor, we also need relevancy in our work and it is to that lofty goal we have dedicated this project.

Our institutions should not fear, well maybe a little, we do of course have scholarly papers underway and in this project we just provide a flyover of the terrain occasionally landing to look at an interesting part of forest—there is more to come. I have to say what struck me about this process is that if I added up our collective citations to our work (and likely of a few of our friends as well) we would not come close to the direct impact and exposure this work has generated. We are attempting to make the invisible visible, we are in our small way attempting to take a drink out of the hydrant in the forest while eating Reeses in hopes we can quench some of our own thirst for understanding. This project represents a small step toward the larger idea of engaging the public in discourse around important issues that go well beyond the Common Core. We live in a connected work and so when the tweet tweets it tweets for thee—thanks John Donne and I am sorry.


  1. See
  4. DelFresno, M., Daly, A. J. & Segado Sánchez-Cabezudo, S.  (2016).  Identifying the new Influencers in the Internet Era: Social Media and Social Network Analysis.  Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 153: 121-140. 
  5. Beiler KJ, Durall DM, Simard SW, Maxwell SA, Kretzer AM. 2010. Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts. New Phytologist 185: 543–553.
  6. Sociology and psychology are of course cousins (sometimes kissing cousins as in social psychology), but teasing them apart to recombine enables some additional clarity on our approach.
  7. Of course anthropology and many other fields also offer us critical insights in the social space as well, but our work draws more on sociological constructs.
  8. Nahapiet, J. and Ghoshal, S. (1998), Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 242-66.
  9. Krishna, A., & Uphoff, N., (2002). Mapping and measuring social capital through assessment of collective action to conserve and develop watersheds in Rajasthan. India. In T. Van Bastelaer (Ed.), The role of social capital in development (pp. 85–88). Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Obstfeld, D. (2005). Social networks, the Tertius Iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50, 100–130.
  11. Moolenaar, N., Daly, A. J., Cornelissen, F., Liou, Y., Riordan, R., Caillier, S. Wilson, K. & Cohen, A. (2014). Linked to Innovation: Shaping an Innovative Climate through Network Intentionality and Teachers’ Social Network Position. Journal of Educational Change. Vol. 15(2), pp 99-123.
  12. Felicio, J. A., & Couto, E., & Caiado, J., (2009). Interrelationships between human capital and social capital in small and medium sized firms: The effect of age and sector of activity. CEMAPRE working papers 0905, Centre for Applied Mathematics and Economics (CEMAPRE), School of Economics and Management (ISEG), Technical University of Lisbon.
  13. Daly, A. .J. (2010). Social Network Theory and Educational Change. Cambridge MA, Harvard Education Press.
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