June 3, 2010

In Social Media, Technology Drives the News Agenda

PEJ New Media Index May 24-28, 2010

In a week when the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominated the mainstream press, the social media were focused on news that revolved around computer technology.

For bloggers, the main subject was the ever-popular social networking site, Facebook. For the week of May 24-28, more than a third (37%) of the news links on blogs were about the site and its role in the online privacy debate, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

On Twitter, the Facebook issue did not register as a top story. But 51% of the week’s links focused on a series of developments involving computer giant Apple, including news that it had moved past Microsoft as the world’s largest tech company.

The continuing drama in the Gulf of Mexico-which included a failed attempt to cap the oil leak and a presidential press conference-failed to register as a top-five topic in blogs or on Twitter, despite leading the traditional media, at 38% of the newshole.

Last week’s Facebook conversation among bloggers followed months of criticism that the privacy settings offered by the service were too complicated and that personal information was being shared with third-party companies. Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg answered the complaints in a column in the Washington Post in which he pledged to simplify the site’s privacy settings.

Bloggers responded with a complex discussion about the technical aspects of Facebook’s options and the role of social networking overall. Most of the response was critical as many users felt the site misled them about how their information was used. Others, however, thought that people signing up for a social networking service should not expect to be anonymous.

Online privacy is not an uncommon topic of discussion among blogs. In February 2009, for example, a number of bloggers complained when Facebook made changes to its terms of service agreement regarding the rights to material posted on the site. When Google released its social networking tool, Buzz, in February 2010, it received criticism for not ensuring user privacy. Those instances, along with the current case, illustrate how concerned social media users are about access to personal information and the rules that guide their usage. These cases reflect an interactive dynamic in which companies respond to criticism posed by members of the online community, even if the response does not satisfy everyone involved.

The second-largest story on blogs, at 17%, was also technology focused. A British scientist claims he was the first person to be infected with a computer virus after inserting a chip into his hand and then passing the virus onto computer-controlled machines such as security doors. The goal of the experiment was to illustrate potential risks as future medical devices become more complex.

The third most popular story on blogs, at 7%, was a Washington Post piece by Dana Milbank ridiculing the roll-out of a new website by House Republicans that asks visitors to suggest items for their policy agenda. Milbank’s work has drawn significant interest among blogs recently as this is the third time in the past four weeks that one of his columns finished among the top five blog subjects.

A Washington Post article about Obama’s commencement speech at West Point where he outlined a new national security doctrine was fourth at 5%. That was followed by another Post story about a local issue (also at 5%). The city of Washington, D.C. decided to stock up on more expensive condoms after high-school and college-age adults complained about the poor quality of the ones given out as part of the city’s HIV prevention effort. 

On Twitter, technology also led the way, dominated by the discussion of Apple (51% of the links).

Apple has frequently been the top subject on Twitter this year finishing first in eight different weeks. But last week’s level of attention easily exceeded the previous high mark of 37% the week of April 19-23.

Apple coverage included an announcement that Wired magazine’s edition for the iPad had gone live and word that on May 26, Apple had surpassed Microsoft as the world’s largest tech company according to an analysis of market capitalization conducted by Standard & Poor’s.

A behind-the-scenes look at how Pixar Animation Studios made the movie Toy Story 3 was second on Twitter at 8%. A statement by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) that allegations that the White House offered Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) a job in order to get him to drop out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary could be an impeachable offense was third at 5%. Later in the week, the White House responded to the allegations saying that Sestak had been offered an unpaid position on an advisory board and nothing improper took place.

That was followed, also at 5%, by stories about a company in China that announced it would raise its wages after a series of apparent suicide attempts by its workers. And a profile of the company that designed Foursquare, a location-based social networking tool, was fifth at 4%.

Facebook and Privacy

On Monday May 24, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a column in the Washington Post addressing complaints about his site’s privacy settings. He declared they would be responding with new, simpler settings in order to give users more control of their information

Most of the bloggers who linked to the piece were not placated.

"For starters, you didn’t know the first thing about respecting my privacy," responded Joelle Pearson in an open letter to Facebook. "You told everyone everything. You sold my secrets to every fatcat company-the music I liked, the places I shopped-you even showed my chats and pictures to anyone who asked…I don’t care how much you apologize. To me, or anyone else. We’re through."

"That is not an apology; it’s self-justification," argued Ryan Benhase at Living Without Facebook. "Zuckerberg is doing the exact opposite of apologizing; he’s upholding his righteousness despite all of the recent complaints about his company’s behavior. He’s harping on how noble and well-intentioned they’ve been, even in the face of serious criticism."

"If Facebook follows through with real changes, instead of empty statements, it will probably blow over. This time," declared Crenshaw Communications. "But, Facebook is vulnerable to a creeping mistrust in its commitment to users. And though I won’t be canceling my account any time soon, it’s a little less fun than it used to be."

Some bloggers, though, felt that users concerned about their information becoming public should have known what to expect when they signed up.

"What these privacy advocates don’t get is that Facebook, like Google, isn’t free. It’s a massive service, that needs to be paid for, and that the service is going to be funded by a multi-billion advertising business," explained the blog on See Why. "When it comes to privacy, what did you expect? Very few things in life are truly free, and when you use a service like Facebook, then someone has to pay if the service is to have any longevity."

"Facebook is not private," noted Joel Portman. "That’s exactly the point. The company should make it easier for users to control their privacy settings…Nevertheless, Facebook has been up front and honest about its intent to make information widely available and connect people online. If you use the service, you should be aware of that before signing up, or at least before providing a lot of personal information."*

A few bloggers, while in the minority, applauded Zuckerberg’s efforts.

"What I love about Mark is that he doesn’t care what the crowd thinks. And I believe facebook is better because of that," expressed Jon Dale. "So, I think Mark’s right. The more we share, the more connected we are. And the more connected we are, the better place the world is. Let’s overcome our fears and share our way to a better world."

Scientist Infected with a Computer Virus

According to a BBC report, Dr. Mark Gasson implanted a computer chip infected with a virus into his body to demonstrate a point about the potential dangers of new technologies.

A number of bloggers took Gasson’s warning seriously, and in some cases, pointed out privacy concerns.

"RFID [radio-frequency identification] devices have already become common ground in the medical industry in the form of bracelets used to track medical history…It doesn’t take a genius to see the potential problems that could arise," warned Jason W. at Geek Assembly. "Another major issue is with identify theft. Imagine a virus that sends the device’s information to a remote system and is able to auto propagate? The day when we may be running AntiVir mind and body edition may not be too far off."

"One of the many problems of RFID technology is that they can be hacked and used to spread viruses," agreed Jeremy Duffy, aka "The Geek Professor." "Mostly, this hasn’t received a lot of attention to date because the computing power of RFID has historically been very low. But as the technology progresses, the consequences of not securing them properly becomes higher and higher."

Others thought that Gasson was more interested in self-promotion than anything else.

"Gasson presents this as useful for considering the implications for implanted technology such as pacemakers, but that’s nothing new," proclaimed Mike Masnick at Tech Dirt. "People have talked about potential technology issues from the wireless interface to pacemakers for years. Doing some sort of publicity stunt with an implanted computer chip doesn’t further that discussion along."

"This ‘experiment’ is sort of analogous to sticking dirt up your nose to see if it will give you a dirty mind," derided David Spigelman at Tech Thoughts. "At best, this was more a political point than a science experiment. At worst, it was simple publicity seeking."

YouTube

The most viewed news video on YouTube last week was an online ad with a humorous twist that involved Arizona’s controversial immigration policy. The ad, paid for by Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, uses a frog puppet in the style of a children’s sing-along video. The minute-long piece ridicules several public officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, who have criticized the state’s law but at one point admitted they had not read the actual bill.

"Reading helps you know what you’re talking about," sings the frog.

This is the second time in recent weeks that an ad by Brewer on this subject has been among the top videos on YouTube. Two weeks earlier, the second most popular clip was another video that criticized President Obama for making a joke about the state’s law during the White House Correspondents dinner.

This also marks the second week in a row that a political ad has been the No. 1 video on YouTube. A promo for Dale Peterson, a Republican running for the Alabama Agriculture Commission, topped the list the previous week.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of May 22-28, 2010

1. A one-minute video by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that uses a puppet to ridicule those who have not read the state’s immigration law

2. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) delivers a speech in Congress about immigration in response to comments made by Mexican President Felipe Calderon

3. A video about Google’s commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the video game Pac-Man

4. Footage from Russia Today of a bridge shaking violently in the city of Volgograd due to heavy winds

5. Matador Julio Aparicio is gored during a recent bullfight in Spain



The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.

PEJ has launched the New Media Index as a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket, which monitors millions of blogs, uses the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links weekday each day. They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (25 stories each week), and reads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology as that of the NCI. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press. Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati’s and Icerocket’s daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati’s site has been down with no indication of when it might resume. 

The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.

For the examination of the links from Twitter, PEJ staff monitored the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket and Technorati, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Technorati and Icerocket, PEJ captured the five most popular linked-to pages each weekday under the heading of "news" as determined by Tweetmeme’s method of categorization. And as with the other data provided in the NMI, the top stories are determined in terms of percentage of links. (One minor difference is that Tweetmeme offers the top links over the prior 24 hours while the lists used on Technorati and Icerocket offer the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

The Project also tracks the most popular news video on YouTube each week.  

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.