The popular myth about social media is that each piece of content is equal. The idea is that each tweet, or status update could reach the masses based on merit alone. According to John Whibey, a lecturer at Boston University, nothing could be further from the truth.
Whibey points to the now infamous Ellen DeGeneres Oscars selfie as a prime example that ‘viral’ isn’t really viral. “Across the Web, commentators were quick to deem this a viral phenomenon. But some 43 million people were watching the Oscars. It very well may be that the majority of the effect was caused by the broadcast, and the ensuing social media cascades were short and shallow, not extending beyond a couple of people through most social networks,” he writes.
The problem with social media is that while anyone with an email can create an account, the ability to be heard above the noise is another story altogether. For instance, social media users often seek out bigger brands first for information. Those that already have the largest audiences draw the largest audiences.
“We may be seeing the replacement of one hierarchy with another hierarchy. We may be seeing the replacement of one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers… But we’re certainly not seeing an egalitarian world where everything has the same chance to become known or accessible,” said Duncan Watts, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, who has been studying information diffusion on social networks.
The problem with this sort of few-to-many broadcasting is that smaller voices get crowded out. Whibey cites a 2014 study indicating that the Top 10 percent of human rights organizations commanded 90 percent of YouTube views, 81 percent of Facebook likes and 92 percent of Twitter followers in their field.
Indeed, with the exception of a few rare viral events, information still passes mostly from gatekeeper to viewer. Even then, a story often doesn’t truly viral until major organizations and thought leaders pick it up. There’s a big gap between an event being a story, and an event being news.