Discussion catalysts

Combining the theoretical background provided by the Katz-Lazarsfeld two-step flow of communication theory (and its subsequent criticism and revisions) with a social roles perspective, a recent JCMC article looked at Usenet discussions to find out whether there is something special about those contributors who create popular threads – and if so, then what is it.

The article, by Itai Himelboim, Eric Gleave and Marc Smith, termed successful conversation starters “discussion catalysts” (DC) – not surprisingly, a small minority among conversants.

Interestingly, 95% of DC thread starting posts contained content imported elsewhere from the web, and about two thirds of this content came from “traditional news organizations,” especially AP, The Washington Post and The New York Times in particular.

So it seems that the two-step flow hypothesis still have some relevance: it is through a small number of participants (DCs, at Katz and Lazarsfeld: opinion leaders) that the larger community is “agitated,” and delivered information originally coming from the mainstream media.

The authors consider the heavy reliance on established media “less encouraging;” they claim that the heavier use of alternative sources of information would be desirable. For reasons cited many times, I don’t fully agree, but the most important point is that to an important extent this is not a question of agreement or disagreement, insofar as the dominant position of the established media is an practical an economic reality.

And as a final remark, I just cannot believe that the JCMC still writes about the “Internet”, with capital I. With the words of Lorelai Gilmore: I don’t even know how to respond to this! It’s 2009 now!

Himelboim, Itai, Eric Gleave and Marc Smith (2009): “Discussion catalysts in online political discussion: Content importers and conversation starters” in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14, 771-789.

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