What Makes Social Networks Work

Another student in my Media and Politics course made what I thought was a very smart comment during this morning’s lecture.

We were talking about what motivates readers to post political comments on blogs or social networking sites — or just on online articles in general.

We looked at the 800+ comments on a story from a supposed conservative columnist as to why Sarah Palin should withdraw from the Republican ticket. Other examples were viewer responses to CBS news anchor Katie Couric’s recent sit-down interview with Palin and messages from supporters posted to facebook.com campaign groups.

The student said that people join in discussion boards on various sites, because, in a way, they feel comfortable in that environment, as if they are having a familiar, “dinner table” conversation with someone else rather than the reality of the situation: they’re communicating with someone they’ve probably never met and probably never will meet; someone who might live thousands of miles away and, with whom, they share little in common aside from an interest in a particular news story or viewpoint.
I think the guy’s point was true to a certain extent. Those who do blog, or those who belong to any social network for that matter, take comfort in having their beliefs reinforced by like-minded individuals.
But, on the flip side, too, how often do you see vastly different opinions and refutations showing up on these comment pages?

It’s just like in families like mine where political pluralism is prevalent and “dinner table” discussions are equally diverse. I have parents who will likely vote Republican in November, cousins who supported Ralph Nader in 2004 and another cousin who keeps a conservative blog and sports an “Israel: We are with you” bumper sticker. One of my uncles has voted for Pat Buchanan, one wouldn’t dream of voting anything but Democratic, while my grandmother says she won’t support John McCain because she doesn’t think a woman should be vice president.

As is the case in my family and in the wider digital community, no matter how much we hash out different political topics, our opinions aren’t likely to change drastically. But through talking things out, we each come to find where it is exactly that we stand.

All this being said, I don’t think my ideas and the idea of the student who spoke up this morning are completely disparate.

Whether conflicting or similar viewpoints are shared around the “dinner table” or out there in the blogosphere, I think blogs, social networking sites and comment boards — if used effectively — have the main purpose of simply fostering communication.

Whether you agree, disagree or are undecided about someone’s comment that is posted, there’s a chance it is something you haven’t heard before or hadn’t thought of yourself.

At the very least, the conversation is continued — sometimes to excruciatingly long ends — to points the original reporter could not, or dared not, go.

So as a cheap plug for this Missourian blog, if you — the reader — see something that you like or don’t like, if something rubs you the wrong way or tickles your funny bone, tell us about it. We enjoy the feedback; trust me. Even if it’s just to tell us we’re a $*&@∆ and that we’re full of %&#@!!! It’s still moving that conversation forward …

— For past blog posts by Joel Walsh click here.

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