danah boyd (Web2.0 Expo) | Streams of content, limited attention: The flow of information through social media

For the last few centuries, we have been living in an era of broadcast media, but we have been switching to an era of networked media. This fundamentally alters the structure by which information flows. As networked technologies proliferate around the world, we can assume that there is a channel of distribution available to everyone and between everyone. In theory, anyone could get content to anyone else. With the barriers to distribution collapsing, what matters is not the act of distribution, but the act of consumption. Thus, the power is no longer in the hands of those who control the channels of distribution, but those who control the limited resource of attention.

At the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo, danah boyd spoke about the challenges of content distribution in an age of networks. She explained how content distribution is going from a centralized broadcast model, which dominated prior to the internet, to a decentralized network model, as exemplified by social media. Although she used the term “switch”, it is more useful to think of the shift as a transformation. It is essentially another example of how society’s mental models or conceptual organizing systems evolve over time.

In describing “how information flows differently today”, danah identified four main issues related to networked content distribution:

Democratization: Switching from a model of distribution to a model of attention is disruptive, but it is not inherently democratizing… We may be democratizing certain types of access, but we’re not democratizing attention.

Stimulation: People consume content that stimulates their mind and senses… This is not always the “best” or most informative content, but that which triggers a reaction

Homophily: In a networked world, people connect to people like themselves. What flows across the network flows through edges of similarity.

Power: [In a networked culture] Power is about being able to command attention, influence others’ attention, and otherwise traffic in information… there is also power in being the person spreading the content.

We could relate each of these issues to organizational systems in general and the flow of information, influence, or other resources through any network. From that point of view, boyd’s observations take on additional meaning and highlight the value of attention in cognition and learning.

Her work also explores the relationships among producing, distributing, and consuming content, and the ways in which technology is transforming those relationships. This, too, may inform and be informed by a systems perspective of cognition.


Streams of content, limited attention: The flow of information through social media (transcript) | danah boyd