60-Second Science

Small Group of People Dominate Some Internet Discussions

An analysis of political and philosophical newsgroups found that half of all replies were directed at just 2 percent of thread initiators. Christopher Intagliata reports

When the internet first got kicking, some scholars of democracy and civil society thought that online discussions could create what they called a "conversational democracy”: an ongoing town hall without bricks and mortar. But the internet may not be as democratic as they'd imagined, according to a study in the journal Communication Research. ["Civil Society and Online Political Discourse: The Network Structure of Unrestricted Discussions"]

Researcher Itai Himelboim gathered eight million messages posted to 35 political and philosophical newsgroups—like alt.politics.usa—over a six-year period. And he analyzed the connections among the messages. Turns out that 50 percent of all replies were directed at just 2 percent of people who started threads, and who thus came to control the discussion. And the larger the newsgroup, the more polarized this effect became.

But these newsgroup dominators weren't posting much original content. Sixty percent of their posts were just content lifted from traditional news sources like the New York Times. Which is good news for the news business, the author says. Because it means people still want someone else to search out information and deliver it. After all, isn't that one reason why you listen to this podcast?

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast,]

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