Expert Commentary

What’s new in digital and social media research, November 2014: From the “Dark Web” to net neutrality; tracking technologies to Twitter

November 2014 review of recent studies relevant to digital, social and news media, with a focus on advertising and online journalistic practices.

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From the “Dark Web” to BitTorrent, from tracking technologies to Twitter, the world of research continues to produce surprising insights. The following is a sample of recent academic papers and reports that speak to Internet issues great and small, dark and light. This post was originally published in modified form at Nieman Journalism Lab.


“Do-Not-Track and the Economics of Third-Party Advertising” From Microsoft Research, Stanford University, and Boston University, by Ceren Budak, Sharad Goel, Justin M. Rao, and Georgios Zervas.

This study takes a wide look at the ad-supported web and draws potentially important conclusions for news organizations. Online behavioral targeting, which involves third-party tracking of individuals’ browsing habits and the real-time auctioning of personal data to advertisers, seems commonplace: “Over 90% of the top 500 websites [share] information with third-party trackers,” the study notes. What would be the result of “do-not-track” legislation for the Internet economy? The researchers analyze the anonymized browsing habits of 13.5 million U.S. users (on Bing/Internet Explorer) over the 2013-2014 period, across 321 million shopping sessions (users voluntarily agreed to share data, the researchers state). Budak, Goel, Rao, and Zervas find that “retailers attract only a small percentage (3%) of their customers through third-party capable ads, a result that largely holds across market segments and firms of vastly different sizes.”

However, one particularly big impact — ironic, perhaps, as media advocates continue to oppose government surveillance — would be on news outlets, who are substantially dependent on third-party tracking data: “[C]ertain market segments, including news outlets, almost always generate at least some revenue from such ads, making them especially susceptible to privacy policies that limit the use of third-party data for advertising.” There is more: “Third-party capable advertising is shown by 12% of content providers, accounting for 32% of their page views; this reliance is concentrated in online publishing (e.g., news outlets) where the rate is 91%.” Display ads see clickthrough rates of about 1 in 1,000; sites with 100,000 pageviews a month “can expect to earn only a few thousand dollars a year from third-party capable advertising.” Thus, if “do-not-track” legislation were implemented, news organizations would lose significant revenue, but the loss would not be so overwhelming that it couldn’t theoretically be replaced. Under that scenario, the researchers explore an alternative “freemium” model: “Among the top 10,000 sites that show third-party capable advertising, we find that typically 15% of users visit the site at least 10 times per month. If one-fourth of such loyal users ultimately subscribe to the site, we estimate that a monthly fee of $2 would generate revenue comparable to that earned from third-party capable advertising, based on current ad rates.”


“Be Careful What You Wish for: The Impact of Advertisement Choice on Viewers’ Expectations”
From Tusculum College and Kansas State University, published in Computers in Human Behavior. By Stephen C. Nettelhorst, Whitney K. Jeter, and Laura A. Brannon.

Speaking of digital ad models relevant to media, one more recent innovation has been giving viewers of video content a choice of ads to watch at certain junctures, a move that marketers hope will empower viewers and give them some “buy in.” The researchers studied the responses of 271 students to determine how “ad choice” plays out and the cognitive processes associated, particularly gender-specific patterns. The authors state that, contrary to some prior research that showed effects primarily on females, both male and female viewers build up heightened expectations about ads they choose to view. However, the study ultimately suggests that merely giving viewers choice is not a “panacea,” as there is potential both for increased engagement and increased disappointment: “If utilized well, this technique can lead to various psychological changes that marketers strive for. On the other hand, providing this choice may do nothing or potentially lead to negative consequences if viewers do not experience what they desire.”


Wickard for the Internet? Network Neutrality After Verizon v. FCC: From the University of Pennsylvania, forthcoming in the Federal Communications Law Journal. By Christopher S. Yoo.

Net neutrality, now back in the media spotlight because of President Obama’s recent announcement, seems to many a simple issue at the level of values and public good, but its technical implementation and the precise legal language around any new regulation matter greatly. There is a wealth of scholarship that supports net neutrality; but there are also some prominent voices, such as Christopher Yoo, who argue against taking the mainstream regulatory approach that neutrality supporters prefer. In this paper, Yoo argues that a new standard based on “commercial reasonableness” may be a better policy direction, and “differentiation of traffic can provide consumer benefits by giving the increasingly heterogeneous universe of consumers a broader array of options from which to choose.” Even for strong neutrality supporters, the paper is worth reading, as it engages deeply on underlying and tricky issues of Internet architecture, as well as relevant past legal issues. Columbia University’s Tim Wu, who helped coin the term “net neutrality” and who remains among its strongest advocates, has had some informative debates with Yoo that are also worth checking out.


“Political Polarization and Media Habits: From Fox News to Facebook, How Liberals and Conservatives Keep Up with Politics”
From the Pew Research Center, by Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Jocelyn Kiley, and Katerina Eva Matsa.

Although this report confirms some truths we might already strongly suspect — liberals and conservatives “inhabit different worlds” when it comes to their trusted news sources — we are also reminded that “it is virtually impossible to live in an ideological bubble” and there remain points of intersection. For example, only half of consistent conservatives say they distrust The New York Times, and among every ideological group The Wall Street Journal is more trusted than distrusted. The report also provides a good reminder that despite all of the attention to social media and news, only 39 percent of Americans say they get any political news from Facebook, and further: “Just 14% say they got political news in the past week from YouTube, 9% from Twitter, 6% from Google Plus and 3% from LinkedIn.” There is a mountain of other fascinating data on everything from users who defriend or block others on their Facebook feeds to details on how people of different political persuasions see all of the major news sources in the country.


“The Boys on the Timeline: Political Journalists’ Use of Twitter for Building Interpretive Communities”
From the University of Texas at Austin, published in Journalism. By Rachel Reis Mourão.

The study reviews some 5,700 tweets by 430 journalists during the first 2012 presidential debate. Mourão looks at the formation of “interpretive communities” — with concepts like pack journalism, groupthink, and narrative/storyline traps all haunting this zone where “the media” collectively begins shaping perceived reality. The study notes: “Overall, journalists on Twitter focused on candidates’ appearance and body language, gaffes, and the political strategy employed by the parties. Even the candidates’ choice of ties was used as a metaphor to criticize partisan politics.” Further, Mourão writes, “Evidence shows that Twitter provides an instant mechanism for journalists to engage in traditional norms of campaign coverage, including a focus on strategy, spectacle, the horse race, and candidate characteristics.” Still, the study holds out hope and notes advantages over the previous, offline “boys-on-the-bus” narrative-shaping: “Transparency about how meaning is made and the possibility of public participation in narrative building are some of the key advantages of Twitter in political communication.”

Related: Also see Peter Hamby’s 2013 Shorenstein Center discussion paper, “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?”


“Power/freedom on the Dark Web: A Digital Ethnography of the Dark Web Social Network”
From the University of Utah, published in New Media & Society. By Robert W. Gehl.

The “Dark Web Social Network” (DWSN) — or the “Internet that cannot be accessed by mainstream software” — is a fascinating and little understood place, one that is typically only known through news reporting on its illicit side, i.e., the “conception of the dark web as entirely composed of illegal or taboo activities and in need of policing.” Gehl notes that “popular media coverage of the dark Web is redolent of moral panics that have been associated with Internet culture over the past 35 years, such as the panic about computer hackers and phone phreaks in 1980s.” Part of the job, then, is demystifying it. First, it is only accessible through browsers employing The Onion Router (Tor). In its basic architecture, the DWSN is a social-networking site: “It allows for individual accounts, with customizable member pages, connections through ‘friending,’ social praise in the form of ‘liking,’ and a Twitter-like micro-blogging system, among other features.” The system administrators work hard to ban child pornography — “no easy task” — and Gehl quotes one such admin as saying it is “the true black sheep of the dark/deep communities.” The community there thrives on “techno elitism,” though its cultural “practices — of being ‘in the know’ and English-only policies — can be extremely exclusive and thus undermine the claims to ‘freedom’ that permeate the site.” More rules and customs from the “clear Web” are being imported, Gehl notes, meaning that the DWSN is “not a free-for-all, but neither is it a space where everything is controlled and thus happy (as Facebook seemingly wants to be).”


“Impact of Heterogeneity and Socioeconomic Factors on Individual Behavior in Decentralized Sharing Ecosystems”
From Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Spain), Northwestern University, University of Washington, and ICREA in Spain, published in PNAS. By Arnau Gavaldà-Miralles, David R. Choffnes, John S. Otto, Mario A. Sánchez, Fabián E. Bustamante, Luís A. N. Amaral, Jordi Duch, and Roger Guimerà.

The study looks at usage patterns around BitTorrent — a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol that at times can constitute more than a quarter of all Internet traffic, as movies and music files zip around the globe. The researchers look at anonymized data from 1.4 million users from 2009 to late 2013 (users intentionally employed a plugin that allowed their data to be shared for research). The research is relevant to the ongoing battles with creative industries over copyright infringement and protection in the wake of the SOPA/PIPA legislation fight.

Relevant insights include: (1) The “opportunity to download does not in itself seem to lead to an increase in the amount of P2P exchanges. Specifically, HD movies and TV shows are not exchanged as much as one would expect in the United States and other wealthy countries, places where good internet infrastructure would allow for fast downloads of these content types. In contrast, in countries where streaming is not widely available because of poor infrastructure or their cost being out of reach for large portions of the population, we see high levels of P2P exchange of movies and TV shows, despite the exchange relying on poorer Internet infrastructure”; and (2) “copyright laws have unequal impacts on inhibiting P2P exchange. Indeed, even though copyright law enforcement is stronger in the United States and other wealthy countries than in most other countries in the world, one finds a great deal more P2P exchanges of music and small files in wealthy countries than in poorer countries.”


“How Social Media Reduces Mass Political Polarization. Evidence from Germany, Spain, and the U.S.”From New York University, by Pablo Barberá.

Nieman Lab has already covered this study and its implications, but for the purposes of the roundup here, it’s worth highlighting again to underscore a basic point: Despite all of the worries about “filter bubbles,” we are still just beginning to understand how this new information ecosystem works. The study shows why some of those fears may be overstated.


Keywords: technology, Twitter, Facebook, dark Web, filter bubbles, advertising

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