Walther et al: If everyone else were jumping off a bridge, you would, too

Walther, Joseph B., Caleb T. Carr, Scott Seung W. Choi, David C. DeAndrea, Jinsuk KIm, Stephanie Tom Tong, and Brandon Van Der Heide. “Interaction of Interpersonal, Peer, and Media Influence Sources Online.” A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. Ed. Papacharissi, Zizi. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.


This chapter is essentially a lit review that examines how the convergence of mass (cnn.com), individual (IM), and community (facebook/newsgroups) media affects how people are influenced by information about current events. The authors’ point is that scholarship on mass communication and scholarship on interpersonal communication have typically been conducted in isolation from each other. With the convergence of media online, however, this division no longer makes sense and, indeed, can be detrimental to our understanding of the relationship between media and the public.

Perhaps the authors’ biggest point is that peer validation has a huge impact on the perceived value of information. Studies supporting this conclusion have found that: 

  • When a story appears to have been chosen by peers, readers find it to be better quality, more enjoyable, and more representative of the day’s news than stories that are perceived to be selected by a news editor or algorithm.
  • Ratemyprofessor.com has a measurable effect on students’ perception of the clarity, intelligence, and attractiveness of instructors, and
  • The positive or negative direction of the comments on a news source influences readers’ perception of its quality.

Although the article doesn’t discuss this as such, it seems to me that the convergence of individual and mass media outlets is at its zenith on sites where the architecture allows users not only to comment but also to review and rate the content provided by the media outlet—this explains the popularity of sites like Reddit and the now-defunct Digg.

Interestingly, discussions in chatrooms apparently exhibit “enormous pressure” for people to conform to the prevailing opinion in a way that in-person discussions do not—perhaps because the persistent traces of the conversation allow for disagreements to remain in a much more concrete form. This is another nail in my imaginary coffin for Yun and Park’s “fear of isolation can only happen in person” argument. Having the conversation transpire in a persistent, reviewable format completely changes the dynamic.

I do like that the authors refer to online communities as “sources of peer-generated information.” The implication that the communities are generative of knowledge and not just of discourse is interesting and possibly significant.

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