The digital ecosystem is in constant motion. Social networks, as a fundamental part of this environment, are constantly navigating a sea of new functions and emerging ways to maintain the public's interest. Their conversations and the dynamics that shape them are a valuable input for digital research, and especially for answering questions about how we interact on the Internet and how public opinion is constructed in these spaces.
That is why changes in social networks and their need for updating impose great methodological challenges on organizations that, like Linterna Verde, use conversations in social networks as an input for their work. Here are three recent changes that may alter the methods of digital research.
In August of this year, Twitter introduced the Circle feature, which allows users to choose who can see and interact with their content. With this tool, posts that are sent to a circle will appear with a green badge underneath and only those selected people will be able to see them, also restricting the option to retweet or share. Of course, this represents a change in the dynamics of interaction with which public debate is generated, especially in a social network such as Twitter, which has been characterized by providing an open space for discussion.
The closure and privatization of some conversations restricts parts of the debate that were previously public and creates gray areas that prevent having a complete picture of the digital ecosystem. For organizations such as Linterna Verde, accessing the conversation on Twitter represents a strategy for analyzing the construction of public opinion on social networks. Now, with the implementation of this function, the public square that served to make visible different actors, positions and narratives, is partly transferred to private corridors that close the possibility of knowing how digital conversations are shaped.
Also on Twitter, the ability to edit posts can be a new challenge for digital research. Recently, the platform activated an edit button with which users can make changes to their tweets after they have been published. The feature, which is already being tested on some accounts, can be used several times in the 30 minutes following publication and will appear with an icon, a timestamp and a label warning that the original tweet has been modified. The company said the tag will contain a history of previous versions of the post so as not to damage the integrity of the conversation.
While it is true that this function is still a test being implemented by the platform, the implications of its implementation may have negative results for research. The editing of the content of each tweet can modify the way in which the debate fluctuates and, as a result, the characteristic dynamism of the arguments or positions that feed the conversation is lost as new actors are added or new events appear.
With this measure, the true meaning of some interactions such as likes or retweets may be altered. This is a highly relevant point since it is precisely these interactions that govern the metrics that serve as input to measure the impact of an intervention in the digital debate.
The irruption of TikTok in the digital ecosystem has set a new paradigm: that of recommendation systems, which could leave behind the notion of social networks that we have built in recent years. Under this paradigm, platforms are not so much meeting places between people, but are based on interactions directly with the content, regardless of who produces it.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have changed the order of their home screens to offer users content that their algorithms believe will generate greater interaction and permanence on the platforms. Currently 15% of the content we see on Facebook is recommendations and Mark Zuckerberg projects that figure to increase to 30% by the end of 2023. Although this measure seems to be a change of form, the truth is that it directly affects the way in which interactions occur within the digital ecosystem, especially between content creators and users.
At Linterna we wonder if this measure will make users move from active to passive interaction, taking weight away from the small gears that, as a whole, shape the digital ecosystem and public debate. With the change, the formation of public opinion would be influenced by the content that the algorithm makes available to each user and, consequently, would determine the body of the discussion in social networks.
Public debate is a fundamental input for digital research. However, these types of updates make it increasingly difficult to access. On the one hand, they force research organizations working on these issues to be constantly aware of new changes. On the other hand, they impose a need for constant renewal in the observation and analysis methodologies within the platforms.
Twitter's new functions and the gradual conversion of social networks into recommendation systems are just some of the most recent changes to the platforms. For these companies, the one constant is that everything changes. Updating is a matter of survival for the platforms, as it is for researchers to adapt to keep track of public opinion on social networks.