the kdmcinfo weblog

Social Media Influence: An experiment in information mobilization

influence chart 

This year we’re hearing a lot of buzz about the potential influence of social media in the upcoming election. It makes sense: more than a third of us are turning to social networking sites for political news.  But how successful are we really at using these sites to raise awareness about particular issues—especially those that lack a sensational headline? How far does the information we post spread and are there ways to incentivize people to push that knowledge forward?

Those are the questions at the heart of the Prop 30 Awareness Project, a new experiment by the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative at UC Berkeley.  Designers of the project wanted a transparent way to see how people can mobilize their social networks to spread information rapidly. The carrot they used: our natural curiosity to understand our own influence. 

Here’s how you participate:

  • Go to the nonpartisan website and learn about California Proposition 30 (a proposed set of temporary taxes to fund education).
  • Register your “awareness” by submitting your email address to receive a custom link.
  • Paste your custom link to Facebook, Twitter, anywhere you like.

Unlike popular influence calculators like Klout or Kred, this project does not require you to give any personal information up front. You don’t need to connect any of your social media accounts because your influence score is based sole on the traffic coming to the site from your custom link. You get one point for every person in your network you recruit to the project and a half point for every person they recruit going forward.  As the information spreads, you can return to the site to see a visual graphic of your personal influence to date.

There are some obvious limitations with an experiment like this one. The subject is only of interest to California voters.  It’s difficult to measure how much information participants actually read. And there’s no way to know for certain what motivated people to be involved. Was it a reputational incentive like personal influence or something simpler like an interest in the topic?

To make better sense of the data, the CITRIS team plans to survey the top 50 influencers to understand their motivation for participating in the project and their success in spreading the word. They’ll use that feedback to refine the site’s technology and eventually make it an open source tool.  

In the meantime, the results of the project may tell a compelling story of how information can spread and who is most responsible for mobilizing it. To date, we can see that a small handful of people have been most influential in spreading knowledge of the Prop 30 project. It’s safe to say not everyone values influence in the same way or has access to a large network. But ultimately, the real test of this project will be the total number of people the information reaches and the number of them who took time to share it with their community.