August 08, 2014

Deb Roy

Deb Roy, Twitter's Chief Media Scientist Credit: Steve Jurvetson / Flickr Creative Commons

Remember "Sharknado"? There was a time when hammy, low-budget sci-fi movies flew under the radar - until they were lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3,000. But that was before Twitter.

Deb Roy, Twitter’s Chief Media Scientist, says the Sharknado phenomenon foreshadowed something big. “Because it just somehow hit a nerve amongst a group of people who were watching it on Twitter, it drove this conversation that spilled into timelines of people who had no idea this strange little movie was airing.”

Roy believes that Twitter isn't just a way for people to engage with the ideas of the day; it’s shaping the entire discussion. “Seeing other peoples’ opinions in the moment shapes how I interpret that moment. It’s actually feeding back into the audience and having effects of how audience members are interpreting what they’re seeing."

And this instant feedback loop affects more than just your favorite TV show. Politics, advertising, and the news industry will all be impacted in ways that we can’t yet comprehend.

Historically, when new forms of communication have arrived  – such as the telephone, radio, or television – it has taken decades for a network to be built out and for the impact to be felt.

However, in our post-Internet world, Roy says, “all you have to do is write some code and you can just dream up a new communication medium and say, ‘I’d like it to move pictures, but not sound, I’d like it to spread publicly, no I think I’d prefer it to spread privately."

Increased polarization – people only listening to those voices that they agree with – is definitely a concern, but social media also has the potential to break down barriers.

“When you have a big public network where opinions can traverse very easily across a network, and reach people who would not have even known to follow a certain person, that sometimes an idea or an opinion can spread across polarized lines.”

But Roy admits that not everyone is on Twitter – even smartphones and the Internet are the province of those who are relatively well-off. And this a problem. “Access to the Internet and access to services like Twitter should really be - just to speak frankly - a basic human right, to be on a level playing field and not everyone is there today.”

Want to know more about how social media is affecting us? Listen to our full interview, above.

Sci and Tech, social media, Twitter, Deb Roy

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