As media effects scholarship has evolved over the decades, media has always been understood to perform an important and influential function in society. Questions of whom media influence, with what effects and through what mediums notwithstanding, their relevance has seldom been questioned. The same can’t be said for the various theoretical models that have attempted to describe such relationships, however. Indeed, connections between sender, receiver, message and medium remain perennially elusive, a trend only complicated by media technologies’ constant and precipitous evolution. Today, though, in the internet-dominated, social-interactive sphere that media must operate within, many of yesterday’s once-disregarded theories are enjoying renewed applicability. Even if they their reconsideration can’t fully describe today’s emerging media climate, they can at least inform it.
Take, for instance, the so-called Two-Step Flow model, which posits that attitude formation results not from exposure to media messages, but rather begins with socialization within personal in-groups. The model updates, in many ways, the various ‘hypodermic’ models that preceded it. Whereas those models assumed a subject-object relationship between message creators and message receivers—one in which a message needed only to be “injected” into a passive target to have an effect—the Two-Step Model assumes the existence of an intermediary third party. This third party, dividing sender from receiver, is composed of opinion leaders—i.e., people (or institutions) directly exposed to media messages, whose opinions (and thus interpretations of media messages) are trusted and accepted by receivers. Socialization between opinion leader and opinion follower, then, is a necessary precondition for influence to occur. Today, this model describes the sort of social and political influence dynamics observable on Twitter.
Influence is, in many ways, what characterizes Twitter. Whether by amassing followers, following others or engaging in some combination of the two, users of Twitter constantly traffic in the currency of influence. Often, threads of influence are anything but direct, passing from intermediary to intermediary before reaching any given endpoint. Consider a message disseminated via Twitter—say, a New York Times article tweeted by the author herself. At the point of tweeting, this message will typically embark upon a tortuous journey of being commented on, tweeted and retweeted. Rarely will an original message reach users directly and free of commentary; it’s only through inter-user proliferation that the message spreads. Such is Twitter’s structural underpinning.
In this example, the intermediary in the two-step Twitter equation—the retweeter—can be conceptualized as both an opinion leader and an opinion follower. S/he is a leader by virtue of exposing the message to his/her followers, but also a follower for having been exposed to the message by one of his/her followees.
Thus, Twitter is technologically determined, in some sense, to facilitate Two-(or three- or four- or five-)-Step Flow-style communication. The likelihood of a user being exposed to a message sent by an original source (even a major one, like the New York Times) is relatively small. Rather, it’s far likelier that a given user will be exposed to a given message by way of an intermediary—almost always a self-selected, socially compatible opinion leader, one who will have imbued the message with his or her own beliefs before propagating it.
In the Two-Step Model, the ultimate receivers of a message are understood to remain passive, having through some manner of socialization come to accept the biases of their chosen opinion leaders at face value. Removed, then, is the possibility for dissonance between sender and receiver. The model precludes it, as socialization rather than message validity is the necessary condition for message acceptance. Whether this aspect of the model applies to the Twitter comparison is difficult to assess. Still, norms of political socialization are undergoing active change. No longer are town bars and family dinner tables the exclusive domain of such processes; today, Twitter is the new frontier. If the Two-Step Flow model of communication warrants revisiting in light of this development, perhaps other models do too.
Featured image credit: Adult Swim, Turner Broadcasting System