Understanding Social Speech

In 1439, when Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg brought movable type to Europe and launched what we now call the Age of Mass Media, we embarked on a strange bypass of human-to-human communication. Until this momentous occasion, information required a direct, one-to-one interaction between two human beings. There were illuminated books that dutiful monks copied in patient and endless efforts, but the percentage of the population that ever got to utilize those as means of information exchange was almost imperceptible. Indeed, the closest information dispersion systems were masses in churches, whose primary purpose was definitively not to spread news or offer unbiased information.

Prior to the advent of mass media, communication came with a high degree of intimacy, if you will. You talked to people you knew, you knew their background to some degree, you could calibrate reputation and believability. And: speech had consequence. If you were blatantly lied to, you definitely listened differently to subsequent information exchange from the same speaker.

In village life, you did not need to consult an oracle to find out who and where the blacksmith was; this was common knowledge available to virtually all people. Perhaps you consulted an elder, who presumably had more information than you by virtue of having been in the village longer. As villages grew into cities, these communication methods created scarcity, the perfect ground for mass communication to grow. First via public billboards and later with the propagation of printing presses. Information started having value. And information sources were subjected to consequence as well. Reputation became hard-earned and easily lost. In short, even in mass publishing, speech had consequences.

Little changed in this basic mechanism for hundreds of years. Yes, information was distributed electronically in the original radio broadcast by Reginald A. Fesselnde in 1906 and, later, via moving images and eventually on websites. Yet, we kept one principle firmly in place: Consequence and reputation. The practice of journalism built up an impressive body of policies, rules and best practices, and the legal profession added to the separation of power by providing checks and balances. It was, although not perfect by any stretch, a mature mechanism of information dispersal and interchange.

Then something changed in significantly more dramatic proportions than anything we have seen since Gutenberg’s original printing press: the advent of social media speech. Via public broadcast platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and similar channels, we are now living in an unprecedented information model. For the first time since people started speaking to each other, we have virtually consequence-free speech. The speaker is so far removed from any repercussions to reputation, has virtually no threat of being taken to task, and is practically anonymous. However, the speaker has almost infinite broadcast-able reach. None of our policies and best practices we have honed over the hundreds of years we have lived with and enjoyed mass media work in this new context. It is a paradigm shift for which we are ill-prepared and it allows the propagation of influence without transparency. The realization of this state of affairs is coming slowly, and it is developing in both positive and negative ways. Where a funny viral video has the ability to entertain millions and can cause instant overnight celebrity, we are still reeling from the realization that we did not see Brexit or the Trump administration coming. Hearing a two day deposition by Mark Zuckerberg in front of congress shows in shocking detail that we don’t even know how to frame the questions and that he, as a network provider, seemed uncannily out of the loop of what was going on. We have consequence-free speech threatening the very foundation of our political systems.

To date, we have no tools to explain the phenomenon fully; no previous tools or methodologies are applicable. Understanding social speech through the lens of mass media or journalism is futile, even dangerous. The base assertions are wrong.

At Orbitwerks, we believe that this is an untenable state of affairs, both from the perspective of public life as well as from the practice of business.

We have proposed a three-dimensional approach to parse this new phenomenon. We believe the first level of understanding required is split into three questions: what, where and who. These three questions are intertwined and set context for each other.

The what deals with the topic or subject of a given post or discussion thread. This goes beyond topic analysis. In order to get the full power of this context, it is important to tether these details to the larger knowledge graph.

Then where informs the context along the social graph. These are the hard connections between channels: Followers and those who are following. Think of this as the potential vectors of propagation. This concept sets the potential pathways that information and influence can travel along.

And finally, the human context; the who defines the person behind the channel or post. In partnership with psyML, we are tapping into the personality model of the human speaker (or compound persona). Utilizing the current research in clinical psychology characterizing human personality into 6 major dimensions, the HEXACO model consists of expression along: honesty-humility, emotionality, eXtraversion, agreeableness (versus anger), conscientiousness and openness to experiences.

We call these three dimensions our spacial dimensions. They define a solid state model of context for the propagation of information and influence across the social speech fabric. Based on recent research breakthroughs by psyML, we also see a temporal dimension supplementing the base three context dimensions which is emotional state. While personality, topic and social graph are temporally stable, emotion can swing greatly in small time increments. And its impact can be dramatic. Take the example of an enraged person: He or she will probably not be susceptible to interesting new concepts in that state. However, a person in a deeply set state of fear may be extremely susceptible to further dark images or scary concepts. This is a fact that has been exploited by organizations like Cambridge Analytica and others in recent years.

We believe that the first order of business in the understanding of social speech is transparency of what is actually happening. How ideas, memes and information (be it verifiable information, mis-information or targeted dis-information, propaganda1) actually travel across social speech and influence us all.

  1. further research and reading on this subject from the excellent work by René DiResta. We will link her recent talk at the Interval (Long Now) in San Francisco as soon as it is available. ↩︎