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Back when social media first burst into the mainstream in a big way and popular Web 2.0 services like Digg and Flickr were the subject of articles touting phrases such as "the wisdom of crowds" and buzzwords like "democratization," it might have seemed that the web was truly changing the fundamental dynamics of information distribution.
But a new CNN study hints that some of the hype around this notion has been overblown.
In looking at how 2,300 individuals interacted with the news online over a two month period, it discovered that a small group is responsible for sharing the vast majority of the news.
As reported by The Guardian, "The most influential news-sharers, and the group which shared 87% of the stories in the survey, only accounted for 27% of all the users - tallying with previous definitions of a minority of highly active web users that contribute a majority of content online."
What's more, the CNN study found that what's being shared isn't exactly groundbreaking fare. 65% of it was "major current news stories", 19% was "breaking news" and 16% of it "was made up of watercooler funnies or quirky news." This, of course, is all media that is generally produced by traditional news media organizations.
So what does this mean? In my opinion, CNN's research indicates that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While the internet may have significantly changed how news media is distributed and discovered, most individuals still rely on somebody else to decide what news is worth hearing about.
Far from providing a participatory news media democracy utopia, social media effectively adds another layer of curation in which a relatively small group of citizens takes it upon themselves to filter the wheat from the chaff.
That a small group 'controls' the distribution of news online isn't really all that surprising, of course. CNN's research fits in with the Pareto principle, or 80-20 rule. Here, slightly more than 20% of the individuals 'control' more than eight-tenths of the news online. The big question now: is the news media, and public, any better for it than they were when paid editors had an exclusive on curation? Time will tell.