SOPA and the Twitter echo chamber

What’s big on Twitter isn’t necessarily big elsewhere.

Peter Nowak 0
CB_SOPA_wikipedia

Wikipedia went black on Jan. 18, 2012, displaying this message in protest of SOPA and PIPA.

To mark last Wednesday’s Internet protest against the Stop Online Privacy Act, I got on a plane to Cuba. I thought it would be a fitting way to get a sneak preview of the proposed law, which would have given a small group of U.S. legislators the power to censor the whole web, since it’s something the country practices every day.

Of course, I’m kidding. My trip wasn’t politically motivated at all. I just simply needed a quick vacation after the madness of the preceding Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Some convalescing on a beach was just what the doctor ordered to get over the nasty chest cold I’d incurred. And truth be told, Cuba is a perversely great place to get away from it all, since Internet access is virtually non-existent.

Just as I was getting on the plane, I got into a mini-debate on Twitter with Alex Howard, a correspondent for O’Reilly Media, a book and web publisher in California. Howard took exception to my tweet that “Twitter is one big SOPA echo chamber today. Over on Facebook, nobody cares.”

I was referring to the fact that Wikipedia and a number of well-known websites had chosen to go dark to protest SOPA, and that Twitter was buzzing about it. If the social media service was to be believed, nothing else of importance was going on in the world that day (except for maybe Johnny Depp’s new single status). Over on Facebook, meanwhile, SOPA was noticeably absent from my news feed. It was the same old baby photos, celebrity gossip and meal updates.

A few other people responded to me on Twitter that their Facebook feeds were different; their friends were in fact posting about SOPA, which was fair enough. Clearly, there are people who run in more politically charged circles than I. Howard, however, wanted me to prove my contention. When I mentioned that I thought my 400-plus friends comprised a good cross section of the general populace, he wanted demographic evidence.

It was a silly request, really, since I’m sure very few people have done demographic studies of their Facebook friends list. Unless you’ve got thousands of friends, you probably have a rough idea of who you’re connected to. My Facebook friends are generally between 25 and 45, of various race and gender and well-educated. In other words, exactly the sort of people who should care about SOPA.

If there’s one demographic strike against them, it’s that they’re mostly Canadian and perhaps they don’t believe the proposed U.S. legislation would apply to them. On the other hand, Canadians have in the past flocked to Facebook groups to protest proposed changes to copyright law, so it’s not like SOPA at its heart is an issue that’s alien to them.

So what gives? Why were my Facebook friends so unenthused about this potentially dire piece of legislation, while on Twitter people were working themselves into a frothing frenzy? Do I need to get more politically aware friends?

Not necessarily. It’s hard to empirically measure exactly how much SOPA-related traffic took place on Facebook on Wednesday, but a cursory glance doesn’t turn up much. What appears to be the main anti-SOPA group on the site has only 111,000 or so members, which for Facebook is not a great number—even Rick Astley has more fans than that.

It goes back to the subtext of my original tweet. Regardless of how fast it is growing and how many celebrities use it, Twitter is still primarily the domain of the tech-savvy, while Facebook is the province of the mainstream. Some empirical studies back this up. A year-old study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 8% of online Americans used Twitter. As some observers pointed out, once the number of Internet-using Americans is factored in—as well as those who use Twitter on a daily basis—the service actually “represents a very small group of people in your area.”

Facebook, on the other hand, is used by more than half of the American population, according to Edison Research. That’s a good chunk of the site’s more than 800 million total users.

As much as we would like to hope otherwise, the mainstream cares more about baby photos and celebrity gossip than it does about copyright legislation. Such matters are usually the domain of the tech elite—the people who live online and follow it closely. They’re also the same people who can’t help but get caught in what is often Twitter’s echo chamber, where the views of a small portion of the population get amplified until they seem absolutely giant.

That’s not to say that SOPA isn’t bad (it is) and that the protests by Wikipedia and the like didn’t raise the issue’s mainstream profile (they did), but it’s important to keep things in perspective. As anyone who has covered copyright law for a big news organization knows, issues such as SOPA—and what the hell, let’s throw net neutrality in there as well—may inflame the tech-savvy, but they bore the mainstream to tears. It’s sad, but true.

UPDATE: The Atlantic helpfully charted where the public’s news attention was last Wednesday and the numbers seem to bear out what I said up above. SOPA protests certainly weren’t top of mind for the majority of news watchers, but they did resonate particularly with people under 30.

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