In this project, we explored several claims about the democratizing potential of the Internet and extended gatekeeping theory into user-generated content (UGC) domain. A quantitative content analysis of the most popular YouTube political news videos during the 2008 presidential election was conducted to investigate the degree to which nonelites were able to partake in mainstream public discourse. We found that elites dominated first and second filters (news sourcing and news production) in the flow of online news, while nonelites dominated the third filter (news distribution). These results suggest that an update to the traditional gatekeeping model is needed to reflect the realities of today’s user-driven communication environment.
In my new project (that builds upon my dissertation and Communication Theory paper), I will be experimentally testing how usage of various UGC affordances (e.g., manipulability, customizability) interacts with non-technological factors (e.g., types of users, types of uses) in producing effects on important political outcomes (e.g., political participation, political knowledge, depth of political information processing).
I am attempting to identify the appropriate role of ICTs in the individual-level communication-effects research, especially in context of political communication. More broadly, this project deals with technology as a causal agent, and with how technology interacts with social, psychological, and other factors to produce various important effects. Which puts this research right in the middle of the dispute between proponents of technological determinism and social constructivism. I find this dispute to be more political (e.g., "our perspective is better, and it should dominate the study of ICTs") than intellectual (e.g., "here are reasons why our perspective is objectively superior than yours for achieving these specific goals"). My reading of the literature on this dispute suggests that both camps are wrong in not acknowledging the following: (1) Both, technological and non-technological factors, matter; (2) Both produce important main and interactive effects, as well as direct and indirect effects; (3) Both matter to larger or smaller extent in different contexts (in other words, comparative effect sizes of tech v. non-tech factors differ across contexts).
Another criticism of technological determinism and social constructivism, is as follows: Technology determinists claim that technology is the most important causal factor that is driving history, whereas social constructivists say technology is much less important causal factor than human, cultural, social, economic, and other factors. Neither claim is falsifiable, from the perspective of social-scientific empirical research. Social constructivists and tech determinists are using historical analysis or case studies to talk about technology’s “effects” and about comparative “effect sizes”!! To prove causality and determine effect sizes one needs experiments, as any introductory-level methods textbook informs us.
In this project, I'll try to deal with some of these conceptual/methodological issues and offer a way to move beyond the unproductive tech determinism v. social constructivism debate.
Update: Just received a small grant from New Mexico State University to get going on this project. This is the most conceptually interesting and theoretically/practically important project I've ever tackled - really enjoy working on it and excited to see where it ends up.