Cultural Holes and Public Conversations about Autism Spectrum Disorders on Social Media Sites

LOCATION: Knox Hall, Room 509

Social media sites are rapidly becoming one of the most important forums for public deliberation about advocacy issues. Yet social scientists have not yet explained why some advocacy organizations produce social media messages that inspire far ranging conversation among social media users, while the vast majority of them receive little or no attention. I argue that advocacy organizations are more likely to inspire social media conversation if their messages fill “cultural holes,” or connect topics of conversation that are seldom discussed together. I combine natural language processing techniques and social network analysis to identify cultural holes within all public discourse about Autism Spectrum Disorders produced by advocacy organizations on Facebook. To evaluate my theory net of alternative explanations, I created a Facebook application that offered these organizations a complimentary audit of their social media strategy in return for sharing non-public data about their organization, its audience, and the broader social context in which they interact. Time series models indicate organizations whose messages fill cultural holes inspire two times the amount of public conversation than those that do not. This study thus contributes a new theory of public deliberation and cultural messaging on social media sites and computational techniques that could be used to examine these processes within a variety of discursive fields.

Christopher Bail is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Duke University. He studies how non-profit organizations and other political actors create cultural change by analyzing large groups of texts from newspapers, television, public opinion surveys, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.