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Quantifying the Invisible Audience in Social Networks

Quantifying the Invisible Audience in Social Networks

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Published by Eric Prenen
Social media users consistently underestimate their audience size for their posts, guessing that their audience is just 27% of its true size.
Social media users consistently underestimate their audience size for their posts, guessing that their audience is just 27% of its true size.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Eric Prenen on Jul 17, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Quantifying the Invisible Audience in Social Networks
Michael S. Bernstein
, Eytan Bakshy
, Moira Burke
, Brian Karrer
Stanford University HCI Group
Facebook Data Science
Computer Science Department Menlo Park, CAmsb@cs.stanford.edu
ebakshy, mburke, karrerb
When you share content in an online social network, who islistening? Users have scarce information about who actuallysees their content, making their audience seem invisible anddifficult to estimate. However, understanding this invisibleaudience can impact both science and design, since perceivedaudiences influence content production and self-presentationonline. In this paper, we combine survey and large-scale logdata to examine how well users’ perceptions of their audi-ence match their actual audience on Facebook. We find thatsocial media users consistently underestimate their audiencesize for their posts, guessing that their audience is just 27%of its true size. Qualitative coding of survey responses re-veals folk theories that attempt to reverse-engineer audiencesize using feedback and friend count, though none of theseapproaches are particularly accurate. We analyze audiencelogs for 222,000 Facebook users’ posts over the course of onemonth and find that publicly visible signals — friend count,likes, and comments — vary widely and do not strongly in-dicate the audience of a single post. Despite the variation,users typically reach 61% of their friends each month. To-gether, our results begin to reveal the invisible undercurrentsof audience attention and behavior in online social networks.
Author Keywords
Social networks; audience; information distribution
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.3 Group and Organization Interfaces: Web-based inter-action
General Terms
Design; Human Factors.
Posting to a social network site is like speaking to an audi-ence from behind a curtain. The audience remains invisibleto the user: while the invitation list is known, the final at-tendance is not. Feedback such as comments and likes is theonly glimpse that users get of their audience. That audiencevaries from day to day: friends may not log in to the site,
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work forpersonal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies arenot made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copiesbear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, orrepublish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specificpermission and/or a fee.
CHI 2013
, April 27–May 2, 2013, Paris, France.Copyright 2013 ACM 978-1-4503-1899-0/13/04...
may not see the content, or may not reply. While establishedmedia producers can estimate their audience through surveys,television ratings and web analytics, social network sites typi-cally do not share audience information. This design decisionhas privacy benefits such as plausible deniability, but it alsomeans that users may not accurately estimate their invisibleaudience when they post content.Correct or not, these audience estimates are central to mediabehavior: perceptions of our audience deeply impact what wesay and how we say it. We act in ways that guide the impres-sion our audience develops of us [17], and we manage theboundaries of when to engage with that audience [2]. Socialmedia users create a mental model of their imagined audi-ence, then use that model to guide their activities on the site[27, 38, 26]. However, with no way to know if that mentalmodel is accurate, users might speak to a larger or smalleraudience than they expect.This paper investigates users’ perceptions of their invisibleaudience, and the inherent uncertainty in audience size as alimit for users’ estimation abilities. We survey active Face-book users and ask them to estimate their audience size, thencompare their estimates to their actual audience size usingserver logs. We examine the folk theories that users have de-veloped to guide these estimates, including approaches thatreverse-engineer viewership from friend count and feedback.We then quantify the uncertainty in audience size by inves-tigating actual audience information for 220,000 Facebook users. We examine whether there are reasonable heuristicsthat users could adopt for estimating audience size for a spe-cific post, for example friend count or feedback, or whetherthe variance is too high for users to use those signals reliably.We then test the same heuristics for estimating audience sizeover a one-month period.While previous work has focused on highly visible audiencesignals such as retweets[5,32], this work allows us to ex- amine the invisible undercurrents of attention in social mediause. By comparing these patterns to users’ perceptions, wecan then identify discrepancies between users’ mental mod-els and system behavior. Both the patterns and the discrepan-cies are core to social network behavior, but they are not wellunderstood. Improving our understanding will allow us to de-sign this medium in a way that encourages participation andsupports informed decisions around privacy and publicity.We begin by surveying related work in social media audi-ences, publicity, and predicting information diffusion. Wethen perform a survey of active Facebook users and comparetheir estimates of audience size to logged data. We then de-
scribe the inherent unpredictability of audience size on Face-book, both for single posts and over the course of a month.
Social media users develop expectations of their audiencecomposition that impact their on-site activity. Designing so-cial translucence into audience information thus becomes acore challenge for social media [16, 15]. In response, speak-ers tune their content to their intended audience [12]. OnFacebook and in blogs, people think that peers and close on-line friends are the core audience for their posts, rather thanweaker ties[24, 38]. Sharing volume and self-disclosure onFacebook are also correlated with audience size[10,40]. However, as the audience grows, that audience may comefrom multiple spheres of the user’s life. Users adjust theirprojected identity based on who might be listening [17,27]or speak to the lowest common denominator so that all groupscan enjoy it [20]. Social media users are thus quite cognizantof their audience when they author profiles [8, 14], and ac-curately convey their personality to audiences through thoseprofiles [18].Ournotionoftheinvisibleaudienceistiedtotheimaginedau-dience in social media [27, 26]. The imagined audience usu-ally references the types of groups in the audience — whetherfriends from work, college, or elsewhere are listening. In thispaper, we focus not on the composition of the audience but onits size. Both elements play important roles in how we adaptour behaviors to the audience.Cues can be helpful when estimating aspects of a social net-work, but there are few such cues available today. For exam-ple, to estimate the size of a social network, it can be help-ful to base the estimate on the number of people spoken torecently[21] or to focus on specific subpopulations and re-lationships such as diabetics or coworkers[28]. However, itcan be difficult to estimate how many people within the net-work will actually see or appreciate a piece of content. Pub-lic signals such as reshares[32] and unsubscriptions[22] give users feedback about the quality of their content, but users of-ten consume content and make judgments without taking anypublicly visible action[3,13]. In addition, there are consis- tent patterns in online communities that might bias estimates:for example, the prevalence of lurkers who do not providefeedback or contribute [30]and a typical pattern of focusinginteractions on a small number of people in the network [4].Questions of audience in social media often reduce to ques-tions of privacy. Users must balance an interest in sharingwith a need to keep some parts of their life private[2,31]. However, early studies on social network sites found no rela-tionship between disclosure and privacy concerns [1,34, 40]. Instead, peopletendedtowantotherstodiscovertheirprofiles[40], and filled out the basic information in their profile rel-atively completely [23]. However, young adults are increas-ingly, and proactively, taking an active role in managing theirprivacy settings[35].Design decisions with respect to audience visibility can influ-ence users’ interactions with their audience [9]. For example,Chat Circles allows members of a chat room to modify theiraudience by moving their avatar closer or further from otherparticipants [39]. Visualizations can also support sociallytranslucent interactions by making the members of the audi-ence more salient[25,11]or displaying whether an intended audience member has already seen similar content[7]. Black-Berry Messenger, Apple iMessage, and Facebook Messengerall provide indicators that the recipient has opened a message,and online dating sites OkCupid and Match.com reveal whohas viewed your profile. Few studies have addressed users’reactions to this explicit audience indicator [33], though someusers of the social networking site Friendster expressed con-cerns that they were uncomfortable with this level of socialtransparency and would consequently not view as many pro-files [29].Our work pushes the literature forward in important respects:we augment previous research with quantitative metrics, wefocus on contexts where the intended audience is friends andnot the entire Internet, and we empirically demonstrate thataudience size is difficult to infer from feedback. We also con-tribute empirical evidence for the wide variance in audiencesize, something not previously possible for blogs or tweets,because we can track consumption across the entire medium.
To study audiences in social media, we use a combinationof survey and Facebook log data. Most Facebook content isconsumed through the News Feed (or
), a ranked list of friends’ recent posts and actions. When a user shares newcontent — such as a status update, photo, link, or check-in —Facebook distributes it to their friends’ feeds. The feed algo-rithmically rankscontent from potentially hundredsof friendsbased on a number of optimization criteria, including the esti-matedlikelihoodthattheviewerwillinteractwiththecontent.Because of this and differences in friends’ login frequencies,not all friends will see a user’s activity.
Audience Logs
We logged audience information for all
(status updatesand link shares) over the span of June 2012 from a randomsample of approximately 220,000 US Facebook users whoshare with friends-only privacy. We also logged cumulativeaudience size over the course of the entire month. To deter-mine audience size, we used client-side instrumentation thatlogs an event when a feed item remains in the active viewportfor at least 900 milliseconds. Our measure of audience sizethus ensures that the post appeared to the user for a nontriviallength of time, long enough to filter out quick scrolling andother false positives. However, being in the audience doesnot guarantee that a user actually attends to a post: accord-ing to eyetracking studies, users remember 69% of posts thatthey see [13]. So, while there may be some margin of differ-ence between audience size and
audience size, webelieve that this margin is relatively small. Furthermore, wenotethatunivariatecorrelationsareunaffectedbylineartrans-formations, so the correlations between estimated and actualaudience are the same regardless of whether a correction isapplied to the data.
Specific post In general
0%20%40%60%80%100%0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100% 0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%
Actual audience (% friends)
   P  e  r  c  e   i  v  e   d  a  u   d   i  e  n  c  e   (   %    f  r   i  e  n   d  s   )
Underestimation of audience size (actual % of friends − perceived % of friends)
   #   u  s  e  r  s
Figure1: Comparisonsofparticipants’estimatedandactualaudiencesizes, aspercentagesoftheirfriendcount. Mostparticipantsunderestimated their audience size. The top row displays each estimate vs. its true value; the bottom row displays this data aserror magnitudes. Left column: The specific survey, where participants were shown one of their posts, comparing estimatedaudience to the true audience for that post. Right column: The general survey, where participants estimated their audience size“in general,” comparing estimated audience to the number of friends who saw a post from that user during the month.Our logging resulted in roughly 150 million distinct (source,viewer) pairs from roughly 30 million distinct viewers. Alldata was analyzed in aggregate to maintain user privacy. Thenumber of 
distinct friends providing feedback 
, given in termsof likes and comments, was also logged for each post.In our analysis, we did robustness checks by subsetting ourdata, e.g., active vs. less active users, and users with differentnetwork sizes. We saw identical patterns each time, so wereport the results for our full dataset.
To compare actual audience to perceived audience, we sur-veyed active Facebook users about their perceived audience.Participants might estimate their audiences differently whenthey anchor on a specific instance than when they considertheir general audience, so we prepared two independent sur-veys:
audience estimation. In the generalsurvey, participants answered the question,
“How many peo- ple do you think usually see the content you share on Face-book?”
In the specific survey, participants clicked on a pagethat redirected them to their most recent post, provided thatpost was at least 48 hours old. Specific survey participantsthen answered the question,
“How many people do you think saw it?”
In both surveys, participants then shared how theycame up with that number. Finally, participants shared theirdesired audience size on a 5-point scale ranging from “Farfewer people” to “Far more people”.We advertised the survey to English-speaking users in ourrandom sample who had been on Facebook for at least 90days, had logged into Facebook in the past 30 days, and whohad shared at least one piece of content (e.g., status update,photo, or link) in the last 90 days. The general audience sur-vey had 542 respondents, and the specific audience surveyhad 589. Sixty-one percent of respondents were female, witha mean age of 32.8 (
= 14
), and a median friend count of 335 (
= 457
= 465
In this section, we investigate how users’ perceptions of theiraudience map onto reality. This investigation has three maincomponents. First, we quantify how accurate users are at esti-mating the audience size for their posts. Second, we performa content analysis on users’ self-reported folk theories for au-dience estimation. Third, we explore users’ satisfaction withtheir audience size.
Audience size: perception vs. reality
Wecomparedparticipants’ estimatedaudiencesizesto theac-tual audience size for their posts. Participants underestimatedtheir audiences. Figure1plots actual audience size againstperceivedaudiencesizeforthetwosurveys. Accurateguesseslie along the diagonal line, where the actual audience is equal

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