Web surfers may get more than just the music, videos and news updates they were looking for when they log onto trendy next-generation sites such as Last.fm, YouTube and Digg, according to new research by a University of Illinois business professor.
Whether they know it or not, they also could be getting swayed -- toward musical genres that stretch their tastes or to video and news clips they might have overlooked without an endorsement by the masses, says business administration professor Mu Xia.
Xia says the seemingly impersonal voting, tagging, ratings and even music catalogs offered on so-called Web 2.0 sites can influence users, not unlike more traditional written commentaries posted on blogs and in chat rooms.
“This is a new way to communicate,” he said. “It basically opens up a new horizon for letting people know what other people think. Before I could only read what one person wrote. Now I know what everyone else thinks.”
Xia calls it “ballot box communications,” an offshoot of Web technology that provides a tally of what users are thinking even though they never communicate directly.
On popular Web sites such as YouTube and Digg, the new technology highlights videos and news stories based on rankings or mouse clicks, steering users to the most popular clips and sound bites.
“You could say it’s human nature. If I know a lot of people have chosen a particular video, I also want to experience that,” said Xia, lead researcher for the study that will appear in Communications of the ACM, a publication of the Association for Computing Machinery.
The influence also extends to music-sharing services, according to the study, which analyzed searches, browsing and other commands on a popular music-sharing site from 2001 through 2006. For example, the study showed demand for country music increased as other users began including more in their online inventories, while supplies of jazz and other genres dwindled as demand dipped.
Xia says the findings signal that users are swayed by the tastes of other users, whose online offerings create a sense of curiosity.
“If people see there’s a lot of it out there, they sense it must be popular and it makes them more apt to check it out. They want to see what all of the fuss is about,” he said.
Based on the case study, Xia says researchers should dig deeper into those evolving online communities to better gauge how they influence users and society.
“You could frame it as a new kind of communication that’s not as rich as other forms. But at the same time maybe it encourages people to participate more because it takes less effort, so the limited information exchange actually becomes an advantage,” Xia said. “We may not have time to post comments to 10 Web sites every day, but we can go to that many Web sites and share our opinions by clicking on things.”
The study, “Voice of the Crowd: Ballot Box Communications in Online Communities,” was co-written by Wenjing Duan of George Washington University School of Business and Yun Huang and Andrew B. Whinston of the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce at the University of Texas.
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