Is two-step flow theory still relevant for social media research?

Gabriel Tarde
Gabriel Tarde Image via Wikipedia

This is a learning module for the class Contemporary Social / Mass Media Theory taught at Purdue University by Sorin Adam Matei

Elihu Katz, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Gabriel Tarde have already said that media are profoundly social. Newspapers have been read at breakfast for almost 200 years. Our great-great-grandparents discussed the news of 1848 revolutions in Europe or of the Mexican wars with their buddies at lunch time. Television shows were and still are the subject of the proverbial water cooler chats. Every once in a while I chat with my wife about the latest news we both get from Yahoo!

What is then new about ”social” media?

Can media be other than social? As Gabriel Tarde and later Lazarsfeld and his students suggested, media is consumed through a two (or manybe more) step process. The news percolates and then returns to the newsmakers through interpersonal conversations. If that is so, did social media really bring something new to the table? If, yes, what? The tools? A new social and intellectual ethos? Is this a communitarian, or individualist ethos? Is the ”social” aspect of media equivalent to ”communitarianism”? What perspective should we take on studying interactions through social media: a community or an individualistic oriented one?

Slideshow of core ideas presented in the readings

Two step flow theory core ideas

A summary of the two step flow theory of communication from the Twente University Comm Theory site:

The two-step flow of communication hypothesis was first introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice, a 1944 study focused on the process of decision-making during a Presidential election campaign. These researchers expected to find empirical support for the direct influence of media messages on voting intentions. They were surprised to discover, however, that informal, personal contacts were mentioned far more frequently than exposure to radio or newspaper as sources of influence on voting behavior. Armed with this data, Katz and Lazarsfeld developed the two-step flow theory of mass communication.

This theory asserts that information from the media moves in two distinct stages. First, individuals (opinion leaders) who pay close attention to the mass media and its messages receive the information. Opinion leaders pass on their own interpretations in addition to the actual media content. The term ‘personal influence’ was coined to refer to the process intervening between the media’s direct message and the audience’s ultimate reaction to that message. Opinion leaders are quite influential in getting people to change their attitudes and behaviors and are quite similar to those they influence. The two-step flow theory has improved our understanding of how the mass media influence decision making. The theory refined the ability to predict the influence of media messages on audience behavior, and it helped explain why certain media campaigns may have failed to alter audience attitudes an behavior. The two-step flow theory gave way to the multi-step flow theory of mass communication or diffusion of innovation theory.

Two step flow readings

Elihu Katz, The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis, Public Opinion Quarterly [0033-362X] Katz yr:1957 vol:21 iss:1 pg:61

The hypothesis that “ideas often flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from these to the less active sections of the population” has been tested in several successive studies. Each study has attempted a different solution to the problem of how to take account of interpersonal relations in the traditional design of survey research. As a result, the original hypothesis is largerly corroborated and considerably refined.

Katz et al., Bridging the spheres: Political and personal conversation in public and private spaces, Journal of communication [0021-9916] Wyatt yr:2000 vol:50 iss:1 pg:71

For some theorists, talk about politics is infrequent, difficult, divisive, and, to be efficacious, must proceed according to special rules in protected spaces. We, however, examined ordinary political conversation in common spaces, asking Americans how freely and how often they talked about 9 political and personal topics at home, work, civic organizations, and elsewhere. Respondents felt free to talk about all topics. Most topics were talked about most frequently at home and at work, suggesting that the electronic cottage is wired to the public sphere. Political conversation in most loci correlated significantly with opinion quality and political participation, indicating that such conversation is a vital component of actual democratic practice, despite the emphasis given to argumentation and formal deliberation by some normative theorists.

Elihu Katz, Rediscovering Gabriel Tarde. Political Communication [1058-4609] Katz yr:2006 vol:23 iss:3 pg:263

Gabriel Tarde (l843-1904) is thought to have “lost” his debates with Durkheim by insisting that sociology ought to occupy itself with observable interpersonal processes. Given contemporary interest in such processes—much abetted by the computer—Tarde’s reputation is being rehabilitated. Terry Clark (1969) was first to notice that Tarde (1898) had anticipated Lazarzfeld’s two-step flow of communication. Tarde’s work has bearing on social networks, interpersonal influence, diffusion of innovation, and the aggregation of public opinion.

Elihu Katz. Media Multiplication and social segmentation. Elihu Katz. Media Multiplication and Social Segmentation,” Ethical Perspectives,
7:2-3, 2000, 122-132.

The paper develop the idea of the classic public sphere, drawing not so much on Habermas, but on some of his predecessors and others, and especially on the French social psychologist, Gabriel Tarde. I will show how Tarde’s conception of the public sphere applies not only to the newspaper but perhaps even more to broadcasting. I will say a few words about how well the European model of public broadcasting fits (or better: used to fit) this vision of the public sphere. I will also introduce data from a recent American study that puts Tarde’s scheme to an empirical test. Then, I will shift gears. Still drawing on Tarde — but a different Tarde — Part Two will show another side of the same story, focusing more on the technology of the media, and their effect, not on individuals but on institutions. This part of the argument will show how the media, in succession — newspapers, radio, TV, internet — contribute not to the making of democracy, but to its unmaking. This part will lead to a discussion of our present situation of multi-channel television — over the air, on cable, via satellite — and the internet. To anticipate the climax of this part, let me say that we will find ourselves arguing that the new media are no longer geared to the nation-state and the public sphere. The concluding Part Three will try to confront the opposing tendencies of the two earlier parts. But it will do so in an academic effort at puzzlesolving rather than as a statement of deep conviction. The truth is I don’t know the answers.

From two-step flow to the Internet: The changing array of sources for genetic…
Donald O. Case; J. David Johnson; James E. Andrews; Suzanne L. Allard; Kimber…
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology; Jun 2004; 55, 8;

“From Two-Step Flow to the Internet: The Changing Array of Sources for Genetics Information Seeking” reevaluates the traditional two-step flow of information seeking by examining cancer genetic information seeking in the Internet environment. The two-step flow is where a person obtains information second-hand from friends and acquaintances who, in a first step, have previously obtained the same information from some other source. The researchers conducted a telephone survey in Kentucky, via random digital dialing, reaching 2,454 people, of whom 882 adults (41%) agreed to be polled. Respondents reported using the Internet first for cancer genetic information, then public libraries, and then medical doctors. The paper concludes that the Internet has changed the traditional two-step flow hypothesis of information seeking.

Some of the comments below ask the very good question “how real is the distinction between interpersonal and mass mediated influence in social media”?  In addition, some social diffusion studies have started asking the bigger question that lurks behind this literature: how does social media (Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube) change the way we think and learn about the world?

A very recent study facilitated by Facebook Data, an internal research unit of the social networking giant, announced this spring that most news we pick up and read from Facebook comes from people we interact with infrequently. A previous study, also co-authored by Bakshy, asked the even more interesting question if there are real “opinion” leaders on Twitter. The answer was a considerate yes and no. What do you think about these studies and their conclusions?

Rethinking Information Diversity in Networks, Eytan Bakshy, Facebook Data

Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter, Bakshy et al.

Valente, T. W. (1996). Social network thresholds in the diffusion of innovations. Social Networks, 18(1), 69–89.

Threshold models have been postulated as one explanation for the success or failure of collective action and the diffusion of innovations. The present paper creates a social network threshold model of the diffusion of innovations based on the Ryan and Gross (1943) adopter categories: (1) early adopters; (2) early majority; (3) late majority; (4) laggards. This new model uses social networks as a basis for adopter categorization, instead of solely relying on the system-level analysis used previously. The present paper argues that these four adopter categories can be created either with respect to the entire social system, or with respect to an individual’s personal network. This dual typology is used to analyze three diffusion datasets to show how external influence and opinion leadership channel the diffusion of innovations. Network thresholds can be used (1) to vary the definition of behavioral contagion, (2) to predict the pattern of diffusion of innovations, and (3) to identify opinion leaders and followers in order to understand the two-step flow hypothesis better.

Meade, N., & Islam, T. (2006). Modelling and forecasting the diffusion of innovation – A 25-year review. International Journal of Forecasting, 22(3), 519–545.

The wealth of research into modelling and forecasting the diffusion of innovations is impressive and confirms its continuing importance as a research topic. The main models of innovation diffusion were established by 1970. (Although the title implies that 1980 is the starting point of the review, we allowed ourselves to relax this constraint when necessary.) Modelling developments in the period 1970 onwards have been in modifying the existing models by adding greater flexibility in various ways. The objective here is to review the research in these different directions, with an emphasis on their contribution to improving on forecasting accuracy, or adding insight to the problem of forecasting.

The main categories of these modifications are: the introduction of marketing variables in the parameterisation of the models; generalising the models to consider innovations at different stages of diffusions in different countries; and generalising the models to consider the diffusion of successive generations of technology.

We find that, in terms of practical impact, the main application areas are the introduction of consumer durables and telecommunications.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the efforts of many authors, few research questions have been finally resolved. For example, although there is some convergence of ideas of the most appropriate way to include marketing mix-variables into the Bass model, there are several viable alternative models.

Future directions of research are likely to include forecasting new product diffusion with little or no data, forecasting with multinational models, and forecasting with multi-generation models; work in normative modelling in this area has already been published.

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

29 thoughts on “Is two-step flow theory still relevant for social media research?

  • September 6, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    In our society people tend to use different methods or sources to obtain information and make decisions about various issues in their lives. Some of those issues may be personal while others may be political. For example as brought out in week three readings people uses various sources to obtain information and make decisions about medical issues as well as political issues. While some individual may seek information from the mass media, institutions, professional such as doctors, many studies have shown that a large number of individuals obtain medical and political information through interpersonal providers. These include personal experiences, information from family members, friends, associates, neighbors etc. According to Katz Lazersfeld (1957) People’s inclination to seek advice from these sources as their first option instead of print and electronic media maybe described as the “two step flow” or the “dual link model”. Friends, family members, associates and other people who individuals turn to for information when making personal, political or other important decisions that affect their lives may also be described as “opinion leaders” according to Katz Lazersfeld. “Opinion leaders” tend to influences individuals’ decision making and are viewed by those who they influence as knowledgeable and reliable sources of information.
    Other research have indicated that the internet is also another source that many individuals turn to for medical information. Since the internet consists of large number of websites about health related topics many individuals search the various website before or after they consult medical doctors. One of the questions that have been raised is related to the accuracy and reliability of the medical information that is found on these websites. Some researchers have found that many of the medical information that was found on some of these websites were written and posted by people who are not medical professionals. While there are many concerns about the unreliability of the internet for making medical decisions other have identified several advantages of the internet for medical issues. One of those advantages is individuals’ ability to remain anonymous when seeking medical information about specific medical issues that are generally viewed as sensitive to discuss openly.
    Some of the factors that were also taken into account in these studies include age, socio economic status, educational level and many other factors which are associated with the sources that individuals chose to go to for medical information. For example research has shown that individuals who are educated with high income levels are more likely to go to the internet for medical information as their first option. Contrary to what some people may believe that people who are more educated with higher incomes would seek professional medical care first. This was also true for younger individuals while older individuals tend to seek professional medical care.
    The “two step flow” and “opinion leaders” approach are both evident and active in the way people are influences by others who they see as informed or knowledgeable about certain issues that are of importance to them whether personal, political of otherwise. These authoritative and influential individuals which include friends, relatives, associates, co-workers etc. are generally exposed to the media to a greater extent than the people that they influence however, they may not necessarily be impacted by the media but by others.

  • September 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

    The final article suggests the internet has changed the nature of two-step flow. In the study, the authors found the strongest preference for information seeking was “The Internet or Web” at 46.5% of respondents. The authors question whether the internet truly provides the best source of information using statements like “the Internet is not a good source for individuals seeking help with making decisions” (p. 664) and “the potential for misinformation and misunderstanding” (p. 666).

    Is it methodologically sound to refer to “The Internet or Web” as a single source of information? Less preferred sources of information in the study use the internet as a communication tool or distribution channel. For example, hosptial programs and county health officials can maintain a website that communicates reliable information. Further, magazines and newspapers could be accessed through the internet. An individual consumer may prefer those types of traditional media, but find the newspaper’s website easier to search when they are seeking specific information. Therefore, the preference of the Internet is overstated, as consumers may use the web to seek information through the additional sources mentioned in the study. Indeed, the authors acknowledge that the National Library of Medicine’s website contains information that is accessible and reliable.

    Returning to the two-step flow theory, at the time of this article it would be difficult to assess the influence of opinion leaders through Internet sources. The research pre-dates the advent of Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites. Connections through these websites can mimic a personal connection to persons and organizations that are trusted for advice and information. One need only view the “followers” or “fans” of a celebrity for a cursory analysis of their influence. In a health context, Dr. Oz has 328,000+ followers as of this morning. The internet and social media extend an interpersonal network, both through enabling passive communication with a larger group of family and friends and also through receiving daily communication through a broader network of celebrities or experts. Further, an opinion leader who is a family member or friend may use social media to pass on sources of information advanced by their trusted experts. In this context, the internet has expanded the two-step flow theory as individuals have a broader concept of “friends” and network communication is quickly and easily facilitated.

    Interested what everyone thought…

    • September 8, 2010 at 6:29 pm

      @amicheel Amanda, first off, there is a lot of confusion not only in this study, but in general, in mass media research, when it comes to studying “Internet effects”. They should’ve broken down, of course. the medium into its components. The problem is that we do not have a lot of recent research in the two-step flow vein. If you find something useful, pass it along.

  • September 7, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    @Kesha Good points. On Tuesday we also discussed how mediated and interpersonal interactions are not just competing, but also connected in a wider web of interactions and they feed into each other. How does this impact the issue of credibility.

  • September 9, 2010 at 4:52 am

    As per your questions raised in the blog blurb, my thoughts are that, social media is currently defined from the perspective of the Internet platform (Kaplan et al., 2010).
    The week’s readings as well as past research by Wellman and Grannovetter indicate that the phenomenon was studied but just never termed as social media. So, in retrospect,

    -Shouldn’t social media be redefined to include a system of mass media and the information processing that occurs at an interpersonal level?

    -Perhaps, it is the case of tools (something new brought up by social media) that is new. Don’t these tools afford the opportunity to measure the effects of interpersonal influence and hence the perceived reemergence of ‘social media’.

    As for the Case et al. (2004) article, I felt that comparing mass media to internet (web media) may not be appropriate in health information seeking. Simply consider, the 24/7 accessibility
    of information on internet. In the mass media, information provision occurs rather than information seeking. It is the issue of user control.

    • September 10, 2010 at 8:21 am

      @Kavitha There is a lot of confusion in the research community about these issues. We discussed the problem at length. Conclusion: avoid using “the Internet” as a choice for media use questions.

  • September 3, 2012 at 9:22 am

    According to Katz (1957), the two-step flow theory has two key elements—opinion leaders who are influenced by the mass media messages and the interpersonal interactions by the opinion leaders that spread the message. However, the readings do not directly engage the role of these two concepts in social media research. This is by no fault of the authors—social media is a newer phenomenon—but it is still something to explore.

    When thinking about the two-step flow theory, there has to be a distinction, I think, between 1) media as the technological medium for interpersonal communication messages, and 2) media as the promoter of messages that influence interpersonal communication. The general idea for the first is that the conversations that unfold may be the same conversations that would occur if the two people were face-to-face but they are taking place through text messages or through messages on Facebook or Twitter. The second is different because it is the idea of a message being broadcasted to a number of people, like a news broadcast, an episode of a television program, a post being transmitted to thousands of “followers,” and so on.

    Social media has the potential to play both roles. It gives a forum for interpersonal influence, but also allows for the production and broadcasting of messages intended for mass consumption. Posting a political article or meme on Facebook is the broadcasting aspect of media. The person had a message that they conveyed to everyone on their friends list. However, that opens the forum for interpersonal influence—for a debate about the message and an assessment of whether people agree or disagree with this message. This lack of distinction in what media was referring to was an issue in the Case et al. (2004) study, and has already been established as an issue within this module’s comments forum.

    The purpose of the media is important to consider when thinking about who the opinion leaders are and the flow of communication. Katz (1957) noted that opinion leaders are influenced not just directly by the media, but also by other people. The flow of opinion leader to followers can become even more convoluted when trying to track the flow of a politically centered meme, for example. The opinion leaders got that information from somewhere (from searching online, from other people they follow, from their own creation, etc.) but people can gravitate toward that, reproducing it, becoming both opinion leaders and followers by being a prosumer.

    Because of this back and forth in leading and following, studies assessing social media will need to engage in social networks analysis like was used in the drug study described by Katz (1957). Doing this type of network analysis would help researchers understand how information spread, to whom, what the pattern looked like, and who the central people were in the process. There is a lot to think about in regards to social media and the two-step flow theory, but it is a theory that I believe can still apply to social media research today.


    Case, D. O., Johnson, J. D., Andrews, J. E., Allard, S. L., & Kelley, K. M. (2004). From two-step flow to the internet: The changing array of sources for genetics information seeking. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55, 660-669.

    Katz, E. (1957). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 21, 61-78.

  • September 3, 2012 at 11:41 am

    The blog post inquires about the relevance of the two-step flow theory as it relates to current “social” media. It’s undeniably challenging to besmear the classic Katz/Lazersfeld constructs and labels onto modern technologies. The inherent person-to-person interactivity found on web-based platforms infused with user-generated content makes it difficult to determine which part of the social media is really having an influence on people and altering their opinions. Social media is novel because it marries the users with the platforms in a way unseen in traditional media. Because of this, I don’t think the application of the two-stop flow theory is entirely significant to contemporary research. However, when employing the Internet on the quest for information gathering and opinion formation, many elements of the traditional two-step flow emerge.

    Katz and Lazersfeld created the label of “opinion leaders” and suggested that their influence on the people was much greater than that of the media itself (1955). Such leadership and leverage exists within social media. For example, individuals with professional competence and vast networks of connections, including Bill Gates, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and Professor Richard Florida, have personal Twitter accounts that disperse news, opinions, and information to thousands of “followers” every day. Oftentimes, this information is then “retweeted” and the influence spreads further. Is it these opinion leaders who are doing the persuading or is this clout found within the intricacies of the media itself? I would venture to say that due to the lack of direct connections and networks between the audience and the pseudo-celebrities, the credit is clearly to Twitter, the media.

    In recent studies, it’s evident that there is a definite shift away from interpersonal interaction as the main source for gathering information and forming beliefs, with 62.9% of individuals using the Internet instead (Case et al, 2004). To me, finding that media influence is now preeminent isn’t a surprise. The essence of social media makes it possible to incorporate methods of information collecting that previously dominated nonmedia realms. Professionals, family members, friends, business people, governmental agencies, and even libraries now provide data and opinions online that can be viewed with complete immediacy and anonymity. This trend towards new media reliance for information is likely to continue.


    Kats, E. & Lazersfeld, P. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communications. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

    Case, D.O., Johnson, J.D., Andrews, J.E., Allard, S.L., & Kelly, K.M. (Jun 2004). From two-step flow to the Internet: The changing array of sources for genetics information seeking. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55, 8.

    • September 4, 2012 at 1:42 pm

      Good points… Did our conversation about the background of and subtleties inherent in two step flow theory change your thoughts in any way? How about the idea that two step flow is about social action and social interaction, not about media effects?

  • September 3, 2012 at 11:49 am

    I always find myself sympathetic toward technologically deterministic arguments. Perhaps it is just because they are so interesting. I find it compelling and exciting to think that the technological configuration of a medium (or an item) is subtly, invisibly creating or destroying or modifying institutions (independent of whether or not it is supported by evidence).

    I therefore read Katz’s “Media Multiplication and social segmentation” and Case et al.’s “From Two-Step Flow to the Internet: The Changing Array of Sources for Genetics Information Seeking” with great interest. I wanted to touch on a few of the issues that they discussed.

    First, I was very interested by Katz’s idea (via Habermas and Tarde) that national newspapers contributed to the weakening of the monarchy. I loved the idea that newspapers modified conditions by:
    1. Ending the crown’s information monopoly, by making distant information accessible and
    2. Creating an “imagined community” of other newspapers
    and that these changed conditions were enough for (or at least contributed greatly to) the rise of nationalism and democracy, and the decline of monarchies (Katz, 2000). I was reminded of Winner’s argument that some technologies are strongly compatible with, or even cause, certain sociological conditions (Winner, 1980).

    Katz examines the effect of current media on sociopolitical systems, claiming, “If one were to sum up the apparent ‘teleology’ of present-day media, one might say that it has two tendencies — one toward individuation, the other toward globalization. […] Note that neither of these tendencies makes room for the nation-state.” (Katz, 2000).
    I tend to agree with Katz, and it seems to me that the nationalism and national cohesion, at least in the United States, is waning. That being said, there doesn’t seem any sort of push toward global governance. The Internet seems to be moving us toward smaller, virtual “imagined communities”, as the list of people that we communicate with is no longer constrained by geography. I would love to know if any research has been done with regard to how Internet use correlates with nationalism – my hunch is that it would be negatively correlated.

    In a similar vein, I found Case et al.’s findings fascinating. The Internet has some attributes (particularly “archivability”, “searchability”, and interactivity) that make it ideal for information seeking. As the authors argue, I think that information accessibility may have been one of the driving factors behind the two-step flow of information (Case et al., 2004). Mass media could not stored or archived, and so if you wanted to find out what the media said about a topic, the only way to find out would be to talk to other people who might know. Directly accessing media was not available to nearly the same degree before the Internet.

    • September 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Interesting, yet at times I am not quite clear I follow the main idea… Can you restate it in just a few words?

      • September 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm

        I guess I would characterize it as the idea that the technological attributes of a medium can be more important than the messages on the medium. Certain attributes of a medium can influence which sociopolitical systems are possible or likely.

  • September 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    The two-step flow of communication is a huge step in the history of communication and media studies. In one hand, it is a rethinking, combination and conclusion of the hypodermic needle theory and limited effect theory. In the other hand, besides the simple thinking of stimulates and feedback, by building a framework on the basis of social effects and interpersonal network, it provides the answer not only whether mass media has an effect on people, but also why and how.

    The two-step flow theory is an integration of the past. It neither denies the effect of mass media as limited effect theory nor over exaggerates the effect as hypodermic needle theory, but find a balance point that between the mass media and people’s choice. A huge problem of the hypodermic needle theory is that it is built on the basis that the public is ignorance and blind, which means that people are tend to be influenced by the mass media and believe whatever the mass media told them. Judging on the basis of everyone is an idiot makes this theory itself also become stupid, since it is inevitable to reach a conclusion that mass media has unlimited effect on people. While the hypodermic needle theory ignores the effect of people, the limited effect theory puts too much emphasis on it. The limited effect theory attributes everything to the people’s choice but fails to discover the potential relationship between mass media and people’s choice. Two-step flow theory is an amendment of these two different age theory. In its design of research, it believe that people are influenced by the mass media, people’s own will and the social environment people in together, but not a extreme one of them. As a result, how mass media works and it relationship to people can be studied in a more systematic and structural way. If the research of hypodermic needle theory and limited effect theory is like putting inputs in a black box and seeing what might be the outputs, the two-step theory is like using a transparent box that we could see what happened inside the box, which gives us more understanding of what is going on.

    • September 4, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      Good points. However, is there such a thing as a “limited effects” theory, or should we talk about a class of theories, of which some would be (name them)… Also, can you cite some of the theories, both in text and at the end of the comment? (For next time)…

    • September 6, 2012 at 9:37 am

      I kept running across the two twitter studies as well during my searches. I’ll see if it lets me put the links:

      Cha, M., Haddai, H., Benevenuto, F. Gummadi, K. P. (2010). Measuring User Influence in Twitter: The Million Follower Fallacy.

      Wu, S., Hofman, J. M., Mason, W. A., Watts, D. J. (2011). Who says what to whom on twitter.

      When I was searching, I also ran across M. S. Tomaszeski’s thesis on political blogging and two-step flow. I only had a chance to skim it because it is longer, but there seemed to be some interesting stuff in there about political blogging and opinion leaders that fit into what we were discussing on Tuesday.

      Tomaszeski, M. S. (2006). A baseline examination of political bloggers: Who they are, their views on the blogosphere and their
      influence in agenda-setting via the two-step flow hypothesis. Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 1282.

  • September 5, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    After reading these articles on the topic of two-step flow theory and the Internet, my initial reaction was to disagree with the conclusion offered in Case et al. (2004) that people now use the Internet to bypass personal sources, or that the Internet is a substitute for the two-step flow model. Upon further thought, I may not be in total disagreement, but it certainly seems that the relationship between the Internet and two-step flow theory is much more complex than this conclusion would lead one to believe, especially in the current era of social media.

    Katz (1957) defines the two-step flow theory as the movement of information from mass media to opinion leaders, and from opinion leaders to the masses. Despite the growing presence of the Internet in our lives, personal face-to-face conversation has not disappeared, even if it is not always the first source that people go to for information on health, politics, and other topics, as Case et al. (2004) have found. Furthermore, I believe that both of these steps are still very much present within the Internet itself. As previous comments have noted, with social media the Internet is now a medium for mass and interpersonal communication. In some cases online messages can flow directly from mass media corporations to the masses, but in many other cases opinion leaders are still present.

    For example, Twitter makes it easy to determine who opinion leaders are based on their number of followers. When these opinion leaders are celebrities or pundits, the distinctions between mass and interpersonal communication can be unclear (as much as we might like to think we are interacting on a personal level with celebrities on Twitter, this is hardly the case in a significant way). However, Twitter and Facebook also allow people to communicate with offline interpersonal contacts, and I was intrigued by the finding of Bakshy et al. (2011) that “ordinary influencers” are often more effective at spreading ideas than those with a large amount of influence. This finding suggests that personal contacts still play a very important role in the two-step flow of information, even if those personal interactions occur online.

    However, I do see the potential danger mentioned by Case et al. (2004) of relying too heavily on the Internet as a source of information. Certainly, much of the information on the Internet is inaccurate, especially from people who might be called “ordinary influencers.” I think the risk comes not so much from bypassing personal contacts, but from blurring the distinction between trusted media sources and uninformed Internet posters. It is just as easy for incorrect information to spread on the Internet as it is for correct information to spread. This may not be a new phenomenon, since offline opinion leaders can share incorrect information as well. However, the accessibility of Internet sources may be exacerbating the already existing issue.


    Bakshy, E., Hofman, J. M., Mason, W. A., & Watts, D. J. (2011). Everyone’s an influencer: Quantifying influence on Twitter. WDSM ’11.

    Case, D. O., Johnson, J. D., Andrews, J. E., Allard, S. L., & Kelly, K. M. (2004). From two-step flow to the Internet: The changing array of sources for genetics information seeking. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(8), 660-669.

    Katz, E. (1957). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 21(1), 61-78.

      • September 13, 2013 at 11:11 am

        I think the most intriguing finding is that unlike in previous studies, this study found that respondents most often used the Internet as their first source of genetic information, before even consulting a doctor. In conjunction with this, those who ranked the Internet highly as a source were also more likely to self-report a greater understanding of genetic information. Herein lies the danger of using the Internet to bypass other sources. If the Internet is simply used to supplement personal sources, then it might not be such a bad idea to use it to find some background information before consulting a doctor. However, if the Internet is used as a substitute, this perceived understanding could prevent people from even consulting a doctor and lead to greater problems in the future. Perhaps this suggests a need for more useful and accurate genetic information on the Internet, but it is unlikely that this would completely solve the problem.

  • September 6, 2013 at 1:26 am

    This week we had the pleasure of learning about the two-step flow theory, and the central idea I’d like to wrestle with in this reflection is whether this theory is still valid and appropriate for today’s world?
    My father tells me stories of growing up in Roseland, Illinois, in the 1940’s and 50’s. He and his brother, Bob, would stare up at the second story window where Uncle Ralph lived because Uncle Ralph had the first color television on the block. The colors were mesmerizing. The two-step flow theory originated in the 1940s with Paul Lazarsfeld and then was furthered in the 1950’s by Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz. While my dad certainly appreciated the 1940’s and 50’s, they are a long way away (technologically speaking) from us today, and much has changed in the world of mass media.
    Today, we live in a world of screens and colors, sights and sounds, messages and marketing, instant communication and a cacophony of voices crying for our attention. Two-step flow made sense in a world with a color TV, Uncle Ralph (the opinion leader), and the boys on the street hanging on his every word. Today, however, we have a lot more options, but even so, we do eventually need to settle on our own (at least perceived) credible sources of information. Regardless of the decade, Aristotle’s ethos still holds sway as a mode of persuasion. In our new world, we do seek opinion leaders as trusted voices. Furthermore, we evaluate the messages we receive from these opinion leaders.
    Two-step flow theory makes profound intuitive sense; it seems very natural that there would be people who synthesize great amounts of information and then act as clearinghouses to others. Certainly there are questions about this process: what effect these leaders have, how people evaluate their messages, and how exactly their influence works in a highly dynamic and variable-filled world? Yet, the core assumption that there are opinion leaders still makes intuitive sense regardless of the specifics.
    I appreciate synthesizing my learning from other classes, and I’d like to bring in two concepts from Erina MacGeorge’s Advice Response Theory (Feng & MacGeorge, 2010). First, when people evaluate advice, they evaluate it in terms of both message content factors and source factors. The source factors include trust, likability, etc., and are less predictive than the message content itself. Also, as the seriousness of the problem increases, the strength of the source factors decreases. If people are really struggling to find an answer, it doesn’t really matter who gives it to them. I mention this because I believe it is important to have a nuanced view about the strength of the opinion leader’s opinion. Second, when testing advice evaluation, it is important that advisees give sufficient emotional support before giving their advice. Otherwise, these messages are less effective. Katz (1957) highlights that interpersonal relationships function as “channels of information, (2) sources of social pressure, and (3) sources of social support, and each relates interpersonal relations to decision- making in a somewhat different way.” Advice Response Theory says something very similar, and I think this also adds another nice layer of nuance to the process of transmitting opinions.
    Is two-step flow theory still valid for us today? Perhaps. Some of it still makes intuitive sense, but there are elements to it that could most definitely benefit from embracing a more nuanced approach. As is the case with most things in life…! =)

    Feng, B., & MacGeorge, E. L. (2010). The influences of message and source factors on advice outcomes. Communication Research, 37, 553-575.

    Katz, E. (1957). “The Two-Step Flow of Communication: An Up-To-Date Report on an Hypothesis.” Political Opinion Quarterly. Vol. 21(1), p. 61-78.

    • September 9, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      What is the central finding of the Katz et al., Bridging the spheres: Political and personal conversation in public and private spaces, Journal of communication [0021-9916] Wyatt yr:2000 vol:50 iss:1 pg:71 that supports the central point of your comment? Bring this in to connect all the dots….

      • November 18, 2013 at 10:54 am

        Wyatt, Katz, and Kim (2000) found/determined that “political conversation in most loci correlated significantly with opinion quality and political participation, indicating that such conversation is a vital component of actual democratic practice, despite the emphasis given to argumentation and formal deliberation by some normative theorists.” Two-step flow rests on the “ethos” of the opinion leaders, and in the world of my dad and uncle with the shiny, new color TV and the news of the day, this made ready sense. Wyatt et al. contend that discourse (namely political) happens in the home. In their words, the home “appears to be an integral part of the public sphere—the very point, in fact, where the public sphere and the family meet to form a lifeworld more integrated than Habermas (1962/1989) conceived” (p. 88). They indeed describe this new phenomenon as the ‘electric cottage’ creates a space for private and public discourse to intermingle; this contradicts the notion that ”the American living room is the place where broadcast news goes to die.” Because that’s where we (and everyone else we care about) live…

  • September 6, 2013 at 6:50 am

    As stated by Case et al. the diffusion of the Internet has a great impact on the way we seek information of all kinds today. The Internet has changed the nature of information seeking, and it has become the first choice when finding information on a lot of topics (Case et al. 2004). When people have to make a decision, on for instance whether they should purchase a new computer, people often engage in deep research trying hard to get the best, before they make a decision. Sources of information are constantly available, information we beforehand received second hand via interpersonal communication. This process can be described as the traditionally called two-step flow theory, where the flows of communication are less direct than commonly supposed. First, information from mass media reaches the opinion leaders who pass on what they have read or heart to those of their everyday associates (followers) for whom they are influential (Katz 1957). According to Katz and Lazarfeld, opinion leaders are similar to the individuals whom they influence, and they tend to play a significant role influencing people in their decision making process. However, the study facilitated by the Facebook Data describes how most news we pick up and read from Facebook comes from people we interact with seldom (Bakshy 2010). The study claims that while we spent a lot of time communication with our close friends about happenings in our personal lives, we also use online platforms to share breaking news, discuss political issues and to learn about new trends. Some might even argue that people only consume and share information from close friends. This is also true, but the vast majority of information comes from contacts that people interact with infrequently (Bakshy 2010).

    Today, a lot of the information we are seeking and are exposed to online is produced/created by prosumers (producer and consumer in on person). How does this affect the thought of a two-step flow theory? Who are we following, are the opinion leaders led by prosumers today? Katz and Lazarfeld also explain how the opinion leaders themselves often reported that other people influenced their own decisions (Katz 1957). The issue on who we are following today, can be supported by Case et al., who claims that the Internet may now act as a substitute for the classic two-step flow paradigm. People don’t turn to friends and family members first. Case et al. finds it concerning that the Internet is peoples first choice, when they are searching for information, because of the risk of misunderstanding and misinformation.

    A summary of the two-step flow theory of communication from the Twente University Comm Theory site

    Elihu Katz, The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis, Public Opinion Quarterly [0033-362X] Katz yr:1957 vol:21 iss:1 pg:61

    From two-step flow to the Internet: The changing array of sources for genetic…
Donald O. Case; J. David Johnson; James E. Andrews; Suzanne L. Allard; Kimber…
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology; Jun 2004; 55, 8;

    Rethinking Information Diversity in Networks, Eytan Bakshy, Facebook Data

  • September 7, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    I believe what social media brings to the table is an expansion of social spheres that allows for a greater number of opinion leaders. I will admit that I do not watch news programs or read the newspaper. My main sources of information are the articles, blogs, news releases, etc that my Facebook “friends” share or post on Facebook. They act as opinion leaders to me channeling the mass media messages that I receive.

    One would think that these “friends” would share my beliefs and interests thus creating an echo chamber of confirming opinions. Eytan Bakshy studied Facebook as an information pathway and found this not to be true ( Bakshy found that people have many times more “weak ties” than “strong ties” so that through numbers alone “weak ties” ended up having a greater impact on information sharing than “strong ties”. Social media has allowed for a greater number of opinion leaders to emerge than face-to-face contact alone.

    A subtextual element of “strong ties” and “weak ties” is that people are Facebook “friends” with people they would either not be friends with or have lost contact with in the physical world. I have “friends” on Facebook who I have not seen or spoken to in person in years and yet through social media I can know their opinions on any number of topics. This exposes me to a large degree of differing opinions as people I knew in high school, for example, take different paths in life and align themselves with different causes and concerns. Without social media, these people would have fallen off my social radar and my social sphere would be much more limited to those whose opinions I probably share.

    In a specific example, one of my Facebook “friends” is my roommate from my summer study abroad program. We did not get along and have not spoken since our program ended yet somehow we have remained “friends”. She posted something about a controversial topic and I engaged her in discussion about it since it was a differing opinion from my own. We were able to have a civil talk, though others commenting were not so civil, and I came away with a better understanding of her position.

    • September 8, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      How does your mini-theory of centrality for social media for maintaing a quasi civil discourse intersect with Tarde and Katz’s theory of two step flows? What do you think about two-step flow more generally?


  • September 7, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    In Media Multiplication and Social Segmentation, Elihu Katz cites Tarde’s four elements of the public sphere as: press, conversation, opinion, and action. (Katz 2000) Tarde proposed that information in the press would lead to conversations in the public and then to opinions, following a “trickle down” pattern from the highest divisions to the lowest. (Katz 2006)

    Katz wrote several articles suggesting that, although Tarde’s work had been somewhat overlooked in the past, it is beginning to make a comeback and is still true today. (2000, 2006) Other researchers however, (Allard, Andrews, Case, Johnson, Kelly 2004) propose that the popularity of the Internet has changed the way individuals seek and find information. In fact, they write that, “Roughly 91% of Americans see the Internet as an ‘important’ source of information.” (2004, p 662) Even Katz admits that the invention of television affected elements of Tarde’s very linear four step model of the public sphere. “The central arena, the public forum in which different kinds of people could talk to, or at least listen to, each other is fading away.”(Katz 2000, p 127)

    I believe that the Internet has changed Tarde’s model of the public sphere, but in a positive way. In my opinion social media, and consequently the Internet, seems to have solved the dilemma of the lack of a public forum that Katz described. (2000) Social Networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have replaced the smoking rooms and cafes of the past as places where friends and strangers can discuss the news of the day. The primary difference between today’s public sphere and the one Tarde described is that it can no longer be neatly broken down in to four separate and linear elements.

    With the development of Web 2.0 and the popularity of social media, there is no longer a single source from which the public get their news. (0’Reilly 2007) On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between what is news and what Tarde would consider “conversation” about news. In a way, the ability to write blogs, produce videos, and share links has turned us all in to both producers and consumers of, in Tarde’s words, “press.” (Katz 2000)

    I propose that each element of Tarde’s model of the public sphere still applies today, but they are not all as linear as they once were. In social media specifically, press and conversation form a circular model with opinion and finally action as the result. So many individuals acting as “reporters” leads to more public conversation than ever before and, subsequently, more opinions and understanding.(Wyatt, Katz, Kim 2006) As we become more informed however, we must be vigilant not to confuse knowledge with action.(Katz 2000)

    O’Reilly, T. (2007). What is Web 2.0: design patterns and business models for the next generation of software.Communications &Strategies, 1.
    Katz, E. (2000). Media multiplication and social segmentation. , 7(2-3), 122-132.
    Katz, E. (2007, February 24). Rediscovering Gabriel Tarde. Political Communication, 23(3), 263-270.
    Wyatt, R. O., Katz, E., & Kim, J. (2006, January 10). Bridging the spheres: political and personal conversation in public ans private spaces. Journal of Communication, 50(1), 71-92.
    Case, D. O., Johnson, D. J., Andrews, J. E., Allard, S. L., & Kelly, K. M. (2004, June). From 2 Step Flow to the Internet: the changing array of sources for genetics information seeking. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(8).

    • September 8, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      Great points. The more media changes, the more goes back to its traditions, both in practice and theory. Are you an optimist, though? Do you think that social media makes public conversations better?

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