Making sense of social media communications with chaos theory: beyond metaphors

Szilvia Gyimóthy, Mia Larson

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference abstract for conferenceResearchpeer-review

Abstract

Introduction
Social scientists have long been inspired by chaos theory to describe the complexities of organisational change (Wheatley, 1993; Burnes, 2004), entrepreneurship (Steyaert, 2007) or urban development (Batty & Xie, 1999) arguing that firms or regions are dynamic and unpredictable systems analogous to ecological systems in nature. The notions of phase shifts, feedback loops, strange attractors and bifurcations were borrowed as exotic metaphors to describe contingencies in social and business contexts without further ontological reflection. A similar pattern is observable in tourism research, offering a few conceptual papers which adopt complexity theories to describe destination development patterns (Russel & Faulkner, 2000, 2004; Zahra & Ryan 2007).

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the validity of chaos theory in the context of strategic communications, where new (social) media has changed the marketing landscape beyond recognition. The exponential growth of social media platforms has led to weakened marketer control (and greater consumer sovereignty) over information about organisations and their products. In this new communications paradigm (Muniz & Schau 2007), information is neither stable, controllable commodity nor a content that can be streamlined and circulated in strategically selected promotional mix channels. Borrowing a latourian term, information is a dynamic actant, a key source of structuration of cultural images of organisations and destinations. Marketers are horrified by the prospect of rumours roaming about and running loose in cyberspace (Meredith 2010), creating chaos and noise around neatly streamlined campaigns and brand messages. However, only a handful of such rumours grow to be significant to influence a great number of customers or spill over into mass media channels. Social media users serve as gatekeepers, opting for which fluctuations to pay attention to, which to ignore. The challenge is then to establish a framework of unfolding communication patterns on social media which can eventually explain the collective behaviour of bloggers, twitters and tripadvisors.

Method
The paper will analyse seemingly random and chaotic communication practices on social media by viewing them as complex adaptive systems described by Stacey (2003). CASs consist of a large number of agents or nodes, each triggered by their own principles and motives. They are also self-organising, as the pattern of behaviour in the system evolves or emerges from the local interaction and adjustments between the agents. Instead of channelled flow of information, the nodes of this network transmit information in all directions simultaneously. Our goal is model the patterns of sense-making in the interactions among community members as well as marketers, by tracking how single postings are weaved and developed into complex, collective stories.

The empirical data collection will restrict itself on social media of performative festivals in Scandinavia, including blogs, fansites and other interactive platforms related to Way Out West (Gothenburg) and Roskilde Festival. We will adopt a systematic logging technique following netnographic observation methods (Kozinets, 2010).



Findings/Discussion
The discussion will critically review the basic assumptions and conceptual justification of analogies derived from chaos theory and attempts to establish a more operational framework in the light of the empirical findings. A model of nonlinear sensemaking processes is offered, based on our analysis of social media communications as complex adaptive systems. This is followed by an examination of the implications of the model for strategic communication and marketers in general.

Conclusion
The paper concludes that, the adoption of chaos theory approach may have significant benefits for the social sciences of tourism, however, we need to move forward from metaphorical illustrations to more rigorous empirical investigations to understand the complexity of new media communications.

Key References
Burnes. B. (2005). Complexity theory and organizational change. International Journal of Management Reviews, 7(2), 73–90.
Byrne, D. (1998). Complexity theory and the social sciences: An introduction. London: Routledge.
Russell, R. & Faulkner, B. (2004). Entrepreneurship, Chaos and the Tourism Area Lifecycle. Annals of Tourism Research, 31(3), 556-579.
Stacey, R.D. (2003). Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity. Harlow: FT/Prentice Hall.
Wheatley, M.J. (1993). Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organizations from an Orderly Universe. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Wollin, D. & Perry, C. (2004). Marketing management in a complex adaptive system: An initial framework. European Journal of Marketing, 38(5), 556-572.
Zahra, A. & Ryan, C. (2007). From chaos to cohesion - Complexity in tourism structures: An analysis of New Zealand’s regional tourism organizations. Tourism Management 28, 854–862.

Original languageEnglish
Publication date2011
Number of pages3
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes
EventAdvancing the Social Science of Tourism 2011 - Surrey, United Kingdom
Duration: 28 Jun 20111 Jul 2011

Conference

ConferenceAdvancing the Social Science of Tourism 2011
CountryUnited Kingdom
CitySurrey
Period28/06/201101/07/2011

Cite this