In other words, anyone can find other people who share her interests, no matter how obscure those interests are. These communities might provide entertainment, but they also provide a place for groups to coordinate and rally offline action. This is especially important because of the low cost of entry – people no longer have to have a printing press and/or a powerful company on their side to find allies and make their voices heard in a public sphere.
But that doesn’t mean that more traditional sources of influence have lost their power. Another look at Kelly’s map shows that traditional companies and publications are some of the biggest, and thus most influential, nodes:
John Kelly, Morningside Analytics/The Atlantic
On a deeper dive, Twitter users like @Toyota, @MazdaUSA, and @Hyundai show up as top influencers on all things auto; Ford-related websites and Twitter handles have their own category. With followers in the hundreds of thousands, major companies and news outlets can reach bigger audiences, offering authoritative information to people outside of the tightly woven community of car lovers. At the same time, these organizations have also been able to infiltrate the micro community of people who really care about their products.
This mix of everyday Twitter users with traditional influencers is interesting for a few reasons. First, it suggests that big companies and traditional news organizations are actively seeking out niche digital audiences – they’re sharing, engaging with, and re-tweeting information created by regular people. As a result, traditional influencers have become embedded in tight-knit, interactive communities. Marketers and magazines are no longer just trying to blast target audiences with a message; they’re trying to engage with and actually become part of their audiences. This allows commercial messages and information to be woven even more seamlessly into the daily lives of regular people.
Second, the lack of overlap between different but connected communities, like car lovers and environmentalists, seems even more problematic when those communities include companies and news outlets that have a lot of power to create change in the real world. It’s one thing for @CorvetteBlogger to come into contact with environmentalists like @ElectricDrive, a Washington organization that advocates electric car use, but what if @ElectricDrive started sharing lots of links with @Toyota? With a broader reach, communities can put their perspectives into dialogue; for example, car lovers might start to understand the environmental effects of their hobby, and environmentalists might start to understand the heart-stopping beauty of a blood red sports car.
Of course, Twitter doesn’t make up the entire public sphere of the Internet – plenty of conversations take place on blogs and other social media platforms, although these trends happen there, too. And the traditional public sphere, meaning live debates, printed publications, coffee shop conversations, etc., isn’t dead – yet. But if these trends continue, it seems inevitable that they will affect the public sphere, shaping it into lots of self-contained nodes and fragmented spheres where anyone can be an expert but few perspectives are heard.