One-Step, Two-Step, or Multi-Step Flow: The Role of Influencers in Information Processing and Dissemination in Online, Interest-Based Publics
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This research examines information flow in online, interest-based networks to determine if existing models of information dissemination are adequate to describe the communication processes that occur in online publics. This study finds that a small number of primary influencers from within online communities are central to information collection, collation, and distribution in online, interest-based networks. This finding is inconsistent with one-step, two-step, and multi-step flow models, which privilege mass media as the central source of information. To more accurately depict online information flow in interest-based networks, this study introduces the radial model of information flow. Furthermore, the results of this study show that communication processes in online publics are best explained using a combination of the transmissive paradigm of communication, on which information flow models are based, and a ritual view of communication. This research also contributes to the ongoing development of the situational theory of publics by identifying organized publics as a key subgroup of active publics. Organized publics are networks of individuals within active publics who frequently and consistently communicate on a shared interest or concern. Organized publics form active online communication networks and prepare for advocacy related to a shared interest, making them of particular interest to public relations professionals. Using a case study approach, this dissertation uses online network analysis and qualitative cluster analysis to study the role of community influencers in information flow and cultural development within the online young adult cancer community. Instead of focusing exclusively on social media as channel for message dissemination, the results of this study indicate that successful relationship building can best by achieved by public relations practitioners who work to develop authentic presences in online communities. This research shows that embracing a participatory model of public relations that actively engages primary influencers in the planning and campaign implementation processes can promote authentic online presences.