Social media metrics: measuring manifestations of the public in online spaces

How do we conceptualise the idea of the public in online spaces? Since the 1930s, the dominant paradigm for understanding the idea of the public has been shaped by opinion pollsters and the assumptions that went with their method – data was to be quantitative and representative of the overall population, the main purpose was the prediction of political outcomes, various opinion options were mutually exclusive, and the public was nothing more than a combination of many individuals’ preferences.
The development of social media, and most importantly the idea of using these technologies as manifestations of the public that can be measured challenges these ideas, however. Viewed from the perspective of opinion pollsters, the data that can be gathered from social media looks deeply suspect, since it is gathered from a relatively small, very unrepresentative group of people. A different way of approaching this challenge though is to start with the concept of the public. Historically, this term has been subject to various over-lapping and contradictory definitions, far broader than much contemporary discussion.
This paper will examine these different ways of conceptualising the public and will make two arguments. First that some of these older ideas of the public are more applicable to the emerging field of social media metrics. Second that we need to start thinking about the public in a more multi-faceted way, so as to allow a co-existence between the orthodox opinion polling paradigm and newer social media driven approaches.