French, M. & Hancock, J.T. (2017). What’s the folk theory: Reasoning about cyber-social systems. Presentation at the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, San Diego.


The present paper explores people’s folk theories of cyber-social systems by identifying the metaphors people hold and then analyzing them semantically for underlying attitudes and beliefs. In Study 1 (N = 3375) we use a novel method for eliciting metaphors for how people understand the Facebook News Feed and Twitter. In Study 2 (N = 1547) we used factor analysis to aggregate these metaphors into underlying folk theories for both Facebook and Twitter. In Study 3 (N = 1597) we replicate the factor analysis from Study 2 and examine the semantic dimensions for each of the folk theories across these two cyber-social systems, finding that there are four primary folk theories that people hold for the News Feed and Twitter: the rational assistant, the unwanted observer, the transparent platform and the corporate black box. The implications of identifying and understanding these folk theories for these cyber-social systems are discussed.