Communication Science Master & Research Master

Graduate School of Communication


Or: why official e-mail communication during incidents is "mustard after dinner" (continue reading to get an explanation of this weird expression)

17 January 2017 - By Damian Trilling, assistant professor Political Communication & Journalism: 'Not long ago, we would not even have realized there was a power outage at night, and at least those commuting by bike would have realized only when they arrived at the closed doors.'

Damian Trilling

Of course, it was only our own building that didn't open the whole day due to the power outage in Amsterdam. As always, the rest of the buildings were accessible almost immediately again (at 9.00), while no-one was able to solve the puzzle why our REC B/C/D couldn't open.

While this was frustrating and certainly changed many plans (stay in bed longer? No class? Where to have this important meeting that really can't wait? My computer is still in REC C, how can I survive without it?), such a disruptive event is actually very interesting from a communication perspective.

Not long ago, we would not even have realized there was a power outage at night, and at least those commuting by bike would have realized only when they arrived at the closed doors. Anyone remember these phone chains, where every student at primary school or high school had to call the next one on the list to inform them class was canceled? Of course, the chains always broke, because people weren't at home and no-one had a mobile phone.

Compare that with now: I basically woke up with a message on my phone from a colleague in a Facebook-group asking whether there were any 'lights on' at REC. I had not the slightest idea what she was talking about, but  a quick look at Twitter and #stroomstoring and #stroomstoring020 told me all I needed to know, after which I opened the app and read an article about what had happened. But while I was doing so, my phone started buzzing again: a whatsapp-message in another group where someone asked whether REC C was open. I referred the others to Facebook and Twitter. More or less simultaneously, an email conversation with another colleague and a student (with whom I had an appointment) started to discuss if and where to meet.

Later during the day, we got several official mails about the state of affairs, but as one of them noted self-ironically, this was probably "mosterd na de maaltijd" (one of these nice untranslatable Dutch expressions - but you probably get the idea that receiving mustard only when dinner is over is just too late). Indeed, it was: everyone knew already.

The question how this can be explained is actually a very interesting subfield of communication science: it's called "information diffusion". How does information spread between actors and via which channels? More and more, informal networks between persons (being in the right Whatsapp- of Facebook-group, following the right account on Twitter, ...) play a role.

Unfortunately, studying information diffusion suffers from a weird paradox: on the one hand, we have much more data than ever before to study it. We can try and predict retweet chains or investigate in how far online news outlets copy from each other. But on the other hand, the number of channels also increases, and it becomes close to impossible to observe all of them. So maybe we need a more qualitative approach here. But then, how can we generalize from this data? Oh, I wish we had the methods to study this multi-channel information spread better! The good news of course is that we won't run out of research questions for the coming years.

Dr Damian Trilling (33) is assistant professor Political Communication & Journalism. He completed a ‘Magister’ degree in Communion Science with minors in Dutch studies and German linguistics at the University of Münster in 2009. He obtained his PhD in Communication Science at the UvA in 2013.

Published by  GSC

17 January 2017