We saw an intriguing article last month over at the PewResearch Internet Project that we thought might interest some of our social media- and tech-oriented members. Pew has compiled some very impressive amounts of data on the patterns that we can find in political conversation on Twitter that may hold insights for us as practitioners. The results are fascinating.
It’s not news to us at NCDD that social media has become an important part of our public life:
Social media is increasingly home to civil society, the place where knowledge sharing, public discussions, debates, and disputes are carried out. As the new public square, social media conversations are as important to document as any other large public gathering. Network maps of public social media discussions in services like Twitter can provide insights into the role social media plays in our society.
Especially for those of us who aren’t so tech-savvy, it is quite a challenge to make sense of what all of the conversation in the Twittersphere means. But as the Pew analysis shows, there are a few distinctive patterns that develop regularly:
Conversations on Twitter create networks with identifiable contours as people reply to and mention one another in their tweets. These conversational structures differ, depending on the subject and the people driving the conversation. Six structures are regularly observed: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, and inward and outward hub and spoke structures. These are created as individuals choose whom to reply to or mention in their Twitter messages and the structures tell a story about the nature of the conversation.
If a topic is political, it is common to see two separate, polarized crowds take shape. They form two distinct discussion groups that mostly do not interact with each other. Frequently these are recognizably liberal or conservative groups. The participants within each separate group commonly mention very different collections of website URLs and use distinct hashtags and words.
The split is clearly evident in many highly controversial discussions: people in clusters that we identified as liberal used URLs for mainstream news websites, while groups we identified as conservative used links to conservative news websites and commentary sources. At the center of each group are discussion leaders, the prominent people who are widely replied to or mentioned in the discussion. In polarized discussions, each group links to a different set of influential people or organizations that can be found at the center of each conversation cluster.
Unfortunately, the initial analysis seems to confirm that the polarization dynamic that dialogue practitioners see all too often applies to online conversation, as well. Whether in person or digitally, political conversation can have the effect of splitting people into groups that communicate only sparingly with each other.
But for what it’s worth, these aren’t necessarily average people that we’re talking about:
While these polarized crowds are common in political conversations on Twitter, it is important to remember that the people who take the time to post and talk about political issues on Twitter are a special group. Unlike many other Twitter members, they pay attention to issues, politicians, and political news, so their conversations are not representative of the views of the full Twitterverse. Moreover, Twitter users are only 18% of internet users and 14% of the overall adult population. Their demographic profile is not reflective of the full population. Additionally, other work by the Pew Research Center has shown that tweeters’ reactions to events are often at odds with overall public opinion— sometimes being more liberal, but not always. Finally, forthcoming survey findings from Pew Research will explore the relatively modest size of the social networking population who exchange political content in their network.
Thankfully, there is a lot more that to be gained from social media mapping than confirmation of what we already knew. The development of these analysis tools can shed a new light on the ways that our social networks work:
…the structure of these Twitter conversations says something meaningful about political discourse these days and the tendency of politically active citizens to sort themselves into distinct partisan camps. Social networking maps of these conversations provide new insights because they combine analysis of the opinions people express on Twitter, the information sources they cite in their tweets, analysis of who is in the networks of the tweeters, and how big those networks are. And to the extent that these online conversations are followed by a broader audience, their impact may reach well beyond the participants themselves…
Social network maps of Twitter crowds and other collections of social media can be created with innovative data analysis tools that provide new insight into the landscape of social media. These maps highlight the people and topics that drive conversations and group behavior – insights that add to what can be learned from surveys or focus groups or even sentiment analysis of tweets. Maps of previously hidden landscapes of social media highlight the key people, groups, and topics being discussed.
There is much more to learn from this research project than we can cover here. But if you want to learn more, you can find both the summary and the full-length analysis of Pew’s research at www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/20/mapping-twitter-topic-networks-from-polarized-crowds-to-community-clusters. You will find fascinating data, visualizations, and much more. Happy reading!