Pew Internet: “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.
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.
Still, 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.
Our approach combines analysis of the size and structure of the network and its sub-groups with analysis of the words, hashtags and URLs people use. Each person who contributes to a Twitter conversation is located in a specific position in the web of relationships among all participants in the conversation. Some people occupy rare positions in the network that suggest that they have special importance and power in the conversation.
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.
Conversational archetypes on Twitter
The Polarized Crowd network structure is only one of several different ways that crowds and conversations can take shape on Twitter. There are at least six distinctive structures of social media crowds which form depending on the subject being discussed, the information sources being cited, the social networks of the people talking about the subject, and the leaders of the conversation. Each has a different social structure and shape: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, and inward and outward hub and spokes.
After an analysis of many thousands of Twitter maps, we found six different kinds of network crowds.
Polarized Crowd: Polarized discussions feature two big and dense groups that have little connection between them. The topics being discussed are often highly divisive and heated political subjects. In fact, there is usually little conversation between these groups despite the fact that they are focused on the same topic. Polarized Crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags.
Why this matters: It shows that partisan Twitter users rely on different information sources. While liberals link to many mainstream news sources, conservatives link to a different set of websites.
Tight Crowd: These discussions are characterized by highly interconnected people with few isolated participants. Many conferences, professional topics, hobby groups, and other subjects that attract communities take this Tight Crowd form.
Why this matters: These structures show how networked learning communities function and how sharing and mutual support can be facilitated by social media.
Brand Clusters: When well-known products or services or popular subjects like celebrities are discussed in Twitter, there is often commentary from many disconnected participants: These “isolates” participating in a conversation cluster are on the left side of the picture on the left). Well-known brands and other popular subjects can attract large fragmented Twitter populations who tweet about it but not to each other. The larger the population talking about a brand, the less likely it is that participants are connected to one another. Brand-mentioning participants focus on a topic, but tend not to connect to each other.
Why this matters: There are still institutions and topics that command mass interest. Often times, the Twitter chatter about these institutions and their messages is not among people connecting with each other. Rather, they are relaying or passing along the message of the institution or person and there is no extra exchange of ideas.
Community Clusters: Some popular topics may develop multiple smaller groups, which often form around a few hubs each with its own audience, influencers, and sources of information. These Community Clusters conversations look like bazaars with multiple centers of activity. Global news stories often attract coverage from many news outlets, each with its own following. That creates a collection of medium-sized groups—and a fair number of isolates (the left side of the picture above).
Why this matters: Some information sources and subjects ignite multiple conversations, each cultivating its own audience and community. These can illustrate diverse angles on a subject based on its relevance to different audiences, revealing a diversity of opinion and perspective on a social media topic.
Broadcast Network: Twitter commentary around breaking news stories and the output of well-known media outlets and pundits has a distinctive hub and spoke structure in which many people repeat what prominent news and media organizations tweet. The members of the Broadcast Network audience are often connected only to the hub news source, without connecting to one another. In some cases there are smaller subgroups of densely connected people— think of them as subject groupies—who do discuss the news with one another.
Why this matters: There are still powerful agenda setters and conversation starters in the new social media world. Enterprises and personalities with loyal followings can still have a large impact on the conversation.
Support Network: Customer complaints for a major business are often handled by a Twitter service account that attempts to resolve and manage customer issues around their products and services. This produces a hub and spoke structure that is different from the Broadcast Network pattern. In the Support Network structure, the hub account replies to many otherwise disconnected users, creating outward spokes. In contrast, in the Broadcast pattern, the hub gets replied to or retweeted by many disconnected people, creating inward spokes.
Why this matters: As government, businesses, and groups increasingly provide services and support via social media, support network structures become an important benchmark for evaluating the performance of these institutions. Customer support streams of advice and feedback can be measured in terms of efficiency and reach using social media network maps.
Why is it useful to map the social landscape this way?
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. These maps are like aerial photographs of a crowd, showing the rough size and composition of a population. These maps can be augmented with on the ground interviews with crowd participants, collecting their words and interests. Insights from network analysis and visualization can complement survey or focus group research methods and can enhance sentiment analysis of the text of messages like tweets.
Like topographic maps of mountain ranges, network maps can also illustrate the points on the landscape that have the highest elevation. Some people occupy locations in networks that are analogous to positions of strategic importance on the physical landscape. Network measures of “centrality” can identify key people in influential locations in the discussion network, highlighting the people leading the conversation. The content these people create is often the most popular and widely repeated in these networks, reflecting the significant role these people play in social media discussions.
While the physical world has been mapped in great detail, the social media landscape remains mostly unknown. However, the tools and techniques for social media mapping are improving, allowing more analysts to get social media data, analyze it, and contribute to the collective construction of a more complete map of the social media world. A more complete map and understanding of the social media landscape will help interpret the trends, topics, and implications of these new communication technologies.”