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It’s peculiar that the majority of mainstream social media tools tend to focus more on the content shared across social media, rather than how accounts are connected with each other. There are various ways to conduct social media research but my favourite way is to perform network analysis. Over the last couple of years there have been astounding developments in these sorts of tools.

Twitter is a network which lends itself to be ideal for network analysis because of its non-mutual relationships between accounts (e.g. I can follow @stephenfry but he doesn’t have to follow back) and it’s fairly open data sharing policy. Even without official access to the Twitter Firehose, I am able to scrape enough data in a few seconds which can be visualised beautifully.

The image below is a link to an interactive Twitter map that displays the last 915 tweets from the #NeedForSpeed promotional Twitter campaign that ran yesterday (Thurs 13th March 2014). Be assured, this isn’t data from a client campaign and is only fuelled by publicly available data. If anything, this makes the insights even more incredible because a simple geek can quickly draw conclusions about this social media advertising campaign without actually having access to the advertiser’s dashboard.

Do click through and visually navigate your way across the Twitter map, investigate how Twitter users are connected with each other and decide what conclusions you can draw from this campaign (Do comment your conclusions, would be interesting to read).

Twitter Network Analysis

Here’s a guide to the interactive map:

  • Colours represent organic communities (AKA. value groups)
  • Lines indicate follow/followed relationships
  • Node size refers to influence (bigger the better), as calculate by the number of connections

It’s these sorts of visualisations that empower the theoretical side of the PR industry and why some aspects can only be understood from that angle. Do take a deep breath and dive into this post written by David Phillips in November 2012. In the post Phillips talks candidly about his struggle to devise a concept that would bring PR theory in line with what we know about the internet. He had a brainwave…

“It goes back to some work I did on tokens and values in which we identify people and organisation as the nexus of values; the work of Bruno Amaral who showed that people cluster round commonly held values (an empirical study); Thoughts about wealth being based on relationships… In an era of mass-media dilution, communication has a higher and growing dependency on network communication as a mechanism to introduce individuals to the story of the hour. It is this development that is the evolving and critical element that PR theory has to address most urgently. We need to see why and how values (some of them being no more than a hyperlink) spread in networks and how this is different to mass media ‘communication’.”

From 2012 there have been a number of studies to attempt showing the network effect of social media communication but the challenge was to devise a method of instantly tracking network changes, based upon content being shared. At the centre of this, is the foundational understanding that people will congregate around values online (in actual fact the rabbit hole goes much deeper on this issue, but this is a matter for another blog post).

These network graphs highlight another important observation about how we use social media. Even with freedom of expression and ability to link in non-mutual relationships, as a species we are still bound by our very nature. Something that anthropologists may refer to as Dunbar’s number, we tend to communicate in an average group size of 150 people. Any more than this and we are unable to maintain stable social relationships. Different industries need to be aware of this limitation as previous research as shown me that:

  • The PR industry (PRCA & CIPR practitioners) tend to fall into a network pickle. We broadcast content, share and reach agreement as an internal community, rather than engaging with practitioners outside of our digital social circles. Therefore, for most of us, social media is simply a massive echo chamber for internal debate. When, in reality, it’s probably our clients that would benefit from most the materials we create.
  • We aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap, previous research has shown me that the travel blogging community is similar. With some of the top bloggers creating engagement between themselves rather than reaching out to the ‘general public’. It’s too be expected, social media may eventually influence our natural behaviours but for the moment we’re still only humans!

These sorts of visualisations start to get really interesting when applied to other social networks, such as LinkedIn or Quora. Thanks to the research capabilities at Keene Communications and Social Media Research Foundation, I’m getting closer each day.

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