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Do Retweeters Lack Commitment to a Hashtag?

I seem to be going down more ratholes than usual at the moment, in this case relating to activity round Twitter hashtags. Here’s a quick bit of reflection around a chart from Visualising Activity Around a Twitter Hashtag or Search Term Using R that shows activity around a hashtag that was minted for an event that took place before the sample period.

The y-axis is organised according to the time of first use (within the sample period) of the tag by a particular user. The x axis is time. The dots represent tweets containing the hashtag, coloured blue by default, red if they are an old-style RT (i.e. they begin RT @username:).

So what sorts of thing might we look for in this chart, and what are the problems with it? Several things jump out at me:

  • For many of the users, their first tweet (in this sample period at least) is an RT; that is, they are brought into the hashtag community through issuing an RT;
  • Many of the users whose first use is via an RT don’t use the hashtag again within the sample period. Is this typical? Does this signal represent amplification of the tag without any real sense of engagement with it?
  • A noticeable proportion of folk whose first use is not an RT go on to post further non-RT tweets. Does this represent an ongoing commitment to the tag? Note that this chart does not show whether tweets are replies, or “open” tweets. Replies (that is, tweets beginning @username are likely to represent conversational threads within a tag context rather than “general” tag usage, so it would be worth using an additional colour to identify reply based conversational tweets as such.
  • “New style” retweets are diaplayed as retweets by colouring… I need to check whether or nor newstyle RT information is available that I could use to colour such tweets appropriately. (or alternatively, I’d have to do some sort of string matching to see whether or not a tweet was the same as a previously seen tweet, which is a bit of a pain:-(

(Note that when I started mapping hashtag communities, I used to generate tag user names based on a filtered list of tweets that excluded RTs. this meant that folk who only used the tag as part of an RT and did not originate tweets that contained the tag, either in general or as part of a conversation, would not be counted as a member of the hashtag community. More recently, I have added filters that include RTs but exclude users who used the tag only once, for example, thus retaining serial RTers, but not single use users.)

So what else might this chart tell us? Looking at vertical slices, it seems that news entrants to the tag community appear to come in waves, maybe as part of rapid fire RT bursts. This chart doesn’t tell us for sure that this is happening, but it does highlight areas of the timelime that might be worth investigating more closely if we are interested in what happened at those times when there does appear to be a spike in activity. (Are there any modifications we could make to this chart to make them more informative in this respect? The time resolution is very poor, for example, so being able to zoom in on a particular time might be handy. Or are there other charts that might provide a different lens that can help us see what was happening at those times?)

And as a final point – this stuff may be all very interesting, but is it useful?, And if so, how? I also wonder how generalisable it is to other sorts of communication analysis. For example, I think we could use similar graphical techniques to explore engagement with an active comment thread on a blog, or Google+, or additions to an online forum thread. (For forums with mutliple threads, we maybe need to rethink how this sort of chart would work, or how it might be coloured/what symbols we might use, to distinguish between starting a new thread, or adding to a pre-existing one, for example. I’m sure the literature is filled with dozens of examples for how we might visualise forum activity, so if you know of any good references/links…?! ;-) #lazyacademic)

Written by Tony Hirst

February 9, 2012 at 6:30 pm


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