Emerging Media Episode 5: Analyzing the Twittersphere

In late 2017 Twitter expanded the allotted character count, doubling it from 140 to 280 for users to have twice the space to say what it is they had to say in each post on their platform. One might think this would have had some large effects on their platform, but, oddly enough, this shift had little effect on the Twitter ecosystem, as the vast community of users set the tone for the platform’s unique character constraint when it comes getting the message out. As Tech Crunch reports that: “Twitter is still a place for briefer thoughts, with only 1% of tweets hitting the 280-character limit, and only 12% of tweets longer than 140 characters. Only 5% of tweets are longer than 190 characters, indicating that Twitter users have been for so long trained to keep their tweets short, they haven’t adapted to take advantage of the extra room to write.” It seems as though the poetry of the platform is brevity. Although some interesting things did happen, namely, the language users tended to employ changed in more subtle ways, for example, such as a shifting of creative abbreviations often appearing with text speak, such as “gr8”, “b4” or “ur”, back to their full terns of “great”, “before” or “ you are'' respectively. And while this doesn’t tell is all that much, aside from making messages more formal, or direct, other tools would be needed to more comprehend something like sentiment or network analysis. Good thing we have Crimson Hexagon for this type of look into the crystal ball.

So we've arrived at a point where researchers have a relatively new ability to look inside the collective human psyche to determine, often to a fault, what is catching buzz, how this information moves, how connections are established, how communities grow, who plays what roles in proliferating what views, and who are the gatekeepers. When we can take a close look at all of these things together we can paint a fairly revealing picture, that is, if we know what we're looking for. Subsequently the whole network is actually quite visible, and the data can be pooled and examined in a multitude of ways, with new insights revealed through clever visualizations or elaborate studies of hashtags used during political events, a media blitz, or social flashpoint of some sort, such as is examined in “The affordance effect: Gatekeeping and (non) reciprocal journalism on Twitter” by Jacob Groshek and Edson Tandoc. In their article for the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the authors take a critical look at who is really serving as gatekeepers on the Twitter platform by examining the technological affordances and the reshaping of journalistic norms for routine for legacy journalists, non-legacy journalists, and media influencers. What was the most surprising, in a certain sense, is how Twitter serves as a platform of power for all parties but in different ways.

Legacy newsgroups (members of media organizations that were established outside of the web, long before its existence), enjoy a much larger user base on the platforms, likely due to their recognition and footing as established editorial voices in the field, but they actually don’t engage with their user base nearly as much as the other stakeholders discusses. It appears that these news groups use Twitter to see what is going on, or use it to observe the general sentiment and figures around an issue, but tend to engage less with them. On the other hand, it seems that Twitter was built more for non-legacy news groups, or at least these individuals or companies have used the platform to champion their operations and become influential players in the online environment of news sharing and aggregation. These non-legacy groups enter directly into the conversation as players in the landscape and use the platform most effectively for news gathering and newsmaking. Individual influences, though, seem to have the strongest sense of individual voice, or at least this is where these influential actors are able to, with great success, raise their profile and message. In my opinion these people are the ones that have the most to gain from such a position, because it does, in a sense put them on the same playing field as news agencies, because, although they may not have the same vast follower base, they can still participate and have a major impact on the conversation, as we were able to see play out in Groshek & Edson’s three week study around the political flashpoint of a Grand Jury acquitting Michal Brown slayer, police officer Darrwn Wilson of all wrongdoing. These types of moments serve as unique moments where heightened level of activity reveals some illuminating details of how the network actually functions and who is pushing the news and to who and then who is pushing it onwards and then on from there.

Not only is that the case, but we can also take a close look at how “yellow journalism” plays out, because a major benefit is being able to see how false or fake news is also shared and reshared and which actors are performing these types of operations, be them bots or bad actors with multiple user accounts that bolster the disinformation campaign. The aforementioned study really digs at how the medium is the message and how new players can bypass the process of the traditional press, so to speak “They can also break information, photos, and videos through social media about news events they happen to witness, jumping the gates of traditional journalists.” This is a great benefit for individuals who seek to amplify a key alternate voice in a moment in time, but the flipside is how this can be manipulated by those aforementioned bad actors. But their finding as specific and the most surprising part of the study arrives with the understanding that "while legacy journalists were among the most popular users in terms of numbers of folowers, they were no longer the most influential in terms of generating discussions and gatekeeping information."

lastly an anecdote: A few years ago I was taking elevator from the top floor of Canal Place where I just had a meeting with a reporter at The Times-Picayune. During the short two minute trip I overheard two reporters talking candidly about how many tweets, retweets, and shares their most recent articles enjoyed. If this is still any indicator as to how journalists seek approval in today’s news climate, it certainly doesn’t explain the recent folding of the paper and acquisition by their competitor. I wonder if they survived the merger. I’m also curious if these reporters might do good by considering a proper analysis of the platform they are using - rather than worrying about how well the work showed up on social media, they can get a deeper look behind the process. But is this something we really want journalists to utilize, or should they just focus on getting the story accurate, they best way they can, and leave the twittersphere as a space for reaction, dialog, feedback and constructive criticism?

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