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A Network Perspective on the Twitter Reaction to David Bowie's Death

The final presenters in this AoIR 2016 session are my colleagues Peta Mitchell and Felix Münch, who also focus on the Twitter reaction to David Bowie's death. Twitter as a platform can be useful for studying public responses to such events, but at the same time the focus on a hashtag only also limits the study to deliberately self-selecting tweets and users; a focus on 'Bowie' as a keyword provides a different perspective. This is also complicated by the one percent rate limit of the Twitter API, as 'Bowie' tweets spiked well above that limit.

Most of the millions of 'Bowie' tweets that were collected even in spite of the API limitations did not include a hashtag. Most of these tweets (more than half) were retweets, and these are especially prominent in the immediate aftermath of Bowie's death (and again following actor Alan Rickman's death a few days later). Most of these were retweets of posts by the members of One Direction, as well as of Kanye West; none of these most retweeted tweets were hashtagged. These document the particular retweet culture that exists around celebrities on Twitter, and especially around One Direction.

Beyond such obvious but rather banal findings, there is a need for further meso-level analysis that explores the @mention interactions between participating users outside of the retweets. This further analysis focusses on the three days following Bowie's and preceding Rickman's death; during this time, retweets decline and other types of tweets increase.

The Twitter reaction to Bowie's death is at first somewhat similar to other acute and crisis events, but organic URL sharing is even more pronounced here. The top shared URL is an iconic image of Bowie posted first by a One Direction member, but beyond this there are other types of artefacts, including more artistic content such as an animated GIF cycling through Bowie's different personas over the years. (This is complicated quite substantially by the multiple URLs circulating on Twitter that ultimately point to the same location or content, sometimes without appropriate attribution.)

A visualisation of the @mention networks points to the role of celebrities and mainstream media accounts in serving as centres of the conversation, as well as of David Bowie's own (much mentioned) account as a central node. Even removing Bowie's account this network remains fairly closely connected; various celebrities, media accounts, @youtube, and others take his place as central nodes. A dynamic network visualisation points to when these different accounts take up their positions in the network, and how the network gains structure over time.

Further analysis that focusses only on mutual, reciprocal @mentions adds to the further diversification of the structure, and points to a variety of brief dyadic and small-scale interactions between users; language barriers emerge as a stronger driver of network structure here. Such network analysis also assists further qualitative analysis of specific patterns in the wider network, by pointing to particular types of interactions.