Australian Consortium for Social and Political Research Incorporated (ACSPRI) Social Science Methodology Conference 2014
‘Big Social Data’ in Context: Connecting Social Media Data and Other Sources
Axel Bruns and Tim Highfield
The current “computational turn” (Berry, 2012) in media and communication studies is driven largely by the increased programmatic accessibility of large and very large sources of structured data on the online activities and content of Internet users – and here, especially of data from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Such ‘big social data’ are being used to examine the social media response to issues and events ranging from national elections (Larsson & Moe, 2014) through natural disasters (Bruns et al., 2012) to popular entertainment (Highfield et al., 2013), and in doing so tell a detailed and real-time story of how large populations of Internet users engage with the topics that concern them.
The study of user activities in specific social media spaces alone, however, necessarily isolates such activities from their wider context. Self-evidently, users’ activities do not remain limited to Facebook or Twitter alone: they cross over between these and other social media platforms, and intersect with other online and offline activities. To develop a more comprehensive picture of how citizens engage with and respond to current issues, even only in an online environment, it would therefore be necessary to connect and correlate the data sourced from social media platforms with data from a range of other sources which describe other aspects of the overall online experience.
This paper describes the approach and presents early outcomes from one such initiative to put ‘big social data’ in a wider context. As part of an ARC Future Fellowship project, we draw both on large, longitudinal Twitter and Facebook datasets which describe how Australian social media users engage with and share the news articles published by a range of leading Australian news and commentary sites, and on complementary, representative data from the market research company Experian Hitwise which track, through anonymised data collection at the ISP level across millions of households, what terms Australian Internet users are searching for, and how their attention is distributed across available Websites.
The combination of these sources provides an important new dimension beyond mere social media metrics themselves: in aggregate, our sources show the extent to which users’ searching and browsing activities around current events (which generally remain invisible to their peers) correlate with active news sharing and dissemination activities (which are designed to alert peers to an issue), and how such correlations differ across different themes and events, and different social media platforms. This constitutes an important further methodological and conceptual advance not only for the study of social media, but for media and communication studies as such.
Berry, D., ed. (2012). Understanding Digital Humanities. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bruns, A., Burgess, J., Crawford, K., & Shaw, F. (2012). #qldfloods and @QPSMedia: Crisis Communication on Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods. Brisbane: ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, 2012. Retrieved from http://cci.edu.au/floodsreport.pdf.
Highfield, T., Harrington, S., & Bruns, A. (2013). Twitter as a Technology for Audiencing and Fandom: The #Eurovision Phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 16(3), 315-39. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2012.756053
Larson, A.O., & Moe, H. (2014). Twitter in Politics and Elections: Insights from Scandinavia. In Weller, K., Bruns, A., Burgess, J., Mahrt, M., & Puschmann, C., eds., Twitter and Society. (K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt, & C. Puschmann, Eds.). New York: Peter Lang. 319-30.