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ARC Future Fellowship

ARC Future Fellowship: Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere (2014-17)

‘Big Social Data’ in Context: Connecting Social Media Data and Other Sources (ACSPRI 2014)

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.

The Emergence of Trending Topics: The Dissemination of Breaking Stories on Twitter (ASMC 2014)

Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space (ASMC 2014)

The Emergence of Trending Topics: The Dissemination of Breaking Stories on Twitter

Axel Bruns and Theresa Sauter

Twitter is widely recognised as a key medium for the dissemination of breaking news. Bruns & Burgess (2011) describe how ad hoc publics form, especially around shared hashtags, as events and issues become more widely recognised, and Hermida (2010) and Burns (2010) both describe this as Twitter’s “ambient news” function – always in the background, until trending stories push it into the foreground. What is less understood are the early moments of such ‘trending’, before hashtags and other mechanisms define a new story as breaking news. This paper explores these early processes: by tracking the dissemination of links to Australian news sites on an everyday basis as part of the ATNIX project (Bruns et al., 2013), we were able to trace the shift from sharing to trending from the very first links being shared on Twitter to the subsequent widespread dissemination of trending topics. We use innovative visualisation techniques to show the dynamics of this transition and to map the networks of interaction which emerge onto the overall Australian Twittersphere.

Coming Up Shortly

The annual end-of-year conference season is upon us again, and I’ll be heading off tomorrow to the annual Association of Internet Researchers conference – the most important conference in my field. In spite of the considerable troubles AoIR has faced this year – its first conference location, Bangkok, was no longer feasible following the military coup in Thailand, and there still seem to be some teething problems with the replacement location in Daegu, Korea – it will be great to catch up with leading colleagues in the field again.

This year, we’re presenting the first outcomes of our latest big data studies of the Australian and global Twitterspheres. One major paper will present what we’ve been able to glean so far of the overall patterns within the global Twitter userbase – we now have data on some 870 million Twitter profiles, which provides us with a unique perspective on how Twitter has grown and diversified as a platform. Further, we’ve also got a brand-new map of follower/followee  networks in the Australian Twittersphere, based on our dataset of some 2.8 million Australian users, and we’re using this to explore the footprint of recent television programming to shed new light on second-screen viewing practices, as part of our Telemetrics project (more on this at Darryl Woodford’s site). I’ll be live-blogging the conference again if I can get online, so expect to see much more over the next few days. As a preview, my slides for the two presentations are below.

Call: QUT Creative Industries Faculty PhD Scholarships for 2015 Entry

It’s that time of the year, so we’re now calling for applications from prospective PhD students who are interested in joining an innovative and high-profile research group at Australia’s leading university for media and communication studies, Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

I’ve posted the Social Media Research Group’s overall call for applications below, but I also want to call specifically for expressions of interest for the second PhD scholarship associated with my current ARC Future Fellowship project. Drawing on social media data, Hitwise Australia, and Fairfax Digital sources, this project seeks to investigate the patterns of intermedia information flows in the Australian online public sphere, and (in addition to the first PhD student Felix Münch, whose focus is especially on methodological development) this second PhD will use innovative quantitative and qualitative research methods to trace user engagement with major events and topics in Australian public debate over time and across social and mainstream media networks.

PhD students applying for this scholarship will need to possess a detailed understanding of recent events in Australian politics and public life as well as of the Australian media environment. They should also have proven skills in the mixed-methods (quantitative / qualitative) analysis of social media data and other data sources, ideally including a working knowledge of analytical tools including Tableau, Gephi, Excel, etc. Familiarity with the approaches and methods developed by the QUT Social Media Research Group and documented at Mapping Online Publics would be welcome. For further enquiries about this PhD opportunity and its role in the wider Future Fellowship project, please contact me at a.bruns@qut.edu.au.

But in addition to this specific PhD scholarship, my colleagues and I are also interested in other PhD applications for social media-related research in the current QUT scholarship round. Below is our call for applicants, with further information on how to apply:

Busy-ness as Usual

This blog has been somewhat slow again since the last round of conferences, and I'm hoping to do more in the future to change this. In the first place, I'm planning to post more regular updates again as I publish new articles and book chapters (watch out for a round-up of recent work soon, most of which already appear in my list of publications). There are also a number of new research projects which have started this year – and while more detailed updates about the day-to-day work of some of these will appear on Mapping Online Publics and the Website of the QUT Social Media Research Group, I'm planning to flag the most important outcomes from these projects here as well. And as always, updates are also available on Twitter through my own account @snurb_dot_info as well as @socialmediaQUT.

New Projects

Most importantly, I've just commenced my ARC Future Fellowship – a major four-year project which builds on my social media work and connects it with a number of other important data sources which shed light on the way Australian Internet users are engaging with news and current affairs. We'll continue to draw on large Twitter data (as well as, eventually, data from other social networks) which show the patterns of day-to-day activity around current events, and we'll correlate these patterns with data from Experian Hitwise, which track (anonymously and at very large scale) how Australian users search and browse the Web. Further, I'm also going to be able to incorporate some internal server data from Fairfax Digital (including its flagship mastheads Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) to investigate in more depth what articles users read and engage with on these sites.

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