A ‘Big Data’ Approach to Mapping the Australian Twittersphere
Bruns, Axel, Burgess, Jean, & Highfield, Tim (2014) A ‘Big Data’ Approach to Mapping the Australian Twittersphere. In Arthur, Paul Longley & Bode, Katherine (Eds.) Advancing Digital Humanities: Research, Methods, Theories. Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, pp. 113-129.
This chapter discusses the methodological aspects and empirical findings of a large-scale, funded project investigating public communication through social media in Australia. The project concentrates on Twitter, but we approach it as representative of broader current trends toward the integration of large datasets and computational methods into media and communication studies in general, and social media scholarship in particular. The research discussed in this chapter aims to empirically describe networks of affiliation and interest in the Australian Twittersphere, while reflecting on the methodological implications and imperatives of ‘big data’ in the humanities. Using custom network crawling technology, we have conducted a snowball crawl of Twitter accounts operated by Australian users to identify more than one million users and their follower/followee relationships, and have mapped their interconnections. In itself, the map provides an overview of the major clusters of densely interlinked users, largely centred on shared topics of interest (from politics through arts to sport) and/or sociodemographic factors (geographic origins, age groups). Our map of the Twittersphere is the first of its kind for the Australian part of the global Twitter network, and also provides a first independent and scholarly estimation of the size of the total Australian Twitter population. In combination with our investigation of participation patterns in specific thematic hashtags, the map also enables us to examine which areas of the underlying follower/followee network are activated in the discussion of specific current topics – allowing new insights into the extent to which particular topics and issues are of interest to specialised niches or to the Australian public more broadly. Specifically, we examine the Twittersphere footprint of dedicated political discussion, under the #auspol hashtag, and compare it with the heightened, broader interest in Australian politics during election campaigns, using #ausvotes; we explore the different patterns of Twitter activity across the map for major television events (the popular competitive cooking show #masterchef, the British #royalwedding, and the annual #stateoforigin Rugby League sporting contest); and we investigate the circulation of links to the articles published by a number of major Australian news organisations across the network. Such analysis, which combines the ‘big data’-informed map and a close reading of individual communicative phenomena, makes it possible to trace the dynamic formation and dissolution of issue publics against the backdrop of longer-term network connections, and the circulation of information across these follower/followee links. Such research sheds light on the communicative dynamics of Twitter as a space for mediated social interaction. Our work demonstrates the possibilities inherent in the current ‘computational turn’ (Berry, 2010) in the digital humanities, as well as adding to the development and critical examination of methodologies for dealing with ‘big data’ (boyd and Crawford, 2011). Out tools and methods for doing Twitter research, released under Creative Commons licences through our project Website, provide the basis for replicable and verifiable digital humanities research on the processes of public communication which take place through this important new social network.
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