What’s your thesis again?

Having recently completed my doctoral work a common question is “what is your thesis actually about again?” Well, here it is.

In my thesis (link) I look at the idea of the opinion leader – an average citizen who happens to care a lot about politics and pays attention to current affairs. In communication theory we assume opinion leaders act as a bridge between the political elite (think politicians and journalists) and the general public who don’t pay very close attention to what is going on politically. What I find is that digitally enabled opinion leaders actually work very hard to use their channels of communication to avoid anyone who is not already politically engaged. Digitally enabled opinion leaders (the one’s I interviewed at least) don’t like to be the bridge.

Let’s take a beat to unpack this.

Who cares if opinion leaders are or are not acting as a bridge?

You do! We know that there is a widening gap between the politically aware and unaware (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). We know people use digital channels of communication to avoid information they dislike or are not interested in (Prior, 2007). And we know that when people are not aware policy making becomes less responsive to citizen’s needs (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996) and people feel disconnected from their political system (OECD, 2011). In other words, democracy stops working (Dahl, 2000).

What makes any of this interesting or relevant now?

We’ve got a bunch of new channels of communication available to us – that’s all of us, elite, opinion leader or average Joe who hears JT and thinks Timberlake but not Trudeau.

More channels means more opportunities for sharing information and opinion. It also sometimes means new approaches to communicating politically (just think about citizen journalism or hashtag campaigns.) When it comes to opinion leaders, we don’t have a grasp on what channels of communication they are using, how or with what impact. I am talking about Facebook and Twitter sure, but even text messaging and email still need to be included.

Note: I base my work in the context of what Chadwick calls the hybrid media system (2013). Basically, Chadwick explains that lots of different political players have access to lots of different (and often overlapping) tools and tactics of communication. Opinion leaders are one kind of political player.

Fine, but why do these new channels impact the role of the opinion leader?

A lot of people have studied how opinion leaders go about informing the general public and it comes down to personal influence (see Katz, 1957 for an initial review). They use social pressure and social support to change the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of their everyday associates. This is normally done via face-to-face interpersonal communication since other options like broadcast are out of the question (a printing press has a rather large price tag).

But, you say, social media is cheap. Email is cheap. You’re right. New technologies throw the whole theory into question because we don’t actually know what opinion leadership looks like once we’ve got new channels.

What we do know is that these channels of communication open the door for accessing wide segments of the population via interpersonal (emails with mom), impersonal (broadcasting) and quasi-personal (mentioning someone on Twitter) communication.

The thing is, we used to assume that opinion leadership works because opinion leaders have a special social tie to the people who they influence. They know them well and interact with them regularly. There are a bunch of social influence theories that help us understand why we are more likely to be influenced by people who are like us and people who we spend a lot of time with – wanting to be a cool kid, for example, is pretty hardwired in our brains.

We also know that the most new information comes from people with whom we have only a weak tie, like the colleague from another city you only see in person during the annual staff retreat or the man who sells you veggies at the market (Grannovetter, 1973). That is because of a social phenomenon called homophily which basically means we surround ourselves by people like us – you know, birds of a feather flock together (McPhersen, Smith-Lovin, Cook, 2001).

So, where do people who are not interested in politics get political information from? Possibly weak ties. What information is likely to change the opinion of someone whose closest friends all think like them? Probably information from weak ties.

I’m lost, don’t you study social media?

Yup. Here it is, social media allow us to access and maintain close personal ties in new ways. Social media also allow us to access new ties and connect with people who have very diverse experiences, opinion and access to information. I wanted to know the impact of those channels (and other digital media) on the role of the opinion leader. When they talk about politics are they still able to be a bridge when they don’t have to rely on face-to-face communication? Is their influence greater because they can reach a lot more weak ties or is it limited because they try to communicate in a way that doesn’t let them capitalize on their social placement (it would be like the cool kid going to a new school and seeing if anyone starts to dress like them).

So, what do digitally enabled opinion leaders do?

Well, they make use of a lot of channels of communication for accessing information. Importantly this consistently includes accessing at least some mainstream media on a daily basis (from following them on Twitter to subscribing to the online version to turning on the radio).

When it comes to sharing information two distinct strategic approaches emerge. Some opinion leaders, who I call enthusiasts surround themselves with others who are equally passionate about politics. They use channels like Twitter and discussion boards to hone their arguments and to get a sense of what people with conflicting opinions think. It is something of an echo chamber of the politically engaged. On the other hand there are champions who act much the same except in situations of heightened political tension like a scandal or an election. Then these champions take it upon themselves to use every channel and tactic of communication they can to try and inform and influence people who are uninformed. They borrow the strategy of communications professionals and political elite to get their message across when they think it matters most.

Both enthusiasts and champions are trying to avoid the social risk of talking about politics with someone who won’t care.

What does this mean?

  1. Digital channels of communication are enabling a highly strategic opinion leader.
  2. Personal influence is not necessarily tied to interpersonal communication and so we need to think about the different types of influence these opinion leaders employ.
  3. Digitally enabled opinion leadership today is contributing to a much wider phenomenon where the vast majority of the public only become informed of political issues at moments of heightened tension (what I’ve been calling a just-in-time informed citizenry).

Communication theory and strategy both need to be responsive to these shifts.

 

A note on methods.

I am quite the methods geek which means a big part of my doctoral work was figuring out the best way to measure these things. I collected about 411 000 #CDNpoli tweets and created a friendship network of the users. Next, I conducted an online survey among #CDNpoli users. Finally, I did an in depth analysis of the communication practices of 21 opinion leaders from that network and 26 of their associates through interviews and analysis of Twitter and Facebook activities. There are obviously a lot of advantages and disadvantages to this mixed-methods approach so if you want to know more I am happy to chat. I’ve also published two journal articles on my methods and am happy to send you a copy of my thesis if you want to tackle the 336 page PDF.

Research questions.

In case you are interested,

RQ1 What are the modes of access to and dissemination of political messages by digitally enabled opinion leaders?

RQ2 What drives channel choice among digitally enabled opinion leaders when disseminating political information?

This question is broken down into six sub-questions (in my theory chapter I connect each to a specific body of existing research beyond the broader bodies of work noted above):

  • RQ2.1 How does the richness/leanness of media channels influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choice?
  • RQ2.2 How does the social appropriateness of exchanging political messages (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.3 How does the political climate influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.4 How does one’s sense of community (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.5 How does the strength of social ties to their audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.6 How does knowledge about one’s audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?

RQ3 What are the impacts of the channel choices made by opinion leaders on their political role?

References:

  • Chadwick, A. (2013). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.
  • Dahl, R. A. (2000). On Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans don’t know about politics and why it matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6), pp. 1360–1380.
  • Katz, E. (1957, March). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to date report on an hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 21 (1), 61–78.
  • OECD. (2011). Civic engagement and governance (How’s Life?: Measuring Wellbeing). OECD Publishing.
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Trace Interview Workshop at #SMSociety15

This morning Devin Gaffney and I ran a workshop on trace interviews at the Social Media and Society Conference. Trace interviews involve collecting and visualizing trace data (in this case, social media data, like tweets or likes). The researcher brings visualizations into the interview setting and invites the interviewee to help interpret the data. Since the interviewee is the person who left the trace data in the first place, their insight is valuable for understanding the context of communication, the validity of data and the meaning behind traceable online interactions.

Heather Ford and I describe the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in our International Journal of Communication article.

You can also check out the slides we used for this workshop. I will add a full bibliography shortly.

This is a mixed-methods approach in development. We would love to hear your feedback, suggestions, questions and concerns. We’d also love to hear about other research using similar techniques. Feel free to comment below, tweet or email.

Here is a simple network graph which visualizes the relationships among some of our workshop attendees. Each node (circle) is an attendee. The edges (lines) represent times one attendee has mentioned the other.

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New paper! Trace Interviews (in IJoC special on #qualpolcomm)

Last spring Heather Ford and I attended an ICA pre-conference on qualitative political communications researcher. The conference organizers went on to coordinate a special issue of the International Journal of Communications and invited us to contribute.

Our piece, along with the rest of the issue (which is pretty much just full of wonderful) is available free! Check it out.

Thanks so much to the incredibly hard working team of editors! Follow them: @mj_powers, @rasmus_kleis, @davekarpf and @kriessdaniel

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Research update 4: Confirmed, I am not down a rabbit hole.

At Oxford the last step before you submit your final doctoral thesis is called “Confirmation of Status.” Essentially it means: you think you have collected all your data and made a solid plan for writing, we are going to check you haven’t completely gone off the rails. You submit two full chapters, abstracts for all the rest and a plan for when you are going to finish writing. The experience has the potential to be fundamentally crushing. This is normally the first time anyone other than you and your supervisor reads your work as a (soon to be) whole.  While the fear of having turned down the wrong path is heavy, the experience can also be invigorating. They read your work and try to see the full story you have been dedicated to telling!

For me, Confirmation was just that, invigorating. I had exceptional assessors who had clearly not only read but taken time to think about what I had written. They were motivational even in their critiques and concerns. They were open to my explanations and treated the interview as a conversation about how this work could become as meaningful as possible.

I am looking at how political opinion leaders in Canada source and share political information. In particular I focus on what motivates these opinion leaders to choose different channels of communication for sharing facts and discussing politics (e.g. why Facebook over face-to-face conversation, or text message over Twitter). These opinion leaders are thought to be important political players because they help keep the non-engaged citizenry politically aware through personal influence. Since opinion leaders have a lot more channels of communication to choose from, the mechanism of influence is in question.

My assessors and I left the interview most excited about the strategic approach my interviewees take when it comes to communicating about politics. I am also pretty excited about the “trace interviewing” approach Heather Ford and I developed which helps contextualize social media trace data and gives a voice to the creator of those traces/acts of communication. We bring visualizations of a person’s social media data into an interview setting and jointly interpret those data which means we can explain things like why a person tweeted what they did and what that person thinks a Facebook like actually means. (Note: our paper is in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of International Communication but you can email me for a draft copy.)

Since passing confirmation at the start of February I’ve been busy writing back in Toronto where I am living for the year. I work out of the iSchool at the University of Toronto most days but also spend time at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communication.  I’ve also had the opportunity to present parts of my methods and discussion chapters and am headed to a doctoral workshop for late stage candidates at Princeton next month. It never ceases to amaze me how much easier it is to write once I have presented to an audience.

Desk at U of T

How the Party Leaders Use Twitter: Digital Diplomacy and E-Democracy

From September 15, 2014 to January 19, 2015 I collected all tweets from @PMHarper (the English language account of Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Steven Harper), @ThomasMulcair (NDP leader Thomas Mulcair) and @JustinTrudeau (Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau). I wanted to know what topics these accounts covered and whether they had more of an internal or external focus (looking in at Canada and issues facing Canadians or looking out at the world and Canada’s place internationally).

I found that @PMHarper focuses on international issues while @ThomasMulcair and @JustinTrudeau focus on local, provincial and federal policy issues. I reported these findings in a Globe and Mail article published on Feb. 5, 2015.

Notes on methods and other comments

Silly girl, posting tweets is for staff.

Having worked for a Member of Parliament in her Ottawa office I know that politicians and their staff each take different approaches to dealing with social media. Some MPs make all their own tweets, others work with their staff to create a pre-determined schedule and others rely on staff to make tweets on their behalf. I didn’t ask the party leaders what they do, and while I have personal hunches about how it plays out that is not the point of this analysis.

I was interested in the messages that get sent to followers of specific accounts, regardless of who crafts those messages. If I were studying press releases or even speeches there would be value in understanding the content of the messages that get sent out attached to the names/titles of those leaders. The same is true with Twitter. This is content coming from their offices which makes it (in my mind) interesting. Sure, knowing who wrote the tweet, who came up with the tweeting strategy, and who has final say on what goes out are also interesting questions but I think they are interesting for different reasons.

Why not Green Party leader Elizabeth May (@ElizabethMay)?

I did a small sample of May’s many many tweets (she made nearly 3000 in the same amount of time the others made 200-300 each) and the vast majority are replies to other people which means that topically they are often pretty ambiguous. In other words, had I done the full set, the results would not have been as insightful for her because she uses it so differently from the other party leaders. It would end up not being a fair comparison.

How did you collect and analyse the tweets?

I used Twitter’s public API (specifically GET statuses/user_timeline). This means that I did not collect any tweets that were made but later deleted. I created a coding schedule which is essentially a list of the things I was looking for and the categories tweets could fall in (for example, international, national or provincial/local focus). Next I read each and every tweet and “coded” them which means I decided which categories they fell into. If I were to publish these findings in an academic journal I would probably want to have someone else also code each tweet so we could compare our answers and calculate the reliability of this approach. But for now, I am asking you to trust my interpretation of what constitutes “national” and what does not. Once I’d done that I had a nice spreadsheet containing all my data, I used that to create a series of graphs which I used to interpret the data. You can see some Globe and Mail versions in the article.

Why does this even matter? This isn’t particularly newsworthy or profoundly deep analysis.

Journalists and others in the media industry tend to focus on the now, the new and the exciting. This is very important for informing the citizenry on the issues of the day and making sure the public has access to the most important political information at that time. Us academics, particularly social scientists, often focus on abstract and/or fundamental social trends over a much longer term (and most of our work rarely goes beyond the boundaries of academia).

What is missing is a reflection on that middle ground. Everyday politics is actually a huge portion of where public opinion is developed and where citizens get to interact (even if it is one-way) with their political representatives. Yes, elections and scandals and policy announcements matter. But so does the more subtle framing of what issues should be talked about and what issues a leader and their party want to engage with or promote. And yes, understanding what makes the leaders act as they do (i.e. a much deeper analysis) is intriguing and potentially very valuable. But that doesn’t mean mapping out the contours of social media use isn’t.

Here is the text of the article (you’ll need to follow the link above to check out the graphs):

In an era of digital diplomacy and e-democracy, politicians are expected to play their political role both online and offline. Twitter is one tool which politicians around the world have embraced as a way to connect with those they represent and broadcast information to the public. Canada’s major political party leaders are no different – and the leaders’ different approaches say a lot about how they communicate in the months ahead of a federal election.

A political party leader is expected to be vocal on any and all political issues facing their constituents. The leader is looked to to set their party’s agenda, to communicate issues to the public, to garner a following, and to understand the needs of that following and of Canadians more broadly. Of course the leader has many other responsibilities, these are just some of the main ones which Twitter is particularly good at facilitating.

Canada’s political party leaders are all active on Twitter but their patterns of use are not the same. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is known for her prolific Twitter account. Her 20,600 tweets since joining Twitter in September 2008 is nearly seven times as many as either the Prime Minister’s English-language account (@PMHarper) or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s (@ThomasMulcair) all-time totals, and over three times as many as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau). But even among the three party leaders who tweet considerably less, there are telling differences.

By the numbers

From Sept. 18, 2014, when members returned to Parliament after the summer break, to Jan. 17, 2015, @PMHarper has made 283 tweets. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau both have only one account which posts both English and French tweets, with 288 and 574 tweets made respectively. Notably both leaders often opt to post direct translations of tweets, so the following analysis considers unique tweets only (193 for Mr. Mulcair and 319 for Mr. Trudeau).

Over the course of the fall there are some expected ebbs and flows. (See chart above.) The start of the session prompted all three accounts to post multiple tweets a day which slowed as the weeks passed. On the week following Christmas, all three accounts refrained from posting and on weekends there were often, but not always, fewer tweets made. Mr. Trudeau’s account was the only one from a leader to consistently tweet at relatively stable levels throughout most of the sampling period. For example, Mr. Trudeau’s account made many tweets about the by-elections in November when the accounts of Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair were both relatively inactive on Twitter.

The differences in topics of tweets highlight the biggest differences in the leaders’ approach to Twitter (see above chart). About 25 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets had an international focus, for example, the threat of the Islamic State, or United Nations and G20 meetings, while only 3 per cent of his posts had a provincial or local community focus. Issues facing Canadians broadly such as economic, social and other issues together make up only 19 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets. In contrast, 34 per cent of Mr. Mulcair’s and 41 per cent of Mr. Trudeau’s tweets focused on economic, social and other issues facing Canadians with only 11 per cent each focusing on international issues.

Mr. Trudeau matches this focus on international issues with equal numbers of tweets about provincial or community issues. Mr. Trudeau’s tweets span a wider range of policy issues and are more evenly spread across areas as compared to either other leader.

Finally, for all three leaders a large proportion (between 34 and 39 per cent) of tweets make reference to no specific policy issue but instead to meetings they attended and events of the day. For Mr. Harper these tweets often include condolence messages, greetings for a given holiday and references to sporting events. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau also include some of these messages but also tend to post photos from events and thank you notes to those they meet with.

Digital diplomacy vs. e-democracy

Mr. Harper’s use of Twitter can be thought of as in line with digital diplomacy. Digital diplomacy on a very basic level is the use of the Internet to solve foreign policy issues. @PMHarper is an account with an international focus and which tends to opt toward non-partisan statements. Expressing policy positions or promoting a policy agenda to the Canadian public does not appear to be a goal of the account. Instead, the aim seems to be more about establishing a presence online as a world leader and digitally demonstrating Canada’s connection to other nations.

Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, to varying degrees, appear to use Twitter more in line with e-democracy which is more about advancing a democracy than foreign affairs. Both accounts attempt to connect with Canadian citizens explicitly, for example by reminding them to vote, providing shareable content and sending thank you messages. Neither account maintains as large a focus on international issues at Mr. Harper, instead both put increased focus on social and other issues facing Canadians. Expressing views on policy and generating interest in, and engagement with, their respective parties are likely aims of these accounts.

Ultimately, Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau are all active social media users with something to gain from Twitter. The different strategies which drives their use can help others understand what they are signing up for when they click “follow.”

Globe and Mail

Confession time: I forgot about email!

In my research I am trying to understand the political communication patterns of digitally enabled citizens. I sampled from the #CDNpoli Twitter network but my interest goes beyond Twitter. I have gone to great lengths to include a wide range of social media and non-digital channels of communication in my list of tools I always ask about. What I didn’t include was email.

Of course email consistently came up in interviews and once I realized my mistake I added it into the list of things I wanted to hear about. To be fair, I also hadn’t included Vine but I think it is safe to say, given usage rates, that one is a bit more understandable.

Now, forgetting about email could be written off as a silly error of a young researcher, but I like to think I am pretty rigorous when it comes to methods. I looked at multiple nationally representative surveys, I did a deep dive into the literature, I sought out advice from many experienced researchers — yet I still did not realize the channel was missing until I got into the field.

I think the problem is that I bought into the idea of “new” and “old” forms of communication. Of course, we don’t use those words anymore. “New” is taboo, the cool term is “social.” But the result is the same, we categorize types of communication tools/channels in specific ways so a given term broadly includes a certain range of tools. These categories are useful because they allow us to reduce complexity and to compare across types.

But there are a few issues. “Social,” is a pretty limited subset of digital communication technologies, and for most, email is not one of those. Further, email isn’t all that new anymore. From my small sample alone, multiple interviewees got their first email accounts in the 1980’s, over a quarter of a century ago!

Unfortunately email is without a home in the most common dichotomous (two options, this or that) categorization schemes. Email is not an “old” channel of communication either. “Old” is reserved for paint on slabs of rock and fireside stories, right? Ok, ok, maybe the printing press, radio, television and telephone count too.

Clearly I’ve only glossed over these categorizations and there are a lot of factors (like acts the technology affords its users, or integration of technology into domestic life) that I’ve not discussed. Maybe I did just make a silly grad student mistake, but for me there is an important lesson here: categorization is a moving target and when we compare the newest to the “old” we risk forgetting about the middle ground. That middle ground, in the case of email, just so happens to be a potentially important site of communication, an indicator of technology adoption, and/or an intervening variable in other communicative processes.

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A note on mistakes.

I was told recently that, particularly as a grad student, having a blog like this is “brave.” I am opening up my process to you all. You get to judge me based on my incomplete projects. Perhaps more pointedly, employers get to judge me on incomplete thoughts and ideas which is a risk. That said, I think the benefit to me, my study participants and potentially (read: hopefully one day) others outweighs the risks.

I think working out my ideas in a non-journal article or thesis chapter format makes my ideas clearer and arguments stronger.

I think writing for a non-academic audience makes my work more accessible to my participants and the broader population I am interested in which has positive implications for both informed consent and ensuring validity.

I think opening up the black box of the academic process can be valuable for academics, particular us newbies, trying to sort out the next steps and for potential employers looking for people who’s workflow fits with the values of their institution.

Research Update 3: To the field!

I did it. This spring I went out and spoke to people. Real, actual, breathing human beings. In the flesh.

I am really interested in how people are (or are not) making use of social media tools in their everyday political lives. I am particularly interested in those politicos who can’t seem to get enough information about current affairs and always seem to be in the know – but – who are not professional political players. I am talking about opinion leaders. They are the ones always telling you about what the next important policy decision is, how Canada should be dealing with climate change, whether a gun registry is good or bad, etc..

So, this spring I left my cozy (read: overly hot and poorly ventilated) Oxford workspace and headed home. I traveled across Canada to speak to 23 opinion leaders from four different cities/areas: Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver/Victoria. Here are some things I learned:

  • Fieldwork is exhausting, possibly more exhausting than the other kind of work on fields I do (which is really saying something if you have ever played 80 minutes of rugby). I made the mistake of thinking, oh, my interviews should take about 1.5-2 hours, I’ll book off 2.25 hours and be fine. No. I needed 3 hours in the room and then a good long run (or Netflix marathon) to recuperate after each.
  • People like to tell stories, even when they have nothing to do with your questions. Some times these stories are really interesting. Some times you inadvertently find out that a person’s everyday political chat has been digital since the 80s and that your interviewee is part of a discussion group that transitioned from BBS to listserv to private Facebook group. Other times you learn a person recently lost their main weed supplier.
  • Prepare to be flexible. Times change right up to the last minute, technology fails right before you are about to start the interview, people just can’t wrap their head around what you are trying to get them to do – there are a lot of reasons to be very prepared for the interview to take a very different path than originally planned. Rather than an interview schedule and notes sheet I thought of the paper on my clipboard as a data container. The pages were partitioned according to the information I needed to gather so that if things went off track I knew exactly which holes I needed to go back and fill before time ran out.

With the interviews complete I am now diving into data analysis. I’ve got NVivo for Mac set up and the first of my interviews have been coded. The schedule is, of course, a bit of a mess at this point – but the initial themes are intriguing and everyday there is very tangible progress to be chronicled.

It is a very different feeling than days of familiarizing your self with the literature. It is exhilarating.

Interview Materials

Research Update 2: Summer at the Social Media Lab

From being cited in an Anonymous press release and speaking live on Sun TV, to attending my first slue of conferences and giving my first public lecture, this summer certainly has been full of excitement!

Last I checked in I’d just completed my Transfer of Status, the first milestone in my PhD program. I left Oxford for the summer, sites set on home (Nova Scotia, Canada), where I took up a position as a Visiting Scholar at the Dalhousie Social Media Lab from the end of June through to the beginning of October.

While at the Lab I focused primarily on my own work including preparing for multiple conferences and identifying my list of potential interviewees. I was very fortunate to have been welcomed with open arms — I had the opportunity to present my early thesis work to faculty and students within the Computer Science Faculty, the Information Management Faculty, and to political science undergraduate students.

I also helped the Social Media Lab organize their annual conference, this year called the Social Media and Society 2013 Conference. (I presented work Devin Gaffney and I have been doing on identifying influentials in Twitter networks).

Most recently, I took the lead on the Twitter analysis of the Nova Scotia Election, at the Social Media Lab. We wrote a number of blogs (here, here, and here), and will hopefully produce an academic paper in the coming months.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from this summer, I think it is the importance of connecting with people from all over. Every time I said yes to an interview, a conference, or a speaking engagement, I met new and interesting people with new and interesting perspectives. I’ve been able to start to build a base which can be hard to do when you get stuck in the Oxford bubble.

One of the things that makes me a particularly efficient DPhil student is my focus. When I set out a list of goals for myself I commit fully to the tasks required to achieve those goals. It is easy to spend hours in the office only to be so exhausted at the end of the day I can barely drag myself to rugby training and then home to bed. The last thing I want to do is go to a lecture (however interesting it may be) or a reception (regardless of what yummy treats are on offer) where I have to look presentable and say semi-intelligent things.

Clearly those periods of intense focus are important, but connecting with others – that is a big part of what I want to do also. If I want to help bridge the gap between academic and the general public, I need to be able to find times and places that facilitate that interaction. This summer has been a wonderful step in that direction.

Up next?

I am back in Oxford running Research Methods workshops for MSc students here at the OII, working as a Research Assistant on Bill Dutton’s Fifth Estate project, and working on the literature review and methods chapters of my thesis.

I've been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.

I’ve been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.

Research Update 1: Transfer Successful!

At Oxford the first big milestone of the PhD process is called the “Transfer of Status.” When you start your PhD, called a DPhil here, you enter as a “Probationary Research Student” and are required to submit a 6000 word proposal (among other things) in order to prove you are capable completing PhD level research – you deserve the title “DPhil Candidate.”

I submitted my proposal in May, had my interview in June, and have just been told I passed (woohoo). This means I get to move forward with my research and can get working on data collection. What, you ask, was the contents of this passing proposal?

Well, I am interested in the ways in which citizens engage (or don’t) in politics and political discussions with each other. I care a lot about how we interact with each other and what that means for our political system. I am also fascinated by digital technology and how it can be used to communicate political messages.

What this boils down to, in my case, is an in-depth analysis of how 20 specific Twitter users talk about politics in their daily lives and with those in their personal networks. I am going to ask them questions about who they talk to, what tools they use to communicate (for example, Twitter, face-to-face conversation, telephone), what issues they care about, and what strategies they use to convince other people that those issues are important or of particular views on those issues.

But I am getting ahead of myself, how do I select those 20 individuals?  To solve this problem I am working with Devin Gaffney on two projects.

The first is a journal article for American Behavioral Scientist where we look at the most common ways used to identify influentials on Twitter. We show that none of the standards, like network centrality or number of re-tweets, quite do the trick. These methods all identify public influentials and not average, but politically engaged, citizens.

The next is a conference paper for the Social Media and Society conference to be held at Dalhousie University in September 2013. In this study we will compare a range of ways to identify those average citizens. A big part of this project is an online survey which we will be sending out to users of the #CDNpoli hastag over the next few weeks. Once the survey is complete we will use some social network analysis techniques and some content analysis techniques to describe the community of Twitter users talking about Canadian politics. At the end of all of that I will finally have my sampling frame!

It is quite the process, but I am excited.

Here’s hoping some of you find it interesting too!

Proposal creating 05/07/13

Op-Ed: Liberals’ supporters might not be voters (Ottawa Citizen)

In my first piece for the Ottawa Citizen I analyze Twitter conversations about the Liberal Party of Canada’s leadership race.

‘With registration to vote for the Liberal party’s next leader now closed, the remaining candidates have a new challenge, one the Justin Trudeau camp is already having trouble with…’

Read the full article.

Missing from this article is a detailed description of followers by candidate. This is due to space constraints. Here is a quick table depicting followers using the #LPCldr tag during the first debate:

Candidates' followers during the first LPCldr debate

During the final debate Justin Trudeau maintained the largest engaged following with Martha Hall Findlay coming in second. Joyce Murray seems to be closing in with only a handful fewer followers than Hall Findlay. Support for the three other candidates left in the race remained very limited.

Photograph by: Nathan Denette, THE CANADIAN PRESS - From Ottawa Citizen: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/op-ed/Liberals+supporters+might+voters/8175846/story.html

Photograph by: Nathan Denette, THE CANADIAN PRESS – From Ottawa Citizen