Its very tempting to think there is a perfect match between social networks and social network analysis – and its true – there is a lot we can do with this to examine online social networks. However in doing this its important to understand what the limits of what we can achieve with it without bringing in other research methods.

Social network analysis is simply a way of visually and statistically mapping the relationships and patterns of behaviours between the actors in an specific social grouping – it could be familial, social, professional or geographical. Its not a new technique – its been around since the 1930s and has been used to map historical populations such as the Medici’s (Padgett and Ansell 1993), social protest movements such as the the Freedom Summer movement in 1964 (MacAdam 1986, 1988) and to map more contemporary university environments (I have a brilliant reference for this and now can’t find it – damn – will be back to this). Its been used to track the progress of epidemics and its been used by Barry Wellman to look at how communities interact (Hampton, K. N., & Wellman, B., 1999). If you want a quick intro to the ideas here then have a look at this Journal of Computer Mediated Communication Journal article that has the key ideas in it.

In many ways social network analysis is about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts with the interactions and patterns formed from these interactions being as significant as the individuals who are interacting. With it sociologists moved beyond looking at individuals and who they are and started considering what they are actually doing.

Given the fact that social networking is the definitive activity of the social web it is not surprising that social network analysis is a primary tool for their exploration and understanding. However to make this analysis useful we really need to understand the social implications of the links that are created when you friend or follow someone. ‘Follow’ can mean a lot of different things in the twitterverse. Initially it was a politeness – she’s followed me, I should follow her back. Once the spammers turned up then we all got more careful about this and so ‘follow’ becomes more active rather than cultural – who you follow says something about you and you may be consciously aware of this.

That’s not to say that its not useful to map a local twitter network for example – I’ve been working on this this week for a client and once you have an idea of who the principal civic actors are then analysis of their online relationships via twitter can give you a sense of how/if they are connected. Its possible to be more sophisticated about this purely data led exploration – for example you can look at @mentions which can give a good sense of proximity if they are reciprocal and also retweets which can be a measure of reach. But in terms of analysis of relationships its not accurate to say that you can map a social network by this method – we just don’t know enough about the motivations and meaning of any of the measurable actions.

Its also worth noting the difficulty of sampling real time networks such as twitter – its a moving target and if you are looking at interactions such as @mentions rather than just follow/followed relationships then you need to make some sensible decisions as to when not just what you will be sampling.

Its also worth noting that you are strictly limited to ego-centric network analysis rather than looking at whole networks as lack of consistency about association between online and offline identities and also the unbounded nature of our online relationships means that we do not fit out interactions within neat and complete networks such a single organisations or associations. You have to take into account the ability of online social networks to connect you beyond your usual social sphere – to access expertise or interest, support or scrutiny from further away – both socially and perhaps geographically – and it seems that to use social network analysis with online networks you need to understand the underlying social structures first. This spread of connection has been one of the principal criticisms of online networks:

“…some analysts have feared that email, the Internet, and other reduced-cues CMCs are unable to sustain broadly-based, multiplex relations (see the review in [Wellman et al., 1996]; [Garton & Wellman, 1995]). These fears are extended by the boutique approach to online offerings which fosters a specialization of ties within any one of thousands of topic-oriented news groups ([Kling, 1995]; [Kollock & Smith, 1996]). However, this tendency toward specialization is counter-balanced by the ease of forwarding online communication to multiple others. Through personal distribution lists Internet participants can sustain broad, multiplex, supportive relationships ([Wellman & Gulia, 1997]; [Wellman, 1997]). As yet, there has been little research into the extent to which specialized, online, single relations grow into multiplex ties over time.” (Wellman, 1997)

However – the fact that our networks online are in most cases diffuse and unbounded means we need can’t define a network and then analyse the relationships within it in a meaningful way unless we are given access to the complete data set from a site like Facebook (I can really see that request going down well) and then find a really really big computer to deal with it. Instead we rely on an ego-centric approach which unravels relationships based on a single individual or core of individuals – this is in fact called the snowball method – which seems rather apt.

So, we can use twitter (which is more open to interrogation than Facebook and so an easier starting point) in order to do some initial analysis and to start that snowball rolling but to put more detail on this we would need to use other research techniques.

This is more consistent with the literature – more detailed Social Network Analysis data is usually collected via questionnaire and interview techniques rather than analysis of online networks – or rather I have not found any case study examples based on analysis of purely online environments that have not been supplemented by these methods even where they have carried out details log and traffic analysis. There are multiple case studies which have looked at email traffic for example but these will be cross referenced with demographic databases (not surprisingly you can find a number of studies that look at the social networks within academic institutions).

Surveys or interviews usually take the form of either name generators – which ask you who you know or name interpretors which ask you to define your relationships with the people in a described group. Where we start with someone’s twitter followers/followed it makes sense to follow this up with a name interpretation questionnaire which also has the option to add in offline contacts with the same type of relationships. If I want to use this technique in order to explore the relationships that we find between civic creators – something that would be extremely useful in terms of understanding the local civic online space then I will need to find some way of describing the relationships that we might find. Given that I will have chance to do this with a couple of research sites I will be exploring this in preliminary interviews with some of the principal actors that we have found through the research and then asking them to define some of these relationships for themselves. I prefer to do this rather than try to impose relationship descriptions because relationships – as we all know – are complicated:

“Relations (sometimes called strands) are characterized by content, direction and strength” (Wellman et al 1997)

We are trying to understand firstly how people relate to each other and then the degree to which they do so – their centrality. Centrality is a measure of how many connections an individual has but is also an important measure with respect to the whole network. Its an obvious fact that denser networks are more resilient to have an individual member removed but may also be more resistant to new people or ideas. Centrality can also help us to understand where individuals are critical to holding networks together and where their removal might form a cut-point in the network.

Ties are, in this context, either strong or weak. Of course the cut-point for a network may also be considered to be a bridge – or tie – between two different networks. Either way they are useful people to identify. The seminal paper on this “The Strength of Weak Ties” (Granovetter, 1973) explores the idea that weak ties are in fact more effective for passing information and learning new things. He describes the strength as ties like this:

“Most intuitive notions of the “strength” of an interpersonal tie should be satisfied by the following definition: the strength of a tie is a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie.” (Granovetter, 1973)

So though it is important to understand the strength of ties within a network I am really not sure what we will find when we explore this within a group of civic creators in a locality – another good reason to do the research.

Unless you are going to take a structural deterministic view of things and say that the networks are causing the behaviours of individuals rather than just describing them (which I’m not) then social network analysis is primarily a tool for exploration and discovery – a way of seeing groups of people in new ways in terms of the way in which they interact and potenitally influence each other.

This brings me my final point on the limitations of social network analysis with respect to civic communities – privacy and identity. We already know that many people prefer to keep their identity anonymous when talking about political issues (have a read of Michelle Ide Smith’s findings which are relevant at the hyperlocal level) which means that we may only be able to reach these people online and they may not be willing to share more information about who they are connected to because to of the inferences that you can make from this knowledge at a local level.

I think one other consideration also has to be to what extent your survey sample understands the publicity of their actions or whether they will find an analysis of their twitter interactions to be intrusive. This is another issue which I will be approaching with caution with some initial interviews as we are planning on gathering a group of civic creators whom we have isolated through an online research process and will see whether they feel surveilled or appreciated.

Social network analysis is a visual and accessible technique that can provide you with a quick snapshot of activity and connections for a network. It can expose connections you were not aware of and make clear the importance of individuals who you may not have been aware of. However, its unlikely that its going to do this if you rely just on the output data sets from online social networks themselves as we do not have enough clarity and agreement about what the relationships captured with the follow/followed actions actually are. Twitter (and other sites) are an excellent starting point for a snowball approach to data collection but to get robust data you need to ensure that you carry out follow up surveys and where possible interviews.

As a final point – its interesting to speculate what a network like Path might mean in this context. Path limits your network to 50 people and is specifically targeted at sharing things with friends and family rather than creating a wider network (good Wired article on this here). If they manage to create critical mass then it will be interesting to compare the data from Path with more conventionally gathered survey data – and to see if your what your network looks like if take physical world limitations of scale and apply them online – but this falls clearly into the category of things to think about post PHD.

PS this finally gets to the bottom of exactly why I find Twinfluence and its friends a little like social media snake oil…..very satisfying

This post is a good example of where my work and research start to come together.  Over at Public-i we have been working on a number of social media audits for clients and I have been working on a more formal framework to deliver this (white paper on this soon) and so I have been thinking more detail about the content that we are interested in when we talk about the local civic conversation.

Much of my interest in the social web stemmed from the fact that useful content started to emerge.  Now – useful is an extremely subjective term but in my context I am talking about content that is both pro-social and constructive.  The fact that people would set up websites to talk to and with their community is useful, the fact that I can read blogs of people who are thinking about the big political issues is useful and the fact that I am more likely to find a solution to the rather off-colour state of my wisteria on a gardening club website rather than a reference book is useful.  I did say that useful is a subjective description.

My PHD research is about trying to narrow down and describe one element of this content which I am calling civic creation.  This is content that is informal and user generated but is aimed at talking to your community – not just to friends, family or your peer group – it has an assumption of and desire for public-ness from the author.  Even more specifically this is content which has the intent of talking about how your locality works and should work – its content which is rooted in place even if that is secondary to a particular interest or issue.

The first step therefore in finding civic is defining the geographic scope for your definition of local and this needs to be done using the language and definitions of the citizens – not of the state (more than that here).  Once you have this scope then you need to look at what people are doing – you can read more about this here but I categorise participant’s behaviour into four types:

Category Intent
Informal social I use social media in order to socialise with my friends and family – I just want to keep in touch with people
Informal Civic I use social media in order to connect to my local community and talk about issues which I think are important to us
Formal Civic I use social media to make sure that the views of my community are considered by decision makers and are part of the final decision. I want to influence things
Formal Democratic I want to be part of setting the agenda for my community – I want to change things

All of these behaviours exist in the local digital space and individuals and groups will move between these behaviours – its another aspect to the malleability of the social web where people participate as people usually in the full range of their interests.  However I am focusing on the informal civic behaviours and the question for this post is how you go about finding evidence of the informal civic content which I am proposing should be the starting point for local democratic debate and decision making.

Intent may be descriptive but its very difficult to ascribe to someone else’s content reliably – which means it is not useful in terms of how we might find this informal civic content – its only useful in retrospect.  This question of finding informal civic content is key if you are thinking about how to create a shared civic space – somewhere where you gather together the different civic voices in a community and connect them to the formal decision making process – and you can’t find content unless you have defined what it is and you know what to look for.

Its important to remember however that we are not really looking for the content – we’re looking for the people and communities who are creating the content.  If we’re looking for evidence of Civic Content creation then we are looking for Civic Creators.  One of the challenges in identifying any kind of informal content is the fact that identity of not public which makes it difficult to be sure that you are connecting to the right people.

Our definition of civic creation so far involves intent and is based on location but it also needs a third element – topic – and this is the way in which we find the people who form the local civic conversation.

The exception to this is of course hyperlocal communities – which I have talked about here – these are place based communities which have a public stated intent of ‘ I want to talk to my community’ and where they exist they are potentially the backbone of the local digital civic space.  The issue is that they don’t exist universally and even where they do exist you cannot assume that they are representative or that there are no other forms of civic creation in the area.  You need to look further than the hyperlocal in order to find a lot of your local civic conversation.

The question therefore is how to illuminate the civic activity that is going on so that you can connect to the civic creators who will form your civic space.  We can’t find them just from their location (hyperlocal sites excepted) as this gives no sense of intent and we can’t search based on someone’s intention.  The entry point for finding our civic creators is therefore issue based.

Topic is vary across time and doesn’t define a community – though it may dominate for a while.  Topic is useful in that it helps to highlight intent and can also generate synchronous activity from participants who do not usually come together.  This makes them easier to find and more likely to connect to each other when you do find them.  This is not going to be an infallible method of finding civic creators – not everyone is interested in everything – but its a useful way of getting started and can provide something to build on.  As places get deeper and richer digital footprints then this process will become easier – but as specific topics act as a catalyst for informal civic participation they can also be a way of finding the networks who are talking about them and drawing them into the wider civic space.

How does this differ from social media monitoring?

The main difference is the fact that we are looking for people and networks rather than content – the content (like the topic) is a means to an end.  Social media monitoring focuses on finding content – how many times is you brand is mentioned and whether the mentions are positive or negative in tone.  To help explain – below are the benefits listed by a well known Social Media Monitoring tool:

  • Scan and sort viral posts related to your brand(s) and immediately know which online content is making an impact.
  • Look out for online conversations that could be damaging to your brand(s).
  • Track volume of buzz tied to a specific campaign and identify sites with the most influence in order to tailor your outreach.
  • Uncover potential customers or partners at their “point of need”.
  • Keep an eye on competitors and use a comparative graph to track share of voice.

These are all useful things to know and when applied to topic rather than brand then they can help us to find our civic creators – but if just limited to brand then you are not uncovering your local civic conversation – you are just finding the usual suspects.  We want to use these tools to find the people, capture the individuals and then track their activities on an ongoing basis and use them to discover new community generated topics.

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

Coming back to the point however is the issue that we cannot search for content merely on the basis of intent – we need to look at actions.  I have previously defined Civic activities as:

“as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community. One major area for examination within this research is within this civic category where it is important to define and measure specific actions within this so that we can look at the the further transition from civic to democratic behaviour. There are many parallels between civic activities and the Public Sphere described by Habermas.”

And here is updated version of the long list I put together of civic behaviours online.

Formal Informal
Creators Start a petitionTake part in a Participatory Budgeting process (not just play with a slider!!!) Instigate / Run a campaignSocial reporting (blogging / tweeting re: local issues)Managing a hyperlocal website 

Organise a community meeting

Conversationalists Interact with an elected representative Share something from the civic space with someone elseTweet civic space topics
Critics Rate a comment on a discussion boardRate a comment on a blogComment on the discussion board 

Rate a webcast (or a meeting)

Comment on a blog

Comment on webcast

Comment on a blogComment on a relevant discussion boardRate a comment on a discussion board 

Rate a comment on a blog

Rate a video clip

Comment on video clip

Collectors Save something to your user profile 

Sign up for alerts

Subscribe to an RSS feed etc from a social reporter 

Social tagging of content

Joiners Sign up to attend an event 

Sign a petition

Create a user profile

Contacted a political party

Donated money to a civic organisation or group

Joined another civic organisation or association

Donated money to a political organisation or group

Join a discussion forum 

Taken part in a lawful public demonstration

Spectators Watch a webcast eventAttend a formal meeting ·
Inactives Not voting…..or anything else….

This list is based on the Forrester Groundswell categorization of user behavior and incorporates the civic actions used by the OII Internet report 2009.  (PS  Sorry the table is horrible – will work out how to format it properly at some point).

Further to this we (at Public-i) have been working on creating the following catagorisation of local civic sites:

Site type Description
Active individuals broken down by: 

Local / General

Local / Topic

Twitter

These are blogs, websites and twitter feeds which are created by one person and reflect their voice and opinions.
Political blogs These are sites which are party affiliated and are either created by the party, a candidate or an elected politician.
Hyperlocal community websites Hyperlocal websites are set-up and run by members of the community in order to connect with and discuss local issues.  They use social media tools and are probably the clearest expression of the “I want to talk to my community” intent.
Traditional websites These are similar in intent to hyperlocal sites but don’t use social media tools
Communities of interest sites These sites are connected to the place concerned by either the people or by the content but will be focused on a specific issue or topic.  These sites are run by clubs (local sports clubs for example) or perhaps by third sector organisations (such as AgeConcern) and are included here where they meet the critieria of either place or topic.
Facebook We look at Facebook groups, pages and individuals are a type in its own right because the different approach recommended to deal with interactions on Facebook
Local news coverage in newspapers and radio These are sites that are created by mainstream media outlets and may or may not include social media elements
Formal Civic or democratic sites These are the sites of government and related organisations that touch on either the place or the topic.

So – civic creation is that list of activities applied to this list of sites as bounded by location and topic.

At present finding this content is a largely manual process – or rather a series of manually managed automated steps.  What I want to develop are more sophisticated semantic analysis tools that will enable us to find this content more directly – but this is a bigger project.  Would welcome comments on any tools people believe already carry out this task well in the meantime please.

What’s Significant?

But let’s not forget it’s actually all about people – as stated before we are really interested in finding the people and communities who are creating the content.  These are individuals who may fulfil a number of different roles which are not mutually exclusive:

  • Local blogger – writing about either the location or a specific topic.  This group includes citizen journalists
  • Twitter user – because of the highly networked and real time information sharing qualities of twitter it is useful to look at local twitter usage when examining the local conversation
  • Community or Website manager – anyone who is involved in creating/curating/convening a local or hyperlocal site constitutes a local civic creator
  • Active Contributor – someone who does not necessarily act on their own but it a frequent contributor to sites and forums in the area

We know that a small percentage of people create the majority of content on the social web (Forrester, OFCOM) but these figures are all based on the vast majority of content which falls into my informal social category of content.  My working assumption at present is that this percentage will be similar with respect to informal civic content as well but this is an assumption that needs testing through my data collection and analysis.

Its important to find these people as if you are going to start shaping a local civic space more actively then this are the people that you want to be working with co-productively to do this.  As the idea matures they may be providing curation for the wider civic space and also could be part of the process of deciding who is included in the space in the future.

When I was shaping my data collection and trials I talked about this people as community ambassadors and you can read a fairly long post here about why I changed my mind about this role.  I think its extremely important to remember that these are people who are doing something by choice and that any benefit to the democratic or civic process is at the moment a side effect rather than something that is necessarily planned for until such a time as we have connected this informal activity effectively to the decision making process.

When I started this post I was framing these individuals in terms of influence and talking about them as influential civic creators.  However influence is a tricky thing to measure and I don’t want to use the term inaccurately.  As part of the social media audit process we are carrying out basic Social Network Analysis on the networks that are returned from research into a localities informal civic content but without interviewing the civic creators and also looking at who they reach it is difficult to come up with an accurate measure of influence.  This is slightly out of scope for my work at the moment so I am parking the thought that it would be interesting to look properly into exactly how influential these people are and instead look at how we decide who is significant in terms of forming the local civic conversation.  Anyone who is highlighted here will have met the criteria for civic creation listed above but in terms of identifying who is significant I have a number of specific criteria that I am looking at here:

  • Reach – do they have an audience?
  • Representativeness – do they represent a larger group either as a site moderator or as a connector to offline networks?
  • Responsiveness – do they listen as well as talk?
  • Constructiveness – are they coming up with solutions or listing problems?

This last one is highly subjective – but I wanted to include some measure of intent beyond the “I want to talk to my community” and to extend this into “I want to change my community for the better”.  This is perhaps the point on which my definition of significance hinges – for the purposes of creating an online civic space the desire to improve your local area rather than just talk about it is clearly significant.  I’m not expecting a shared vision of what ‘better’ and I am in two minds as to whether its correct to use such a value laden term in here as it is important that we people maintaining as well as improving civil society.  However, my final conclusion on this point is that if we are trying to create something new and knit together a local civic conversation from civic creators then significance is lent to people who want to actively change the status quo.

I don’t see this as grading to a curve – there is no limit on the number of voices that are involved locally but as I gather more data about these people I am hoping to be able to start to draw some wider conclusions about them so that its possible to start forming a view about how the behaviours compare to informal social activities online.

So – what does it all mean then?

In writing this I was aiming to put some more meat on the bones of the idea that there is an emergent type of activity that goes beyond individual content creators that can be described as ‘informal civic content’.  We have seen this in studies like the network neighbourhoods community website study and we can see it in increase in citizen journalism and hyperlocal websites.  There are two reasons for doing this, firstly to capture a snapshot of conversation about a specific topic and secondly to start to understand local participation in a very different way to the top down approach do traditional consultation tools and methods.

Once we have a clear view of this content and its creators then we are better able to look at how we connect this into formal decision making processes and start to connect informal and formal conversations together – and that’s where the civic spaces come into it.