How big is big?
and why would one be interested?
G. R. Boynton
It is an understatement to say we are going through revolutions in communication. Once powerful structures are crumbling. New structures are rising. One of the new structures is microblogging, typified by, but not limited to, Twitter. The recent growth of microblogging is remarkable. In the fall of 2008 Twitter was a minor player on the scene with a few thousand users. In the spring of 2009 it doubled and doubled again and again. The number of users is difficult to estimate with much precision because more than half of the messages originate from client applications rather than Twitter itself. But there are now something over 50 million messages a day originating from Twitter and that is less than half of the total messages. Those are big numbers.
How does politics fit into these really big numbers?
It does not take much effort to determine that there is a lot politics in the larger stream with many messages flowing back and forth. But how big is big?
Fortunately, this fall events occurred that make for a quite natural comparison. Oprah announced that she would retire from her TV show once she had completed 25 years. Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Their cultural standing is given by it requiring only one name to identify each. There is only one Oprah. There is only one Obama. Both of these events generated massive messaging as individuals passed on the word, commented and organized. The numbers are found in the two figures giving messages about Oprah and about Obama for 180 days.
Oprah's announcement in late November and the announcement about Obama being awarded the Nobel Prize in early October produced huge spikes. The spike of messages for Obama is greater than for Oprah; his was 4 percent of the messages on that day and hers 1.2 percent. The spike for her announcement was larger relative to messaging before and after than was the spike about Obama relative to messages before and after. The figures include all messages mentioning Oprah and Obama -- not just the ones about the two major events. I collected the daily numbers of messages about the two events and the totals were: Obama 90,000, through November 1, and for Oprah 73,000, through November 25.
These are two spikes in a communication domain full of both large and small spikes. It does suggest that spikes of attention and messaging about politics can occupy the same range as other popular culture types. But they are just spikes. What about more sustained streams of messages?
In July the Obama Organizing for America issued a call for communication action. Send a message to a member of congress and use the hashtag #hc09, they requested. Hashtags are a way of identifying a stream of messages on the same topic. The figure shows the pattern of messaging in the same 180 day period. There is a big spike toward the end of July as supporters responded to the call. But the stream did not quit with that first spike. It continued at a substantial pace through August and September. It disappeared [there were too few messages for Trendistics to show them on the figure] a couple of times in October and early November. As the legislative agenda got busy the stream reappeared with a couple more spikes. I did not start tracking this stream until July 30, which was just past the initial spike. I have collected 101,000 messages that contain the hashtab #hc09. The spikes are much smaller than the spikes for Oprah and Obama, but the sustained flow was equal in volume.
This is not the most frequently used hashtag concerning health care reform. I was interested in it because it started as a stream meant to reach members of congress. An appeal to microblog members of congress is plausible because just over 200 members of congress have Twitter accounts. There is great variation in the amount of communication between members and the public. Having looked at how big is big the communication with one member of congress shows what small may be. Senator Robert Byrd has a twitter account. I have been following communication with members of congress since October 3. In that 7.5 weeks Senator Bryd received 18 messages and sent none.
The numbers are only a start. If you collect the messages they can be analyzed in many different ways. At the moment, however, after a brief interval they are no longer available. If you want to know what they wrote about Obama or Oprah or health care reform you had to be collecting on the spot. So I have been collecting 'real time,' and have started a small archive of politically relevant streams of messages.
Microblogging about politics is becoming a standard part of our political practice, sometimes large streams and sometimes small, full of sound and fury.
Why would one be interested?
I can imagine a number of ways to examine these message streams. For example, Andy Chadwick and colleague approach the stream as accidental learning http://bit.ly/5Nkfjc. I will suggest another.
Since 1945 we have known that the connection between the mass media and the public was not as strong as was the connection mediated by opinion leaders. This was dubbed the two step flow of communication, and subsequently was elaborated as diffusion. In this understanding opinion leaders are an important link in the communication flow in our politics. But opinion leaders are difficult to identify by our standard research procedures and even when scholars have changed research practice to better identify opinion leaders it has been close to impossible to track their actions. Hence, it has been difficult to understand what they would and would not attend to and how they would frame the communication they were mediating.
We can be quite confident that most microbloggers are opinion leaders, though they are surely not the only opinion leaders. They are sufficiently interested in politics that they enter into discussions in the public domain. They are just the kind of people who are opinion leaders in interpersonal interaction and participants in the public streams of communication. What was once 'lost' in private conversation now surfaces in the new communication domain called microblogging. And we can track them to understand what has been a missing link in the flow of political communication.
© G. R. Boynton November 26, 2009
For more streams about politics see There's a hashtag for that