Shouting across divides

The general view is that communication in social media is neatly partitioned. Persons communicate only with those with whom they argee. At least that is the standard story. It is a story that does not need evidence. We know it is true.

Being an inveterate evidence person I thought I should check. The division I checked is #p2, which is the most widely used progressive hashtag, and #teaparty, the most famous of the far out conservative hashtags. The analysis is based on just under 150,000 Twitter messages captured between April 11 and April 16 of 2012. Just over 98,000 were captured by searching for messages with #p2 in them and just over 48,000 were captured by searching for messages containing #teaparty. One hundred and fifty thousand messages in six days is a substantial production of Twitter messages.

Teaparty makes the news and p2 does not, but the progressives are much more active on Twitter than is teaparty. I have been collecting the two streams since the end of September in 2010, and messages containing #p2 have always been more numerous than messages with #teaparty in them. Generally, #teaparty has been about three-fifths the number of #p2 messages.

If you want to address an individual using Twitter you can send the person a direct message. If you want to communicate with self identified others you use hashtags. People who are politically active on Twitter know that #p2 is the hashtag for progressives. If you want to communicate with progressives you include that in the message you post. Then people interested in 'progressive' will find your message by searching for #p2. But there is no 'monopoly control' of hashtags. (Boynton, 2011) If I was a progressive and wanted to communicate with other progressives I would use #p2, but if I was a teaparty person and wanted to communicate with progressives I would also use #p2. And vice versa. Hashtags are a means of making connections in a networked world.

I did not want to limit the look at communication across divides to just #p2 and #teaparty so I used a concordance program to extract all of the politically relevant hashtags. I extracted the ones from the #p2 messages that were used a thousand times or more and from the #teaparty messages 600 times or more, which was designed to roughly equalize the difference in the size of the streams. There were 40 hashtags in the #p2 stream that were used more than a thousand times. There were 29 in the #teaparty stream that were included more than 600 times. People writing in the #p2 stream seem a bit more 'expansive' than people writing in the #teaparty stream.

What are the big ones? For the #p2 stream the hashtag referred to most often is #tcot, which is top conservatives on Twitter. It appears 40,151 times in the 98,000 messages. The hashtag that appears next most often is #tlot at 10,172, which is top libertarians on Twitter. #ows, occupy wall street, is third being referred to 9,039 times. #gop is fourth appearing in 8,431 messages, and #teaparty is fifth being used 7,843 times. #topprog, top progressives, follows appearing in 5,386 messages. And you do not get to democrats until #dem is used 1,248 times and #dems is used 2,525 times.

The hashtags used in messages that contain #teaparty are similar. The most frequently used hashtag is #tcot which is used in 33,763 of the 48,000 #teaparty messages. Second, was #gop used in 11,755 messages and #gop2012 appeared 1,443 times. Next is #tlot, top libertarians, which was used in 9,279 messages. That is followed by #p2 appearing in 7,749 messages and then #ows appearing in 5,149 messages. #sgp, smart girls politics, appears 4,457 times and #ocra, organized conservative reisstance alliance, appears 4,121 times.

Notice what you do not find. Progressives use #obama only 2,934 times and #obama was included in #teaparty messages only 1,640 times. #romney appears in only 815 messages that also contain #teaparty and 1,817 times in #p2 messages. Ron Paul does substantially better than both with 4,594 #ronpauls in the #teaparty stream and 1,824 in the #p2 stream.

What everybody knows is wrong. Hashtags are for making connections. In these Twitter messges the progressives are using hashtags to connect with non-progressives in very high volume. The teaparty people are both less expansive and more parochial in their use of hashtags. But even in their messages there are substantial references 'across the divide.' The nature of the reaching out is not examined here. But the idea that on Twitter people are communicating only with people with whom they agree looks like a very bad idea.

Boynton, G. R. (2011) #AttackWatch -- There is no monopoly when it comes to hashtags

© G. R. Boynton, April 22, 2012