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A new use for social networking

As a relative latecomer to the twitter-verse, this post may seem a little bit behind the times, but there are some ideas that have been floating around the web over the last month & I want to add my 2 cents to the discussion. It would appear that in the last 5 years there have been many advances in communication technology that have had a measurable impact on the way political campaigns have been able to run. With the advent of web 2.0 styled applications and information sharing tools (such as facebook, delicious or digg), more information can be spread, discussed and analysed in increasingly short periods of time.

One of the more recent examples of this would be the Obama campaign for Democratic nomination, in which Obama utilised Facebook, Twitter and global/local social networks to grow campaign funds and momentum – effectively allowing his campaign to spread more more efficiently than he was able to do so himself. The same social networking tools (does Kevin Rudd have a account?) that have been the blessing and the curse for a new paradigm of internet users have now spread into the political forum and are making inroads into previously static territory. There are two of these which i want to talk about further – youtube and twitter. Youtube has existed as a sharing and commentary device for several years now, and it’s mis(use) has often lead to it being banned or canned in offices and organisations.

As I draft this blog from my office at UTS, the Youtube videos I’m looking to view are painfully slowly downloading – as a result of domain blocking techniques used by the University’s internet policies. This has lead to the restriction of real, valuable content from being accessible to those who wish to use it for research, documentation or purely informative purposes, as well as those who wish to remain up to date (at a user-defined pace) on current and breaking events. The youtube integration of news content and syndicated media is alone worthy of a whole community of discussion that I can’t go into here, but suffice it to say the youtube phenomena has had a considerable impact on social information gathering and viewer behaviour. I find it hard to believe (or perhaps more sad to contemplate) a community of people who are prepared to commit more weight to personal belief than to investigated information or researched facts.

In this matter, it would appear that youtube is allowing people to get in touch with both sides of the story, although perhaps in this case the hardest part is actually leading the horse to the water. I’m going to come back to this topic in later posts, because I’ve digressed too far from my main discussion point. The twitter platform has also often been written off since it’s inception, with the common cry being ‘who wants to know what you’re doing right now?’. But what we’ve seen in the past few weeks has been a strong undercurrent of feeling, particularly directed towards the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Whilst the traditional model allows for audience members to indicate their feelings towards the current speaker (think: the controversial television ‘worm’), we’re now seeing a new way of measuring the pulse of a far greater audience.

The VP debate seen on the US networks (and subsequent Youtube viewings) was a fine example of this larger user base. Twitter users could view the ‘election’ channel in twitter, whilst watching the live broadcast, simply observing the flow of opinions or also adding their own. The twitter ‘stream of consciousness’ response postings were typically centered on larger ongoing issues, but also clearly expressed the opinion of everyone, everywhere all at once. With such a heady flowing stream of opinion (all catalogued, tagged and hierarchized) it would seem that we are sitting on a veritable (albeit temporal) goldmine of opinion, which could very well be mined for it’s useful content within this election context. Some have panned this as being inaccessible to statistical analyses or even meaningful interpretation, but it is not hard to see the immediate and accessible nature of such a source of information.

Often pollsters struggle to extract ‘truthful’ information from user groups (what is said does not necessarily correlate to what is done in the polling booth), with anonymity being one key ingredient. However what we see in the twitter channels is a grand unveiling of the current of public opinion. A couple of points to raise, that highlight certain aspects of twittering which could be used to measure the outcome of polling and voting numbers;

  1. Twitter is archived and searchable.
  2. Twitter user account data is also viewable, depending on how much information the user is prepared to give.All of this points to a potentially useful database of users (organised by county/state) and their publicopinions.

Plot these two pieces of information (the comments could be parsed for positive/negative views or simply aligned to a predetermined ‘voting’ system, a’ la the #biden/#palin example used for the VP debate) on a map of the US and you could see the potential outcome of the elections in particular states. After the votes have been tallied and the outcomes decided, it would be possible to retrospectively compare the predicted results with the real outcomes and determine (looking also at the per capita tables for internet use) whether or not the twitter-verse is in fact full of meaningless asides or plugged securely into the current opinions and emotions of a large connected community.

There have been a large number of efforts globally to visualise large datasets (seeĀ information aesthetics andĀ visualcomplexity for examples), so I look forward to the wave of twitter-based visualisations. It’s only a matter of time, in my mind, before we’re seeing the older, more mature relative to the worm adorning websites, tracking string based opinions and plotting them in ways meaningful to the casual observer. Until then, the twitter stream will have to suffice, but it does point to a very near future where online democracy sets a new course for real, national politics.


  • All of this assumes that people have access to the internet, useable twitter accounts and are willing to share!  However, in light of the relatively small percentage of Americans who actually vote (I’ve yet to check this figure), it would seem that the figures could easily be juggled to account for such percentage ratios. This is something to bear in mind when regarding all claims for internet based social networking or similar, especially in nations where the internet penetration is capped, lapped or otherwise degraded.
  • Just as an aside, I think that the ‘Straight-Talk Express’ (aka the ‘McCain Train‘) would be well advised to observe and respond to some of the fact-savvy bloggers and pages easily found (google search for ‘McCain lies‘) on the web.