Over the past couple of months, our team has been working on TweetHeroes — a Twitter tool to discover and rank influential users on specific topics (among other things). During this time I’ve followed the #yeg stream, let’s say obsessively. And I’ve noticed that the debate over the Edmonton City Centre Airport (#ecca) is pretty much a constant, consistently trending among the influential #yeg users.
There are two sides to the debate: support the plebiscite or dead issue, move on. So where does everyone stand?
Good question. Because our team is conditioned to see everything in terms of networks, we decided to dig into the #yeg #ecca stream over the past couple of months to see how the players in this tempest are connected. We identified #yeg Twitter users who’ve tweeted at least twice about #ecca and #yeg in that roughly two-month time frame. We then built the retweet network for these users, connecting two users if either one has retweeted the other. (Twitter retweets on issue-specific tags are excellent indicators of affinity or a shared position.)
At this point, we had a confusing and densely connected graph — the #ecca tag is very popular! What we really wanted to know though was where everyone stood, not just on the issue, but in relation to each other. Who was on each side? Who was central? Who was supporting whom?
Dividing the #ecca retweet graph into distinct communities was the next step. We turned to some core community mining algorithms from social network analysis to get this result (click the image to enlarge):
There are two large communities in the #ecca network. The community on the left supports the plebiscite, the community on the right supports closure. The smaller communities are also on one or the other side of the issue. They’re just not as actively interacting with members of the larger communities through #ecca retweets.
The plebiscite community has several leaders or hubs: @EnvisionEdm, @Sirthinks, @BRinYEG, and @fusedlogic. The closure community has one: @mastermaq (possibly @ChrisLaBossiere as well). We used some text categorization techniques to see what each side had to say.
The plebiscite community’s position is: 1) the #ecca provides important services to Edmonton and surrounding regions; 2) they have a vision to transform #ecca land into a sustainable industrial community; and 3) a plebiscite is the only fair and democratic way of resolving the future of the #ecca.
The closure community replies: 1) there are other ways to provide the same services; 2) given alternative uses for the land, it’s not a good business or community decision to keep the airport open; and 3) didn’t #yeg already decide the future of the #ecca in a fair and democratic way?
What’s amazing, from a purely technical perspective, is that we can discover the structure of these communities just by examining who’s retweeting whom — and without knowing anything about the content of their on-topic tweets! Retweets, as we expected, are a way of openly (and sometimes subtly) taking sides on Twitter issues.
I’m sure #yeg tweeps know the players I’ve listed above and where they stand. This is because they’re active participants (or at least observers) in the #yeg stream. But, for someone on the outside wanting to understand the structure of networks forming around specific topics in social media, I think that our approach holds a lot of promise. It’s the idea of that promise that’s driving the development of TweetHeroes.