Friday, 10 July 2015

Impact of Social Sciences – Using Twitter as a data source: An overview of current social media research tools


Using Twitter as a data source: An overview of current social media research tools

The popularity of social media sites and the ease at which its
data is available means these platforms are increasingly becoming
primary sources for social research.
Wasim Ahmed
presents a quick look at some of the tools available to social
scientists for analysing social media data and also reflects on the
limitations of the platforms and the methods used for this type of

I have a social media research blog
where I find and write about tools that can be used to capture and
analyse data from social media platforms. My PhD looks at Twitter data
for health, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I am increasingly
asked why I am looking at Twitter, and what tools and methods there are
of capturing and analysing data from other platforms such as Facebook,
or even less traditional platforms such as Amazon book reviews.
Brainstorming a couple of responses to this question by talking to
members of the New Social Media New Social Science network, there are at least six reasons:

  1. Twitter is a popular platform in terms of the media attention it
    receives and it therefore attracts more research due to its cultural
  2. Twitter makes it easier to find and follow conversations (i.e., by
    both its search feature and by tweets appearing in Google search
  3. Twitter has hashtag norms which make it easier gathering, sorting, and expanding searches when collecting data
  4. Twitter data is easy to retrieve as major incidents, news stories and events on Twitter are tend to be centred around a hashtag
  5. The Twitter API is more open and accessible compared to other social
    media platforms, which makes Twitter more favourable to developers
    creating tools to access data. This consequently increases
    the availability of tools to researchers.
  6. Many researchers themselves are using Twitter and because of their
    favourable personal experiences, they feel more comfortable with
    researching a familiar platform.
It is probable that a combination of response 1 to 6 have led to more
research on Twitter. However, this raises another distinct but closely
related question: when research is focused so heavily on Twitter, what
(if any) are the implications of this on our methods?

nodexl2Image credit: NodeXL Twitter Search by Marc Smith (Flickr CC BY)
As for the methods that are currently used in analysing Twitter data
i.e., sentiment analysis, time series analysis (examining peaks in
tweets), network analysis etc., can these be applied to other platforms
or are different tools, methods and techniques required? In addition to
qualitative methods such as content analysis, I have used the following
four methods in analysing Twitter data for the purposes of my PhD, below
I consider whether these would work for other social media platforms:

  1. Sentiment analysis works well with Twitter data, as tweets are
    consistent in length (i.e., <= 140) would sentiment analysis work
    well with, for example Facebook data where posts may be longer?
  2. Time series analysis is normally used when examining tweets overtime
    to see when a peak of tweets may occur, would examining time stamps in
    Facebook posts, or Instagram posts, for example, produce the same
    results? Or is this only a viable method because of the real-time nature
    of Twitter data?
  3. Network analysis is used to visualize the connections between people
    and to better understand the structure of the conversation. Would this
    work as well on other platforms whereby users may not be connected to
    each other i.e., public Facebook pages?
  4. Machine learning methods may work well with Twitter data due to the
    length of tweets (i.e., <= 140) but would these work for longer posts
    and for platforms that are not text based i.e., Instagram?
It may well be that at least some of these methods can be applied to
other platforms, however they may not be the best methods, and may
require the formulation of new methods, techniques, and tools.

So, what are some of the tools available to social scientists for
social media data? In the table below I provide an overview of some the
tools I have been using (which require no programming knowledge and can
be used by social scientists):

*It is advisable to check whether a tool can support other platforms as
it may be possible to import data obtained from elsewhere.
I would also like to mention:

By searching for relevant software (as documented in the table), I
have noticed that there are very few tools that can be used to obtain
data from other social media platforms such as, Pinterest, Goolge+,
Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Vine, LinkedIn, and Amazon among
others. Regarding this, I would like to see more software for those in
the social sciences to obtain data for a range of platforms and
including a range of data i.e., web links, images, and video. At the
Masters and PhD level there should be more emphasis on training for
social science students in effectively using existing software that can
be used to capture data analyse data from social media platforms.

Parts of this blog post appeared first on Wasim’s research blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the
position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School
of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Wasim Ahmed is a PhD candidate at the
Information School, at the University of Sheffield and the Twitter
Manager for NatCen’s Social Research network 
New Social Media New Social Science. Wasim has a very successful research blog which
includes posts about key trends and issues within social media, but
also covers more practical posts on using tools to capture and analyse
social media data. Wasim is a keen Twitter user 
(@was3210), and will be happy to answer any technical (or non-technical!) questions you may have.

Impact of Social Sciences – Using Twitter as a data source: An overview of current social media research tools

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