Telling Compelling Stories with the Social Media Analytics Team

1.01 billion people use Facebook on an average day. Every second, 6,000 tweets are sent, totaling up to an average of 500 million tweets per day. The amount of content generated by social media can be difficult for the average person to wrap their head around.

But data analysts, including researchers at the University of Illinois, are finding ways to not only collect that data but also make sense of it.

On Tuesday, November 17, the Social Media Analytics Team from the University of Illinois will present at Social Media Week Chicago. Their talk, sponsored by Technology Services and the College of Media, is titled Telling A Compelling Story Using Social Media Analytics and explores how we can use social media data to do everything from manage personal brands to understand larger stories being told about social movements.

"The talk is going to be about how we use analytics to not just check a story after it's up, but to investigate, find origins, or add support to stories by replacing maybe one of these 'man on the street' interviews with what 10,000 people think about this on social media," said Nick Vance, a member of the Social Media Analytics Team.

Every day at the University of Illinois, Technology Services and the College of Media are collaborating to use social media analytics to improve teaching and research.

To support this goal, Technology Services created the Social Media Analytics Team.

Social media analytics is about “studying in aggregate what’s happening on social media around certain topics,” said Vance. “We can drill down and look like at certain issues, but mainly trends, like what’s happening, what people saying about certain things, what’s the story everyone’s telling right now.”

The team of two is staffed by Vance, a B.A. in Communications and who is also pursuing an M.S. in Socio-technical Data Analytics through the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and Joe Yun, who has a B.S. in Computer Science and is pursing a Ph.D. in Informatics.

Yun and Vance are combining their backgrounds in communications with their data analytics skills to create compelling stories about Illinois and the world.

Collecting The Data

Perhaps the most important story that Yun and Vance have to tell about social media data is that the data is being actively collected and used by many different groups and companies.

Social media data is collected in multiple ways. The Library of Congress, for instance, has been storing all Twitter data created since 2008 as valuable content. Governmental agencies use social media data to create profiles of people.

To collect their own social media data, Yun and Vance are using Crimson Hexagon, a special tool that collects data from Twitter and other social media streams, and then shares it with subscribers.

Crimson Hexagon is one of several social media analytics tools on the market. Not all collection tools are created equal, however. For example, Crimson Hexagon has a relationship with Twitter that allows the company access to the full fire hose of all data that comes through the platform.

“The data is then retained as a copy on Crimson’s own data warehouse servers. Crimson follows certain policies with Twitter. When Twitter deletes data, Crimson does as well,” Yun explained.

But some other companies use screen scraping, where a script continuously checks public websites (like your page on Twitter) and copies data from it. These practices don’t keep in sync with Twitter, so even if Twitter deletes information, those companies who use screen scraping now have that information forever. 

Don't leave just yet

The ability to gather large data sets, correlate data from multiple social media platforms, and analyze this data for sentiment, allows companies to build detailed profiles about individuals posting to social media – often without those individuals realizing it is happening. Some people, particularly students who may not be thinking of the long-term effects of their tweets and posts, may find this practice troubling. 

Yun and Vance emphasize that they aren’t telling students not to share information on social media. Since getting into social media analytics, however, Yun has deleted all of his social media accounts. He’s quick to point out that Vance still has active accounts.

Rather, the team wants to arm the Illinois community with perhaps the only solution to an informational problem: more information.

“People, especially students, need to know where [information] is going and how people are using it. They can then make informed decisions if they want to post or not,” said Vance.

Social Media Analytics at Illinois

The Social Media Analytics team was created in part because Mark Henderson, the Chief Information Officer for the Urbana campus, and other technology leaders understand how important social media data is to the future of higher education. But they also listened to individual researchers who are already purchasing chunks of data to analyze now.

“Mark, Joe, and others saw this trend of social media analytics as the next wave, and they also knew that researchers needed this data already,” said Vance.

Researchers at Illinois, including twenty-nine faculty and staff members from colleges like Business, Law, and Liberal Arts and Sciences, are collecting data through Crimson Hexagon with assistance from the Social Media Analytics Team to improve teaching, advance research, and improve services provided by the University.

Social media data is important to researchers because it can be used to study mass sentiment and promote fact-checking around large-scale phenomena, especially in comparison to news reports.

On a philosophical scale, Yun finds that social media data doesn’t just reflect the truth of the world, but provides a way into a completely different one.

“Nobody questions the realm of studying societies, or of studying how communication works in culture," he said. "Social media has created in some sense a different type, an online society. This is very different than physical, real-life society. People may assume that the societal constructs that govern the physical world continue in a web-based form, but it’s not true. It’s a different world, it works differently, and it’s much, much faster. We need to understand how these online constructs work. How does information spread? What do relationships look like in the online world?"

"This is the future," he said.