#libspill – a visual analysis of political hashtag use

The following is a visual analysis of the use of the political hashtag #libspill in the hours prior, during and after  the leadership vote, which retained Australia’s 28th Prime Minister as the leader of the Liberal party. For those readers, like myself, who maintain only a general interest in Australian politics and do not participate in the daily public discourse facilitated by hashtags like #auspol, this handy translation of the leadership ‘spill’ into Game of Thrones terms is incredibly illuminating. Similarly enlightening are the visual representations of the algorithmic clusterings of Twitter discussions, generated by the open source plugin for MS Excel, NodeXL, which can be used to provide a simple, but powerful diagrammatic analysis of the relevant hashtag use.

The approach here is very small scale, and my research interest is in the use of NodeXL as an ‘off-the-shelf’ application that requires no programming, coding or specialist training. My view is that micro-public data, and its analysis and management, is an important digital literacy, or perhaps a ‘network literacy’, that should be at the disposal of every social media user. The set of competencies, encounters and experiences that make up digital and network literacies are an especially important part of the contemporary skill set that students pursuing a Media and Communication Studies degree need to be equipped with in order to contribute and participate successfully in relevant careers and interests. We are already seeing the use of NodeXL and other forms of networked data visualisation for political and media reporting, but for a much more comprehensive ‘big-data’ approach, however, I recommend the work of Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess and others.


Twitter hashtag #libspill February 9 - 10, 2015

Figure 1. Twitter hashtag #libspill February 9 – 10, 2015. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/crypticon/16485604801/ for the original size.


Figure 1. is the visualisation of a sample of 2000 tweets captured in the 24 hours from Monday February 9th at 8am, covering the duration of Twitter hashtag use prior and post the leadership vote. Each ‘node’ in the graph is an individual user who tweeted the hashtag #libspill, or is a follower of a user tweeting with the hashtag. NodeXL plots an edge (a blue line in this case) between two nodes if there is a relation in the form of a follow, reply or mention, and the software generates a visual representation of the hashtag use and the larger context of its Twitter network activity in the form of the graph.

The graph is prepared according to the methodology developed by Smith et al (2014), which identifies six clustering structures that are commonly observed in Twitter conversation and emerge because individuals selectively choose who to reply to and mention. Meaningful information can be determined from these graphs as they represent the expression of opinion, the citation of information sources, and the organisation of individuals into discrete micro-publics of follows and following, tweets, replies and mentions, and together these form the dynamic online conversation experience that is unique to the character limitations, tagging and other microblogging  practices of Twitter.

Smith et al’s methodology is intended to be expanded on by drawing on further qualitative and quantitative approaches, such as surveys, focus groups, one-to-one interviews, and the data gathered by NodeXL can be used in sentiment, discourse and content analysis. Even in simple everyday use, however, NodeXL can provide an immediate way into the Twitter data that is not immediately obvious from the flow of Tweets that traverse our mobile and desktop screens:

“Our approach combines analysis of the size and structure of the network and its sub-groups with analysis of the words, hashtags and URLs people use. Each person who contributes to a Twitter conversation is located in a specific position in the web of relationships among all participants in the conversation. Some people occupy rare positions in the network that suggest that they have special importance and power in the conversation”  (Smith et all 2014: 2).

The automated clustering algorithm options in NodeXL map the individual nodes according to the ways groups of users connect to one another, in this case placing people more connected to one another in different regions on the map. At first glance it appears that Figure 1. belongs to the Polarized Crowd network type, which is dominated by two dense and heavily oppositional groups. Polarized crowds are divisive, especially with regards to political topics and events, and they are characterised by very few connections between the groups, which indicates that members of different groups are not conversing, but ignoring one another and relying on alternative sources when discussing issues (Smith et al, 2014: 3).

A close look at the nodes in the large group on the right hand side of the graph shows the the primary group is made up of politically manifold personas; including former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Rupert Murdoch whose position in the graph is very close to Tony Abbott’s official Twitter handle, @TonyAbottMHR, which is presumably operated by a member of his staff given his recents comments of the value of social media as “electronic graffiti”.

Where the Polarized Crowds of network conversations indicates groups that are not connected by strong ties, the Tight Crowd network involves many connections between the dense networks of communities of Twitter users. The graph in Figure 1. is much closer to Tight Crowd structure in which individuals across the network are aware of each other and have conservations and exchange links and information. The large number of edges between the two dominant groups of users and the small number of isolates and less connected users in the lower right portion of the image, reveals the sharing of commons points of interest or significance, and a strong group of connections to others with similar interests.

The Tight Crowd networks in Figure 1. are “… composed of a few dense and densely interconnected groups where conversations sometime swirl around, involving different people at different times”  (Smith et al 2014: 21). In the Tight Crowd network, argues Smith et al,  there is no “other” group as is the case of the Polarized Crowd network. This is an encouraging view of Australian politics, which suggests more conversation, discussion and debate between the major political views of its Twitter users than is the case in the U.S. (see Himmelboim et al 2013).

NodeXl can be used to determine a number of important metrics from the Twitter data and meta-data of each tweet, including the most frequently linked to URLs and domains, hashtags, words, word pairs, replies to, mentions and Tweeters in the groups as shown in the following tables:

Top URLs in Tweet in Entire Graph

Entire Graph Count
http://bit.ly/1nAtjp1 81
http://ow.ly/IHut3 36
http://www.skynews.com.au/news/feature-2/2015/02/09/abbott-hits-record-low-in-poll.html 19
http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/doctors-speak-out-against-conditions-on-nauru-20150208-137xwd.html 19
http://bit.ly/Zde7WJ 18
http://ow.ly/IHttt 14
http://bit.ly/1C8OJQt 12
http://bit.ly/1M3vmxK 11
http://trib.al/70eV2r9 10
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/abbott-leadership-crisis-judgment-day-as-newspoll-shows-pm-losing-voters/story-fn59niix-1227212412293 9
Top Domains in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
bit.ly 143
com.au 122
ow.ly 88
trib.al 18
ab.co 16
theunaustralian.net 14
net.au 13
twitter.com 11
afr.com 8
yhoo.it 7
Top Hashtags in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
libspill 2066
auspol 763
abcnews24 83
abbott 68
itson 56
halftermtony 53
newspoll 39
imstickingwithtony 35
worstpmever 33
abbottspill 32
Top Words in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
libspill 1804
rt 1317
auspol 678
abbott 402
spill 196
tony 190
abcnews24 131
amp 126
pm 118
turnbull 117
Top Word Pairs in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
libspill,auspol 316
auspol,libspill 183
tony,abbott 103
auspol,oㄥo 71
rt,annabelcrabb 68
oㄥo,abcnews24 56
rt,otiose94 55
otiose94,libspill 52
libspill,abbott 48
cory,bernardi 47
Top Replied-To in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
annabelcrabb 7
tonyabbottmhr 6
corybernardi 6
liberalaus 2
cinderella_oz 2
theage 2
rupertmurdoch 2
abcnews 2
mikecarlton01 2
latikambourke 2
Top Mentioned in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
tonyabbottmhr 83
skynewsaust 81
annabelcrabb 77
abcnews24 69
otiose94 58
turnbullmalcolm 58
smh 57
corybernardi 50
david_speers 44
mscott 44
Top Tweeters in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
mackaysuzie 323277
hanezawakirika 321744
asher_wolf 316316
micaelsilva 272311
molkstvtalk 254564
ashghebranious 243974
sirthomaswynne 238350
geoffrey_payne 235494
upulie 218775


Another method to expand the data collection and analsysis process is the use of commercial web-based services to collect and visualise Tweets. These sites vary in cost and sophistication, but I’ve found TweetArchivist to be a reliable and useful service to record every tweet/hashtag mention from keywords. The site provides simple but effective visuals, and the data can be exported as CSV files or PDF for later content analysis and further network visualisation with applications like Gephi.

The data collection from the archiving process included 22,624 tweets registering 109,013,514 impressions from February 9 8am to February 10 8am, 2015, and can be used to get a sense of the most frequent hashtag users, the distribution of the #libspill hashtag use in conversation in terms of the volume of Tweets over time, and using a range of factors including number of tweets, followers, retweets and replies to, we can review a measure of the ‘influence’ of Twitter accounts involved.

This is highly useful for those interested in #auspol and shows those media outlets with an active Twitter persona, and more easily observe the mixture of print and broadcast television news and entertainment organisations actively using Twitter. NodeXL makes it easier to dig further into this data and there is masses of detail to unpack and consider from these images and information. In the next update I plan to take a brief look at the use of the #ImstickingwithTony hashtag and a closer look at the role of #auspol in mediation of Australian political conversations.

introducing ‘persona studies’: the book

The academic year has seasons that structure the conversations academia has with itself and with others, including the type, duration and with whom we can have conversations with clearly institutional and deterministic effects (see Wilken and McCrea 2013). These seasons have levels of intensity, they are periods of intense compression of research, administration, teaching and the service to the institution. One of those seasons exist within the period of time students regards as university ‘holidays’, and it is during those brief periods in between teaching, research and administration that we can undo the tensions slightly to expose spaces that accommodate different types of conversations. Some of these conversations are big formal events like academic conferences (like the CSAA this week), others are less demanding, like the conversation I was invited to participate in last week about social media, blogging, professional and academic practice and identity with a marvelous group of people, including George Veletsianos (@Veletsianos) who is writing an intriguing book on the experiences and practices of scholar’s online participation. George’s blog post outlining his book’s approach prompted me to do that same and so I’m going to start talking about a collaborative book project on persona studies that I am working with two other great individuals, David Marshall @dmarshallmc and @Kim Barbour @kjbarbour to write.  We are following on from the work we curated as part of the ‘persona’ theme issue for the media and communication journal M/C , and working alongside the planned launch of Persona Studies, a proudly open access journal. I initially planned to roughly sketch the outline of the chapters, but after going through each one I found the summaries quickly expanded as I included the new elements we have been addressing, so take this as a draft summary in progress. Special thanks to @KateMfD for starting the conversation.

Persona Studies: Celebrity, Identity and the transformation of the Public Self

The book’s introduction details the first steps in exploring how a generalised world of public presentation of the self has been organised. It will outline our approach, beginning with the historical precedents and the cultural and technological predispositions that intersect with the emerging significance of the public self. We will begin to map this intersection against the larger investigation of the presentation of the public self and a comprehensive exploration of the role of persona in contemporary culture. The introduction opens the way to studying the cultivation of networks of friends and followers online as ‘micro-publics’ and presents the aims of persona studies using the processes of the entertainment industries as a means for assembling the tools for investigating the mediation of the self and from there expanding to consider the professional, recreational, interactional and other forms of public status. Finally the introduction will begin to frame the further study of persona and the transformation of online reputation and public presentation effects on other professions and disciplines: law, medicine, business, education, IT and others.

Part One:  Conceptualising Persona

Chapter One: Persona and its Uses

This chapter works to build on our use of persona as a term with a range of historical, intellectual, analytically, and conceptual associations. It situates ‘mapping’ as a personal analytical tool for exploring the contemporary production of the self in the era of self-presentation and ‘presentational’ media. It will consider the role of pre- and modern notions of the self, and explores the contemporary through an assembly of concepts of the inner-, public-, private-, personal-, online-, offline- and other ‘selves’ and the various ideas, permutations and values associated with ‘privacy’. The chapter is framed around questions of discursive contexts and narratives of identities in social networks and mediated and networked communication, working outwards from the starting point of a celebrity culture context. This is also the point at which we intend to detail a comprehensive history of the central changes in the play of persona from the masks of performance in ancient dramatic traditions and the links between persona and acting and role playing, through Cicero whose descriptions of the four roles or personas begins a trace to other uses of the term, including Jung and Weber. Other distinctions of the term in contemporary era include from Giddens work on individualism, Taylor’s development of public individualism and Reiss study of early European conceptions of the self and Goffman’s impression management and others.

Chapter Two: The Contemporary Significance of Persona

Working from the identification of the historical components of the discourses and representation of the self, this chapter examines the focus on the individual and its highly visible external manifestations through our stars, celebrities, sports figures and political leaders. Conceptually, we will expand on our summary of the principal theorists and writers concerning online identity as a way to further expand the analysis of the values, economies and exchanges involved in persona from an understanding the public and private dimensions of online culture. The chapter takes stock of a number of forms of individuality including public individuals and celebrity culture, its extensions and media forms, stories and images intended to be exhibited, disseminated and discussed. It will consider the role of the image, video, sound and voice, as well as examining the development of ideas of ‘self interiority’ and the psychoanalytical readings of the self that became twinned with self-improvement via consumer culture; and look to key changes in representational public regime of individuality and its consumer interiority of the self that has emerged in the last two decades via the expansion of the Internet and online forms of communication and media. We plan to locate our detailed account of ‘presentational’ media in this chapter and further explore public persona as the individual’s location for the curation, documentation and distribution of personal media and information, and the circulation of public mediations and messages. It will unpack public persona in everyday culture with examples from social media and the web, including blogs, Youtube, Facebook, Reddit, podcasts, online games, Twitter and Instagram and other forms of sociable engagement in the practice of presenting a public self. The implications to be dealt with here include the kinds of agency that accompany activity and community in these spaces and places and across these platforms especially regarding the management of the self and technologies of the social institutions and interfaces that are part of constructing a public persona. The final theoretical threads to expand on in this chapter is the role of ‘intercommunication’ and the interpersonal ways of capturing, organising and communicating contemporary persona is defined by the involvement in and assistance of the flow of information across networks.

Chapter Three: Prestige, reputation, visibility, ranking and branding the public self

In chapter three we are interested in the study of persona as it is centrally involved in the analysis of reputation in contemporary culture and how prestige transforms our work and leisure environments by making the production of the self a requisite for the allocation of status, the determination of position, and the connections and networks we privilege. Here we take persona as an identification of what we make visible about ourselves to others, and it provides an entry into how this form of visibility is changing our perceptions of each other’s organisation of persona and reputation that is developing in online culture, but its determination of the public self extends well beyond these boundaries. In this chapter we consider the notion of ranking, rating, and self-branding and how this identifies a position in terms of how advertising and the monetization of the public self are part of this developed exposure culture. We will highlight the tensions that are at play between the notion of agency of the self and its connections to the exigencies of a consumer/producer/ as prosumer (Tofler, Ritzer) or produser (Bruns) embedded in the capitalist economic structure of online culture. We will further explore how persona helps us identify neo-liberal formations that are privileged and heralded in the various dimensions of online culture, from the development of the social media applications to how Marwick in particular has explored the kinds of new economy individualism that the tech scene has championed. Finally in this chapter we consider persona ‘rights’ and the dimensions of privacy, intellectual property, surveillance, censorship and other forms of regulation in the in the era of presentational media.

Chapter Four: The collective constitution of the public persona, from audiences to followers, friends and micro-publics

This chapter investigates the relationships between micropublics that are a form of interpersonal exchange, and the persona that both assembles its followers and actively engages with them in a conversation (P. D. Marshall 2013). The collective audiences of contemporary culture include presentational media audiences that are organised around individuals’ public presence, now called ‘friends’ on Facebook and ‘followers’ on Twitter and Instagram. This chapter will read the constitution of a ‘public’ differently than the past interpersonal accounts and is established through these social media forms and other forms of address as distinctively different from that produced by television, film or radio. The chapter will investigate the role of the micro-public in the constitution and construction of each public persona contemporary persona has to be understood as production of the self in collaboration with a micro-public where expectations shape its presentation and its future formation.

Chapter Five: Analyzing contemporary persona

This chapter provides some of the ways that persona analysis can be pursued via phenomenological interview approaches and through participant observation of online activity, and through engaging with the micro-publics connected to these individuals. The chapter retools these approaches with phenomenologically-informed methods to provide some useful ways to analyse contemporary persona. In addition, because persona is very much linked to self-branding and reputation, the chapter also explores how techniques derived from prosopography and its study of status historically can serve as a model for calibrating contemporary reputation and connections in various domains of online culture.  The research on public persona is consider with a focus on finding the moments of consistency and inconsistency in the “personality” presented from public sources and then determining the sources and origins for the various constructions of identity. Micro-publics studying persona means that the researcher must somehow enter into these smaller worlds and investigate how the individual produces a public version of him/herself. Precedents to this research ethnographic studies of fan communities and biographical and autobiographical research serve as two examples of how researchers have explored the construction of public personas indirectly. Integrated into these analyses is the related research on affect: affect and resonance of persona defines the power and influence of public presentation and the work that has developed to study affect is also applied to the generation of a persona and its associated followers (Gregg and Seigworth 2010).

Part Two: Operationalising Persona Studies

Chapter Six: The Artistic Persona and the Street Artist Online

Part Two of the book will present a series of case studies analysing the production, development, and performance of an online identity. The first case study looks to the ‘artist’ persona, and begins with an investigation of street artists whose work is most often illegally produced, as they construct their persona where the desire to be known for one’s work is positioned and juxtaposed against the fear of being caught. The chapter will address the artist persona from the stereotype of the artist and the pre-formed identities that shape our reading, including the romantic conceptualizations, bohemian characterizations and psychological dimensions, set against the understanding of contemporary working professionals who self-identifies as an artist, and addresses the negotiations central to  relationships between these constructions and the self. It will involve a phenomenological methodology investigation of persona construction by individuals in an online environment.

Chapter Seven: Persona and the indie game cultures of production

This chapter looks to the role of persona formation in the indie and independent game cultures of production. The chapter will use social network exploration tool NodeXL to survey Twitter data and visualise a sample of identity formations located within the global games industry and their Twitter micro-publics. It will consider the role of Twitter in the management of indie game developer persona constructed in order to negotiate the conditions of the gamework environment. The visual analysis will start with an overview of the constitution of independent and indie game developer personas, with examples from game industry celebrities including  @Notch, Markus Persson creator of Minecraft, and @femfreq, feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian. Further case studies will also include significant games cultures hashtags including #gamergate and a comparative analysis of the Twitter use of the #PaxAUS hashtag in 2013 and 2014 during the Penny Arcade games convention held outside of the US for the first time in Melbourne, Australia in 2013.

Chapter Eight: The Academic Persona

In this final chapter we unpack the dimensions of the contemporary academic persona through an analysis of how academics present themselves online and for what effect and purpose. Interviews with academics with primary attention to their online efforts at presentation of the self, assist to expand the ‘prosopographic’ analysis of online persona as a concept related to the public intellectual. The chapter develops an argument that defines the new pragmatic public identity of the academic persona and conceptualizations of the academic. It considers to what degree the academic is constructed as an outsider whose societal contributions are seen to be autonomous and independent, and examines the stereotypical and cliché conceptualizations of the academic persona, from its monastic origins to the role of academics in popular culture in films and novels. The chapter consider the contemporary academic in terms of the transformation of the university, the corporatized structure of administration and the role of reputation as essential differentiator in the knowledge economy.

So there it is! A much lengthier and rougher summary than I initially intended but that is probably a good sign.