Students Participate in Interdisciplinary Research on "eCommunities," Political Figures' Use of Social Media
Libby Hemphill and Jahna Otterbacher, assistant professors of communication and information studies, and Matthew Shapiro, assistant professor of political science, have joined forces on a number of multi-semester research projects and are committed to involving students in their interdisciplinary work. They meet with their student research assistants weekly during the IIT lunch hour to coordinate team members' progress, share results and ideas, and give practice presentations. The researchers include students at all levels of study and from a variety of degree programs, including technical communication and information design, computer science, political science, and psychology.
One focus of the team is the eCommunities Project, exploring language and social dynamics in online communities where participants' contributions are ordered by social voting mechanisms (for example, the perceived "helpfulness" of a contribution according to readers, or how many readers "liked" it). The students most recently involved in the eCommunities study were Charise Angderson, Erica Dekker, Jing Gao, and Aaron Samardzich (all May 2012 graduates from the M.S. program in technical communication and information design) and Ruoran Wang (CS '12)
The group used quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods in addressing research questions. They conducted research on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), where participants rate movies and review them. Readers of the reviews then vote for reviews they find "useful," and by default, reviews are displayed according to the perceived usefulness of the masses. Unlike most communities that use social voting to organize user-contributed content, IMDb also offers readers several other ways to order reviews, such as by chronological order, prolific writers, and reviewer gender. The "gender filter" provides a unique opportunity for eCommunities researchers to explore the interplay between participants' disclosed gender identity, their writing style, and how "useful" others perceive the contributed reviews to be.
In a second, qualitative phase of the project, the group is conducting interviews with prolific writers of reviews, both males and females, in order to better understand why the particular trends observed in the quantitative studies develop. For instance, they are interested in whether or not participants feel that their approach to reviewing and their writing style has changed over time. The team also wants to see if reviewers pay attention to their feedback scores on their reviews and if this feedback influences their behavior or not. The eCommunities team is currently collecting data, with student researchers conducting interviews via Skype.
Another, multi-semester project looks at the relationships among public officials' social media behavior and language use. For this project, Charise Angderson (MS TCID '12) and current undergraduate students Amy Paslak (CS 4th year), Drexler James (PSYC 4th year), and David Work (PS 3rd year) examined Tweets by Chicago aldermen, members of the U.S. House and Senate, high-level appointees (such as the U.S. Secretary of State), and Tweets that mention any of those officials.
The Tweets are coded by hand for their "action" or what the authors were trying to accomplish—positioning the author in relation to an issue, thanking someone for his or her help, or narrating the author’s activities, for example. The group is conducting an analysis of the networks created through "mentioning" (any Tweets that make mention of someone specific, while using their name with "user") and "following" relationships. They are using regressions to predict DW-NOMINATE values (a voting polarity scale based on how far left or right public officials’ views are from center) for members of Congress according to properties of the users and their Tweets: action, number of followers, gender, and whether from the House or Senate.
Findings so far indicate that there is a strong correlation between positioning and extreme voting and between thanking and centrist voting; that Republicans talk to and about one another more than Democrats do; and two Chicago aldermen, Robert Fioretti and Joe Moreno, dominate regardless of measuring methods, whether Tweets per hour, number of followers and friends, or mentions.
This study has received seed funding from the Social Networks Working Group at IIT and early findings were included in a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation that Hemphill, Otterbacher, and Shapiro submitted in early 2012.