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Social Media Network Behavior is Still Not the Same as Physical/Known Networks

In a recent project that I’ve been working on (Twitter SNA focus and I’ll tell you more about this project later), an interesting question came up from the client – “So this group is always retweeting/sharing from this group, so they must know each other and/or be ‘organized’, correct?” Well, not so much and here are some reasons why:

First, we have to get a fundamental understanding of what it means to retweet/reshare/like a message and to keep things simple, we’ll focus on twitter’s social media network.

The traditional view is that you would only retweet messages that you either agree with or support, but that doesn’t seem to be true at all these days. These days tweeps are retweeting for a variety of reasons that are as diverse as twitter’s user base itself, and it’s not always the case they agree with the original message. Remember, a retweet is simply the sharing of someone else’s content and technically, it should include a “Via” or “RT” characters somewhere in the tweet itself.

I’ve analyzed millions of tweets so far in my life (as you can see from other areas on this blog), and here are the top reasons why people retweet these days, and I put them all in nice and easy way to remember, so please if you decide to use this list REFERENCE and CITE accordingly.

The Bored Horsier – A Story of Why we Tweet

  1. The Bored: They retweet because they’re bored or simply out of habit
  2. The Helpers: They feel a particular tweet would benefit their followers through facts or knowledge
  3. The Opposers: They disagree with a message and they want to show their disapproval of it (usually they edit the tweet so that they can add their own mini message like “Bull” or “Ass**le” etc.)
  4. The Rewarders: They feel entertained or amused by something and they try to reward the original poster by re-sharing their content (there are actually entire campaigns dedicated to getting retweets from twitter users as a method of payment for a product or service).
  5. The Supporters: They agree with a message and want to display their support for it
  6. The Influencers: They support (or oppose) a cause and retweet any message that furthers that cause regardless of level of agreement or disagreement
  7. The Exchangers: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You may retweet someone’s message and have an expectation that they will retweet yours.
  8. The Responders: They retweet news items out of a sense of concern or creating awareness about a particular event (like emergencies)

The diversity in reasoning on why one would retweet a message makes social media (and especially twitter) unlike what people would call real life networks; Networks that are built on physical and proximate interactions like making friendships or referring your best friend to your boss to help her job hunting. On social media, it’s not always clear why something is happening without additional information. What’s usually clear is that it is happening, and from aggregating the behavior we can understand, from a much broader viewpoint, why it’s ALL happening and how it’s happening.

Just because a tweep (twitter user) is tweeting on a regular basis messages from a number of accounts does not mean they this user supports them. And, why they’re retweeting is almost always not entirely clear without additional investigation and a study of their tweet history, but we can, through structural analysis, identify topical affiliations. This means that we can assume this person is interested in the topic of, say, cats and dogs, and that they tend to view the topic favorably or support pets in general. The analogy is such that, if someone asks you if that person’s tweets, and network positions and affiliations means that they own a pet, the answer is almost always “I don’t know, unless they explicitly told me that”.

I hope that comes out clear, but just in case, let me give you another short example. If a person retweets the messages coming from a number of known terrorist accounts, it does not necessarily mean that they are a terrorist or a member of a terrorist network. There would need to be more data to justify that conclusion.

This is the core of the message in this blog. We use social media differently and so the same supposition we might have in real life do not always apply evenly on social media. For example, that terrorist example I mentioned earlier; If in reality that person did attend terrorist meetings, or send them money, there would be no question that they may very well fall under the umbrella of terrorism, but a retweet is not enough to convict them.

Now as more and more of us digital natives begin to treat social media more and more like real life, I think we’ll start to see more of those social dynamics that we’re so familiar with play online as well. We’re already seeing some of it with Facebook: You know how people get really upset if you remove them from your friends list? That’s because FB has become part of our mental reality so it drives real emotion. A share on FB is probably more powerful a statement of support or denial than a retweet, but still we’re nowhere near close to it being a real actionable part of human behavior.

About The Author
Joseph A.E. Shaheen
Computational Social Scientist. Former Consultant. I fought ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in my own way. Livin' life in Washington, DC
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