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What does Twitter and its hashtags say about us? Plenty that is endearing

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What does Twitter tell you about Australians?

How we use social media says a lot about us and our culture, given the dimension it has acquired over the past few years. As Queensland University of Technology’s Professor Axel Bruns, it is fascinating to see our societies through the “lens” of social media.

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation — led by Bruns and Dr Jean Burgess — have come up with a map that reveals in “spectacular fashion the electronic social networks that now enmesh the continent.”

Vibrant and complex networks

“The map offers us a completely different way to view Australian society – not by where people live or what job they do, but by how they connect to each other through Twitter,” Bruns said.

“It gives us a strong sense of who is using Twitter, why and how. When a big issue comes along you can see parts or all of the network lighting up, much as in the brain scans used by neuroscientists,” he added.

In a nutshell, the study demonstrates strength and complexity of connections among Australian users of Twitter, besides revealing “vibrant networks around issues of interest and concern to Australians that interweave across the whole physical continent.”

The researchers studied data from 950,000 Australian Twitter accounts — or about half of an estimated 2 million. Those users had a reach that, remarkably, extended to 21 million people, or nearly the entire population of Australia. If that is a great discovery in itself, the resultant map reveals large clusters of activity around major themes. These include politics, sport, business, celebrities and the arts, as much as food, agriculture, rock bands, religion and real estate. The data show nationwide interest in issues such as the Queensland floods, the Christchurch earthquake and in TV shows such as MasterChef, among others.

The study found that hashtags have emerged as a new barometer to measure public interest, or perhaps, concern during a crisis. For example, the political hashtags pick up the winds of change in a dynamic political scenario. The CCI researchers said they were able to “pinpoint the moment when Tony Abbott began to draw ahead of Julia Gillard in terms of mentions on Twitter, or when Campbell Newman eclipsed Anna Bligh in the run-up to the Queensland election.”

“You can use the map to study developments in Australian politics, natural disasters or trends in public thought and opinion,” said Burgess. “It offers us a completely fresh way to view the discourse that is taking place between Australians or different groups. It shows there are multiple, overlapping publics, interacting and interweaving in time and space across Australia.”

Finally, the map shows Twitter networks that are truly national and those that are isolated from the Australian ‘mainland,’ tending to connect among themselves more than with other networks. Examples of segregated groups include localised ones in cities such as Adelaide and Perth, or special interest networks such as evangelical groups, followers of pop stars, and various sports and beer lovers.

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