Grady College assistant professor co-authors report on structures of Twitter conversations

Itai Himelboim, assistant professor of telecommunications at the Grady College, is a co-author of a report released Feb. 20 by the Pew Research Center and the Social Media Research Foundation that finds Twitter conversations follow distinct conversational and social structures.

Other authors of the report are Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland; Marc. A. Smith, director of the Social Media Research Foundation; and Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet Project.

Using an open-source tool called NodeXL that is a plug-in to Excel spreadsheets, the researchers created thousands of maps of hundreds of subjects and events and examined the interplay of tweets, retweets, Twitter messages and the social networks of Twitter users, according to a news release from the Pew Research Center.

The study identifies six patterns-Polarized Crowds, Tight Crowds, Brand Clusters, Community Clusters, Broadcast Network Structures and Support Network Conversations-and why those different styles matter to understanding the things that are occurring on social media, Himelboim explained.

“Some of the conversation styles we identify are what you might expect,” he said. “For instance, there is a very clear polarization when the topic is related to politics. The maps we have created of these conversations are beautiful in showing how Tweeters in polarized crowds don't much interact with each other, how the crowds form around different sources of information, and how they revolve around different key social actors.

“But that's not the only story,” Himelboim continued. “The five other kinds of community structures explain other phenomena: They show how tight communities form around a common passion; how big global news stories general clusters of different conversations; how brands and celebrities generate small numbers of conversations; how support communities and broadcast-style structures emerge in different circumstances.”

Pew Research Center in its news release notes that conversations are not representative of the views or behaviors of the full Twitterverse, and that Twitter users are only 18% of Internet users and 14% of the overall adult population.

“Still, the structure of these Twitter conversations says something meaningful about how engaged users discuss topics, find each other, and share information,” the release states.

“By looking at things through the lens of social networks, we are using new tools to examine the world,” said Himelboim. “Our belief is that this kind of work complements and enriches the understanding people get from more traditional research methods like surveys, focus groups, from ethnographic studies, and even sentiment analysis counts of social media content.”

The complete report, “Mapping Twitter Topic Networks: From Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters,” is available for view at

Date: February 21, 2014
Author:  Stephanie Moreno,
Contact:  Itai Himelboim,