Remembering Pete Seeger 1-28-14: Collective Memory, Shared on Twitter

Activist folksinger Pete Seeger died at the age of 94 on January 27, 2014. As word of Seeger’s death spread on January 28, Twitter was flooded with tributes, including 28,226 posts made to the social media outlet’s #PeteSeeger hashtag channel by 9 PM. Of those posts, 21,617 (some 76.8%) were “re-tweets” of others’ posts. Pete Seeger wouldn’t have minded: he was a staunch believer in people forming publics to sing together, hearing a call and issuing a response, finding a tune and amplifying it not by microphones but in sheer numbers.

What did the world sing today about Pete Seeger? To answer that question, I tuned the Tweet Archivist Desktop (a handy $10 tool) to the #PeteSeeger hashtag, where it archived users’ public posts silently and efficiently in a background window on my computer. I used NodeXL (free and open-source) to find the most common word pairs in posts and to visualize them in the graphic you see below. When pairs are connected into chains and webs, the result is a semantic network that captures the spirit of the day.

Remembering Pete Seeger: a data visualization of a semantic network of the most common words and their connections in the 28,226 #PeteSeeger Twitter contributions from midnight to 9 PM on January 28 2014

In case you’re wondering, the word “communist” only appears 29 times in all those posts, far too rarely to reach the threshold required to appear in the image. “Thank” or “thanks” appears over 2,000 times.

A Hashtag Contested: Positive and Negative Social Media Reaction to the RSA-NSA Scandal

For some time now, public relations professionals have been worrying about “the bashtag problem.” Corporations may spend years cultivating positive conversations about their products over social media by developing and promoting a hashtag, only to see “their” hashtag fall into bashtag status when negative social media posts about that organization swamp the positive posts the organization seeks. Upset that public criticism may “ruin their brand,” some corporations have developed intimidation strategies to shut up and shut down isolated critics. But when large numbers of people join in the bashtagging, there’s no easy way to stop the dissent.

Through the fall of 2013, cybersecurity corporation RSA enjoyed positive references on its #RSAC hashtag on Twitter that it had developed to advertise its annual professional conference. In late December, however, it emerged that RSA’s data encryption products had a “back door” built into them that allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to break users’ encryption and (possibly without a warrant) snoop on private communications. On December 23, RSA issued a “non-denial” that seemed to implicitly acknowledge the arrangement. On that day, the positive flavor of the #RSAC hashtag changed.

After collecting the Twitter posts (or “tweets”) of the #RSAC hashtag using the Tweet Archivist Desktop, I’ve looked at the content of each one, determining whether its attitude toward RSA or the RSA Conference (RSAC) was positive, negative or neutral. The following graph tracks the volume of positivity, negativity and neutrality in the #RSAC hashtag from December 21 2013 through January 14 2014 (today):

Volume of Tweets Positive, Negative and Neutral Toward RSA in the #RSAC hashtag, 12/21/2013 to 1/14/2014

After an initial burst in which some prominent conference speakers canceled their participation in protest, it appeared that negative tweets regarding the RSA Conference might abate over the end-of-year holidays, and RSA began to use the channel to promote its conference again. Then, on January 7, RSA let out a teaser of a Tweet about the identity of its keynote speaker:

RSA Tweets on January 7 2014: Click here to find out who has been announced as #RSAC closing keynote speaker for 2014

That speaker is Stephen Colbert. With a celebrity drawn into the story, public attention returned, generating a new peak of critical #RSAC tweets that seems to be continuing. Some of those tweets are original, but the bulk of them constitute just a few messages, tweeted and retweeted over and over again over the #RSAC hashtag channel. Anti-surveillance social movement organization Fight For the Future has deployed a special web page

Fight for the Future asks its followers to send out automated tweets to overwhelm the #RSAC hashtag

… on which it asks its followers to share this message on Twitter: "Surveillance is no joke! Tell @StephenAtHome to cancel his keynote at this NSA tainted conference. http://cms.fightforthefuture.org/colbert/ #RSAC"

15.4% of all Tweets on the #RSAC hashtag from December 21 2013 to January 14 2014 are this one Tweet, posted over and over. Another Fight for the Future mass tweet, "Does Stephen Colbert secretly love the NSA? There's only one way to find out: http://t.co/SAVDMFup2I #RSAC," accounts for another 2.1% of #RSAC Tweets during the period.

Fight for the Future is part of a coalition of anti-surveillance groups who have announced a national day of protest on February 11. It’s called “The Day We Fight Back.” Where will the fight be? On the streets? Will there be a march? A picket? A rally in some square?

Apparently not. According to press materials, all activities will be taking place on the internet, where followers will be encouraged to share graphics on their blogs, to change their profile photos on Facebook, and to chant pre-written slogans over Twitter.

In American social movements, web banners are replacing cloth banners. Marches are giving way to orchestrated internet bashtagging. Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.

The Paradigm that isn’t in your Introduction to Sociology Text

The first chapter of the Introduction to Sociology textbook I teach with today is not very different from the first chapter of the Introduction to Sociology textbook I read as an undergraduate student in the 1980s. In text after text, there’s a nod to Marx, Weber and Durkheim (followed by a sniff at Comte). An identification of historically unrecognized founders such as Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois follows. Then there’s a reference to C. Wright Mills and the “sociological imagination” before the big finish: an identification of the “big three” paradigms of sociology. These are without variation identified as functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.

When I made the transition to graduate school and started reading and listening to professional sociologists, I noticed immediately that the phrases “functionalism,” “symbolic interactionism” and “conflict theory” were not being used in journal articles, conferences, colloquia or seminars. When I asked my graduate advisors whether they considered themselves to be functionalists, symbolic interactionists or conflict theorists, they’d raise their eyebrows and say, “well, really I’m not any of those things.” It’s not as though functionalists, symbolic interactionists or conflict theorists never existed. Rather, these divisions were identified in the middle of the 20th Century as a handy way of summarizing the then-current fault lines of the discipline. Despite the fact that sociologists have largely moved on from these conceptual categories in their work, there seems to be a reluctance upon the part of textbook publishers to let go of the “big three.”

Some change has been creeping in. Perhaps the largest innovation over the last quarter century has been to occasionally add reference to postmodernism as an alternative fourth paradigm. Unlike the other three terms, the term “postmodernism” does make a major appearance in modern scholarship, as the following graph showing the occurrence of the paradigmatic phrases in the Google Scholar database of publications shows:

Occurrence of the Phrases Postmodernism, Conflict Theory, Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism in the Google Scholar database from 2000 to 2013

The presence of “postmodernism” in Google Scholar search results should perhaps not be taken as an indication of the presence of “postmodernism” in the sociological literature, since postmodernism is an intellectual movement reaching far into the humanities. Similarly, the relative presence of “functionalism” may be overstated in this graph since functionalism also describes an intellectual movement in architecture and linguistics. Still, the presence of postmodernism appears considerable, and possibly explains the movement’s new inclusion in sociology texts.

Bringing the Networks In

I’ve brought this up before, but I’d like to make a current case for bringing the study of social networks into the mix of paradigms in an Introduction to Sociology course. Social network analysis is a field centered in sociology that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the three classic 20th Century paradigms identified in introductory textbooks. It isn’t macrosocial like conflict theory or functionalism (although work related to it has macrosocial implications), and while it deals with the nature of interaction social network analysis largely eschews the study of symbols, expectations and meanings that is of central importance to symbolic interactionism. Instead, social network analysis draws from graph theory, matrix algebra and theories about groups to focus on the structure of communication and affiliation outside the individual, primarily at a micro- to meso-social level. Although some pounce on the word “analysis” to suggest that the study of social networks is only methodology, the contention that the structure of social relations represented by networks has consequences for individuals, groups and societies involves a strong and distinct image of society that creates a basis for the creation of social theory. That’s what a paradigm is. The distinctiveness and conceptual clarity of network analysis gives it the potential to stand along symbolic interactionism, conflict theory, functionalism and postmodernism in an introduction to sociology text.

The case for social network analysis as a paradigm worth inclusion is bolstered by pure volume. Let’s add Google Scholar counts for “social network analysis,” a movement in sociological study that is largely left out of introductory sociology textbooks. In contrast to “postmodernism” and “functionalism,” the phrase “social network analysis” leads to a restrictive search, leaving out “social networks” references that don’t contain analysis and “network analysis” references that don’t feature the modifier “social.” The phrase “social network analysis” pretty much guarantees that results will fall within the social science and probably underestimates the actual volume of scholarship on the subject. This creates what’s called a conservative test of the presence of social network sociology. Here are the results with “social network analysis” added in:

Occurrence of Paradigmatic Phrases, including "Social Network Analysis," in Google Scholar Database from 2000 to 2013

At the turn of the 21st Century the relative presence of “social network analysis” was nothing remarkable, but for the past six years “social network analysis” has outperformed the three classic sociological paradigmatic phrases by an increasingly large margin, even when restrictively phrased. In the year 2013, “social network analysis” outperformed “postmodernism” for the first time.

Google Scholar is a very handy (and widely replicable) way of assessing the volume of scholarship for a subject, but the tool cannot easily filter by discipline. On the other hand, the University of Maine at Augusta Library’s physical and online collection of books and journals is more limited in breadth than Google Scholar’s database in contents but allows results to be filtered by discipline.

Social Science Publications in the UMA Library Collection Published since 2000 Featuring these Phrases...
Social Science Publications in the UMA Library Collection Published since 2000 Featuring these Phrases...

As you can see, these results indicate the same pattern: since the year 2000, new publications in the social sciences mentioning social network analysis have strongly surpassed publications mentioning the three classic paradigms, approaching the number of publications in the social sciences for “postmodernism.” Last year, the number of new publications for “social network analysis” in the university collection surpassed those for “postmodernism” as well.

Introductory textbook authors, pick up those pens. There are a number of audacious social facts in the network paradigm worth sharing.