December 12 2014 is the day before the Millions March in New York City, an organized reaction to the death of unarmed black men at the hands of the police and more broadly to structural forms of racial discrimination. Tomorrow, a variety of professional journalists will hopefully describe the messages and activities of the protest and reactions to this protest. Today, we can study the run-up to the Millions March by watching people talk about it on Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook, the social media website that most people know best, lets users create personal accounts and pages that they control. Administrators of a page for a group or event can allow posts by others, but they can also purge them if they find the content disagreeable. For announcing activist events, Facebook is a top-down affair. If you want to know what movement organizers think of their protest event, look at their Facebook page. The following is a word cloud taken from administrative posts to the MillionsMarchNYC. Words are larger in this graphic if they occur more frequently:
We see a lot of practical information here, many references to locations and plans and logistical concerns. This is what’s on the mind of movement leaders. What’s on the mind of the many thousands who are thinking about going?
Twitter is a social media website unlike Facebook, a website on which certain people own Pages and control those Pages’ content. On Twitter, subjects are organized by hashtags, which no one owns, no one can purge, and which therefore tends to be driven from the bottom up. A corporation with an image problem on Facebook can simply delete comments. Woe betide the corporation that offends on Twitter; it may entirely lose control of the public conversation about itself. If you want to know what people are thinking about a social movement inside and outside its leadership, look at Twitter.
To do just that, I’ve gathered up all Twitter posts (“Tweets”) using the hashtag #MillionsMarchNYC. Perhaps the simplest way of characterizing #MillionsMarchNYC tweets is over time; as of 12 Noon on December 12, here’s the trend in posting volume:
5,415 tweets using the newly-created hashtag were posted from November 26 to December 12, but the dates November 26-30 are not even included in this graph because the number of tweets during that initial period — just 6 — is miniscule in comparison to the conversation two weeks later. The trend clearly indicates a spike in use of the #MillionsMarchNYC hashtag, especially over the last few days before the march, but what ideas are associated with the spiking hashtag?
A useful feature of Twitter for answering that question is that a single post may contain more than one hashtag. The co-occurrence of #MillionsMarchNYC with other hashtags in the set of Nov. 30 – Dec. 12 tweets is indicated in the following frequency table:
In the interest of brevity, I’ve only included hashtags used at least ten times in this list. Just three hashtags co-occur with #MillionsMarchNYC more than 1,000 times: #blacklivesmatter, #icantbreathe and #dec1314. The tail of the distribution is long, however, with many hashtags occurring a handful of times or just once:
These many hashtags do not simply co-occur with #MillionsMarchNYC in these Twitter posts, however. They also sometimes co-occur with one another, forming a co-occurrence network that tells us something about the symbolic landscape of the leadup to this protest.
Sometimes the truth is messy; the following is a graph showing the complete co-occurrence network of hashtags used with #MillionsMarchNYC (the #MillionsMarchNYC hashtag itself is removed from the network to highlight connections between other tags). Every hashtag is a node in this network and every co-occurrence between two hashtags appears as a tie between the two nodes. A tie is drawn more darkly if the co-occurrence happens more often, and a node is drawn in greater size if the hashtag it represents co-occurs with a greater number of other hashtags. Nodes are given different colors to highlight sets of nodes that are more strongly connected with one another:
That’s pretty hard to read, isn’t it? A few tags are evident, but there are so many that they overlap with one another, blending into a blurry mess. The culture of a social movement can actually be a lot like that, with a large number of voices saying so many things. But if we start to filter out the least common hashtag utterances, clearer patterns begin to emerge.
Here’s the same Twitter hashtag network, but this time just showing the hashtags for which co-occurrences happen at least 5 times:
Here’s the same Twitter hashtag network, but this time just showing the hashtags that co-occur with some other hashtag at least 20 times:
And here’s the same Twitter hashtag network, but this time just showing the hashtags that co-occur with some other hashtag at least 100 times:
If we filter for frequency, we lose detail, but at the same time the core of this movement’s culture becomes apparent.
Although I stand by my claim that this hashtag network indicates something about social movement culture, I should note a few important limitations. First, the use of a hashtag involves a person deciding how they would like others to categorize their declarations. These are professions of manifest culture; latent culture remains hidden. Second, Twitter is not a form of social media that is used by everyone; according to the Pew Internet Project young adults, urbanites and African-Americans are disproportionately likely to post to Twitter. However, it’s important to note that this is exactly the population that forms the strongest constituency for the Millions March in New York City. In addition, even with the limitations I’ve just noted, the conversation on Twitter is much more expansive and inclusive than the conversation within the movement’s core organizing cadre. If we’re interested in distinctions between leaders and potential participants in a social movement, Twitter is a pretty good place to look.