There are many approaches to study community and online communication, here at the Social Media Lab, we primarily approach this from a social network perspective. This perspective looks at group or community interactions to determine who the actors are in the network and the kind ties that bind them together.
In a recently released study, “Enabling Community Through Social Media” published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers at our lab used social network analysis to examine the #hcsmca Twitter networks, “a vibrant community of people interested in exploring social innovation in health care. We share and learn, and together we are making health care more open and connected.”
The primary aim of this research is to discover and understand the different kinds of communities that can be created and sustained online, and the different motivations that support participation in these online collectives. In the case of #hcsmca, we are interested in understanding the group’s operation, identifying key constituents, and how information and other resources flow in the network. A secondary aim of this study is to demonstrate how social network analysis can be used to gain an understanding of social media use for communication and community building online in the context of health.
Knowing this information will allow group moderators and others to identify prominent actors (influential members) and more importantly to discover peripheral participants (people who are susceptible to being influenced). These peripheral participants represent an untapped resource that can be mobilized and in the process create new social capital for the group. This paper is a must read for anyone interested in finding how to build a strong, vibrant community online with Twitter.
The abstract is below. The full paper can be found in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR). If you have any questions about this study, please contact Dr. Gruzd or Dr. Haythornwaitte.
Background: Social network analysis provides a perspective and method for inquiring into the structures that comprise online groups and communities. Traces from interaction via social media provide the opportunity for understanding how a community is formed and maintained online.
Objective: The paper aims to demonstrate how social network analysis provides a vocabulary and set of techniques for examining interaction patterns via social media. Using the case of the #hcsmca online discussion forum, this paper highlights what has been and can be gained by approaching online community from a social network perspective, as well as providing an inside look at the structure of the #hcsmca community.
Methods: Social network analysis was used to examine structures in a 1-month sample of Twitter messages with the hashtag #hcsmca (3871 tweets, 486 unique posters), which is the tag associated with the social media–supported group Health Care Social Media Canada. Network connections were considered present if the individual was mentioned, replied to, or had a post retweeted.
Results: Network analyses revealed patterns of interaction that characterized the community as comprising one component, with a set of core participants prominent in the network due to their connections with others. Analysis showed the social media health content providers were the most influential group based on in-degree centrality. However, there was no preferential attachment among people in the same professional group, indicating that the formation of connections among community members was not constrained by professional status.
Conclusions: Network analysis and visualizations provide techniques and a vocabulary for understanding online interaction, as well as insights that can help in understanding what, and who, comprises and sustains a network, and whether community emerges from a network of online interactions.
(J Med Internet Res 2013;15(10):e248)
online community; online social networks; information and communication technology; social media; Twitter