With the craziness of this year’s ISA wearing down and the jetlag having finally retreated, a bit of reflection on the conference is in order. Much has been said prior and after the ISA, which is why I want to offer a somewhat different view of the conference: the ISA as it happened on Twitter.
Why should we care about Twitter at an academic conference like this? This year’s ISA was certainly extremely active on Twitter. The official program lists 5073 participants and I’ve counted 629 unique Twitter users mentioning the “official” hashtag #isa2014 at least once in their tweets (I’ll provide some background on the data below). Now, the number of participants is certainly higher, given the many exhibitors who don’t present on panels and other people simply attending the conference without presenting. Also the number of Twitter users mentioning the hashtag #isa2014 does not precisely reflect the number of tweeting ISA attendees – people can be tweeting about #isa2014 without actually being there. At the same time, not everybody tweeting from the conference necessarily includes the #isa2014 hashtag in her or his Tweet. So my numbers are skewed.
Nevertheless, a number of about 5100 conference attendees of which roughly 600 are using Twitter puts the percentage of tweeting ISAlers at around 11 per cent. Although this is just a ballpark estimate and may well be higher or lower, it is much higher than the average percentage of Twitter users in the world which is at roughly 2 per cent (if we are to believe Twitter user statistics and world population data). There was even a separate roundtable entirely devoted to discussing the role of Twitter in Academia. (More on that later.) And we’ve all seen the monitor next to the blackboard in the Sheraton Lobby, showing #isa2014 tweets in real time.
With Twitter playing such a prominent role at the ISA, I wanted to see if this role could somehow be quantified.
This wasn’t as easy as I thought. I started downloading the all Tweets containing #isa2014 on Thursday (3 April) afternoon, using the excellent R package TwitteR. But when I took a look at the resulting list of tweets, I noticed that none of them were older than Thursday, 27 March, missing out the entire Wednesday of the conference. A quick look in the documentation of the Twitter API revealed that Twitter does not allow you to programmatically access Tweets older than 6 to 9 days. Seven days, in my case.
This was unfortunate, since I was missing the first day of the conference. So I took the names of all unique Twitter users from my initial, incomplete data and downloaded all the individual Tweets from these users, containing their user name and the #isa2014 hashtag. My hope was that the API’s search function reaches back the entire nine days if you’re looking for Tweets from individual users, rather than searching the complete Twitter timeline. This approach more or less worked and produced Tweets from Wednesday, too—but not very many, especially compared to the number of Tweets from the subsequent days. Unfortunately, it did not produce any Tweets older than Wednesday, 26 March.
This low number of Wednesday tweets questions the completeness of the data: at best, the following analysis is based on an incomplete reflection of Twitter usage. At worst, it is systematically biased, especially if there was heavy Twitter usage on Wednesday, which is mostly missing from the analysis. From constantly watching my TweetDeck’s #isa2014 column (yeah, I may have attended some panels, too), my personal impression was that Twitter usage took up heat only some time after the conference had started, so maybe the bias is not too severe. But I definitely know that I will set up a cron job for next year’s ISA to download each day for #isa2015 right at 0.00am and save it to get a complete snapshot. All in all, my procedure yielded 2940 unique tweets containing the #isa2014 hashtag.
With these caveats in mind, we can move on to the actual analysis. Obviously, the most important question we all want to know is: Who was the most active Tweep of the entire ISA? The following graph lists the 20 busiest Twitter users using the #isa2014 hashtag.
With a stunning number of 190 Tweets, Annick Wibben clearly leads the field, followed by Raul Pacheco-Vega and FTGS (which is the official account of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies section of the International Studies Association).
Some caveats are in order, though: this figure does not necessarily represent an account of the most active persons on Twitter at #isa2014, but rather gives us the list of people who used the #isa2014 hashtag most frequently. These two things are not the same.
For instance, Charli Carpenter and PTJ’s epic debate about whether Star Wars constitutes sci-fi or not (BTW, it’s clearly sci-fi ;) ) is not included in these figures. They used #isa2015 to refer the debate to next year’s ISA, so, I guess we should include those in next year’s figures. Turns out their conversation was in the data, I just missed it. But Star Wars is still sci-fi. :) Also, other live tweetings etc. of panels that didn’t include the hashtag don’t make it into the analysis, which would change this overall figure dramatically. See the discussion of Twitter usage during the separate Twitter panel below. The numbers here also include retweets; they are not entirely made up of original Tweets by the persons on the list. But since a retweet represents a Twitter interaction, I included them in my analysis.
When do people Tweet?
The next question we all want answered is: when do people tweet? The following figure sheds light on this mystery.
We see that this is pretty much what we would expect, a lot of buzz during the day, less so late night, except for some jetlagged Tweeps from overseas. This is actually a hypothesis one could test with the data here (which I haven’t done): are Twitter users from overseas more likely to tweet later in the night (or earlier in the morning, given the direction of the time difference)? We also see a lot of goodbye Tweets following the conference as the numbers peter out in the end.
The figure indicates that something might be wrong with the data, as I mentioned above: is there really a steady increase of Tweets per day or did I simply download more Tweets from those days because of Twitter’s API restrictions? We won’t know, but I’ll be sure to test this hypothesis with more complete data next year.
The Twitter Panel
Also, this figure might be suspicious to anyone who actually attended the ISA: wouldn’t we expect a spike in Tweets on Thursday afternoon (27 March), since there was the dedicated Twitter panel? In fact, the attendees were insanely busy on Twitter during the Twitter panel:
But the Twitter panel used the separate hashtag #isatw14—and most attendees and panelists did not include #isa2014 in their #isatw14 Tweets. This is why these Tweets don’t show up in the overall #isa2014 statistics. If we look at the #isatw14 Twitter usage separately, a different pattern emerges. Take a look at the busiest Tweeps in the Twitter panel:
With 61 Tweets, Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) clearly leads the field of the Twitter panel tweeps. Need I mention that she was also a panelist and gave smart replies while tweeting at that pace? Multitasking FTW. If we add these numbers to the first figure, the overall ranking obviously shifts (figure not included).
What were the most popular Tweets?
Now, I’m already hearing the criticism of my stats-suspicious friends: enough with the numbers! What were people actually talking about? Although I don’t attempt any textual analysis of #isa2014 Tweet content (which might be a nice follow-up blog post idea for someone who actually knows how to do this), I’ve collected a list of the most popular Tweets of the conference. The idea here is that the most popular Tweets somehow reflect something like a shared agreement on statements about the ISA (an assumption which is, let’s say, at least questionable). But this being a blog post, I went ahead and did it anyway.
This obviously begets the question: how do you determine a Tweet’s popularity? I took the quick and dirty road and simply added the number of a Tweet’s retweets and its count of favorites. Now, this might not be the best index-generating process in the world (some people could say retweeting weighs more, because it reflects active endorsement or at least engagement, whereas a favorite is more like a Facebook “Like”). You are free to give me hell about this indexing process in the comments. But this simple procedure produces the following list of the 10 most popular tweets at ISA2014 in descending order:
Ah, now it gets interesting. The first Tweet, which received the highest number of retweets and favorites, gets at somewhat we’ve all experienced: questions that turn in to co-presentation which may or may not close with an actual question. This cartoon pretty much sums it up – it was actually shared quite often on Twitter during the conference:
The other top tweets reflect much of Twitter’s usual snarkiness, which is refreshing when you are hearing dead serious presentations the entire day. But the top 20 Tweets also reveal that this year’s ISA president Amitav Archya hit a nerve with his speech calling for an opening up of the study of world politics to voices from the Global South. Interesting stuff.
Again, this list is incomplete because my data does not reach back far enough. Because Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) tweeted – in my opinion – the most important information for the entire conference:
With 31 retweets and 30 favorites this tweet easily makes it to the second place in the previous list of most popular tweets, but it wasn’t included in my data because of Twitter’s time restrictions. Note that some of retweet and favorite counts have changed since I downloaded the data which is why the order of the Tweets from highest popularity score (retweets + favorites) to lowest is not entirely correct anymore.
Finally, the Twitter panel also collected the combined wisdom of the experienced Twitteratis-slash-academics. Thankfully, Simon Usherwood neatly summarized the major point in a list of Tweets which I’ve storified here. I guess the main take away of this panel was this:
I’ll leave it at this for the moment. Following ISA on Twitter while attending the conference is usually a lot of fun, sometimes provides context to the panels you’re attending (and a lot of snark) and gives you much needed distraction in others. It obviously doesn’t replace attending the conference, but gives you a meta-level discussion that nicely puts many of the interesting (or boring) events at such a conference into perspective.
From analysis point of view, this quick exercise raised for me the question if and how we can capture a more complete snapshot of ISA tweets (besides getting more complete data by downloading earlier)? Because taking the hashtag as anchor point misses much of the sideline discussions between conference attendees tweeting at each other. Maybe one approach would be to locate Tweets geographically, but only very few users turn on their geotagging function of their Twitter client. I’ll give this more thought, but I’d be interested in the opinions of the Twitter-savvy readers on this.
As I said, I’ll try to get a more complete snapshot of ISA tweeting next year—in the meantime I invite everybody to have a look at the data themselves. You can download the .csv of the 2940 ISA Tweets here. I’ve also uploaded my R code to Github, but given the time restrictions of the Twitter API you probably won’t be able to replicate the graphs and tables. Maybe it’s useful for anyone trying to replicate this for another conference or event.