A university professor has helped develop a software tool that maps uncharted territory: the connections formed on social media.

Marc Smith, director of the Social Media Research Foundation, along with computer science professor Ben Shneiderman, helped develop NodeXL. The free, open-source template allows users to explore networks, and using the program as their telescope, Shneiderman, Smith — along with Pew Research Center Director Lee Rainie and Itai Himelboim, professor of telecommunications at the University of Georgia — collected maps of hashtags and topics on Twitter and found that most fall into six individual networks.

“When people tweet, when they reply, when they mention, they form connections,” Smith said. “When you take a collection of connections, there’s actually a shape, and what we’re interested in is mapping the shape of social cyberspace.” 

The study, which came out last week and has been in the works for seven years, was initially funded by Microsoft External Research but has since been taken over by the Social Media Research Foundation to keep NodeXL free for the public, Shneiderman said.

According to Shneiderman, these findings have provided the beginnings of understanding conversations that take place on Twitter.

The six distinctive network structures — Polarized Crowd, Tight Crowd, Brand Clusters, Community Clusters, Broadcast Network and Support Network — each illustrate a unique social structure and shape formed by conversations on Twitter.

Each group forms depending “on the subject being discussed, the information sources being cited, the social networks of the people talking about the subject, and the leaders of the conversation,” according to the Pew Research Internet Project report.

Smith compared these patterns and groupings to the shapes people might form at Grand Central Station in New York City; no one was told to make a certain shape or follow a pattern when walking, but they decided to on their own.

“In Twitter, all of these people have made their own choices,” Smith said. “Nobody tells them what they have to do, but different kinds of topics lead people to make different choices.”

When people gather in physical crowds, researchers can take and analyze photos to learn about the nature of those crowds, Smith said.

“But we don’t have those kinds of pictures for social media; we don’t really know what it’s like when a crowd of people gather on Twitter or Facebook,” Smith said. “And that’s a problem because people are gathering in these spaces all day, every day, and in some way these are the new public spaces.”

The researchers created and used NodeXL to collect and explore 1.5 million maps of hashtags and topics on Twitter, most of which fit into at least one of the six networks.

Each network structure provides some sort of information that emphasizes the importance of social media in society. For example, one of the network structures, The Polarized Crowd, depicts two crowds that don’t typically interact with one another, according to the report developed alongside NodeXL. This is relevant because these polarized crowds are common in political conversations, with one crowd liberal and the other conservative. The report states that this finding “shows that partisan Twitter users rely on different information sources.”

Other discussions attract different groups of people with different relationships and consequently form different patterns. Looking at the crowd as a whole, Smith said, allows users to see that members are thinking the same way.

“The idea of stepping back and looking at each individual, not as an individual but as a part of a collective, that’s a sociological process,” he said.

Smith said the social media maps are useful in the ways any maps are useful: picking destinations and finding paths to them. A social media map helps identify the most important people in conversations, he said, as well as the connections to those people.

Jessica Schram, a junior communication major, is not surprised by the creation of the software and the report’s findings.

“I really think the world is changing right before our eyes, and it’s kind of a scary thing,” she said. “But even though it’s scary, this is a huge deal because it can really help businesses and the government track trends and important issues surrounding social media.”