#APSA2017: A social network analysis of the 2017 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting
by Eric Vorst, University of Missouri – St. Louis
The 2017 American Political Science Association Annual meeting featured outstanding research from around the globe while providing scholars with opportunities to meet, reconnect, and share perspectives with fellow academics in a face-to-face environment. These sorts of interactions are often the most visible aspects of attending a conference; however, the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting also featured a vibrant, active, and engaged community on social media. Members of the #APSA2017 community used Twitter to share research, crack jokes, and offer political commentary – as well as to bring attention to pressing contemporary social issues and strengthen advocacy networks. But who got noticed in the #APSA2017 network, and why? Network analysis and visualization can help answer these questions by offering a unique look into how scholars’ intelligent and strategic use of social media contributes to getting their work noticed and having their message heard.
Pre-conference #APSA2017 Network
Twitter discussion in the days leading up to the conference is always interesting to examine, as it can provide a hint as to the types of themes that may influence discussion over the following days. An excellent example of this sort of activity was found with @WomenAlsoKnow, who have been consistently visible in Twitter discussion surrounding multiple political science conferences over recent years. In the days leading up to the 2017 APSA conference, @WomenAlsoKnow was active posting messages, sharing information, and making connections with a number of fellow political scientists. In doing so, they established a strong presence early and, in turn, were frequently part of people’s #APSA2017 discussions – especially with respect to the eponymous #WomenAlsoAPSA and #WomenAlsoKnowStuff hashtags.
Another interesting aspect of pre-conference tweets is that they provide readers with a preview of research that will be presented at the conference. In contrast to a single brief abstract out of the thousands published in the official conference program, pre-conference tweets about attendees’ research presentations tend to be more personalized and interactive. Some of the more successful pre-conference tweets provide a brief summary of the research, why it’s relevant, and include an impactful visual or supplemental HTML link. As long as a tweeter avoids the risk of over-exposure through excessive self-promotion, these sorts of tweets can be extremely useful as informative tools for stoking fellow attendees’ interest.
For example, a great deal of pre-conference buzz was generated around research by @joshuadarr, which analyzed the “Incredible Shrinking Democratic Ground Game”. This tweet was by far the most mentioned and retweeted among all pre-conference discussion. More importantly, it received attention from influential members of the pre-conference #APSA2017 network, which amplified its reach and impact. The interest in @joshuadarr’s tweet was no accident, as it demonstrated a number of elements which increased its likelihood of successful exposure: it highlighted a current issue of interest to many attendees, it incorporated a striking and engaging visual, and it offered compelling explanations as to why the recent U.S. presidential election concluded in the manner it did. Anyone who may be interested in increasing their exposure on Twitter during a political science conference can learn a lot from @joshuadarr’s successful tweet during the days leading up to APSA 2017.
Day One: Thursday, August 31st, 2017
The power of pre-conference influence was seen during Day One of the American Political Science Annual Meeting, as @joshuadarr and @WomenAlsoKnow continued to have a strong level of centrally positioned influence in the #APSA2017 Twitter network. The official Twitter account for the American Political Science Association (@APSATweets) was also active and centrally located in the #APSA2017 network during Day One. Such success is not always evident in other major conference Twitter networks I have analyzed, which suggests that @APSATweets is successful at engaging in an effective social media strategy at their conferences. This is an approach that other organizations might benefit from emulating, as it can provide them with a point of central control and influence, thus allowing them to shape the direction of a conference within the social media sphere.
A theme fairly unique to the 2017 APSA conference also emerged on Day One surrounding a panel appearance by John Yoo. Spearheaded by @ciccmaher, this theme centered around the #FireJohnYoo campaign and utilized a number of photographs snapped during a silent protest staged by several academics during Yoo’s panel appearance. While there was significant traffic surrounding @ciccmaher on Day One, by and large these connections were localized and did not achieve broad impact on the wider #APSA2017 network.
Day Two: Friday, September 1st, 2017
Influential users from Day One continued their visibility on Day Two. It is interesting to note that @WomenAlsoKnow was instrumental as a central hub in a neighborhood of discussion promoting advocacy. For example, discussion surrounding @latinodecisions and @pocalsoknow were closely intertwined with the @WomenAlsoKnow sub-network. This is an excellent demonstration of the power of symbiotic networking for participants who seek to promote shared goals.
The official APSA political communication Twitter account (@poli_com) earned a significant amount of exposure on Day Two. Tweets addressing panels within the sub-discipline of political communication demonstrated an expansive reach and impact beyond the immediate neighborhood. This suggests APSA was successful in sharing content with conference attendees that was both interesting and worthy of retweeting by a wide range of conference attendees. In all, the influence of APSA’s two main Twitter accounts impacted approximately half of the network’s real estate during the first day of the conference.
Other themes gained influence on Day Two, such as the #FireJohnYoo campaign. As the network visualizations demonstrate, these tweets generated a significant amount of traffic between @ciccmaher and other users; however, this discussion occurred predominantly within a fairly localized neighborhood, while falling short of establishing strong connections with central and influential members of the #APSA2017 network. This is not to say that the #FireJohnYoo message was ineffective. Rather, it achieved a comparatively limited reach and narrower exposure when observed alongside other users during the same time frame.
Day Three: Saturday, September 2nd, 2017
The #APSA2017 network on Day Three of the conference demonstrated how current political events have the power to shape broader narratives. On the previous day (September 1st, 2017), President Donald Trump released an official statement declaring he would rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Not unsurprisingly, this development garnered a significant amount of attention from political scientists attending the 2017 APSA conference. Such interest was evidenced by #DACA being the most frequently tweeted hashtag within the #APSA2017 network.
Where social networks are concerned, however, frequency is not a reliable or accurate predictor of reach, impact, or influence, as the majority of tweet volume addressing #DACA was confined to a fairly peripheral region of the network. The lion’s share of #DACA discussion on Day Three focused upon excellent and timely research published by @johnholbein1 in @ScienceMagazine. The peripheral nature of this traffic did not mean that this theme had a diminished impact. Rather, this merely meant that the range of #APSA2017 participants exposed to this information was fairly localized. In other words, while a fairly large number of people read and shared this tweet, they were not connected with many other portions of the #APSA2017 network. As such, the broader reach and impact of the message was moderately constrained. Had this message been “picked up” by other influential members of the #APSA2017 network on Day Three, the resulting shift in visibility could have been profound.
Day Three also featured significant influence by APSA’s political communication Twitter account: @poli_com. This influence was largely due to the fact that @poli_com was mentioned and re-tweeted frequently by influential members of the #APSA2017 network. It is also likely that this influence was aided by a combination of @poli_com’s early positive exposure as well as its ability to consistently provide content that appealed to members of the #APSA2017 network. Further positive exposure was likely generated because @poli_com tweets mentioned individuals who also happened to be influential members of the #APSA2017 network. While it is true that mentioning influential users can lead to more influence for the original tweeter, this is not always the case; mentioning influential users is a “foot in the door” because it establishes a connection between two users. However, this connection only benefits the original tweeter if the mentioned user acts upon the message by replying, liking, or re-tweeting. When the mentioned user does so, it results in reciprocal influence boosts for both individuals. These network mechanics aside, it’s worth acknowledging the impressive presence established by @poli_com through Day Three of the conference, as well as the reasons why this likely occurred.
Day Four: Sunday, November 3rd, 2017
Typically, the fourth and final day of the American Political Science Association conference is somewhat of a “half day”, with panels and presentations wrapping up by noon. Also, attendance tends to be lower on this day as many attendees are in the process of returning home from the conference. As such, it’s not surprising that tweet volume was much lower on Day Four than it was on previous days.
One general effect of lower overall tweet volume is that it requires less effort for a tweet or user to gain relatively high levels of reach and impact in the network. Such a tendency can work to the advantage of a member who wants to leave an impression on the network at the close of a conference. While there may be less actual tweeting going on during these days, one cannot assume that fewer people are following and reading the #APSA2017 stream. As such, the final day of the conference represents an excellent opportunity for a member of the network to reach a wide audience for her or his research.
As was the case with #APSA2016, the network analysis of #APSA2017 helped weave a narrative for the conference from a social media perspective by providing an intriguing look into how various themes developed over the span of several days. In addition, the analysis provided several useful takeaways. First, it can be advantageous for network participants to get involved with the conference hashtag early, as there seems to be a strategic advantage for such “early adopters”. Second, members who tweet out compelling research in an interesting manner position themselves to earn widespread interest, high-visibility connections, and a social media buzz that can persist across multiple days. Last, tweets addressing current events and placing these events into a relevant political science context are more likely to appeal to a wider audience and, in turn, are more likely to be shared, mentioned, and – most importantly – seen by others.
In addition to these insights, the #APSA2017 analysis underscores the importance of being active on social media during a professional conference like the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting. The second article in this series looks ahead to the 2018 APSA Annual Meeting and addresses the tangible benefits of being an active member of the #APSA2018 network, even if this activity is limited to being a mere observer. Further, I take a closer look at the types of tweets, tactics, and strategies that were successful for members in past conferences. Building upon these observations, I apply basic concepts of network mechanics to propose that social media activity during the conference is just as important as traditional social activity – and in many cases the two enhance each other. In turn, members can increase their visibility not only in the #APSA2018 network, but in the broader discipline as well. In short, if you’re not yet tweeting at conferences … you should be (even if you don’t tweet)!
Eric C. Vorst earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Missouri – St. Louis. His dissertation “Trolling Twitter” examined incivility in social media during the 2016 presidential election. Eric holds an M.A. in political science from University of Missouri – St. Louis, an M.B.A. from Lindenwood University, and a B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from Central Missouri State University. His research interests include political communication and behavior, network analysis, and American political development. Eric lives in the St. Louis area with his wife and two children, aged 5 and 7.