Social media roles: patterns of behavior over time

Participants in social media are not all the same.  People who contribute to social media come in “flavors” that are created by each participant’s patterns of activity and connection.  In the post “Distinguishing social network attributes of online social roles ” some of the social network features of different participants are illustrated.  Participants vary in terms of the number of people they connect to and the number of people those people connect to.  Some people are connected to many people who are themselves not connected to one another.  Other people are connected to many people who do connect to one another.  The difference is an indicator of the type of contributions each participant makes.

Another dimension of a social media participant’s activity is their pattern of content creation over time: do people post many messages? Are the messages mostly initial turns, messages that start new threads?  Or is the content an author creates mostly replies to other user’s threads?  Does the participant contribute many messages in each thread or only a few (or just one)?  These different patterns of engagement illustrate the different roles people perform when they interact in a social media space.  If you are trying to cultivate an effective online community, knowing about the balance of social roles in your community makes a difference.

Author Lines visualization of Answer People and Discussion People
Author Lines visualization of Answer People and Discussion People

In this visualization (created by Fernanda Viegas during an internship with me at Microsoft Research several years ago) each image represents a year in the life of a single author to a threaded discussion community (in this case a Usenet newsgroup).  Each week in the year is represented as a vertical strip divided in half.  In each week a bubble is presented for every thread to which the author contributed.  Messages in threads the author started are red and they are placed above the line, messages contributed to threads that were started by any other author appear below the line and are blue.  The number of messages contributed to each thread in the given week is represented by the size of the bubble.  Bubbles grow more transparent as they grow larger.

In this image, two examples of two different types of authors are displayed.  The two authors at the top of this image are “Answer People” who display a pattern of regular contribution to the community discussion throughout the year, although one author (upper right) is increasing and the other decreasing in activity.  Both avoid thread initiation (if you look closely you can see a single initial post for the upper left hand author at the end of the year) and both contribute only a few messages to each thread, in most cases only a single message.  These brief reply oriented people are mostly answering questions raised by other users.  These answer people are the engine of most support oriented discussion spaces.  Without them few questions will be answered.

The bottom two authors are discussion people, they both initiate and reply and both contribute several messages to the threads in which they participate.  The author in the lower right-hand image has contributed a large volume of messages to several threads over multiple weeks which could indicate a flame war or a vigorous discussion.

This work is featured in two papers:

Tammara Turner, Marc Smith, Danyel Fisher and Howard Ted Welser, Picturing Usenet: Mapping computer-mediated collective action, Journal of Computer mediated Communication, September 2005.

Viégas, Fernanda B., Marc Smith. “Newsgroup Crowds and AuthorLines: Visualizing the Activity of Individuals in Conversational Cyberspaces“, Proceedings of Hawaii International Conference on Software and Systems (HICSS) 2004.

In other posts I will present other roles that are common in social media spaces.

These images were generated with the Microsoft Research Data Visualization Components.