Who’s the most important person when it comes to Downton Abbey? Not the fictional estate — obviously Lord Grantham wins that one — but the actual TV show. As it turns out, it’s an anonymous user named MrsAnnaBates. Yes, congratulations, anonymous person who tweets as fictional lady’s maid Anna Bates, you are — or at least you were when this model was run, last Friday night — the most influential Downton fan on the Internet.
Those are some of the findings borne from a new study from the Pew Research and the Social Media Research Foundation, which maps Twitter conversations in a way that its authors say is unprecedented. The research wasn’t initially designed to talk about TV shows, but TIME asked Pew’s Marc Smith and Lee Rainie to run some of our favorite programs through their model — and, in doing so, they revealed the identities of those shows’ most influential supporters on Twitter.
“By looking at this map I can answer the question really easily, who is the mayor of Downton Abbey? Who are the people who are really at the center of the conversation? The answer is, perhaps not surprisingly, that the [official] Downton Abbey account is,” Smith says. “But somebody who is identifying herself as MrsAnnaBates is number two.”
At any given moment, lots of people are having their own Twitter conversations about TV shows (or, as may be the case, talking to themselves about TV shows). The metric Smith is using to find the most influential fans is “betweenness centrality”: which Twitter users are the best at bridging those separate conversations. True Detective fan @blurppy, Walking Dead fan @ignoredpqp, Parks and Recreation fan @juliebcoolie — congratulations on your influence. You’re not necessarily the most frequent tweeters with the most followers but, within these particular topics at these particular moments, you had a moment of glory.
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Here’s how this works: Smith and Rainie (along with their co-authors Itai Himelboim and Ben Shneiderman) used an open tool called NodeXL to identify tweets by keyword and map out how they connect to one another. The maps help them see the difference between “isolates” — that’s people who tweet about something but don’t connect with others tweeting about the same thing — and conversation groups. The upshot is that it’s now possible to pin down the shape of a conversation, using six basic shapes the researchers ID’d.
For political topics, for example, the shape is often a “polarized crowd,” which is two large groups of people talking about the same thing in two distinct ways. That would be the case if lots of people were talking about the President after the State of the Union address, half in a good way and half in a bad way. For big brands, the shapes tend to be what they call “brand clusters,” which is lots of people mentioning the name of the thing but not really having a conversation.
There’s also the “broadcast network” shape, which looks like one central account in the middle of a sphere, and that’s what’s most common for TV shows. That’s because the show’s official account or a star’s account can act as the hub to which the fans are spokes, says Rainie.
The maps can be a bit overwhelming at first, but we’ll break a few down for you: Here are links for How I Met Your Mother and Grey’s Anatomy during a 27-minute period on Feb. 14. The HIMYM shape shows that one person’s tweets were incredibly influential during that time (that’s the giant sphere shape) and the Grey’s graph shows many small conversations (the tiny clusters) and isolated statements (the grid of boxes). If you click to view the “interactive version,” you can zoom in to better see who sent what. So, Neil Patrick Harris and the official Grey’s account were responsible for the most important tweets for their respective shows. On the other hand, a show like The Walking Dead, with lots of isolates, was acting more like a brand than a broadcast network: people were talking about it without prompting from an official account.
But why does this matter?
The study’s authors say that those who run social-media accounts should consider whether the shape they’ve got is the shape they want. Do you want to rely on official blasts or outside conversation? How do your competitors’ tweets map out? Which of your followers are the most influential? The research also shows, Rainie points out, that people who think social media has upended the way power and marketing work aren’t always right; in many cases, despite the democratizing effect of Twitter, individual people with great power still run the show.
Or, more importantly for aspiring number-one fans, the data could be used to track down influencers for one’s own strategic use.
“Who should I talk to? How would I get to talk to them? What should I talk about?” says Smith. “Broadly, anyone who is interested in strategically communicating through these tools will want to have a better overview of the context in which they’re operating.” So, if you want your Downton-related witticisms to get retweeted with the most influence, now you can know who to @ at.
MrsAnnaBates, get ready for your moment in the spotlight.
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