Social media lab taps into national conversations

A new way of listening to conversations — about news events, brands, customer service and politics — is happening on the first floor of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

The Social Media Insights Lab, which opened in 2019, is able to analyze sentiment and identify emerging trends that are occurring in real time on sources from Twitter to YouTube to blogs.

“When people see ‘social media,’ they think we are creating social media, but that’s not what we’re doing,” says Kaitlyn Park, manager of the social media lab in the College of Information and Communications. “We’re participating in social media listening, and that’s a fairly new research practice.”

It’s a practice that uses artificial intelligence-powered Crimson Hexagon software to capture and interpret data from a wide swath of sources. The lab has access to three trillion points, allowing researchers to survey how often people are talking about a specific topic and how they feel about it.

“What emotions are they expressing? What sentiments are they sharing? And do they support it or not support it?,” Park says. ”Using this lab and the technology we have, it’s like being able to put your fingertip on the pulse of what’s happening anywhere in the digital world.”

The data is available from spots around the globe, and geo-location programs allow researchers to hear and understand what people are talking about in particular areas such as the Palmetto State.

The lab is able to train faculty and students across the university on the technology, enabling them to incorporate social media data in their research. It’s also available to work with university departments to assist in strategic planning and content strategy by showing how a topic or program is performing on social media. The lab also will be able to do outside training for nonprofits, governments and businesses, with the hope that it will eventually become a revenue-generating entity for the university.

“Social media has taken away the traditional barriers of who are the gatekeepers of media. Who controls the message? Social media has broken those walls down,” Park says. “As a communications professional, when I think about putting students into the workplace, I have to consider that doing this kind of listening is so valuable in terms of customer feedback.  It’s everything that’s publicly available. I can look at what they say about my brand, but also my competitors.”

The research is still “cutting edge,” Park says, and she is hopeful a course for students will be offered sometime next year.

In just its first few months, researchers in the School of Library and Information Science used the lab for work on identifying bots; a group of graduate students is analyzing proliferation of fake news; another group of students is using it for a presentation to an area school district that wants to spread the word about its magnet programs; and a graduate student used the lab to analyze Arabic Twitter to understand how people reacted to women getting the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

She also points out that “social media is a fickle beast,” and that it is important to remember that those active on social media are not necessarily a representation of everyone in a community.  “The best insights start with a question,” Park says. “Have a hypothesis and start there — that’s where you’ll get the best information.”

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