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What Even Is "Christian Twitter"?
Part 2: Twitter Topic Networks, Conversation Archetypes, and You
This is part two of a multi-part series on Christian Twitter.
Part three will arrive next Monday.
A couple of weeks ago when I realized that my disenchantment with Twitter was actually a disenchantment with “Christian Twitter” I set out to write about why I had become disenchanted with Christian Twitter and I quickly realized that pinning down “Christian Twitter” is about like corralling my one-year-old daughter while my wife gets her ready for bed, which is to say: difficult and squirmy.
I asked a few Christian social media savvy friends to define “Christian Twitter” with me, and we all agreed that while Christian Twitter definitely exists, defining it is difficult.
Let’s start a bit broad and then do what we can to zero in on the best conception of Christian Twitterwe can muster.
On the Existence of Twitter “Neighborhoods”
The idea that there are smaller communities within the broader community of Twitter as a whole isn’t new or revolutionary. Black Twitter, Science Twitter, Book Twitter, Crypto Twitter, NBA Twitter, Star Wars Twitter, and likely countless other themed Twitters exist within the Twitter social media platform as a whole. Any hobby, interest, career field, or other kind of theme around which people gather in community likely has a fluid, active, undefined group of people who participate in discussions around that unifying theme.
I call these Twitter “neighborhoods” which isn’t the most effective name and metaphor for them, but that’s how I think of them. They are neighborhoods of Twitter users within the broader “city” of Twitter as a whole.
In case it is unclear: these different themed Twitters are not their own social media platforms or anything like that. NBA Twitter or Book Twitter are simply networks of people who create content and interact with people around a particular niche subject, within the larger Twitter ecosystem. These communities often have their own trends, jokes, and language. One of the facets of Christian Twitter that makes it especially difficult to pin down is the volume of subtweeting that takes place. If you attempted to map different Twitter users as part of a Christian Twitter community because of their involvement in conversation around a controversial topic, you would have to read between the lines of subtweets more than you would in other communities. Because Christians like to engage in controversy and conflict online without appearing to be jerks, we subtweet a lot, and this makes it hard to keep track of who is participating in Christian Twitter and who isn’t.
To use another metaphor to describe Twitter communities, if Twitter is a giant party in which millions of people are in a given virtual location, these different kinds of Twitters within Twitter are different areas within the party where people are mingling and making conversation around a certain topic. Party-goers may slide in and out of any of these conversations at any time, but many party-goers like to find a group or two and spend much of their time around those kinds of conversations.
Christian Twitter is one of those. Someone may dabble in Christian Twitter, making conversation about the latest downfall of a megachurch pastor one moment, and then slide over to Star Wars Twitter and theorize about the next season of the Mandalorian. These spaces are fluid, informal, and undefined, but they exist.
As I was researching for this series, I was stunned and excited to find out that there has been an actual study done on this phenomenon published with the Pew Research Center’s Internet and Technology group. This study calls what I term “Twitter neighborhoods” a much more official name: “Twitter Topic Networks.” Let’s explore this study.
A Study of Twitter Topic Networks
In 2014, Marc A. Smith, Lee Rainie, Ben Shneiderman, an Itai Himelboim published a study with Pew Research Center entitled “Mapping Twitter Topic Networks: From Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters.” The full study is here if you’re so inclined, but let me do my best to summarize it and highlight the portions most relevant to our exploration today.
This study explores how Twitter users gather around different topics on the platform and how those topics or interests often color the kinds of conversation in which these groups engage. The study mapped conversations on Twitter and attempted to identify different ways of communicating that were common across different fields of interest. The researchers attempted to map conversations on Twitter They write:
Social networking maps of these conversations provide new insights because they combine analysis of the opinions people express on Twitter, the information sources they cite in their tweets, analysis of who is in the networks of the tweeters, and how big those networks are. And to the extent that these online conversations are followed by a broader audience, their impact may reach well beyond the participants themselves.
Here is an example of a conversation map on Twitter (made with NodeXL):
Without going into great detail, you can see that different groups of people sort of orbit a main influencer at the middle of the different ovals and then interact with others across different ovals, engaging with people who were influenced by a different prominent figure. In the above image, the topic is “Hunter Biden,” and I think the figure at the center of the largest circle on the left is Donald Trump, Jr. All the little dots around each of the major ovals are people who have interacted with the person at the center of the oval about the topic at hand. The lines between each oval are interactions between the groups.
When asked why it is useful to study Twitter (or social media in general) this way, the researchers write:
Social media is increasingly home to civil society, the place where knowledge sharing, public discussions, debates, and disputes are carried out. As the new public square, social media conversations are as important to document as any other large public gathering.Network maps of public social media discussions in services like Twitter can provide insights into the role social media plays in our society.These maps are like aerial photographs of a crowd, showing the rough size and composition of a population.These maps can be augmented with on the ground interviews with crowd participants, collecting their words and interests. Insights from network analysis and visualization can complement survey or focus group research methods and can enhance sentiment analysis of the text of messages like tweets.
Perhaps the most interesting output of this study of Twitter topic networks is the six different common structures the researchers identified in their study. These six common structures are what they call “conversation archetypes.”
6 Conversation Archetypes on Twitter
The six different conversation archetypes the researchers identified are: polarized crowds, tight crowds, brand clusters, community clusters, broadcast network, and support network. Here are summaries of each from the study:
Different kinds of Twitter interactions fall in different lanes here. In the far right hand column of the above table, the researchers have done a good job explaining briefly what kind of content you can expect to see in each of these conversation archetypes.
I share all of this with you to demonstrate there is, actually, some structure to the madness you see on Twitter and social media in general. Though communities like Christian Twitter or Black Twitter or others may not be clearly defined—it’s not like they have their own apps or anything like that—there are clear social structures and rhythms that exist and may look different depending on the nature of the communities and how they prefer to engage with one another.
What Does This Have to Do With Christian Twitter?
As I began reflecting on Christian Twitter and wrestling with a number of concerns I have with it, I found defining or formally identifying Christian Twitter to be quite difficult. It’s not like there is this separate, fenced-off section of Twitter called “Christian Twitter” or “Science Twitter” or “NBA Twitter.” Because there is no formal gathering of Christian Twitter or any sort of concrete identifiers that would make it an easily-definable group of people, I wrestled with whether or not I should even write this series of posts detailing the concerning trends I have seen.
But when I came across the Pew Research Center study that I cited above, I realized that there is legitimate sociological work that has been done on Twitter Topic Networks and conversational archetypes that make up Twitter communities like Christian Twitter or any of the others. The study, as well as some conversations with friends, helped me see that Christian Twitter isn’t a sort of “figment of my imagination” or something like that. It’s real, even if it is a bit amorphous and undefinable.
If I could define “Christian Twitter” as an amateur social media sociologist, I would describe it something like this:
“Christian Twitter” is a cluster of different, but related communities of people who identify as “Christian” (evangelical or otherwise) and engage with one another on Twitter regarding topics of shared interest.
As you can tell from my definition of Christian Twitter, I would fit Christian Twitter into the “Community Clusters” classification on the table of conversation archetypes in the table above.
What is a Community Cluster? Here are some details on the Community Clusters type of communities from the study:
Some popular topics may develop multiple smaller groups, which often form around a few hubs, each with its own audience, influencers, and sources of information. These Community Clusters conversations look like bazaars with multiple centers of activity. Global news stories often attract coverage from many news outlets, each with its own following. That creates a collection of medium-sized groups—and a fair number of isolates.
In networks with the Community Clusters structure, many people are in the same conversational vicinity, but their attention is often focused on separate things. The tone of the shared information in different groups also varies –some is serious, some is funny or wry, some is challenging and skeptical.
So Christian Twitter, in my view, is made up of the following base ingredients:
small groups of Christians, gathered around different influencers
each group has its own audience and preferred influencers
these groups gather together around topics of shared interest
discussions around topics of shared interest bring these groups together, reveal how they are different, and are also attended by individuals who aren’t a member of a particular group at all
I was able to find a Twitter conversation map from around the time of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination from last fall. This is a perfect example of a topic that revealed Christian Twitter in its purest form, in my opinion anyway. Different groups of Christians who pledge allegiance to some of the more vocal voices on the platform engaged about the nomination of Judge Barrett debating her qualifications, celebrating her views, or other such kinds of conversation.
The map of conversation below is, best as I can tell, a depiction of Community Clusters at work. Let me be clear: this is not a map of Christian Twitter. But it could be. If you were to map the Christian Twitter conversation around Judge Barrett’s nomination, I think it would look like this—lots of different groups of Christians conversationally congregating around influencers of various sizes and engaging across the ideological spectrum. The clear clusters interacting with one another and the inclusion of many individuals (the bottom right squares) is an accurate visual depiction of the Community Cluster model that I think depicts what we see on Christian Twitter.
All of these small-to-medium communities revolve around different influencers and then interact with one another, as demonstrated by the lines crisscrossing the map.
**Carbon Monoxide Warning**
I’ve figured out what I mean when I’m thinking of “Christian Twitter.” It’s this. All of this that you’ve read here, and briefly summarized, again:
A handful of vocal Twitter users begin creating content around issues of the day that, for one reason or another, are of interest to Christians of varying kinds, and then those different clusters of Christians, informally led by the retweets and reach of a variety of influencers, interact with other groups of Christian around the topic of interest, often but not always in conflict with one another.
This series of events, this phenomenon, is like a chemical reaction in a middle school science lab beaker—theoretically safe but prone to go sideways in the wrong hands.
My concern is that, keeping with the science metaphor, this chemical reaction of online personas is creating toxic byproducts that we have failed to adequately assess as such. It’s like we have a carbon monoxide problem but we haven’t been trained to detect it.
Our interactions with one another, yes even the ones that don’t make us feel bad, may be generating one of a host of toxic byproducts that hinder our ability to build real community, love our enemies, and prioritize that which matters most.
My genuine hope and prayer is that my next few Mondays of writing can serve as a sort of makeshift carbon monoxide detector and help us all begin to see when Christian Twitter begins to choke out our ability to live in the real world.