Human beings are a visual species. This has long presented significant challenges for data analysts, who deal with the more abstract and symbolic world of numbers. Because the eyes are the primary means for people to process information, data professionals must find effective ways of visualizing huge volumes of quantified information.
The analyst trying to help folks make sense of data gets a huge boost when real world data can be mapped out in a recognizable shape. This is even more helpful when the shape is one that reoccurs across different data sets that connect to larger repeatable trends. I can’t count the number of times when attaching a visual analogy to numeric information has facilitated greater understanding.
An examination of recent events surrounding Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood may provide just that sort of visualization for social media activism. The data maps out to a clean visual, one that I expect would carry across to other similar instances of digital public outcry.
The stage has now been set. What, you ask, does social media activism look like?
A shark fin, more or less.
Well… a shark fin with a bite taken out of it in the case of Komen and Planned Parenthood (more on that later).
Allow me to explain:
Deploying the Tracx social media monitoring platform, I was able to capture and analyze content relevant to Planned Parenthood and Komen for the Cure for the six-week period from January 16th through February 26th. In addition to Boolean search queries that tracked social content surrounding the decision by Komen to stop funding Planned Parenthood, Tracx enabled spotlight monitoring on both organizations’ social channels (i.e. Facebook Pages, Twitter Handles, YouTube channels, etc.). The combination of these two methodologies captures the full breadth of information surrounding the topic and the key players.
Analysis of the data reveals a clear trend; relevant content increased at a rapid rate, 1/31 through 2/3, then declined at a more gradual rate 2/4 through 2/26. The decline was triggered by news that the Komen Foundation had reversed its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood.
The trend in social media activity over time carried over across the following metrics:
- Mentions – any instance where search terms were used in a piece of social content
- Posts – any original written post relevant to the topic
- Conversations – any post that generated some sort of response from another social media user
- Interactions – Any non-text based response to a relevant post (i.e. Facebook Likes).
The trend over time held true for content relevant to each organization individually, as well as the two combined, on both owned social channels and the social space overall. When shown on a bar or line graph, the quick increase and steady decay give us our shark fin-like shape.
After an initial drop off on 2/5, there was a bump in content 2/7 – 2/8, coinciding with Komen Vice President Karen Handel’s resignation. That’s what makes it look like someone took a bite out of the fin.
In summary, the decay of interest in an issue among social media users maps out is a sleek triangular shape. If the social media activism and outrage yields any additional meaningful development, we’ll end up with a bite taken out of the triangle.
Enough words and numbers, here’s the visual:
Here’s a stock image of a CGI shark fin for comparison:
(Sorry, I couldn’t find one with a bite taken out of it. You’ll have to use your imagination.)
For social media activism the selachian image I have identified, while visually accurate, is in some ways misleading. A shark fin moves ever forward, reminding all in its path of the deadly fish below the surface. On the other hand, the fin of social media activism represents decay in public interest. In the Komen vs. Planned Parenthood example, social media allowed for rapid mobilization around a focused event that was part of a larger topic; one organization’s allocation of funds to another organization, both of which were tied to women’s health and reproductive rights. What happens to the discussion surrounding the larger issues when the Komen Planned Parenthood buzz dies down?
Sadly, most people forget about the larger issues.
To take it one step further, social media uproar has the potential to distract attention from the larger issues. Consider the following; from 1/16 – 2/26 there were 211,743 posts about Komen and Planned Parenthood. By contrast, there were 26,730 about abortion, birth control and the 2012 presidential election. Which one of these is more important in the long term? A friend of mine who does policy work for a member of Congress eloquently voiced concerns about this:
“I can’t help but feel that the pro-women’s health left spent a lot of energy and outrage decrying the Susan G. Komen decision — important, but not hugely far-reaching — while letting themselves be completely trampled on the HHS contraception coverage rule — hugely important with far-reaching implications. Winning the message war when the stakes are relatively low ($600,000 in grants), and leaving allies out to dry when it’s really vital (the status of federal law governing birth control coverage). I saw a lot of strident “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” Facebook status messages a few weeks ago, but precious few “I Stand With Women’s Right to Birth Control” two weeks ago.”
I don’t mean to discount the impact that this and other social media outcries have. After all, Komen for the Cure reversed their decision regarding Planned Parenthood (a victory for those who Twittered and Facebooked up a storm). This example does, however, highlight the fickle nature of the masses and that without a clear rallying point it’s extremely difficult to mobilize people around an issue. Even an issue they care about. Even when mobilization is simply posting something on Facebook.
So how do we sustain public interest, discussion, and activism surrounding these sorts of issues? Furthermore, how do we ensure that singular and relatively small events or decisions do not overshadow larger issues?
These are some big questions. They extend beyond Komen, Planned Parenthood, and beyond social media. We can start by looking at a shark fin.
Follow Reinhardt on twitter — @RESchuh