Twitter as Search Engine or Community Seed

Photo by choconancyThe folks over at BrandonHall, the learning folks who blog lots of interesting links, pointed out a value of Twitter that not all of us may have seen yet. Twitter as a search engine. This was interesting to me because I’m co-leading a short online workshop introducing social media in a global international development network. The question always comes up “why would we be interested in something like Twitter. One application I try to show is Twitter as social listening. But I never really conceptualized it as search.   So I thought I’d put it to the test.

First, I searched for something for me. Chocolate, of course. But you have to have a question in mind to make the search meaningful beyond curiosity. I wanted to get a sense of how many people were tweeting about chocolate, and if their tweets were about their obsession, or if there was valuable information about chocolate flying around the tweetosphere. (Is that a word?)

Well, the answer is yes and yes. The first page of results were from tweets that happened within a two minute time frame. LOTS of volume. For example, flamingo_punk Wrote: “Mmmm! Chocolate mini-wheats rock my socks.” There were lots of passionate chocolate tweets like this. On the information side I found:

  • SavingEverydayOff to work! I leave you with this: An ounce of chocolate contains about 20 mg of caffeine…
  • recr@MortgageChick They say it takes 21 days for a ‘change’ to become a habit. try subing coffee or lattes with hot chocolate. worked for me.
  • 2chaosNYSE commentator: “If the last depression brought innovation, like thechocolate chip cookie, I hope this gives us more than the snuggie” Ha 
That last one bolstered my outlook of the current economic situation. Ha! is right! But chocolate is a wide ranging topic so using Twitter to search and listen would give you many results and you could aggregate that information to watch trends on a topic quickly. 
So what happens when I search for a narrower topic that might be of interest to my workshop colleagues, such as “climate change” or “agricultural research?”
Climate change gave me on the first page a lot of links and serious tweets about the issue. Clearly, climate change advocates have taken up tweeting. Note the twitter names — they are using their twitter IDs as a part of the communication issues strategy. It is like a breaking news ticker. The volume of tweets on this topic (the first page of returns were all posts within 15 minutes) indicates this may be a very useful “social listening” resource for organizations working on climate change. 
I thought agricultural research might be a bit thinner. I was wrong.  But the timing is much different. The links on the first search page were between 1 and 20 days ago, but they were far more focused than the wide ranging chocolate tag. Interestingly, I knew about 20% of the tweeters on the first two pages — it is a much smaller network. There were also tweet replies @ users within the first two pages, showing connections between those tweeters.  So I start to wonder, is there an audience for agricultural research tweets yet? Is it in the growth phase while chocolate may be overwhelming in the amount of ongoing tweets?
All in all, this 25 minute exercise told me a lot about Twitter as a social listening tool. For me, watching a twitter search stream over time is a form of scanning one subset of the world and what it is thinking about that topic. I am not quite as clear about how searching Twitter as a one-off search can pay off. The time frame is so short, or if you want to go longer, you have to awkwardly search back through page after page of tweets. It is not yet easy. If you captured the stream via an RSS feed and than analyzed it later as a search, that might be easier.
Still, I’m fascinated by the listening site. Watching tweets can tell me about both what people are tweeting, but more interesting to me from a work perspective, is who is tweeting about a topic and how connected tweeters are around a topic.  Is a Twitter topic a seed for a new community?   Can a community or a network emerge around a shared tweeting topic like it can around a social bookmarking tag? Is a trend of tweets a community  indicator? It certainly is when people use a hashtag to tweet event or topic related tweets. 
How would a community technology steward use Twitter? Would they want to encourage some sort of community usage of keywords or tags? Would they want to go more focused with a hashtag? Ah, but now I’m roaming far outside of my initial “twitter as search” question. See how tantalizing this is?
Do you use Twitter as a search engine? If yes, how is it working out for you?

P.S. Edited in later — some additional Twitter Search resources, thanks to all you fab commentors. I’ll keep coming back and editing them in. 

9 thoughts on “Twitter as Search Engine or Community Seed”

  1. This is such a great new insight into uses for twitter. I find that I often do the same, if I want to find more info, short info on use of visuals or accelerated goal setting, twitter has connected me to some incredible brain researchers in a matter of seconds. Thanks for this, nancy!

  2. Very interesting stuff Nancy. I have to say that I have been using twitter as a search for some time. This really only came about when I started using TweetDeck . The columns in Tweetdeck readily support holding open long standing ongoing searches. So for instance I am going to the NECC conference for the first time in June and I am watching the dialog thrown up in an ongoing NECC search and looking for possibilities for connections, planning and events while there.

    I am using some other searches as data collection in some research I am doing on teacher identity and community.

    I have found that I search on topics, events and people (with or without # tags) and am building up information and new colleagues all the time. A funny thing that I noticed, when I searched on the name of our friend Etienne Wenger, was that tweets provide me with a trail of his global exploits – I can readily see where he’s been 😉

  3. Visuals! Ha, I had not thought of Twitter in terms of visuals, Patti. Really interesting.

    Bron, I look forward to learning more about your research. And I never thought of Twitter as a geolocation device. VERY COOL!

    I love the imagination and inventiveness at play!

  4. Think the title of this post should have an AND rather than an OR…

    I do use Twitter for search quite regularly… it’s the most active, current space and, like Google, guides me where I need to go.

    In fact, with this script someone shared on Twitter: you can have Twitter search results integrated into your Google search results. Fab!

  5. Nancy, I love the data-searching capabilities of Twitter. I had been wondering how the Twitter “stories” about a product, for example, described how the market viewed that product. I did a study of customer reaction to the Blackberry Storm (a product with decidedly mixed reviews in the press), and found that the people who had bought the Storm were decidedly positive about it. (Here’s the post where I looked at that:

    I think we’ve only begun to scratch the service of what we can do with social-media search. And, of course, as tools like Facebook and Twitter move into more widespread usage, the data will only become more interesting and valuable.

    regards, John

  6. If you are looking specifically for websites/references you can add a filter to only return tweets with links; so, for your first example putting in ‘chocolate filter:links’ (without quote marks, obviously) provides you with a list of ‘socially derived’ chocolate related links.

  7. John, that is fascinating that you found a different set of voices – but in many ways not surprising because of the different channels that people use to express themselves.

    Seb, thanks for the search refinement tip. I am always amazed at how primitive most of our search skills are and how much there is to learn.

    Pete, thanks for the tool link!

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