Data Analytics and the Future of Twitter

Despite the start of both the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals, the biggest story in the sports world this week has been this investigative report by The Ringer. The report alleges that Philadelphia 76ers President of Basketball Operations and General Manager, Bryan Colangelo, used as many as five anonymous ‘burner’ Twitter accounts to publicly disparage his own players and staff, criticize former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie and current Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, and disclose non-public medical information to gossip about three 76ers players. It’s a great read.

But beyond the impact the report is having on the sports world, it is a bigger story in the world of data analytics. And you’re right to wonder, “What does NBA drama have to do with big data?”

The Process

It’s not so much “what” but “how.” It’s how The Ringer’s unnamed source got this information in the first place. The article tells us:

“The source explained that they worked in artificial intelligence and, after noticing a “bunch of weird tweets” directed at Sixers writers, used an open-source data analysis tool to link five accounts through commonalities including similarities in who the accounts followed and linguistic quirks.”

Before going any further, full disclosure: there’s no ‘smoking gun’ here. While the evidence is substantial and has led to an internal investigation by the 76ers (and potentially another one by the NBA), the evidence could still be painted as circumstantial or speculative – at best— or proven false. Regardless of the eventual outcome, the process that led us here is still fascinating and worthy of discussion.

I should pause here and say this for those who think this story may not apply to them: many professionals create a separate Twitter from their personal account. If this data is available, more people may have to censor themselves on the platform. If anyone can easily link accounts and information (regardless of how creative our Twitter handles are), the separate, “anonymous” may not keep us free from potential consequences. “Tweets and opinions are my own” may need to be adopted on all Twitter accounts going forward.

Combining Twitter’s API with an open source platform like R and a visualization tool like Tableau will have a wide-ranging impact on the future of online anonymity and how businesses separate themselves from competition.

The Problem

One of the biggest criticisms of Twitter is the ease with which anonymous accounts can operate unchecked. These nameless accounts are regularly used to ‘troll’ other users (and apparently even their own staff!) and often used to spread misinformation across the platform. Twitter has tried to combat the issue through their verification program and regular sweeps of accounts, but the problem persists.

The Potential

The Ringer story has demonstrated that there is a major opportunity here – through data analytics it is possible to paint a real-time picture of what is being said where, and more importantly by whom. A process like this presents endless possibilities for businesses, including but not limited to:

  • Combating anonymity. In the early days of the Internet, anonymity was paramount. With the rise of social media, we felt more comfortable being “our real selves” online and creating robust profiles; anonymity became taboo and associated with “the dark side” of the web. Whether the intention is to spread “fake news”, troll other users, or make threats, remaining anonymous and hiding behind a keyboard is essential to avoid consequences. Using data analytics to expose users breaking the law will help make the Internet a much better place for all of us.
  • Real-time data. Whether you’re organizing a business conference or working on a political campaign, being able to quickly identify who is saying what – and from where – is an invaluable tool. Painting a real-time picture allows for the targeting of “need areas” and rapid reactions. It also helps combat threats as police and other officials can zero in on the perpetrator more easily.  
  • Customer Feedback. Feedback is essential for any business to succeed. Using Twitter data to see what your real customers are saying about you online will allow businesses to quickly and easily meet needs and separate themselves from competition. If a Twitter user can be identified, companies can follow up with them personally to address their concerns.
  • Targeted Marketing. Similarly to building real-time maps, combining an analytics tool with Twitter data will allow companies to narrow down target demographics and determine exactly who to target where, ultimately maximizing value drive.

Combining Twitter’s data with analytics tools is certainly not a new concept. But the case of Bryan Colangelo demonstrates just how significant this technology can be. Big data is an invaluable tool. Let’s use it to our advantage and fight back against anonymity, make use of real-time data, solicit valuable feedback from customers and expanding marketing efforts.

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