Social media and innovation ecosystems
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The innovation ecosystem’s online presence continues to grow with the emergence and maturation of ICT-based platforms. With these new channels, a diversity of actors, including firms, scientists, universities, media entities, and individuals, interact to satisfy their information needs and to access and mobilize network-based resources. This research is among a growing number of social science studies examining the advent of social media and its influence on the innovation process, asking, “How do different types of actors use social media to form network linkages, and what kinds of innovative outcomes will result?” To study this complex network activity, I turn to Twitter, the popular microblogging service, and focus on the case of graphene, a novel nanotechnology material consisting of a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms. Twitter is one of the world’s most often-used social networks, boasting over 500 million users (200+ million active). Graphene, on the other hand, is a relatively well-bounded area of scientific inquiry with ongoing, concurrent scientific and commercialization activity. The primary sample dataset derives from 34 graphene firms’ friend and followers relationships captured in early 2014. Nine interview transcripts supply qualitative data. The results show that network formation on Twitter is not random and that certain actor relationships predict following linkages. A series of network visualizations show that users agglomerate in communities; these communities exhibit greater density than the larger ecosystem network and a propensity to congeal in topically focused ways. That is, each community indicates a coherent topical focus, suggesting that graphene firms follow specific sets of users in ways that support their information and resource needs. At the micro-level, an unstructured text mining approach to operationalizing and computing information distance shows that increasing amounts of topical distance between any two users decreases the likelihood of a tie existing. Are innovation outcomes more likely to occur in strategically-developed and information-rich social media networks? Drawing on different sources of “behavioral additionality” – or changes in behaviors as a result of social media participation – I identify ex-ante several such plausible outcomes, which could include increased awareness, improved problem solving ability, community development, and greater sales. The qualitative results show that social media participation results in increased awareness of graphene and related ecosystem topics, but engagement is a key tactical maneuver that actors pursue, often in varying ways, to access and mobilize other resources. Policy implications are targeted at intermediary institutions and scientists, while management implications focus on high-technology SMEs. Limitations include alternative theories to explaining social media participation and engagement, methodological issues, and the continuing evolution of social media platforms and usage patterns. Future work is considered to address the temporal nature of network construction and topical growth (or constriction), as well as the ability to map areas of science and technology through social media data.