Developing open source toolkits to understand viral events

In 2015, social media posts caused a firestorm of controversy by exposing several cases of police brutality and bringing issues of race, equality, and police conduct to the forefront. Without these viral videos, there likely would have been only one accepted version of what truly happened. Social information diffusion is powerful; it can hold those who abuse power accountable, bring attention to the grievances of minority groups, and highlight the best of humanity. Dr. Jeff Hemsley, Assistant Professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, studies viral information flows in online social media, to help people understand how to maximize attention in our new media landscape. By analyzing Twitter and other social media platforms, Dr. Hemsley hopes to understand how online posts go viral and make this knowledge accessible to the general public. In this way, we can work towards leveling the information field, and give voices to those who would otherwise not have one.

Co-author of Going Viral and a founding member of the Behavior, Information, Technology and Society Laboratory (BITS lab) at the Syracuse iSchool, Dr. Hemsley brings together the fields of sociology, organization studies, political science and computer science through his work on online virology. Fundamentally, viral events happen when enough people decide to “share” an event through social media, often facilitated by gatekeepers like BuzzFeed or Huffington Post who control information flows and connect together disparate parts of networks. When people create new links in their social networks, they make these networks denser and richer. Dr. Hemsley looks at how networks and information events shape and reshape each other, and develops tools that can collect, store, and analyze social media data. He currently has a robust open source toolkit that collects data through Twitter’s Application Program Interface (API). Other platforms like Facebook and Instagram also have APIs and Dr. Hemsley’s next challenge is to overcome these limitations. He intends to make these tools available for free to other researchers interested in analyzing data across multiple platforms. In the future, historians will be able to look back at this time, and study viral events as indicators of what we, in the 21st century, thought were important, and Dr. Hemsley hopes to facilitate the expanding field.

Current research includes:

  • How Do Information Flows Behave Differently Depending on Context? Dr. Hemsley studies how quickly something reaches its maximum sharing per minute, and how fast it drops off afterwards. Most viral events shoot up but then drop off. How quickly they drop off can tell us about how the network is going to change. Moreover, information in different spheres, like politics and entertainment, will spread differently. To this end, Dr. Hemsley hopes to collect a few large sets of data to make comparisons of viral events in different topic areas – popular culture, political events, and disasters.
  • What Kinds of Political Messages are People Sharing on Social Media? Dr. Hemsley is currently looking at how political messages diffuse in our social networks. This kind of work will help us understand what kinds of political messages people consider “remarkable,” or worthy of remarking on and effectively engaging in conversation by sharing content. Before we had social media, candidates spent their time talking to the radio and the TV, but with the rise of Twitter, they can now directly interact with each other by “mentioning” one another on social media. But these messages are public and, when the public finds them interesting enough to share, they can go viral. Dr. Hemsley examines what kind of messages -- an attack or acknowledgement -- are more likely to spread.
  • How Can Researchers Address the Growing Data Divide? Many social media companies earn their profits from the data they collect as people interact on their sites. Big companies and researchers at well funded institutions can buy this data. Computer scientists have the skills to collect the data themselves. But what about social scientists who have questions that the data can answer, but lack either the funds or skills to access the data? Dr. Hemsley develops free, open source tools that collect, store, analyze, and visualize publicly available social media data. He hopes to empower those who have social science questions, but would otherwise not have access to the data.

Dr. Jeff Hemsley is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. He is co-author of the book Going Viral (Polity Press, 2013 and winner of ASIS&T Best Science Books of 2014 Information award and selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2014), which explains what virality is, how it works technologically and socially, and draws out the implications of this process for social change. He is a founding member of the Behavior, Information, Technology and Society Laboratory (BITS lab) at the Syracuse iSchool, and the Social Media Lab at the University of Washington.

As an undergraduate studying computer science and mathematics, Dr. Hemsley knew that he wanted to be a professor but decided to gain more life experiences by becoming a software tester. At companies like Symantec and Autodesk, he spent much of his time wondering how software could break and what could go wrong. In order to safeguard the software, he studied user behavior by looking at data aggregated into the system and then mimicking that data to create tests. As a tester, he was routinely collaborating with people who had M.A. or higher educational degrees, and saw that he could go further and ask more complex questions with a graduate degree.

At the time, he had cultivated a long history of reading a variety of topics, subscribing to magazines like Astronomy, Popular Mechanics, Foreign Affairs, and the Economist. The Economist often highlighted current research in economics, and Dr. Hemsley realized that these researchers were building much more sophisticated models with data than he could. He decided that one way to be part of the social conversation that shapes our society is to do research, as “research done today often translates into the larger society and affects policy, technological advancement and social knowledge – the knowledge we learn in school or take for granted.”

With this epiphany, he went back to school to study economics, mathematics and statistics, eventually earning his PhD in Information Science from the University of Washington’s Information School. “Today,” Dr. Hemsley remarks, “information is power; some people know more than others. As such, they have an advantage in making decisions.” Through viral events, fortunately, people can be informed about things that they would otherwise not know about, and if the general public understands how to draw attention to the issues that matter to them, we would have a healthy online community that gives people a voice and a platform.

In his spare time, Dr. Hemsley enjoys sharing his artistic data visualizations with the rest of the world, and keeps a blog to showcase them:

For more information, visit

NOVA Next | PBS. Couch, C. (2014, September 29).

London School of Economics and Political Science. Nikki Soo (June 9th, 2014).

Information Science Book of the Year Award for Going Viral, 2014

Association for Information Science and Technology

Outstanding Academic Title for Going Viral, 2014

Choice magazine