New Bedford's surprisingly positive Twitter face

Amid the tweets disparaging the city and the tweets praising the city, the neutral tweets and the tweets that defy categorization — trends about New Bedford begin to take shape.
Contrary to the perception of the city’s downtrodden image — its notoriety for unsolved murders, high unemployment, and most recently the connection to bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — positive tweets outweigh negatives by a four-to-one margin, according to a study requested by The Standard-Times.
The results highlight another perception of New Bedford, that of the great historic American whaling hub, Moby-Dick, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a burgeoning arts community that is putting the city on the map.
“It’s sort of a frequent refrain that New Bedford is not a great place to live,” said Elizabeth Breese of Crimson Hexagon, the Boston-based social media analytics firm that conducted the study.
“But when you actually analyze what people are saying about New Bedford on social media, it doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Breese, senior content and digital marketing strategist with Crimson Hexagon, ran an analysis of references including “New Bedford,” “Whaling City,” “SouthCoast,” and “New Beige.”
The opinion analysis study used Crimson Hexagon’s “social media listening platform,” software used to gauge user sentiment. Of the posts analyzed, 71 percent came back as neutral, while 23 percent were positive and six percent were negative.
The search used 14,582 relevant Twitter and Facebook posts over the course of four months. Eighty-five percent of the posts analyzed were on Twitter, as public access to Facebook is far more limited.
In the days following the marathon bombing, the bulk of New Bedford-related tweets were related to Tsarnaev and federal investigative activities in the area. The more commonplace posts Thursday included, “My mom needs to sell our house so we can move OUT of New Bedford like NOW,” from @JanessaViana; or user @jay_pettengill, “Come down to New Bedford! We can joyride.”
Breese said many of the tweets considered positive were in reference to events happening in the city, such as the latest offerings from the Whaling Museum.
She said the city can boost its social media image by spreading around the positive posts.
Other sentiment-tracking tools show signs about the city — although they can leave a user with more questions than answers. A “New Bedford” search on shows a three-to-two positive-negative ratio, while shows 79 percent negative.
This tweet from @becceryoung, gauged as positive by, illustrates the difficulty of sentiment tracking. “To be honest I love New Bedford. Always have, always will. I just hate the majority of the people who live here.”
Breese said these types of sites have difficulty accounting for sarcasm, humor and irony. Crimson Hexagon’s software attempts to address the decoys by integrating human input into the algorithms.
According to Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at UMass Dartmouth, there has been very little research on how cities are viewed on Twitter and the effects that might have.
“There just hasn’t been a lot of work on it,” Barnes said. “There aren’t a lot of studies on how social media impacts the reputation of a city or a town.”
Barnes is unequivocal about the significance of Twitter — she said she would stand before Mayor Jon Mitchell to recommend he hire a full time social media coordinator for the city. No longer is the question whether to be on social media, she said, but what approach to take.
But she’s skeptical about the conclusiveness of a sentiment study concerning a municipality.
“This is very tricky research,” said Barnes, whose research centers on social media use by companies and academic institutions. “So as a result, the methodology for doing what you really need “¦ I’m not sure that it exists yet. I’m not sure that we have a methodology for really differentiating what’s being said in a city and town.”
While the question of whether a city’s Twitter image matters is subject to debate, there are also questions about how much Twitter perceptions reflect actual public opinion.
Pew Research Center released the results of a year-long study in March, which used Crimson Hexagon software to examine the disparity between the Twittersphere and the opinion polls relative to eight major news events. Only two of the events paralleled public opinion.
Pew attributes this to the demographic disparity between Twitter users and the general public. While 15 percent of adults online use Twitter (as of February 2012), Pew finds that the majority of Twitter users are younger than the general public, and tend to lean Democratic.
For Steven Francis, a 36-year-old Marine veteran to native New Bedford, the image of a city matters in both the real world and the social media world. He decided to take it to Facebook with the page Positive New Bedford, which has already garnered more than 800 likes.
“I always come back to New Bedford and I’m still able to enjoy the offerings that we have around here,” he said.
Francis is used to hearing disparaging comments about his city. He recalled introducing himself at a business meeting in Boston, and when he said he was from New Bedford someone across the table remarked, “Oh, you made it out.”
Through his Positive New Bedford — which he hopes will evolve beyond Facebook one day — Francis hopes to chip away at whatever it is that makes people think that way about the city.
In New Bedford, the mayor’s office manages the city’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Mayor Jon Mitchell, @MayorMitchellNB, recently took to Twitter, tweeting on activities like his turbine tour in Germany and Denmark.
“More and more New Bedford residents are getting their news, sharing information and weighing in on important issues through social media platforms,” Mitchell said in a statement, underlining the opportunity to get residents the information they need in the way they want to receive it.
April 28, 2013 12:00 AM
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