Gates Fdn’s Tweets reveal passive, insular global health community

A snapshot of the Gates Foundation's Twitterverse

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is hosting a number of events today in anticipation of the opening of the philanthropy’s new public visitor center. Social media, and media in general, will play a big role in it.

If they use Twitter or Facebook to tell people about it, chances are the story will look like this:

A snapshot of the Gates Foundation’s Twitterverse
Marc Smith, Connected Action

That’s a Twitter Map (here’s a more readable but huge link) made by Marc Smith, a sociologist who studies online communities, founder of the Social Media Research Foundation and former chief of Microsoft Research’s community technologies group.

The map, he says, indicates a fairly insular and uncommunicative bunch of folks.

“It’s mostly just an echoing of the Gates Foundation,” said Smith. “There’s not a lot of response, or engagement. Basically, it looks like people preaching to the choir.”

What the map also shows, according to another social media researcher, Ines Mergel of Syracuse University, is the disconnectedness of the global health community. Says Mergel:

What the network shows is that Gates serves as a broadcaster (see the star network on the left side around Gates Twitter account), but does not help to encourage the community to actively connect with each other. Ties are not reciprocated and there are very little interactions among the overall community.

You can go to Smith’s Flickr account to get a look at how other communities look on social media and read more about the methodology at NodeXL. I got a little lost, to be honest. But the gist of the Gates Foundation Twitter map, says Smith, is that the global health community doesn’t really engage in an active conversation.

Today, at the Gates Foundation, as part of the day’s events, journalists have been invited from all over the world to ponder the question of why the media, in general, does such a bad job of covering issues of global health, poverty and the like.

Here’s an overview of problem at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog, which raises the question: News Media in Crisis?

Answer: Yes.

Most would say it’s largely a crisis of the business model, or how to get paid. But Charlie Beckett, a London School of Economics prof who does think-tanks on media and wrote the blog post for the Gates Foundation, says it is also a crisis caused by trying to prop up an obsolete approach to journalism:

Journalists need to use the new technologies to tell their stories in new ways. I call it ‘networked journalism’. It means using tools like Twitter or mobile phones and it means working with the public to create the narrative. At our meeting in Seattle we are going to hear from huge traditional news organizations like the BBC who are using these techniques.

I like the promise of the new media technologies and the idea of getting journalists to network with the public to craft narratives (our discussion at Gates will be ‘covered’ on Twitter at #storytelling, by the way). I have come to actually love Twitter and see much of social media as quite promising for the future of journalism — again, if it can find a business model.

But Smith’s map raises another possible source of the problem here. Perhaps it is not just the disinterested, ignorant or change-phobic media that explains so few stories out of this arena.

Maybe part of the problem here is the passive, insular and sometimes simplistic nature of the narrative within the global health and development community itself.

This is a community devoted to — and advertising itself as — doing good. Humanitarians, in my experience, are exceptionally uncomfortable when forced to talk about things going bad. It also doesn’t help with fund-raising, of course. But it’s reality, and reality makes for better stories.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Byron DL

    WIth a graphic like that, which is unreadable, anyone could say it meant anything. How this became a story is puzzling. It’s like infographic spam, but maybe not, somebody ran tweets through a processor to derive some hidden, special meaning. The same could be derived with a sentiment engine or just asking anyone that works in the health community.

    • Byron,
      Sorry, but the bandwidth here at Humanosphere can’t post the image in its entirety. Go to Marc Smith’s original site for full image and the data.

      As for your contention that it could mean anything, perhaps you are more knowledgeable than I am — which would be likely. But I defer to the former chief of community technologies at Microsoft Research (i.e., Smith) and other experts in analyzing social media. They interpret it thus.


  • Feels like that for second time this week the headline stretches things more than a little Tom!! The headline that the Gates Foundation never made the list of the top 100 NGO’s when we weren’t actually considered for inclusion was a little misleading to say the least. Neverthess we look forward to seeing you later at the Foundation with many other media for a non-insular discussion about global health and other issues!!  best, Jeremy

    • Hi Jeremy,

      I wish you could have commented on the NGO rankings thread (where it belongs, as opposed to here) and been part of that discussion. It was the fact that the Gates Foundation was not included — while other similar, if smaller, grant-making foundations were — that I was questioning. The point of the article was to question the criteria for the list, not to be critical of the Gates Foundation. 

      As for this Twitter map, what is it exactly you think is wrong with the headline?

      I appreciate the engagement, but would like it if you could be more specific and not batch responses for multiple articles. I certainly do make mistakes but need more than this if I am to correct them.


  • Philippeboucher2

    Are you going to write about planned parenthood in the US and the latest attack against them?
    Just curious.

  • Marc Smith

    My proposed alternative headline would read: “broadcast and in-group” rather than passive and insular.

    It is also helpful to assess these social media network maps by placing them in context.  For example, we can compare this map with the maps for several other foundations and their pattern of connection in Twitter.

    The Knight Foundation:

    The Ford Foundation:

    The MacArthur Foundation:

    The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

    The Gates Foundation:

    These maps illustrate the ways foundations vary in their use of Twitter and the kinds of groups that form around them.  Gates and RWJF are among the most active and dense.  But broadly, there is a consistently low level of “isolates” in these networks: few people afe aware of these topics until they become “in-group”.  There is limited participation beyond this dense cluster.  This *is* a positive indication of “community” – lots of the people in these graphs do connect to one another.  But most are defined by the pattern of “audience” and “community”.  One cluster contains the foundation account and the many people who link (follow and retweet) it but do not link to one another.  The “community” cluster is a group of people who do link to one another, and most foundations gather one around them.  But few also gather a crowd of unconnected people, they way more “public” topics do.  An example might be something like SOPA (See: which features *many* isolates – indicating a topic of popular and public discussion.

    It could be argued that this is just fine: the goal of these accounts in Twitter is to engage a relatively small and bounded community of interested professionals and the activist public.  So we might want to shift focus to a topic of interest to a foundation, for example “edreform” which is a topic of active discussion in twitter (see:  Here we see a very heavy pattern of connection: high density suggests this is a community and a pretty big one.  Note, however, that the map of this topic also features very few isolates suggesting that “edreform” remains an “in-group” topic.

    Being “in-group” is not a bad thing.  It is just something that can be observed when social media populations are analyzed with social network analysis and visualization.

    Making maps like these regularly can also generate a way to measure the impact of engagement in social media spaces that goes beyond just measuring volumes of tweets and followers or likes and friends. 

    • Marc Smith

      Another graph that is useful for contrast is the network map of connections among people who tweet about “global health”:

      Here we can see a significant volume of isolates, suggesting that these words have widespread use among people who do not already follow, reply or mention one another.  This is an indicator that “global health” is a “popular” or “public” topic.

  • Here’s a great example of “passive and insular” — I’m looking back over the past few weeks, and I see: no advance of this meeting, no posts in the first few pages of a Google search that didn’t come from Gates (3 blogposts there), and almost nothing under that hashtag. In fact, prominent under the hashtag is another global-health blogger asking what the hashtag was, because she didn’t know about the meeting either. So where was their storytelling *about* the event? What journalists were in the room? What did they write? Where’s the aggregation of the posts and tweetstream, such as it was?