When Twitter first came on the scene in 2006, most did not understand it. What’s the point of a message limited to 140 characters? Why do I need a Facebook status without the rest of Facebook? Why would anyone care what I am doing? Little did those skeptics know Twitter would soon explode into being the next “big” thing in the realm of social media. Soon, millions would be using the social networking site. People would be tweeting so often, they’d overload the server and the infamous fail whale would appear, creating a surge of disappointment as users’ tweets were unable to be shared. Today, Twitter has taken over with millions of active Twitter accounts hosted by men, women and nearly all consumer brands alike. But is there a deeper meaning?
For anyone paying attention to people and their behavior in society, yes there is. Scholars of sociology, psychology and anthropology, as well as linguists, are ecstatic about this new form of communication and have found that the way people use Twitter reveals so much more about them, other than what they just ate or where they are going to hang out. This new form of science, dubbed “Twitterology,” may be of questionable credibility among modern scientists, but for those studying human behavior, Twitter provides a real-time platform of participants to study.
Scholars studying Twitter can learn more about human behavior based on how, what, when and why people are tweeting. A recent Cornell University study examining how rhythms of daily life correlated with human emotion via Twitter discovered that as the day went from morning to late afternoon, positive sentiments declined while picking up again in the late evening. This pattern maintained itself even on the weekends, indicating that it’s not just the theory that people hate going to work causes a post-morning drop in mood.
Linguists can analyze human cultures by examining use of slang words on Twitter as well. This can be fine-tuned to learn more about slang in different countries, regions and also age groups.
A Carnegie Mellon University study used Twitter to reveal how slang use in tweets differs across geographical locations and is heavily influenced with regional accents and dialects. As explained by CMU’s post-doctoral fellow, Jacob Eisenstein, “some of this usage clearly is shaped by the 140-character limit of Twitter messages. But geography’s influence also is apparent.” For example, the CMU researchers used geotagging and discovered that the world “cool” is reflected as “coo” in Southern California whereas it is “koo” in Northern California.
Even the CIA is paying attention to where and what people are tweeting, although not from a sociological standpoint. By analyzing tweets according to language, they are able to track popular sentiments and moods of an estimated region and then cross-reference their findings with corresponding news media reports.
The CIA “sometimes looks at 5 million tweets a day. The analysts are also checking out TV news channels, local radio stations, Internet chat rooms,” which allows them to somewhat forecast responses by the people of that area. They used this methodology to see how the people of Pakistan received Bin Laden’s death.
According to Doug Naquin, director of the CIA’s Open Source Center which does the analysis, “Yes, they saw the uprising in Egypt coming; they just didn’t know exactly when revolution might hit.” Their analyses are often included in briefings for President Obama and the insight drawn from this can aid in the development of foreign policy when building relations with other countries.
Whether we want to learn more about humans’ emotional patterns throughout the day or how humans communicate through language, Twitterology is a growing concept that is proving to be able to reveal truths about human behavior. It’s clear that Twitter is more than just a 140-character status.