SHAFAQNA – Are you one of Twitter‘s 271 million monthly active users? Is your profile open? If so – congratulations, your tweets are about to go down in history.Last week the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced it was teaming with Twitter in a project to better understand how people communicate via social media, and to create new platforms for the identification and discussion of societal problems. Twitter will fund the project to the tune of $10 million over five years, and provide access to every public tweet ever made.
The research hopes to establish behavioural patterns in reaction to certain events, and examine how thoughts and beliefs are spread through social media, including but not limited to Twitter. So what exactly are the researchers likely to glean about society from dissecting our tweets?
There’s a saying that Facebook is for the friends you wish were strangers, while Twitter is for the strangers you wish were friends. On Twitter, you can blissfully bypass the former’s endless onslaught of baby pictures and rambling passive aggressive statuses of people you went to school with and didn’t even like then. The 140 character constraint (arguably) forces a user to be more creative in deciding what to broadcast, and its immediacy cuts out some of the whimsical navel-gazing that makes so much of social media so irritating – or at least buries it within the 500 million or so tweets sent a day.
In February the Pew Research Centre claimed to have identified six types of Twitter conversation. Politics and other divisive topics tend to create polarised crowds who commonly do not interact with groups that disagree with them, while hobbies or shared professions create tight crowds, who interact with each other for information, ideas and opinions. Meanwhile, celebrities and brands attract large, fragmented audiences that encourage little connection, while global news events and other popular topics are discussed by disconnected ‘community clusters’.
The final two types of conversation are generated by the user replies to tweets from news media outlets or famous individuals, christened ‘in-hub and spoke’, and when brands, companies or governments respond to user complaints or requests.
What we can take away from the research is this: people love the sound of their own voice. Twitter by its very nature as a social platform lends itself to the projection of carefully edited opinion – and even when tweeting fact, such as a news article or headline, it’s still a fact you deem worthy of subjecting the Twittersphere too as part of a cultivated personality. I tweet, therefore I am.
If Twitter is a democratising force, insofar as it’s used by politicians, celebrities, aristocracy and laymen alike to varying means, it’s gently coaxed us all into thinking everything we all have to say is as important as everyone else. In this case, the adage of how we’re x times more likely to share a negative experience than a good one also rings true – Twitter is awash with complaints, gripes, grievances, with the odd side of celebrity meltdown.
Yet it would be foolish to dismiss the MIT’s research as a mere vanity project. Like it or not, Twitter is inextricably embedded in how we receive our news, discuss reality TV, submit customer complaints and even make and maintain friends. And as a result, examining our tweets could provide a more authentic snapshot of 21st century life than, say, a census. Just remember, in the immortal words of the prime minister, too many tweets make a …