Internet users don’t just live online, of course; they’re also real-world citizens who live and work in physical cities and towns, states and countries. However, with the rise of modern telecommunications, physical place has become less important as people have expanded their networks without regard to geography. How the rise of social media and global platforms are accelerating these dynamics is an emerging topic of study, and researchers are examining how far-flung digital networks composed of “weak ties” influence people’s lives, actions and beliefs. They are also evaluating how digital platforms affect political discourse.
Recent research has shown that online social networks can have a significant impact in the offline world. For instance, social media has been harnessed to rapidly respond to weather-related crises, such as mapping the destruction in the Philippines after Typhoon Pablo in May 2012 and are functioning as an early-warning earthquake detector. While one study shows that, at best, 1 out of 5 tweets during an emergency situation provides useful information, others suggest that the percentage is closer to 55%. Depending on the volume of tweets, that still means that hundreds or thousands of valuable observations are shared by citizen observers.
Twitter’s short-form communication platform is also uniquely well-suited for quick messages via mobile devices; GPS technology, combined with user-provided information, can identify the physical location of approximately 1 out of 3 tweets. However, most Twitter research has focused on who tweets, what content is shared, and how it spreads, with little attention paid to where the tweeter is located.
A 2013 study from Silicon Graphics International (SGI), the University of Illinois, and social media data vendor GNIP, “Mapping the Global Twitter Heartbeat: The Geography of Twitter,” analyzed GPS data from 39 days of tweets — 1.5 billion tweets from more than 71 million individual users for an average of 38 million tweets a day — captured by the Twitter Decahose between October and November 2012. Researchers then built a detailed geographic representation of Twitter to map as many tweets as possible.
Key study findings include:
- “Geographic proximity is found to play a minimal role both in who users communicate with and what they communicate about, providing evidence that social media is shifting the communicative landscape.”
- Further, “geography plays little role in the location of influential users, with the volume of retweets instead simply being a factor of the total population of tweets originating from that city.” Users typically send tweets both locally and internationally on a regular basis; the average distance between a pair of connected Twitter users is 600 miles.
- In general, global Twitter usage correlates with urbanization and energy consumption. “[Energy infrastructure] also demonstrates that despite high mobile use, Twitter is not a replacement for satellite and other air- and space-based sensor systems of society — it is still reliant on the same electrical and network infrastructure as other Internet media and thus has difficulty penetrating into rural areas with low availability of electricity.” Exceptions to this rule include Iran and China, two countries that ban Twitter use.
- “Twitter [content] is not simply a mirror of mainstream media, but rather has a distinct geographic profile…. [But] the differences between social and mainstream media geographic coverage deserve further exploration.”
- “Mainstream English-language news constituted an extremely small portion of links, accounting for just 7.8 % of all links, 3.6% of links from geocoded tweets, and 0.8% of georeferenced tweets. Unlike the broader set of all domains, georeferenced tweets, geocoded tweets, and non–geographic tweets all have the same four top news domains: bbc.co.uk, huffingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, and guardian.co.uk, making these the most popular English-language news websites on Twitter.” Many of these links featured national or international news.
- Twitter users tend to rely on a single Twitter client and either enable or disable their geolocation settings as opposed to toggling between the two options. Location identification rises throughout the course of a day, peaking around 4 p.m. EST (1 p.m. PST) and dropping to its lowest levels around 9 a.m. EST (6 a.m. PST).
- The top georeferenced cities are Jakarta, New York City, Sao Paulo and Kuala Lumpur. Houston (no. 13) and Dallas (no. 16) make the top 20, with San Antonio ranked at no. 42. The researchers found that only 2.17% of tweets written in English include geolocation data.
- The residents of most countries speak a single language, with some notable exceptions that may highlight possible cultural tensions in a region. For instance, Hungary and Serbia do not have a single dominant language; Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank have a strong mix of languages; and Africa’s English- and French-speaking populations reside primarily in different regions. United States tweets are overwhelmingly English, but data show a clusters of other languages throughout the country, especially in the Midwest.
- Twitter content is generated by a small number of users. The top 15% of users account for 85% of all tweets, while the top 1% of users, or approximately 720,000 users, produce 20% of all tweets. About 25% of users during the study period tweeted just once, while half tweeted between one and four times.
- The United States, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico, Brazil and Western Europe all have strong Twitter coverage, while much of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia do not.
- The average tweet consists of 9.4 words and 74 characters.
The researchers conclude that “there appears to be only weak geographic affinity in communicative link formation in that users retweet and reference users far away nearly as often as they do those physically proximate to them. Similarly, half of the news coverage tweeted by users was about events close to them, while a nearly equal amount was far away. This suggests that social media is indeed having a significant impact on the role of geographic proximity in the communicative landscape.”
For a sense of how Twitter is changing the political landscape, see “Twitter, politics and the public: Research roundup.”
Tags: Twitter, communications