Sociologists tracking “global mood swings” through Twitter

New social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are ripe data sources. A new study in Science done by two sociologists examines the world’s emotions through Twitter:

The research team, led by Scott Golder, a PhD doctoral student in the field of sociology, and Professor of Sociology Michael Macy, tracked 2.4 million people in 84 different countries over the past two years. Clearly the team working on the project didn’t read through 2.4 million people’s tweets. Instead, they used a text analysis program that quantified the emotional content of 509 million tweets. Their results, featured in the paper “Diurnal and Seasonal Mood Tracks Work, Sleep and Day Length Across Diverse Cultures,” were published September 29 in Science.

The researchers found that work, sleep, and the amount of daylight we get really does affect things like our enthusiasm, delight, alertness, distress, fear, and anger. They concluded that people tweet more positive things early in the morning and then again around midnight. This could suggest that people aren’t very happy while they’re working since their happy tweets are at the beginning and end of the day. Saturday and Sunday also saw more positive tweets in general. The weekend showed these peaks at about 2 hours later, which accounts for sleeping in and staying out late.

Of course, all of the trends weren’t the same throughout every country. For example, the United Arab Emirates tend to work Sunday through Thursday, so their weekend tweets happened on Friday and Saturdays. The results also found that people who live in countries that get more daylight (closer to the equator) aren’t necessarily happier than people in countries that get less daylight (closer to the North and South Poles). It seems that only people who have a lot of daylight during the summer and then very little in the winter feel the affect of the change in seasons as much.

Clearly the results of the research aren’t perfect. There may be some people who only share positive things on Twitter, or some people who love to be cynical and use Twitter to complain about problems.

This sounds interesting and the resulting maps and charts are intriguing.  However, I would first ask methodological questions that would get at whether this is worthwhile data or not. Does this really reflect global moods? Or does this simply tell us something about Twitter users, who are likely not representative of the population at large?

Another article does suggest this study makes methodological improvements over two common ways studies look at emotions:

None of these results are particularly surprising, but Golder and Macy suggest that using global tweets allows them to confirm previous studies that only looked at small samples of American undergraduates who were not necessarily representative of the wider world. Traditional studies also require participants to recall their past emotions, whereas tweets can be gathered in real time.

These are good things: more immediate data and a wider sample beyond college undergraduates. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Twitter data is good data. The sample still probably skews toward younger people and those who have the technological means to be on Twitter consistently. Additionally, immediate emotions can tell us one thing but inquiring about longer-term satisfaction often tells us something else.

On the whole, this sounds like better data than we have before but until we have more universal Twitter usage, this data source will have significant limitations.

0 thoughts on “Sociologists tracking “global mood swings” through Twitter

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