Looking for a new area of study? Try Twitterology

If it is in the New York Times, Twitterology must be a viable area of academic study:

Twitter is many things to many people, but lately it has been a gold mine for scholars in fields like linguistics, sociology and psychology who are looking for real-time language data to analyze.

Twitter’s appeal to researchers is its immediacy — and its immensity. Instead of relying on questionnaires and other laborious and time-consuming methods of data collection, social scientists can simply take advantage of Twitter’s stream to eavesdrop on a virtually limitless array of language in action…

One criticism of “sentiment analysis,” as such research is known, is that it takes a naïve view of emotional states, assuming that personal moods can simply be divined from word selection. This might seem particularly perilous on a medium like Twitter, where sarcasm and other playful uses of language often subvert the surface meaning…

Still, the Twitterologists will continue to have a tough row to hoe in justifying their research to those who think that Twitter is a trivial form of communication. No less a figure than Noam Chomsky has taken Twitter to task recently for its “superficiality.”

For more sociological thoughts about Chomsky’s comments, see this post from a few days ago.

Here is my quick take on Twitterology: it has some potential for gathering quick, on-the-ground information. But there are two big issues that this article doesn’t address:

1. Are Twitter users representative of the whole population? Probably not. Twitter feeds might be good for studying very specific groups and movements.

2. How can one make causal arguments with Twitter data? If we had more information about Twitter users from profiles, this might be doable but Twitter is less about Facebook-style profiles. We then need studies that collect the information about Twitter users as well as their Twitter activity. If we want to ask questions like whether Twitter was instrumental or even helped cause the Arab Spring movements, we need more data.

Twitterology may be trendy at the moment but I think it has a ways to go before we can use it to tackle typical questions that sociologists ask.

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