If one survey option receives the most votes (18%), can the item with the least votes (2%) be declared the least favorite?

The media can have difficulty interpreting survey results. Here is one recent example involving a YouGov survey that asked about the most attractive regional accents in the United States:

Internet-based data analytics and market research firm YouGov released a study earlier this month that asked 1,216 Americans over the age of 18 about their accent preferences. The firm provided nine options, ranging from regions to well-known dialects in cities. Among other questions, YouGov asked, “Which American region/city do you think has the most attractive accent?”

The winner was clear. The Southeastern accent, bless its heart, took the winning spot, with the dialect receiving 18 percent of the vote from the study’s participants. Texas wasn’t too far behind, nabbing the second-most attractive accent at 12 percent of the vote…

The least attractive? Chicago rolls in dead last, with just 2 percent of “da” vote.

John Kass did not like the results and consulted a linguist:

I called on an expert: the eminent theoretical linguist Jerry Sadock, professor emeritus of linguistics from the University of Chicago…

“The YouGov survey that CBS based this slander on does not support the conclusion. The survey asked only what the most attractive dialect was, the winner being — get this — Texan,” Sadock wrote in an email.

“Louie Gohmert? Really? The fact that very few respondents found the Chicago accent the most attractive, does not mean that it is the least attractive,” said Sadock. “I prefer to think that would have been rated as the second most attractive accent, if the survey had asked for rankings.”

In the original YouGov survey, respondents were asked: “Which American region/city do you think has the most attractive accent?” Respondents could select one option. The Chicago accent did receive the least number of selections.

However, Sadock has a point. Respondents could only select one option. If they had the opportunity to rank them, would the Chicago accent move up as a non-favorite but still-liked accent? It could happen.

Additionally, the responses were fairly diverse across the respondents. The original “winner” Southeastern accent was only selected by 18% of those surveyed. This means that over 80% of the respondents did not select the leading response. Is it fair to call this the favorite accent of Americans when fewer than one-fifth of respondents selected it?

Communicating the nuances of survey results can be difficult. Yet, journalists and other should resist the urge to immediately identify “favorites” and “losers” in such situations where the data does not show an overwhelming favorite respondents did not have the opportunity to rate all of the possible responses.

Talking about Twitter language and what it reveals about the world

It may seem like common sense that people’s regional dialects show up in their online communication. According to a new study that examined “380,000 messages from Twitter during one week in March 2010,” people in California say “coo” for “cool,” southerners still say “y’all,” and New Yorkers are more apt to say “suttin” instead of “something.”

But I think the study does just go beyond common sense in some of its other conclusions:

Eisenstein said some of the online “accents” mirror those in the spoken language, but not all. For example, many people in the Great Lakes region tend to have similar accents when speaking, but that wasn’t necessarily found to be true in the study, he said.

“One thing I think that it shows is that people really have a need to communicate their identity — their cultural identity and their geographic identity in social media,” he said.

This is interesting: how exactly do people portray their identity through their online language? On mediums like Twitter, people make very conscious choices about how to speak. People of different regions and dialects can choose to use their typical speech patterns or not. And why do they make these choices?

A broader question to ask is how much do posts on Twitter represent reality? What sort of picture of the world does Twitter deliver? This study can help us understand what Twitter behavior is like but can it tell us much about the broader world?