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Tweet Life vs Street Life: the gap between content and feelings

  • Twitter is an unreliable witness to the world's emotions
  • Conversation on Twitter has its own unique grammar, rules and culture
  • Online social life doesn't always reflect offline social reality
  • Traditional social research methods are still vital when it comes to new media, according to new University of Warwick research published in PLOS ONE, a leading multidisciplinary journal.

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Twitter is an unreliable witness to the world's emotions, according to University of Warwick sociology expert Dr Eric Jensen.

In a new paper published today, Dr Jensen, Associate Professor in the University of Warwick's Department of Sociology, highlights the risks of assuming that Twitter accurately reflects real life.

With over 300 million monthly active users around the globe sharing their thoughts in 140 characters or less, Dr Jensen acknowledges that studies based on Twitter data are "particularly alluring" to researchers and the media. However, he cautions against this "big data gold rush," pointing out that there is no evidence that social media content shared on Twitter is a truthful reflection of how its users feel.

Twitter users have developed their own unique cultural behaviour, conversations and identities, which shape the ways in which they present their views online. Social convention, power relationships and identity influence online conversation just as much as off-line interactions, but in ways that are not yet fully understood.

Dr Jensen also highlights the problems of drawing broader conclusions from a sample of Twitter users. It has been proven in several studies that Twitter users are not representative of the general population. In just one example, men are much more likely to use Twitter than women. Prolific users who tweet many times a day may be over-represented in any sample dataset.

Commenting on his findings, Dr Jensen said: "Twitter users present only one side of themselves on social media, shielding their true feelings for good reasons, such as professional reputation. There is clearly a large gap between what people post on social media and how they really feel, but how exactly people manage the relationship between their offline and social media identities is still being uncovered.

He continued: "When researchers find themselves with easily accessible data, there is a temptation to apply those data to interesting research questions and populations - even when there are limitations in the representativeness of the sample.

Dr Jensen added: "Enthusiasm for accessing digital data should not outpace sound research methodology."

The paper, Putting the methodological brakes on claims to measure national happiness through Twitter: methodological limitations in social media analytics, is published in PLOS ONE.

7 September 2017

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