On certain days, Twitter can feel like the world's biggest, fastest echo chamber. Since we tend to follow people who are similar to us, we often see our own views reflected back—meaning a gloomy cloud of irritation can rapidly swirl into a cyclone of outrage as we hear from other people who feel as we do. A group of computer scientists have discovered that the opposite may also be true. Can Twitter be part of the solution, not merely part of the problem?
In a study to be presented at a conference in July, a team of researchers from the U.K.'s University of Cambridge, Korea's Graduate School of cultural Technology-KAIST, and Germany's Max Planck Institute for Software Systems show how Twitter can provide users greater access to more varied political viewpoints and media sources than they might otherwise get.
The paper, called "The Media Landscape in Twitter," explains how the team made surprising discoveries when they looked into the site's usage patterns. First they looked at who follows whom and discovered that Twitter is a highly politicized space. Then they examined patterns of tweeting and retweeting to try to understand how people receive information on Twitter—and what they might see. Their conclusion: Although Twitter is a pretty partisan space, it can offer unprecedented opportunities to break down the barriers that plague local, national, and international politics.
How? Through retweets and interaction—what the authors call "indirect media exposure." As they put it, this "expands the political diversity of news to which users are exposed to a surprising extent, increasing the range by between 60 percent and 98 percent. These results are valuable because they have not been readily available to traditional media and they can help predict how we will read news and how publishers will interact with us in the future."
If you're interested in the way Twitter works, I recommend reading the paper, which isn't very long. Meanwhile, let's boil it down to a few key pieces of data and see what lessons they can teach.
Most Twitter users are political. Just over half (50.8 percent) of all Twitter users studied showed a distinct political bias in the media outlets and individuals they followed. Most of those lean to the left of the political spectrum, accounting for 62 percent of users who demonstrated some bias. Thirty-seven percent were doggedly centrist. Just 1 percent of Twitter users who showed a political preference were right-wing.
Here are a couple of caveats about reading too much into the sharp divide the authors found. Given that Twitter's user base is younger and more metropolitan than the societal norm, it's not surprising that it's weighted to the left. It's worth noting that this study was undertaken more than a year ago; since then, Twitter has grown dramatically, while global politics have largely skewed back toward the right. Twitter's user base today might reflect a more-balanced political picture. Either way, there's a big split.
Twitter has secondary and tertiary benefits. Most organizations comprehend Twitter in simple terms: More followers means more exposure. But the study shows that it's not just about those you follow, but those your followers follow—essentially the people in your extended network. The network offers a number of routes for information from fresh sources to get to you. According to the study, some 80 percent of users choose to follow at least 10 media sources, but they are exposed to between 6 and 10 times as many media sources through their friends.
People outweigh brands. Many of the biggest Twitter accounts are big media brands such as CNN (TWX) and Time, but the study suggests that Twitter's active users tend to prefer individuals over outlets. So while the average follower of @NYTimes (NYT) has six followers apiece, individual journalists have followers who boast a median following count of around 100. That gives individual journalists—who are, the study says, more likely to link to a multiplicity of sources—a much wider, more influential network of connections.
The inference is that the personal touch of a journalist is more important than the lofty, impersonal tone of publications that largely act as promotion channels for their content. It's a discovery that reminded me of Twitter's recent blog post on the science of the hashtag, which found that hashtags explode in usage when they are picked up by individuals with the most dedicated—not necessarily the largest—followings.
Active users access a wider range of views. The researchers say that indirect exposure expands political diversity by a "significant amount," despite other studies showing a tendency for social networks to do the opposite. "Other studies have found a stronger tendency of homophily; blogs of different political views rarely linked to each other," they point out. "One possible reason is that a Twitter network encompasses several different relationships—from shared interest, to familial ties, friends, and acquaintances—so political similarity doesn't necessarily exist in all such ties."
This is not to say that Twitter's creators should be preparing a Nobel Prize-winning speech. Far from it: The influence of its diversity is unknown. It could be that many people who see messages they disagree with simply change their behavior to screen out such material in future. But it shows that there is a potential to do something positive at Twitter. It's clear there's much work to be done. The researchers say they want to investigate a number of areas they've uncovered, having provided important insights at a time when politics seem more fractious and divided than ever.
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