New social norms revealed by Twitter data?

It is possible to analyse qualitative social media data to reveal social trends in attitudes. 

Twitter recently released an analysis of the content of 4 billion tweets made over the past three years, from users based in the United States. (Source)

The fastest growing theme which Twitter users are talking about is ‘creator culture’, with people tweeting about products they create in order to sell to make a living…

They claim that the content of tweets reveal that the U.S. population has become increasingly interested in six major cultural themes over the last 4 years (from 2016 to 2020):

  • Tweets about ‘Creator Culture’ are up 462% – which includes tweets about creative currency, ‘hustle life’ and connecting through video.
  • One Planet tweets are up – 285% – includes tweets on the themes of the ethical self, sustainability, and clean corporations
  • Tweets about Well Being are up 225% – tweets about digital monitoring, holistic health and being well together
  • Tech Life tweets are up – 166% – on the topics of blended realities, future tech and ‘tech angst’.
  • ‘My Identity’ tweets are up – 167% – fandom, gender redefined and ‘representing me’ are the main themes here.
  • Tweets about ‘Everyday Wonders’ are up 161% – a theme which includes DIY spirituality, awe of nature and cosmic fascination.

Sustainability is another large twitter conversation growth area.

The 2020 report by twitter (here) was produced for marketing purposes, but nonetheless reveals what twitter users are becoming increasingly interested in, and there are no real surprises here.

The report is broken down into several sections which include the nice infographics I’ve put up in this post, there are many more available in the reports.

Intuitively I’m not surprised to see any of the above trends emerging from this analysis – I’m sure that as a population as a whole, we are generally more interested in all of the above in 2020, compared to 2016.

The limitations of using Twitter data to reveal cultural trends

There may be a lot of data, but there are possible problems with representativeness – twitter users tend to be younger and more educated than the wider population. (Source).

There’s also a problem with the motivations behind the data being collected – this was done for marketing purposes, to be useful to companies wishing to advertise on Twitter – so this analysis wouldn’t show any more negative trends which may have been tweeted about.

A limitation of the way this data is published is that we’re not told the raw numbers – so we know how much more a particular trend is being tweeted about in percentages, but we don’t know about the actual numbers. Some of these may have started from a very low base in 2016, in which case a 250% increase in 4 years still wouldn’t be that signficant!

This analysis paints Twitter as a wholly positive place where people are full of wonder and fascination, and are creative and positive. In reality we all know there’s a darker side to Twitter!  

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

Students really should be considering how valid, reliable and representative twitter data is in terms of what it can tell us about broader cultural, political and economic values.

You may well decide that it’s NOT a valid data source at all, but that’s fine as Twitter gives you something to be critical of, and being critical is all part of A-level sociology!

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