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!

Personal Documents in social research

Personal documents are those which are intended only to be viewed by oneself or intimate relations, namely friends or family. They generally (but not always) not intended to be seen by a wider public audience.

For the purposes of A-level sociology, the two main types of personal document are diaries and personal letters.

Today, I’m inclined to include personal ‘emails’ and certain intimate chat groups – such as circles of close friends chatting on WhatsApp, in this definition, because the data produced here will reveal personal thoughts and feelings, and isn’t intended for wider public consumption.

I think we can also include some personal blogs and vlogs in this definition, as some of these do reveal personal thoughts and feelings, even if they are written to be viewed by the general public – people sharing aspects of their daily lives on YouTube, or people writing more focused blogs about the travel experiences or how they are coping with critical illnesses, all have something of the ‘personal’ about them.

We could also include ‘naughty photos’ intended only to be shared with an intimate partner, but I think I’ll leave an analysis of those kind of documents out of this particular post!

Just a quick not on definitions – you need to be careful with the distinction I think between personal and private documents.

  • Personal documents = anything written which reveals one’s personal thoughts and feelings. These can either be written for consumption by oneself, by close others, or sometimes for public consumption.
  • Private documents – these are simply not intended to be viewed by a wider public audience, and can include someone’s personal diary or intimate letters/ photos between two people, but company accounts and strategy can also count as private documents, even if shared by several dozens of people, if not intended for consumption by a wider audience.

As with all definitions, just be clear what you’re talking about.

Certainly to be safe, for the sake of getting marks in an A-level sociology exam question on the topic, personal diaries and ‘intimate letters’ are certainly both types of personal document.

Examples of sociological research using Personal Documents

Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant (1918/ 1921)

Ozana Cucu-Oancea argues that this remains the most significant work using personal documents in the history of the social sciences (source).

The study used a range of both personal and public documents, and the former included hundreds of letters between Polish immigrants and their families back home in Poland, as well as several personal diaries.

In all the work consisted of 2,200 pages in five volumes, so it’s pretty extensive, focussing  on the cultural consequences of Polish migration.

The documents revealed touched on such themes as crime,  prostitution, alcoholism; and the problem of social happiness in general.

What was significant about this study from a theoretical point of view is that it put the individual at the centre of social analysis and stood in contrast to Positivism which was popular at that time.

The limitations of using personal documents in social research

  • There is a problem of interpretation. The researchers might misinterpret the meaning of the documents. The less contextual information the researchers have, the more likely this is to happen.
  • Practically it takes a long time to sift through and organise the information.
  • Who cares? Let’s face it, are you really going to go and read a 2, 200 page work analysing letters from Polish Immigrants, written over 100 years ago?

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.