8 Ways People Are Taking Twitter Seriously

Born in desperation and long mocked, the social media platform has become a popular research and intelligence-gathering tool

The doodle that became Twitter
The doodle that became Twitter Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jack Dorsey

A little refresher:

Back in late 2005, the guys running a small San Francisco startup named Odeo were feeling desperate. They had planned to make it big in the podcasting business, but Apple had just announced that iTunes would include a podcasting platform built into every iPod.

So the Odeo group started scrambling to come up with a new plan. One of the employees, a guy named Jack Dorsey, came up with the idea of a system where you could send a text message to a number and it would be delivered to all of your friends.

Someone came up with the code name twttr–a takeoff on Flickr–and when they looked up twitter in the dictionary and saw that it meant 1) A short burst of inconsequential information and 2) Chirps from birds, they agreed, Dorsey recalls, that the name “was just perfect.”

Such a tool

This is just to remind all of us that Twitter was born not as a grand vision, but more an act of desperation. And that it was originally meant as nothing more than a cool way to send reports of your status to all of your friends at once.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that these days Twitter is being hailed as everything from a barometer of the nation’s emotional health to a conduit for the flow of linguistic invention to a tool for urban planners to map travel routes.

Oh, and earlier this week, a young mother reportedly named her newborn daughter “Hashtag.”

There are those, of course, who think way too much is being made of Twitter’s capacity for capturing the zeitgeist. But there’s no question that it’s gaining status as an analytical tool. Here are just a few of the ways it’s being taken seriously:

1) It’s not the tweet, it’s emotion: Last month tech giant SGI rolled out something it calls the Global Twitter Heartbeat, a Big Data analysis of 10 percent of the roughly 500 million tweets tapped out every day.

The tool takes geotagged tweets over a period of time and converts them into a “heat map” designed to show the tone and intensity of what’s being said where. It’s first big effort was during Superstorm Sandy.

2) Pocket of politeness? Or pool of profanity?: The company Vertalab created its own Twitter heat map a few months ago, but that one focused on the use of two particular phrases on Twitter. While many weighed in with a conventional “Good morning,” a surprising number posted a two-word phrase rhyming with “duck flew.” .

True to form, the well-mannered tweets tended to bubble up from the South, particularly parts of Texas and Tennessee, while the cursing flowed freely around New York, Toronto and especially Los Angeles.

3) I hear ya, bruh: Researchers at Georgia Tech analyzed 30 million tweets sent around the U.S. between December 2009 and May 2011 and concluded that new words, at least on Twitter, tend to first pop up in cities with large African-American populations, then spread.

One example they gave was “bruh,” a Twitter version of “bro,” that first appeared in several cities in the U.S.’ Southeast, then leap-frogged to California.

4) The roads most traveled: Data-mapping expert Eric Fischer tracked millions of tweets from around the world and laid them over maps of highways to get a sense of how many people are heading where. He thinks urban planners could use this kind of data to fine-tune existing transportation systems and figure out where new routes are needed.

5) Exit polls are so last century: Go ahead and scoff, but some think Twitter analysis can even help predict an election. Barack Obama’s victory in the recent presidential race didn’t come as a big surprise to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed 2,500 online conversations in the two months leading up to the election. It found that a much higher percentage–58 percent–of the comments about Mitt Romney were negative, while 45 percent of the tweets about Barack Obama were harsh.

At the same time Twitter did its own analysis of which tweets by both campaigns provoked the strongest responses in which states. One key indicator: Obama had a high engagement level in the key swing state of Ohio–determined by retweets and favorites–while Romney had only a moderate engagement level there.

6) When military intelligence is not an oxymoron: Three U.S. Defense Department units are field-testing a software called the Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis (DTNA), to see how effective it is at gauging public opinion in political hot spots around the world. The software pulls in data from the public Twitter feed, then sorts it, live, by phrases, keywords or hashtags. The hope is that intelligence officers could use the software to understand people’s moods about a topic, or hopefully prevent or respond faster in any future U.S. embassy attacks.

7) I’m not a doctor, but I play one on Twitter: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were pleasantly surprised to see that people are using Twitter to share information on medical subjects that wouldn’t seem the stuff of tweets, such as cardiac arrest and CPR. Their analysis of a month of tweets found more than 15,000 messages that contained specific and useful information about cardiac arrest and resuscitation.

8) When short stories aren’t short enough: And finally, it is here at last, the first annual Twitter Fiction Festival. Since Wednesday two dozen authors from five continents have been posting their mini-stories in five different languages. The fare ranges from Iowa writer Jennifer Wilson posting photographs of gravestones, then writing “flash fiction” in response to epitaphs submitted by followers, to French fantasy novelist Fabrice Colin writing a serialized story of five strangers trapped on a bus. Stop by at the Fiction Festival website–it will be over before you know it.

Video bonus: Here’s another SGI heat map, this one tracking Obama and Romney-related tweets during election week.

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