Twitter is not a barometer of social attitudes

Like a lot of people, on Thursday night I tuned in to the BBC’s Question Time to see how Nick Griffin came across.

As I watched, I tweeted my thoughts, which became part of the huge stream on the #bbcqt hashtag. Looking at the hashtag search, you’d easily come to the conclusion everyone thought Griffin came across very badly.  Tweetminster reported that 99.9% of tweets were negative about Griffin.

Yet 24 hours later, a poll for YouGov found support for the BNP had increased following the show.

So why was the Twitter barometer of social attitudes wrong?

Quite simply, that’s because Twitter hashtags only tell us what people on Twitter think about something.

The comments on the BBC’s own Have Your Say forum, or submitted by viewers hitting the Red Button on cable or satelite had a far less critical view of Griffin’s performance, with a sizable number saying they agreed with his views.

So what this demonstrates is that what people say on Twitter should not be taken as what people in general think or feel.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the value of real-time search, with social media monitoring services selling sentiment analysis as an accurate method of understanding what people think.

This isn’t strictly true. It merely tells you what people on Twitter think. People on MySpace might think differently, and people not on the internet at all might have different attitudes altogether.

This is what ethnographer danah boyd (she does not capitalise her name) describes as the Not So Hidden Politics of Class Online:

‘For decades, we’ve assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with “access” and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the “digital divide.” Yet, increasingly, we’re seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we’re seeing a social media landscape where participation “choice” leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions.’

So for instance, boyd found that while discussions about social media tended to focus on Facebook, as this was the platform used by social commentators themselves, at least as many young people were using MySpace.

Our choice of social network, boyd argues,  isn’t about features or functionality. It’s a result of what sociologists refer to as homophily, the social phenomenon which means we choose to socialise with people like ourselves.

Because of homophily, the platform on which we choose to socialise online is inextricably linked with factors such as race, education and socio-economic status. This is reflected in the stats, which consistently show Twitter users are older, wealthier and better educated than people participating elsewhere online.

The phenomenon of homophily is evident not just in choice of platform, but who you interact with once using that platform. In following people who are interested in the same things as us on Twitter, we inevitably choose to follow people who are quite a lot like ourselves.

This means it can be something of an echo chamber, with views and opinions like our own reflected back at us.

This makes it inherently unreliable as a social barometer. It only reflects a certain strata of society, while other platforms may vary from this considerably. Let’s not forget that 10m adults the UK are not online at all. They have views (and votes) too.

Those of us working in engagement (as well as lazy journalists) would do well to remember that the views that echo through our own Twitter streams do not neccessarily represent everyone.

4 thoughts on “Twitter is not a barometer of social attitudes

  1. Pingback: Links for October 19th through October 25th | daveharte.com

    • Well, YouGov’s polls are generally considered pretty relaible and unbiased, so I’d say it’s as good a representation as you’re likely to get.

  2. Pingback: Some old thinking about new media « Sharon O'Dea

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