The Geography of Twitter

The Switch writer, Caitlin Dewey, reviewed a recent study on Twitter in her article on “Where do Twitter trends start? Try Cincinnati” for the Washington Post.  It summarizes a study done at Indiana University on where Twitter topics trend and spread.  It found that Twitter trends that start in Cincinnati tend to spread out and reach other cities more than would have been thought for a city of that size. It concluded that physical geography has an impact on social media, which is often popularly thought of as transcending geographic location, by everyone but geographers and geospatial scientists – or do they? It turns out that The Geography of Twitter is a trending topic itself in the research world.

The study itself, “Traveling Trends: Social Butterflies or Frequent Fliers?” by Emilio Ferrara – a mathematician, Onur Varol– complex systems and computer science, Filippo Menczer – Director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research,  and Alessandro Flammini– Informatics, Physics, and biocomplexity for the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. In the study, they analyzed more than 11,000 trending Twitter topics in 63 main US locations between April, 12th to May, 31, 2013. Their intensive study found that geographic hubs drive many of the trends across the United States. 

They are not the only ones obsessed with the Geography of Tweets, as Visual Insights Manager, Miguel Rio de Sangre, calls it. He posted his favorite visualization of geo-tagged Tweets since 2009 of maritime traffic in Tokyo, New York City, and Istanbul.  He believes that people are fascinated with Twitter and he is probably right when it comes to researchers. Twitter data, like much geo-spatial data, is low-hanging fruit because there is a focus on sharing data and having consistent meta-data within the GIS community.

First Monday, one of the first openly accessible, peer–reviewed journals of the Internet, has a fairly recent article on Mapping the Global Twitter Heartbeat: The Geography of Twitter by Kalev Leetaru – big data analyst  and Library Information Science at University of Illinois, Shaowen Wang –  the Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science and the CyberInfrastructure and Geospatial Information Laboratory (CIGI) at the University of Illinois, Guofeng Cao – Postdoc Location Based Analysis, Anand Padmanabhan – large scale distributed environments at CIGI, and Eric Shook – large scale agent-based modeling at CIGI. Their study reviews the 7 year growth of Twitter – however they conclude that “Geographic Proximity is found to play a minimal role both in who users communicate with and what they communicate about, providing evidence that social media is shifting the communicative landscape”.

A search on Google trends for The Geography of Twitter reveals that it didn’t become relevant in the Google-verse until August 2012.  It will be interesting for the geo-spatial community, which develops many social media applications, to follow what the next trending research in the geography of Twitter will make the news.



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