Geography & Social Media Colliding

This blog is written by National Geographic Education Social Media Intern, Amelia Tidona, as a part of the Geography Awareness blog-a-thon. 

As the Social Media & Promotion Intern for National Geographic Education, I am always on the lookout for interesting articles that involve the collision of geography education and social media. Interestingly, these two areas are beginning to collide more often as cartographers attempt to map topics using data from Twitter.   I recently read two articles, The Geography of U.S. Hate, Mapped Using Twitter and The Geography of Happiness According to 10 Million Tweets.  Both were published in 2013 and focus on Twitter data from the United States only.

The first article detailed a study conducted at Humboldt State University, which attempted to map where homophobes and racists live in the U.S, based off of the spatial distribution of hateful tweets. Data was derived from “every geocoded tweet in the United States from June 2012 to April 2013.” 150,000 insults aggregated over the course of 11 months.  However, the article indicates that it is difficult to take the data at face value since it can only capture attitudes from people who use Twitter and have geotagging enabled, which is just slightly more than 1% of all Twitter users. Additionally, this type of data gathering limits the definition of hate speech to specific words, leaving broader hate speech ignored since it is difficult to capture.

Map by Humboldt State University
Map by Humboldt State University

While the first study attempts to track hate, the second attempts to track happiness.  A team at Vermont Complex Systems Center analyzed 10 million geotagged tweets across the United States.  The team conducted a similar process as the first study but with a larger dataset.  The researchers coded each tweet for its “happiness” and it’s “sad” content, based on a set of specific terms.  This allowed the team to pinpoint states and even cities that had a higher prevalence of “happy” tweets as opposed to “sad” tweets. Hawaii came out on top as the happiest state and Louisiana was coined the saddest state.

Once again, drawbacks persist. This research process ignores the context of a tweet, and is limited to those people who are on Twitter and have geotagged tweets. Many more questions arise as well. For example, do Hawaiians have different language norms than people from Louisiana? And what about those tweets not in English that are completely missing from the study?

However, while flaws persist, I believe both of these studies illustrate an interesting portrait of mapping in the modern age. As social media shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, it’s potential knows no bounds. In this age of “Big Data,” it is exciting to see the use of platforms like Twitter to delineate patterns of spatial distribution. And it is amazing to think we could better understand things like hate & happiness by harnessing geographic knowledge through relatively free, abundant, public data like social media.

By Amelia Tidona, National Geographic Education

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