Twitter and Politics: a Dynamic Duo

Discussions involving politics are usually provocative under the best of circumstances – but they’re especially contentious when they take place on Twitter. That’s the consensus of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found yet another example of how social media is changing our behavior.

A recent center study looked at 20 million tweets about the race for president posted between May 2 and Nov. 27. It found that people “talk” differently about politics on Twitter than they do elsewhere in the world of blogging (e.g., the so-called blogosphere). What’s more, information posted on both Twitter and the blogosphere differed markedly from the political information that Americans receive from news coverage in general.

Tweets about the presidential candidates tended to be more intensely opinionated, and less neutral, than in both blogs and news, according to the study. Further, it seems that a smaller percentage of tweeted statements about the candidates were simply factual in nature without reflecting positively or negatively on a candidate.

But perhaps the most interesting finding was that the political discussion on Twitter has fluctuated with events more than it has elsewhere in the blogosphere, where authors seem to stick with their views more steadily once they have made up their minds about the candidates. On Twitter, by contrast, conversations about the candidates sometimes changed dramatically from week to week, going from positive to negative or vice versa in the blink of an eye.

We’ve seen how Twitter has played a dramatic role in affecting world events. And while it’s impossible to gauge just how influential Twitter will be in determining the next President of the United States, one thing is for sure – the candidates surely will be paying serious attention to Twitter as they take the pulse of the American voter.

Is Facebook Really Making the World a Smaller Place?

The number of acquaintances who stand between any two people on Facebook? It’s 4.74, according to a new study by researchers at Facebook and the University of Milan.

The study updates the popular “Six Degrees of Separation” theory first espoused by psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1967 and later popularized by the parlor game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which seemingly unconnected celebrities are shown to have a relationship to the Hollywood star.

The Facebook study used a set of algorithms developed by researchers at the University of Milan to calculate the average degree of separation between any two people. The study found that the average number of “hops” from one person to another was 4.74 degrees. In the United States, where more than half of people over the age of 13 are Facebook users, the degree of separation was even smaller – 4.37.

The Facebook study reminds us that the world is increasingly becoming a “Global Village,” a concept the philosopher and scholar Marshall McLuhan popularized in the 1960s when he described how the vast globe has become transformed into a small village by virtue of technology. McLuhan was thinking about television, but he might just as well have been describing the Internet.

The study also begs the question of just who, exactly is a friend. A person could have several hundred Facebook friends and yet have little real contact with any of them. As Jon Kleinberg, a computer science professor at Cornell and a faculty advisor to an author of the Facebook study, told the New York Times: “We are close, in a sense, to people who don’t necessarily like us, sympathize with us or have anything in common with us. It’s the weak ties that make the world small.”