Over 300 million people actively use Twitter every month, sharing their thoughts in 140 characters (maybe soon to be 280!) or less. However, recent research by the University of Warwick’s Sociology department indicates that tweets are an unreliable reflection of an individuals’ true emotions. Sociology expert Dr Eric Jensen reports that there is no evidence that social media content provides an accurate representation of how its users feel.
The study indicates that online social life does not reflect offline reality, which is surely something a lot of us recognise. It is easy to begin to compare your achievements online with others’ due to their social media image, but this research presents strong reasons to suspect discrepancies in the behaviour and psychology of users on Twitter and offline. Students often share their glamorous social life on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but it is likely to only be one chapter of their life. Although individuals are affected by similar issues online and offline, their thoughts and feelings are found to be distinguishable in the two domains.
Students often share their glamorous social life on Twitter but it is likely to only be one chapter of their life…
Twitter conversations have developed their own unique grammar, rules and culture. The views expressed by users through these tweets are also influenced by their self-constructed social identities, cultures and behaviours. These factors affect conversations online as much as offline, yet in ways that are not fully understood. Equally, all the factors affecting lives also play out online, influencing the web. Such things include power, voice, leadership, identity, symbolic representation, visual representation and struggles over scarce resources. This raises a question as to whether Twitter truly serves as a platform to socially network, or instead forces users to be selective about the expression of their personal views and opinions.
Commenting on his findings, Dr Jensen said: “Twitter users present only one side of themselves on social media, shielding their true feelings for good reasons, such as professional reputation. There is clearly a large gap between what people post on social media and how they truly feel, but how exactly people manage the relationship between their offline and social media identities is still being uncovered.”
Employers are increasingly checking social media accounts as part of their recruitment process…
Students aiming to keep their accounts professional might be finding themselves robotically tweeting or silencing their true opinions. This could be driven by the typical student hopes of securing a job, as employers are increasingly checking social media accounts as part of their recruitment process. However, this research renders judging an individual based on their Twitter content invalid and simply unfair.
Dr Jensen acknowledges that studies based on Twitter are “particularly alluring” to researchers and media due to their large sample sizes. He does highlight that large sample sizes do not indicate good or accurate results, but instead emphasised the necessity of having a sample representative of the target population. Several studies have, however, proven that Twitter users are not representative of the general population. To give an example, more men are found to be users of Twitter than women. In addition, some users may have been over-represented in datasets depending on their daily frequency of tweets.
This research would enable users, including students, to reflect upon their personal use of social media…
In his article, Dr Jensen also argues that amongst the “big data gold rush”, it is important to not overlook the long-established principles of social sciences research. He comments, “When researchers find themselves with easily accessible data, there is a temptation to apply those data to interesting research questions and populations – even when there are limitations in the representativeness of the sample.”
“Enthusiasm for accessing digital data should not outpace sound research methodology.” Approaches that abide by the principles of social sciences research hold the key to understanding the limitations of the studies that are conducted. Evidently, there is still a major gap in understanding the differences between the sentiments of the users expressed in the online and offline world. Nevertheless, this research would enable users, including students, to reflect upon their personal use of social media and question whether they’re being true to themselves when using their accounts in the virtual world.