One of the unwritten promises of social media is that it allows you to connect with people outside of your typical circles–folks you never would have met without the magic of social media serendipity. While I’m sure that it is true that it broadens physical circles, connecting us with others from across the country and around the world, does it really cause us to connect with people that we have little in common with, save the social connection?
Two recent posts on the New York Time’s Bits Blog seem to suggest otherwise. On March 16, the blog referenced a study that shows people on Twitter “congregate based on mood.” The study found that people who were happy tended to re-Tweet or reply to others who were happy, and the reverse also held true: that people who indicated they were lonely tended to congregate. Whether this is a happiness contagion or misery loves company, I’m not sure.
The second post has more to do with our choice of associations, but I think it’s possible that the reasons people join and use Twitter might have a significant impact on the applicability of the study’s findings. Political scientists at Duke University say that a Twitter user’s choice of friends reveals their political leanings–even if they don’t Tweet about politics. I’ll admit, this one made me bristle a bit, as it seems like a “guilt by association”-type finding. But back to my point: Beth Harte and I were having a discussion about this on her Facebook page as she’d posted a link to the political piece, and because we both use Twitter for work, we have connections that bridge a wide swath of political leanings. I have connections from previous work, current work, personal friends–some are right-leaning, some are left-leaning, and some I have no earthly idea what their politics are. Drawing a conclusion about my politics based on my Twitter connections would be…odd. And probably wrong.
So what do these studies tell us about Twitter? That we naturally congregate with those we like and have things in common with? I recognize that I do tend to engage with those who advocate a balanced approach to social media: basically, that it is another tool in the tool box, and should be a part of a communications strategy not the only communications strategy.
Is it possible that for all our exhortations about how social media broadens our horizons that really we’re just transferring our personal cliques to an online venue? Maybe. Maybe not. Or, it just might depend on how the individual uses social media channels.
I think that people (including study authors) should be careful in extrapolating out any assumptions based on information derived from social channels. It’s a self-selecting population, and people use these channels for different purposes.