Exploring digital collective responses to major events

Social media have fully pervaded our lives. With their widespread use it has become possible to study massive data streams in which people express their sentiments, often towards a specific topic. We exchange emotions of love or hate towards each other on Facebook, and we react to important political affairs, to exciting sports events, or to arousing natural catastrophes with messages on Twitter. The Senseable City Lab, in partnership with Ericsson, has undertaken a visual and scientific exploration of how we express this excitement online, and how this could improve our understanding of human behavior.

The more excited we are, and the more intense the flurry of messages in the collective, the shorter our messages become. Our emotional bursts become faster and more impulsive online, letting us unveil how we sense events offline - with striking mathematical regularity. The study raises a number of important questions: Are people doing this independently, or in response to seeing other short messages? Are we following the herd? Could we use these insights to learn more about financial bubbles by measuring more impulsive, less rational responses? And can we design better communication services?

As the partnership between Ericsson and MIT continues, research will delve more deeply into these questions, thus fostering our understanding of how people behave in any aspect of their life, whether it is tweeting, commenting, or moving around, shaping a single signal, the signature of humanity.

Find out more in our article in PLOS ONE

The more excited we are, the shorter we tweet

Real-world events spark online reactions. The Golf Masters tournament takes place annually in Augusta, Georgia, over four days. Over 40,000,000 masters-related tweets were posted during the 2012 tournament as a global audience tuned in.

Reactions follow a daily rhythm. A constant stream of tweets during the Masters intensifies during the rounds featuring famous players, especially on the day of the final. A flurry of tweets reflects activity on the links.

Emotional tweets are short. During the most exciting moments on the links, when Twitter is bursting with short and emotional tweets, the average length drops substantially from 90 characters to 60 characters.

Our thoughts are limited by 140 characters. The analysis also shows significant concentration of tweets (and possible user frustration) close to Twitter's message length limitation of 140 characters, originally imposed by SMS.

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Study authors

Michael Szell
Sebastian Grauwin
Carlo Ratti - Director


Luis Carli
NJ Namju Lee
Yaniv Turgeman
Matthew Claudel

Special Thanks to:
Moritz Stefaner and Stephan Thiel (emoto and Studio NAND), and Stewart Townsend (Datasift) for data and inspiration