Twitter: Homewrecker?

We are all users of Twitter. We are all Tweeters. Consider your Tweets.

Have you ever stopped yourself from Tweeting something after realizing it might offend one your followers? Or have you crafted a passive-aggressive Tweet about someone with whom you were in a fight? Did you end up actually Tweeting it? Have you ever wondered whether or not your use of Twitter is affecting the success of your romantic relationships?

In April 2011, the dating site OkCupid was interested in the lengths of its users relationships based on whether or not they were Tweeters and their ages. The popular dating site collected data from 833,987 of its users and created a study called “How Long Do Your Relationships Usually Last?” They found that OkCupid users who also use Twitter have shorter relationships on average across all age-groups than non-Tweeters. They also found that the difference in the length of a relationship increases between users and non-users as the users’ ages increase.

This study accomplished what it wished to accomplish: to determine how the lengths of OkCupid users’ relationships changed based on whether or not they used Twitter and their ages. I would have completed this study in the same way: by gathering a group of OkCupid users and surveying them. However, this study only surveyed 833,987 people and, while this is a large number, OkCupid has around 7 million users. I would have tried to survey a greater number of users in order to have a sample more representative of the entire population of users.

While I generally agree with the way this study was done, I find problems in the way it was analyzed. This study is discussed in Dr. Gary Lewandowski’s blog post, “Is Twitter Bad for Relationships?” on the blog Science of Relationships. Although he states that “correlation does not equal causation,” he goes on to attempt to link Tweeter’s shorter relationships with their tweeting. Throughout his analysis, he fails to keep in mind that this study was done with OkCupid users who were also Tweeters; Dr. Lewandowski refers to all Twitter users in general. He does not consider that there might be something different about the way OkCupid users, or at least the ones surveyed, are Tweeting, compared to people who are not users of OkCupid. Perhaps OkCupid users are more likely to Tweet in a way that might lead to shorter relationships, but this cannot be determined from this study.

Dr. Lewandowski wonders whether or not “sharing details of your life” on Twitter is bad for a relationship. But this study is not looking into the content of what people are tweeting. There is no evidence that OkCupid users who are also Tweeters are sharing intimate details of their life at all or in a way that could be threatening to a relationship. (I know that I am only one Twitter user out of millions and that I’m not an OkCupid user, but I’ve noticed that I, and a grand majority of the people I follow, do not Tweet in detail about their daily activities. In fact, people seem to realize that Tweets that share details of one’s life, such as, “Going on a date with this really hot guy I met in the subway station,” do not make for interesting Tweets.) This study did not examine what people are Tweeting; it simply examined whether or not they were Tweeting and their relationship lengths. If Lewandowski wants to make the assertion that Tweeters are Tweeting details about their life that are too intimate which may affect the length of their relationships, he will have to observe what Tweeters are Tweeting about.

Lewandowski also says that “frequent Tweeting is indicative of narcissism” and “posting daily updates [to Twitter] could be a sign of narcissism.” Again, Lewandowski seems more interested in what people are Tweeting, but this study does not take the content of tweets into account. And, even if it did, how could a Tweet be defined as “narcissistic” or not? Would a researcher have to search Twitter for certain terms that would make one seem narcissistic? Perhaps they would assume that a narcissistic user would use the word “me” too often, but searching for this word will bring up tweets that are not necessarily narcissistic. Lewandowski seems to assume that Tweeters are the only ones with negative qualities and the ones that are being “dumped” by their significant others, but it could be that the users of OkCupid who are also Tweeters are breaking up with their partners.

Like the documentary Life 2.0, based on users of the virtual online world Second Life, Lewandowski’s analysis of this study makes Twitter users seems obsessed with Tweeting. He thinks that Tweeters are what they tweet and encourages users to step back from Twitter to make sure they are “doing enough to foster [their] relationship.” One user in Life 2.0 stated that he wasn’t defined by Second Life, but that he defined himself in Second Life. Lewandowski seems to think that Tweeters are defining themselves on Twitter as generally narcissistic and careless because they Tweet details about their lives that would be better kept private.  However, since the study done by OkCupid does not consider what people are Tweeting, this cannot be affirmed.

Baym tells us that people who are familiar with technology will be more adept to reading peoples’ signals online. With this in mind, it could be considered that people who are able to understand and use OkCupid and Twitter might be relatively familiar with technology. Thus, they might be better at reading people’s online signals and realizing earlier than those who are not as technologically savvy (or not also on Twitter) that a relationship does not seem promising and should end sooner rather than later.

I would be most interested in conducting a study to find if all Twitter users, not just Twitter users who also use OkCupid, have shorter relationships on average than non-Twitter users. And yet, if a study like this did come out and suggested that Twitter usage was related to shorter relationships, would I feel guilty about my avid tweeting? Would I be persuaded to step back from Twitter in order to focus more on my relationships? This remains to be seen.

Talking about how we talk about SNSs (on an SNS)

In David Beer‘s essay, “Social Network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison,” he critiques boyd and Ellison’s analysis of social network/networking sites. He states that their definition of a social network site (SNS) is too broad and does not serve the function that he believes the definition should serve; it dose not help to separate SNSs into distinct categories that tell how they all users to connect. In their article, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” boyd and Ellison say that a social network site allows users to “(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within a system” (211).

Beer and I have similar ideas about how social media should be studied. It should not focus largely on individuals; in order to more specifically classify functions of particular social media platforms, we must analyze a wider spectrum of users. By directly examining a large group of social media users’ profiles, we can form ideas about what their posts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr (or any of the other of the countless social network sites floating around the Internet) tell about society as a whole.

But beyond analyzing how social media is affecting society in the present, it is perhaps more important for scholars to ask, “How is social media going to continue to influence the interactions we have in the physical world?” As Beer says, social media is definitely changing friendship “as young people grow up and are informed by the connections they make on SNS” (520). But young people are not just being informed. A generation of young people who know their friends online AND in the physical world is beginning to form; we are now exposed to multiple representations of our friends in both settings. For example, we see different sides of our friends in real life when we are in school with them and they act more proper and professional than when we are relaxing with them on a weekend. And now, our friends’ online profiles allow us to see their ideal versions of how they want to represent each side of their personality. On Twitter, they may strive to be as witty as possible and share their opinions openly while on Facebook they act in a more neutral way. This is because their audience on each social media platform is different. While Twitter encourages users to follow anyone that they may find interesting or entertaining, Facebook emphasizes adding “real life” friends and acquaintances to a users list of friends. While a Facebook audience can be more broad, including family members, ex-boyfriends, and school teachers, Twitter appeals to following people based on their thoughts, not their connection to a user. Of course, Facebook and Twitter are only two examples of social media networks on which users can show a certain side of themselves.

In his article “Has Facebook changed friendship,” Ezra Klein states, “One of the worries you hear with Facebook – and online relationships in general – is that strong, close relationships are being replaced with weak, superficial relationships.” I disagree with this worry and I think Beer would, too. People use Facebook and social networking sites to strengthen relationships; users can often use these sites, such as Facebook, to scroll back through previous wall posts to each other and pictures they’re both tagged in and relive fond memories. He quotes Zadie Smith who says that, on Facebook, “whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out” since the purpose of Facebook is to gain popularity. I’m not quite sure yet if I agree with Smith’s ideas about the main purpose of Facebook but I believe that it is the user’s audience that becomes flat because the audience, or list of friends, typically includes such a wide range of relationships in the person’s life. So on Facebook, the user’s surface presentation of himself (which includes his basic info, profile picture, etc.) may seem flat so that it can appeal to everyone on his friends list. But, his wall posts to his friends and interactions with specific people are personal and add to the user’s friendships.

Beer seems most bothered that boyd and Ellison do not include a critique of capitalism in their discussion of social network sites. As a user of social media, I must admit that (until recently) I almost never think about capitalism’s relationship to social media. But I am quickly beginning to realize that it is a massive factor in determining the success of a social network and must be addressed. Somewhere in between frantically switching between the Facebook and Twitter tabs on my browser, I came across an editorial which says that Facebook “is not a village; it’s a business. We [the users] are not residents, but employees bound to labor ignorantly for the network’s bottom line.” In the end, we are providing free labor in order to send data about ourselves to sites like Facebook and Google so they can target us with ads more specific to ourselves.

It’s strange to think that I’m spending so much time analyzing social network sites for which I’m also, in some way, providing free labor.