The media is filled with stories of celebrities and public officials firing off random messages on Twitter that suddenly turn into controversial news stories, often resulting in a swift deletion of the offending tweet, then a public apology, and, in some cases, the loss of a high-profile position. Now a new study suggests that the negative tone of these messages is more common to the platform than many may have suspected.
Conducted by the Pew Research Center, the study focused on tweets commenting on recent political events and used content analysis by the center's Project for Excellence in Journalism team, as well as software developed by data analysis firm Crimson Hexagon. Overall, the study found that trending tweets are not reliable indicators of general public sentiment, stating that just 13 percent of adults even read Twitter, a finding that may surprise many who have come to view social media as the new public pulse of the digital age.
But what may come as even more a surprise is the fact that the study found that, just like a graffiti-laden public bathroom wall, Twitter messages tend to lean toward the negative. Parsing the data regarding comments on both recent presidential candidates, the study found that, "the overall negativity on Twitter over the course of the campaign stood out. For both candidates, negative comments exceeded positive comments by a wide margin throughout the fall campaign season."
To some extent, the Twitter findings mirror those of another recent study conducted by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication devoted to analyzing the nature of website comments. Highlighted in a story in the New York Times, the study found that uncivil comments by a few tended to polarize other commenters, effectively raising the level of contentious discourse, a dynamic the researchers call "the nasty effect."
Of course, at this point, public commentary is a part of the fabric of the online experience, so, if the accuracy of these studies are to be believed, rather than hoping for more positivity in online discussions, we may all simply need to learn how to have tougher skin when it comes interacting online.