The many moods of social media

November 2011


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Social media can tell us more about our moods than you might think. DR SURESH SOOD explains the implications of his research, analysing tweets in Australia and New Zealand.

Otago University hosted the first official university-run Twitter research conference as part of their recent Postgrad Research Month. However, despite this notable exception, social media research across Australia and New Zealand continues to exist in a nascent state. The primary rationalisation for this lies among academics who believe that the key platforms delivering social media capability to businesses and consumers are a fad. This is perhaps a half-truth; take the example of MySpace – not even the corporate might of News Corp was able to prevent Facebook from usurping MySpace and achieving leadership among online social networking services. A very popular fad indeed is social networking. Academics take note: other networks will appear overnight; Google Plus is a relatively new network community that already provides capability beyond Facebook and Twitter. 

Google Plus has already gained 100,000 Australian and 22,000 New Zealand users. More specifically, just prior to the official release, the University of Monash led the regional number of university users with 1300. The largest student grouping in New Zealand was at The University of Auckland, with nearly 1000 users. In the vernacular of Google Plus, plenty of students are “hanging out” in rooms, allowing video communication between 10 students simultaneously. These numbers are paltry when compared with nearly 2.5 million Facebook users in Sydney and one million Auckland residents.

The key aspect of social media, persistent beyond the networking community, is the database of social interactions and social gestures (like/+1, @, unsubscribe and share). The Twitter database is growing at a rate of over a billion tweets every five days and presents Australian and New Zealand researchers with the ability to understand what people are thinking in real time. The tweets represent unprompted and spontaneous thoughts from people within naturalistic settings. For example, visitors to the Auckland Flower Festival triggered happy tweets. Searching for visitor tweets with the terms “unbelievable”, “OMG” or “wow” reveals the positive feelings occurring within the space of the flower show either in the past or in the “now”. By aggregating and taking these specific messages from Twitter, the ability to understand the impact of flowers on the mood of people is within the reach of a university with a modest research budget.

Research at the University of Technology in Sydney moves beyond just focusing on the impact of flowers on people’s moods and is embarking on an ambitious project to map the moods of Australians and New Zealanders through monitoring and categorising tweets. What began as a research project for The Works advertising agency has the potential to expand well beyond the initial marketing and advertising implications of the research to provide lessons for Australian and New Zealand societies.

In early research findings, some interesting comparisons exist between an analysis of over one  million Sydney and Auckland tweets. The primary focus for the early stage of the research is on moods. Relative to emotions, moods are not attributable to a stimulus and last considerably longer, even days. Moods are cognitive in nature and do not provide any tell-tale signs. The daily cycle in both cities follows the same pattern, with the happiest tweets towards the end of the day. The weekly variation in tweets shows people are happiest at the end of the week in both cities. The beginning of the week is the most negative, commencing with Sunday. By looking at the profane words, Sydney swears marginally more relative to Auckland.

The uniqueness of the research project includes the ability to classify the archetypal patterns of behaviour. These patterns reflect the unconscious primal interaction of people in everyday life connecting with everyday objects. The tweets exhibit an uncanny similarity across the two cities with the caregiver, jester, lover and sage strongest of all the patterns.

What does this knowledge regarding moods provide? This kind of knowledge allows advertisers to engage brands as part of consumer conversations and helps to intelligently schedule the best time to let consumers know about a new TV programme, an opportunity to donate to a special cause, or a special offer. If the mood is depressed or negative an intervention to improve the mood is a natural action. Such interventions include the selection of a comical advertisement, the use of humour on a Facebook page, the opportunity to buy refreshment at a special price, or a gift bag of confectionery.

This research is turning social media away from being a fad into a research stream with wider social and humanitarian implications. Just imagine for one moment applying the same research method to analyse tweets leading up to natural disasters as a way to uncover early indications of these events.

Dr Suresh Sood is a social media storytelling researcher of the Executive Education Department at the University of Technology in Sydney.