How Twitter Traffic Follows Air Traffic

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 21 2012 5:01 PM

How Twitter Traffic Follows Air Traffic

114986305

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Twitter has a reputation for linking people through interests rather than geography. But while the little blue bird lets us connect with people all around the world, the networks we form on Twitter look a lot like the airplane trips we’ve been taking for decades.

After analyzing more than 480,000 tweets, researchers at the University of Toronto and Dalhousie University found that most Twitter connections are local.* Those that aren’t local are strongly based on how often planes fly between two places. In fact, according to the report (PDF), the best way to predict long-distance Twitter connections is to look at air traffic between cities.

Advertisement

The first part is hardly shocking. Even if your main interest on Twitter is, say, emerging technologies and their implications for society and policy,  you’ll still probably follow a lot of friends, coworkers, and other locals with shared interests in your community. It’s the second discovery that really challenges the conventional wisdom that Twitter is connecting the world in new ways.

For example, researcher Barry Wellman found that someone in Los Angeles is much more likely to be connected to someone in Toronto than someone in St. Louis is. Similarly, people in New York City are more likely to have ties with people in large cities like Los Angeles, London, São Paulo, and Tokyo, where air traffic between the cities is significantly busier than many other places around the world. So while it’s entirely possible for someone in a small town to reach a global audience, geography still plays a big role in how a tweet moves around the world.

As researchers say in the report, this could be because flights facilitate more face-to-face interactions that turn into Twitter connections, or it could be because the flight patterns themselves reflect how connected people in one city are to people in another. But either way, the study suggests an important point. Rather than building new global networks of people and places, Twitter users tend to follow pre-existing ties around the world.

Hear more from NPR.

*Correction, Feb. 22, 2011: This sentence originally suggested that all of the project researchers are from the University of Toronto. One is affiliated with Dalhousie University.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Launching a Serious Run at Apple and Samsung

Television

Slim Pickings at the Network TV Bazaar

Three talented actresses in three terrible shows.

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. Now There’s Just One Thing Holding Us Back.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Jurisprudence
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?