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

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful, a new book argues.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 30 2014 1:23 PM What Can Linguistics Tell Us About Writing Better? An Interview with Steven Pinker.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.