Twitter may influence the spread of disease… or usher a new age of social science.

It’s flu season again, at least for the Northern hemisphere (where everything’s right side up). Over on New Scientist a question was posed: If you’re getting vaccinated and tweet it, will your followers follow you to the doctor, or are they the sort of people who have an appointment booked already?

A few US researchers mined Twitter to map out who tweets for and against flu vaccination, and noticed a correlation with actual vaccination. Nothing mind blowing here. What they want to find out now is if Twitter reflects attitudes or helps spread them. Researchers collected 478,000 tweets referring to flu in late 2009, when vaccination for the swine flu epidemic became available in the US.

A team of students categorized the tweets as for, against, or neutral about vaccination. When the tweets were mapped and used to create a computerized screening test that classified the rest. The team found that vaccination rates were lower in areas where tweets tended to be more negative about vaccination.

According to the New Scientist article, “Such mapping could help target health information campaigns, says Salathé. “If we know where people are particularly misinformed, then we know where we should do a better job at informing.””

Nothing here is particularly earth shattering. No more remarkable than Twitter predicting the direction and intensity of the recent East Coast earthquake faster than the quake could spread. The results show correlation, which is the first step, but don’t show causation. As noted in the article, the question is, do tweeters affect their followers, or do birds of a feather flock together?

I don’t have the answer to this, and the researchers are currently working on new experiments to determine it. What I find more intriguing is the rising sociological and archeological value of Twitter. This is nothing new. Twitter gives such a constant feed of data about the world that it gives researches unprecedented and unfiltered access to people’s opinions. Already, Twitter based weather measures are tracking moving weather patterns as accurately as satellites (only in real time, not anything predictive), hedge funds are sprouting up that use Twitter to get a pulse on the market, and with the increasing mainstreaming, Twitter provides at times a better pulse of political opinion than most polls. In elections it’s more accurate than exit polls (in regions with large enough penetration).

I was once of the school of thought that Twitter dumbs us down and gives no meaningful or important data about the people. It’s full of nonsensical, inane, banal tweets, and 140 characters is not enough to give a meaningful opinion. My opinion is slowly changing. Twitter allows a flash, the ultimate in oversharing. Mind you, oversharing is not the same as honesty, but it’s significant. Tweets happen at the speed of thought and often without filters. The character limit makes it too small to misrepresent yourself as grossly as you would on a Facebook or Google plus.

Twitter allows flashes, brief moments of your true temperament if not your honest thoughts. An angry person may still lie in his tweet, but his tweets would still show his temperament over time. Frankly, the social sciences have needed a shot in the arm for a while, data is getting light, and the only pure sources tend to be dead. Twitter gives us an unfiltered archive of the ebb and flow of the human psyche, and I would be surprised if there isn’t already a school somewhere designing a new field of Network Sociology, or some such. I imagine these people will be trained in Anthropology, psychology, sociology, statistics, information systems, and math. DARPA has already taken interest in the phenomena, and intelligence networks already use Facebook and Twitter for espionage.

Twitter is the unspoken hero of this new move. And it all begins with basic research into the correlation between tweets and vaccines.

Source: New Scientist

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