Ben Zimmer is a self-described
all-around word nut. He is the former On Language columnist for
The New York Times Magazine, the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com (an entirely useful
tool when you're looking to add color to your prose) and vocabulary.com.
In a recent New York Times Sunday
Review column where he claims that "Twitterology" is
the latest hot new science, he writes that "Twitter is many things to many
people, but lately it has been a gold mine for scholars in fields like
linguistics, sociology and psychology who are looking for real-time data to
He continues, "Twitter's appeal
to researchers is its immediacy - and its immensity. Instead of relying on
questionnaires and other laborious and time-consuming methods of data
collection, social scientists can simply take advantage of Twitter's stream to
eavesdrop on a virtually limitless array of language in action."
Zimmer discusses a University of
Texas study that ensued immediately before and after the death of Libyan
dictator Gadhafi. Linguists and researchers were able to gather thousands
of Arabic-language tweets in minutes - before and after the event - used
Twitter's system of geocoding, and create a current picture of Libya's Twitter
traffic, both good and bad.
In a study that might hit closer to
home for everyone reading my blog, Zimmer writes, "Two sociologists
at Cornell University, Scott A. Golder and Michael W. Macy, recently published a study in
the journal Science that looked at how emotions may relate to the
rhythms of daily life, across many English-speaking countries. They observed a
gradual falloff in positive terms from the beginning of the workday, bottoming
out in the late afternoon."
Has Twitter become our
self-intervention therapy? We're having a bad day and we don't want to
have it alone, so we type about it in a few, short keystrokes to hundreds
(maybe thousands) of our followers? If you think that no one is noticing
(except for those followers of yours - oh, and those who retweet your post
about your bad day), think twice. The Dean of Carnegie Mellon's School of
Computer Science points to the following real-world application of harvesting
tweets to study regional language use across America, "The key
finding was that seemingly meaningless slang and jargon can reveal important
properties of an author's identity, a point of interest for both corporations
and the intelligence community."
Corporations, major law firms and
other large employers can hire these linguistic sleuths to uncover unwanted and
unwelcome proclamations and traits about current and future
employees. Litigators can harvest tweets in real-time to discredit
witnesses, defendants and plaintiffs.
Zimmer concludes, "Regardless
of how unserious Twitter may appear on the surface . . . linguists are
discovering that Twitter can help uncover truths about our social interactions
that are quite serious indeed."
Borrowing a classic quote from Sargeant
Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues (advice
that we should all take many times a day), "Hey, let's be careful
Read more insight at the Law Firm 4.0 Blog.
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