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 analyze."
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 out there."