Can we generalize from one social media platform to another?

Galen Panger, School of Information, University of California, Berkeley
March 19, 2018

One of the things my dissertation, Emotion in Social Media, highlights is the importance of the comparative perspective in social media research. I looked at three big questions in the field, proposing the same hypotheses for both Facebook and Twitter — but ended up drawing some conclusions that were pretty divergent and unique to each service.

My dissertation examines (1) the emotions we express in social media (i.e. the emotional profile of the status update), (2) what we can infer about someone’s emotional life in general based on what they say in their status updates (and possible limitations on those inferences), and (3) the emotional experience of browsing social media (Do we get riled up? Envy our friends’ lives?). I searched far and wide in my literature review — and took note of a handful of related studies that analyzed more than one social media service — but saw little to support the idea that Facebook and Twitter were fundamentally different in terms of emotional expression, emotional inference, or emotional experience. Indeed, many studies drew conclusions about ‘social media’ based on an analysis of just one service.

It’s true that if you read my dissertation, you might walk away with the impression that Facebook and Twitter share some important things in common. Status updates on both services are characterized by elevated arousal and higher levels of emotions like amusement, anger, surprise and awe that are more wound up. You’ll find that status updates on both services appear to provide something of a window into our emotional lives, though the association is not especially tight, is moderated by factors like how emotionally stable we are, and disappears entirely when the popular sentiment analysis program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) is used to analyze the emotional contents of status updates. You’ll also find that the most robust effect of browsing both services appears to be that people tend to wind down (i.e. feel more relaxed, sleepy, bored, etc.), not wind up, as the stereotype goes.

That’s a lot in common. But in synthesizing the literature review for my dissertation, I noted a broad chain of reasoning that seemed to link the literature together, even if it was never fully articulated by any one researcher. This “overarching hypothesis” about emotion in social media goes something like this: Status updates are overly-positive, reflecting a concern for self-presentation, which in turn limits how valid status updates are for inferring our day-to-day emotional lives, and which ultimately causes us to feel envy while we browse social media.

In results, this entire chain of reasoning receives at least some support, but for Facebook only. Facebook posts are more positive than day-to-day emotional life, self-presentation concerns do seem to moderate the association between Facebook posts and emotional life, while browsing Facebook is characterized by some elevation in envy. There are limits to each link in the chain — self-presentation concerns do not eliminate the association between Facebook posts and emotional life, for example — but every link is nonetheless supported.

Interestingly, however, the overarching hypothesis receives little support for Twitter. Tweets are more negative than day-to-day emotional life, self-presentation concerns largely do not moderate the association between tweets and emotional experience, and envy might actually be alleviated while we browse Twitter. A lesson of this dissertation, therefore, may be about the importance of comparative perspectives in social media research. Key social psychological dynamics that characterize one service, like Facebook, may not generalize to another, like Twitter, even when they share the same core design, i.e. feeds of status updates.

Next time you hear someone talk about “social media” as though all services have uniform, monolithic implications for behavior, you might nudge them to consider that different services can create different, unique contexts — with potentially divergent implications for behavior.

Galen Panger received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 2017, focusing on social media behavior, happiness and well-being, and behavioral economics. He is currently a user experience researcher at Google. Panger will be honored at iConference 2018 as the 2018 winner of the iSchools Doctoral Dissertation Award.

 

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