A recent study highlights the relationship between the size of messages sent via online social media and the intensity of the emotion behind the message. The study, which is based on an analysis of messaging around major public events, could provide crucial aid for the future development of microblogging.

Short Tweets Convey Stronger Messages

The shorter the message, the more intense the idea being shared. If at first sight this statement appears to be counter-intuitive, it more or less corresponds to that well-known phrase “Words fail me”. For a social network such as Twitter, where the number of characters is strictly limited, an analysis of the size and content of the messages in relation to the events to which they are linked can provide some understanding of users’ habits, and also afford a deeper analysis of the phenomenon of microblogging. A new study – ‘Contraction of online response to major events’ – drawn up by researchers at MIT’s Senseable City Lab and published in the online journal PLoS ONE, seeks to quantify this size-content relationship as a means to obtain a better understanding of the behavioural dynamics of large groups of people. The study reveals that in addition to the intensity of the message, the overall volume of messages on that subject on the network has an inverse impact on their length, especially for tweets.

The herd instinct

It appears that social networks are especially prone to the ‘follow the herd’ syndrome. The researchers analysed the difference between the number of tweets sent during a so-called ‘normal’ period and compared them with periods when political elections, major sports tournaments, or other major events were taking place. Results show that during ‘normal’ periods tweets are between 70 and 120 characters in length, but this falls dramatically during major public events. The MIT researchers put forward two explanations for this. On the one hand, it seems that more intense emotions drive people to send more concentrated messages, for example to express agreement or support for a certain person, but in addition more people go on to the network to send similar messages. And while regular users tend to write longer messages, occasional users, who only go online during high-profile events, show usage patterns that tend to focus on basic expressions of support, using fewer characters. Michael Szell, one of the study’s three co-authors, points out that the message-contraction phenomenon is observable across other social networks too, underlining: “Basically we found this effect every time there was an event going on. And when there was no event, we did not find this effect.”

Need to differentiate user purpose?

The study reveals that users’ approaches to messaging on the same network may vary widely. The major-event analysis shows however that the circulation of a huge flow of messages, most of them short, tends to push regular users to follow suit and reduce the size of their own messages, but at the same time to send more, in order to maintain their overall visibility. It also points to what study co-author Sébastian Grauwin calls a ‘frustration indicator’ among some Twitter users, i.e. the fact that during major events a small minority of users run up against the 140-character tweet limit and would like more space. This revelation suggests wider potential for a new microblogging network, or other social network, that differentiates the message approach according to the aim of the sender. While the 140-character limit seems very high for simple supportive messages, it is nevertheless a great handicap for the relatively small number of users who really want to explain their ideas. This phenomenon impacts users’ ability to discuss controversial subjects with each other, especially during such public events as elections.

By Quentin Capelle