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商业 - 科技

从贾斯汀•比伯到数据学家,Twitter何以成为一门显学

Erika Fry 2014年09月01日

自Twitter创建以来,各路学者纷纷涌向这一微博平台,不是去发帖,而是去从事研究工作。在学术界看来,Twitter拥有最为丰富,也许是前所未有的数据集。它就相当于一个实时数据的虚拟培养皿,吸引着各个学科的学者开展五花八门的研究。

“传染”系列文章:

【传染之一】比SARS更致命:蝙蝠病毒MERS是如何成为人类杀手的

【传染之二】“自拍”何以变成社会流行病

【传染之三】市场抛盘是怎样发生的?

【传染之四】并购传闻如何不胫而走

【传染之五】从贾斯汀•比伯到数据学家,Twitter何以成为一门显学

    两三年前,伊利诺伊州大学(University of Illinois)健康经济学家雪莉•埃默里在Twitter上看到谈论“吸烟辣妹”的帖子,也有一些帖子谈论“熏制肋骨”、“抽大麻”,以及教皇选举会议的象征——“冒烟的烟囱”。如果她幸运的话,还能看到那些明显与香烟有关的帖子,例如“吸烟广场”或者仅仅是“吸烟”。

    多年来,埃默里一直在研究烟草广告的影响。直到前不久,这项工作还意味着查看电视或广播插播广告,跟踪尼尔森收视率(Nielsen Ratings)和地区吸烟率。但是2011年的一天晚上,她在浏览视频网站Netflix时冒出了一个想法:如果她在上网,那么其他人也是一样——而且他们很可能会在Twitter等社交平台上发表自己对吸烟的看法。

    2011年9月,美国国家癌症研究所(National Cancer Institute)为埃莫里拨款720万美元,用于开展此项研究。就这样,她进入了Twitter学(Twitterology)这一纷繁的新领域,成为了同行中第一个吃螃蟹的人。

    现在,她并不是孤军奋战。自Twitter于2006年创建以来,各路学者纷纷涌向这一微博平台——不是去发帖(尽管有些人也这么做了),而是去研究这些帖子。每天有2.25亿Twitter用户发表5亿条帖子,在学术界看来,Twitter拥有最为丰富,也许是前所未有的数据集¬¬。它就相当于一个实时数据的虚拟培养皿,吸引着各个学科的学者开展五花八门的研究。物理学家利用Twitter研究网络;心理学家则用它来研究自恋心理;语言学家用它来研究语言的地区差异。其中也有一些论文利用Twitter来跟踪牙痛、空气质量和公众对流感的忧虑——也有人研究Twitter在预测美国橄榄球联盟(NFL)比赛结果,诊断创伤后应激障碍,以及衡量全球幸福指数方面的潜力。总之,据学术刊物数据库Scopus的统计,已有约2,000篇期刊文章和3,000篇会议论文在研究Twitter(或至少在文章标题、关键词或摘要中包含Twitter一词)。《文献工作杂志》(Journal of Documentation)于2013年发表了一篇论文,其标题就是“人们研究Twitter时是在研究什么?对Twitter相关学术论文进行分类”。

    社交网站不大像是能够令学术界动心的工具。那么,Twitter,一家要求每条留言最多为140个字节,把两大流行歌星凯蒂•佩里(拥有5,560万粉丝)和贾斯汀•比伯(拥有5,360万粉丝)奉为最具影响力用户的网站,是如何成为学术界眼中的香饽饽?

    在以传染为主题的系列文章中,我和《财富》杂志(Fortune)的同事决定探究事物是如何蔓延的——从并购传闻,到市场恐慌,再到“自拍”。作为该系列的最后一篇文章,我们决定追本溯源。毕竟,Twitter是当今研究传染力的首选工具之一,而剖析传染这种社会流行病的最好方法,莫过于研究Twitter本身为何在其研究者中如此具有传染力。

    A couple years ago, Sherry Emery, a health economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found herself reading tweets about “smoking hot girls.” Also about “smoking ribs,” “smoking weed,” and the “smoking chimney” of the papal conclave. If she got lucky, they’d be about “smoking squares” or just “smoking,” in an easily decoded context that referred to cigarettes.

    Emery has studied the impact of tobacco-related advertising for years. Until recently, that meant looking at TV and radio spots, tracking Nielsen Ratings and regional smoking rates. But then, one night watching Netflix in 2011, she had a thought: if she was on the web, so were many others—and they were likely leaving a trail of their attitudes towards smoking on social media platforms such as Twitter.

    In September 2011, the National Cancer Institute awarded her a $7.2 million grant to look into it—and so she went, a pioneer (in her line of work) into the brave new world of Twitterology.

    She’s hardly alone these days. Since Twitter was founded in 2006, academics have flocked to the micro-blogging platform—not to tweet messages (though some do that too), but to study them. With 225 million users issuing half a billion tweets per day, Twitter represents the richest dataset to hit academia….well, maybe ever—a virtual Petri dish of real-time data, attractive to scholars of all disciplines, for studies of all sorts. Physicists have used Twitter to study networks; psychologists to study narcissism; linguists to study regional language variation. There are research papers about what can be learned by using Twitter to track dental pain, air quality and public concern about flu outbreaks—as well as studies on Twitter’s potential to predict the outcome of NFL games, and diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, and measure worldwide happiness. In all, some 2,000 journal articles and 3,000 conference papers have been written about Twitter (or have at least contained the word in their title, keywords or abstract), according to Scopus, a database of academic publications. There’s even a paper, published in 2013 in the Journal of Documentation, entitled, “What do people study when they study Twitter? Classifying Twitter related academic papers.”

    The social networking site is not the most likely of tools to have caught fire in the Ivory Tower. How did Twitter, a site that traffics in 140-character-or-less messages and that counts two pop stars—Katy Perry (with 55.6 million followers) and Justin Bieber (with 53.6 million)—as its most influential users, become so hot among the academic set?

    In this series on contagion, my FORTUNE colleagues and I set out to explore how things spread—from M&A rumors, to market panics, to the ‘selfie’. And for the final installment of this series, we decided to get especially meta. After all, how better to probe the anatomy of a social epidemic than to track how Twitter, one of the preferred tools for studying contagion these days, got so contagious among people studying it?

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