Psychologists are discovering just how much information about our inner states can be gleaned from social media.
For some people, posting to social media is as automatic as breathing. At lunchtime, you might pop off about the latest salad offering at your local lettucery. Or, late that night, you might tweet, “I can’t sleep, so I think I’m just going to have a glass of wine” without a second thought.
Over time, all these Facebook posts, Instagram captions, and tweets have become a treasure trove of human thought and feeling. People might rarely look back on their dashed-off online thoughts, but if their posts are publicly accessible, they’re ripe for analysis. And some psychologists are using algorithms to figure out what exactly it is we mean by these supposedly off-the-cuff pronouncements.
According to new research, for instance, a tweet like “I’m up at 2 a.m. drinking wine by myself” says one thing pretty clearly: “I’m lonely.” For a study in BMJ Open, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 400 million tweets posted by people in Pennsylvania from 2012 to 2016. The authors scraped together the Twitter posts of users whose tweets contained at least five mentions of the words lonely or alone, and compared them with a control group with similar demographics. (The authors did not explicitly ask those who often tweeted about loneliness whether they actually were lonely.)
The seemingly lonely people swore more, and talked more about their relationship problems and their needs and feelings. They were more likely to express anxiety or anger, and to refer to drugs and alcohol. They complained of difficulty sleeping and often posted at night. The non-lonely control group, perhaps fittingly, began a lot more conversations by mentioning another person’s username. They also posted more about sports games, teams, and things being “awesome.”