You are what you tweet

Twitter is growing fast; a lot of people share their whereabouts via this micro blog. Either you love it or you hate it: ‘why do I have to know that you are in a row for the cash point in the supermarket of that you are going to the loo?’ That’s what people say when they don’t see the point of it. But let’s be honest: Twitter is more than just twaddle. Twitter becomes more important as a source for research or a way to find out trends on different topics in society.

Computer scientists Mark Dredze en Michael J. Paul from the John Hopkins University developed a program to filter and analyse tweets referring to health matters. Their goal was to find out whether twitter is a useful source of public health information. They found out that it actually is! From the tweets you can analyse for instance the course of the flu. But it’s not as simple as it looks like. Just filtering on ‘fever’ won’t help, because a lot of teens have a Justin Bieber fever and they put it on Twitter! But you know, that has nothing to do with the real flu!


Dredze and Paul analysed 2 billion tweets between May 2009 and October 2010 with the program they developed. The program filtered 1,5 million tweets referring to health matters. Not only about the flu, but on several illnesses like allergies, insomnia, cancer, depression and obesity. By making a selection on location they could see the course of the allergy season in the United States.

It’s all very interesting, but Twitter is not the Holy Grail. This kind of research has its limitations. It’s especially young people that are on twitter, and as a researcher you depend on what people are willing to share via Twitter. But it is very innovative and I think this kind of research will be developed and used over the years. And then it can be useful after all to tweet about your visits to the loo!

A blog by Annemieke Bol