Since academics first began studying communication, they’ve been trying to figure out who we talk to and how those networks change with the invention of new mediums of interaction. Who you could talk to, and even what you might talk about, obviously differed between the eras of the covered wagon and the cell phone. And now we have an instantaneous, global and (mostly) free platform for talking to virtually anyone: the Internet.
So how has it altered the real-world geography of communication? Some previous efforts to address this question have come out of the workplace (researchers can’t query Google for all of our gmail data, but large international companies can do this with their own employees). There’s only so much to be learned, however, from the email correspondence between a company man in L.A. and his coworker in China.
"The holy grail has been to look at people in real life, to look at people outside the workplace, to see when people are on their own, communicating as part of their general course of life, how has the electronic revolution changed that?" says Kalev Leetaru, a University Fellow at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. "That has been a difficult thing to look at because there hasn’t been much data."
Now, however, there is more data than most computers can process coming from public social networking platforms like Twitter. We wrote in late 2011 about some early research suggesting that many Twitter users in fact follow other people located within their same city, evidence, Richard Florida wrote, that the Internet is reinforcing the value of place instead of eliminating it.
But now that Twitter is a few years older – and considerably more global – Leetaru and several colleagues have conducted a massive new analysis of the site that suggests the opposite: "In effect," Leetrau says, "location plays a much lesser role now in terms of who we talk to, what we talk about, and where we get our information."