A PhD in Twitter

I did this interview Bill Lampos for 3Desk. It wasn’t really meant for Simpletom, but I loved the way Bill was honest and modest and seemed to embody simplicity, so I thought I’d share (shortened to be more applicable here) 


Tom (@brightgreen): you were very clever/lucky (delete as appropriate) to choose Twitter, back before it was wildly popular on which to base your thesis. What made/makes it so interesting?

Bill (@lampos) Social Media offers another way of looking at our society. My research investigated methods for mining information about events in the real world, based on Twitter data – shedding new perspective on important trends. Of course, I also use Twitter or Facebook as tools for various aspects of my personal online entertainment and socialising, in general but I’m not sure that’s as new, or interesting.

Social media enables a unique new form of analysis – allowing us to watch and learn from the spread of information in real-time. To me, that’s way more exciting than seeing photos of my friends’ holidays, love them as I do.

@brightgreenWhat can we do now as a society that we couldn’t without Twitter?

@lampos This is an interesting question because – in my opinion – there are two answers.

The first one encapsulates the great impact that Twitter has in timely information spread, not only events related to entertainment (such as sport or artistic occurrences), but more importantly the sudden social political bursts such as the Arab Spring, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, or for me the situation unfurling in Greece. By sharing information quickly among such a diverse set of nations, Twitter has brought people closer, creating a togetherness or sense of unity. For example, before the Twitter era, it would have been hard for me to find trusted information about troubled regions around the globe, such as Syria, Bahrain or Egypt. Perhaps more importantly I didn’t care so much. I can now follow and better understand things on an international level as well as helping create greater bonds on a national level.

On the flip side, we should not ignore the silent issue – that society is also being ‘restricted’ by the existence of Social Media such as Twitter, especially in terms of social expression and psychical interaction, as well as the increasing concerns about the possible violations on user privacy.

@brightgreen You’ve probably spent more time analyzing Twitter than anyone outside of Twitter towers. Tell us a couple of things you’ve learnt that most users won’t have realized.

@lampos At the moment, there are many research groups working to analyze Social Media in various ways; several interdisciplinary projects are funded by the European Union. This not only proves the importance of the content published on the Social Web, but also reveals that there are many people who have been analyzing it for research purposes; I am just one of them.

Twitter is not about ‘you’ or the individual, despite the way many people interact with it. Twitter harnesses the interests of a variety of people – it is about that interaction, the communication between people rather than the people themselves.

Tweets should be well timed – usually this reflects an event happening in real time – and to be well articulated (which comes with practice and talent) and address the right audience.

Usually, Twitter users construct a persona, a character through their messages. This character should be well defined and stable as it quite often is the main reason that attracted followers on the first place.

Those are just some general hints; if you ask me, I’d rather be more spontaneous than imposing strategies and rules on my tweets. I have observed that my Twitter messages are well accepted when I am emotional.

@brightgreen What next for you?

@lampos I will further my research on Social Media by doing a post-doc as part of an EU funded project. Our aim in this project is to use Twitter as well as other web sources to investigate trends related to socio-political opinion or financial indicators.

@brightgreen What do people continue to get wrong when using Twitter?

@lampos Twitter is not Facebook; many users get confused about this. As a rule of thumb, their messages – which by default are visible to everyone – should not be about their ‘common’ everyday activities, unless the latter fit in a more general purpose or are amusing.

Twitter is not a platform for lengthy conversations or chatting. It is also quite straightforward to unfollow somebody; un-friending in Facebook might be taken as a personal insult. That gives the Tweeter the power to refine what and who they follow – not enough people use that power.

@brightgreen What matters more: who follows you or how many followers you have?

@lampos It depends on the purpose of each Twitter account. If one desires to disseminate information to a big set of recipients, then increased values on both those features will help. Alternatively, if you want to be seen as a potentially interesting account to follow, then proof for this may be provided by having ‘prestigious’ followers as well as having a small followers to followees ratio (say lower than .5). Note that it is easy to increase the number of followers by exploiting the ‘follow-back’ behavior of Twitter users. Consequently, an increased amount of followers alone does not say much about a person’s Twitter account.

@brightgreen You studied the spread of flu using Twitter, can you sum up your thesis in a few sentences?

@lampos ‘Nowcasting’ flu rates was just one case study (http://geopatterns.enm.bris.ac.uk/epidemics/). In a sentence, one finding of my Ph.D. states that we can use content from the Social Media to track the occurrence and magnitude of several types of events emerging in the real world. It is also interesting that, based on Twitter content, we are in the position to investigate socio-political patterns. Here’s something I put together which measures ‘the mood of the nation’ (http://geopatterns.enm.bris.ac.uk/mood/).

@brightgreen It’s also proving useful for understanding what’s going on back in your home country, Greece – how do you follow movements there?

@lampos During the past year, I have found a set of people, who are mainly based in Greece, with similar beliefs to mine. Most of them have an active participation in all socio-political events and usually tweet about it. There is also a famous independent citizen journalism effort initiated by radiobubble.gr; people, who support this initiative, tweet real-time news using the hashtag #rbnews. Established news outlets such as The Guardian or Al Jazeera have quite often referred to it.

@brightgreen What’s the best thing Twitter has achieved?

@lampos I think that Twitter ‘addicts’ or specialists will come up with various answers to this question; ‘best’ is always a matter of perspective.

One great achievement of Twitter is, as I mentioned, creating a foundation of a togetherness among people on an international level. After using Twitter for some time now, I feel closer to people in the US, Australia, Egypt and so on, as I get to see, in practice, that we approach the world in a very similar manner. It helps to narrow social, ethnic and cultural divides.

Twitter assists the timely and uncensored dissemination of significant events; this platform promotes citizen journalism. To an extent, Twitter also forces citizen journalists to undertake their ‘hobby’ with more professionalism and in a much more thoughtful manner.

Professional media has also benefited from information sharing on Twitter since their employees cannot physically be everywhere. I was surprised when a journalist from BBC contacted me on Twitter to ask about the current situation in Greece (during one of the riots) because I was translating into English messages from people on location.

In terms of research, Twitter content enables a diverge set of experiments for various scientific disciplines (such as Artificial Intelligence, Sociology or even Psychiatry) to be conducted on large-scale amounts of data, something that was impossible in the past.

@brightgreen What’s your perfect job? Where’s your favourite (or third) desk?

@lampos There is no such thing as a perfect job. Having said that, I enjoy to work on something not because it may be supported by a good salary, but because I really like and find it interesting. Obsession usually defines perfection for me; I know this is unhealthy. However, as I grow older, I try to reduce this egoistic perspective to the extent possible; I am trying to pursue activities that in the future might benefit others as well. I think that 3Desk is a timely idea, helping people connect with work that doesn’t tie them to a permanent role – especially as the workforce is becoming more fluid through the utilisation of smart technology.

My favourite desk could be anything located anywhere; the only constraint is having ‘beautiful’ people around it and a decent amount of desk space.

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