This week my students in my senior-level mass media and society class have been working at developing experiments to learn about how people use social media. Most of them are trying to measure President Obama’s popularity (or lack thereof), rather than measuring some kind of effect of social media.
So I was thrilled this morning to read a blog post from Randall Munroe, the brilliant author/artist of the webcomic XKCD, about a perfect example of a real-life field experiment demonstrating the speed of social media communication.
Back about 200 comics ago, Munroe ran a strip hypothesizing that social media news could travel faster than the shockwaves of an earthquake. That is, that some people could learn about an earthquake by Twitter before they actually felt the quake.
So this week, when the East Coast was hit with an earthquake, his prediction was put to the test. (Remember that the basic principle of science is that you make a prediction based on theory that can be tested, and then test it.)
Munroe provides us with multiple accounts showing his comic prediction was correct (or at least had confirming evidence). He links to a story from the Hollywood Reporter about residents of New York talking about receiving Tweets about the quake from people closer to the epicenter before the New Yorkers felt the quake. So data point 1 – Tweets move faster than earthquakes.
He then provides us with a second example. He received an IRC message from his brother in Virginia about the quake that reached his phone before the time seismic measurements show the quake reached Munroe’s city. Data point 2 – Social media moves faster than earthquakes.
So, after making a prediction, Munroe provides multiple data points showing that his prediction on social media behavior is correct.
UPDATE 6/22/12: In August of 2011, Twitter created this promotional video based on the phenomenon.