The popular social network Twitter is handing over to data scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famed Media Lab every message ever tweeted. It’s part of a five-year $10 million program to develop new ways to understand and use social networks.
The school is setting up a Laboratory for Social Machines, where researchers will work on methods for understanding public opinion through the messages we post online. The lab will be able to analyze all new Twitter messages in real time, as well as the company’s archive of all previous tweets.
With this data, the lab plans to develop new communication tools to help address social problems.
“With this investment, Twitter is seizing the opportunity to go deeper into research to understand the role Twitter and other platforms play in the way people communicate, the effect that rapid and fluid communication can have, and apply those findings to complex societal issues,” Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo said in a statement.
Although Twitter is kicking off the project, the lab plans to study a broad variety of media platforms.
“Everything from Reddit to Wikipedia to television and radio,” said Deb Roy, director of the new lab and an associate professor at the Media Lab.
By studying millions of messages moving through what Roy called “the public sphere,” social scientists, journalists, and political leaders could better understand the forces that shape people’s thinking.
“Imagine a tool that lets you track the emergence of some new rumor or new belief about some event you’re covering,” Roy said.
That, for example, might help reporters deliver more accurate information on that topic. “Having a better holistic sense of public opinion and belief can shift where they pay attention, shift what they report on,” Roy said.
Messages posted on Facebook, the world’s largest social network, will not be studied at the lab. Roy said that Facebook is a proprietary network that does not allow outsiders to access its databases.
Twitter has already shared its vast database with other researchers through its Data Grants program. The Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, for example, are working on a project to track the spread of food-borne illnesses through Twitter comments.
With access to the entire Twitter database, the MIT lab could assemble a history of each user’s messages, complete with sensitive or embarrassing comments. But Roy said the lab will not be doing that sort of thing.
“Our plan is to work at an aggregate level,” he said. “There’s no research interest in identifying individuals and somehow singling people out.”
Roy already serves as Twitter’s chief media scientist. He gained the post in 2013, after Twitter spent about $100 million to buy Bluefin Labs, a company Roy cofounded in 2008. Bluefin created tools to analyze the ways people use Twitter while watching television.