How Twitter Makes the Internet More Local

Social Media Isn't As Global As One Might Think

Last year marked the 15th anniversary of "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace," a manifesto by the poet and political activist John Perry Barlow that presented a vision of cyberspace as being "both everywhere and nowhere," outside the control of the governments of "the industrial world." Today, many consider online social media as having ushered in the "global village" prophesied by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, connecting everyone and anyone and giving them the power to promulgate social movements and engender democracy.

It only took a few years for China to contradict Barlow by developing its so-called Great Firewall, which has proved quite capable of blocking undesirable foreign Web sites and plenty of domestic ones, too, as it did earlier this week, when Beijing strangled the hugely popular microblogging sites Weibo.com and t.qq.com. But controlling the Internet is hardly a Chinese phenomenon. Other governments have quelled online activity during moments of unrest, most notably, Egypt at the beginning of the revolution there last year. As recent history shows, the world's governments, Barlow's "weary giants of flesh and steel," can still impose borders online.

But other borders are emerging online, these more ad-hoc. A study we recently conducted examined how geography shapes the way people form connections on Twitter, one of the most popular social media sites on the Internet. What we we found: Much of the communication on Twitter is local. When given a choice to "follow" others around the globe, Twitter users disproportionately choose those in the same country and even within the same immediate region. Nearly 40 percent of Twitter ties connect people inside their own metropolitan area. For users located in different cities, the likelihood of a tie depends on distance, national borders, and language differences. In fact, the single best predictor of Twitter ties between two users separated by some geographical distance is the frequency of airline flights between their two locales. Rather than creating new relationships, Twitter does a lot more reinforcing of ones that already exist. Put another way, Twitter connects New York and Los Angeles a lot better than it connects London and Timbuktu.

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