The petabyte. Each is a thousand terabytes, or the equivalent of over 60,000 iPhones worth of data. That’s how much information the biggest companies are moving and saving each day. And for Twitter, that’s exceptionally impressive. Their 140-character tweets were designed to fit in near-dataless text messages. And now, petabytes. That’s so, so much information to mine.
Twitter’s internal analytics team has published a new paper (PDF) that, while brief, reveals a bit of insight as to the challenges of having so much information at your fingertips—namely, making some semblance of sense of it.
The visualization here shows tweeting patterns from 2011 from four locations around the globe, NYC, Tokyo, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo. And while you’d think that the great equalizers of jobs and circadian rhythms would make all of our tweet patterns normalized month to month across the world—we are talking about 140 million active users to round out the rough edges of outliers—they actually don’t match up. From the paper:
For example, waking/sleeping times are relatively constant throughout the year in Tokyo, but the other cities exhibit seasonal variations. We see that Japanese users’ activities are concentrated in the evening, whereas in the other cities there is more usage during the day. In Istanbul, nights get shorter during August; Sao Paulo shows a time interval during the afternoon when tweet volume goes down, and also longer nights during the entire year compared to the other three cities.
The implications are important to Twitter because they have monetary value, but they are fascinating to everyone else because they have cultural weight. Sao Paulo, for instance, shows an afternoon silence some might attribute to the Latin America siesta. (In the graph, it’s the window of yellow in the afternoon of orange.) But, at least according to a quick search, Brazil doesn’t practice the activity—especially in a major metropolis like Sao Paulo, where business hours are standard. So what’s the reason? Does world perception have it wrong, and Sao Paulo shopkeepers are really napping behind the counters. Or is it that much of Sao Paulo’s tweeting activity actually comes from people visiting/passing through who do practice the siesta? Or is there simply a cultural more surrounding a post-lunch lull that carries through into Twitter engagement? Hard to say.
And more interestingly, Twitter doesn’t know either. They label their own observations as "not conclusive," but acknowledge their importance to strategic investment in international markets. Here’s one guess we have that might serve as a partial answer: The penetration of Twitter into a given market could probably greatly affect when it’s actually used. If not many people are using it, then that means that in a given culture, it’s an extra-curricular activity. But compare that to the United States, where market penetration is massive. At that point, Twitter becomes much more of a utility—and one that’s acceptable to use at all hours of the day, including work. Additionally, there might be many mores around using the Internet at work that affect these graphs—just look at how few tweets happen in Tokyo during work hours.
Say what you will about the potential insights of big data, but it sounds to me like anthropologists are about to find themselves at a whole new level of demand.