Airline Routes Are a Pretty Good Predictor of Twitter Connections

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A study finds that -- surprise! -- the Twitter world mirrors patterns in our offline world.

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You know the maps that show the criss-crossing lines of global air routes? Well, if you could make a map of Twitter, with arched lines tracing the connections among the places that tweeters and their followers live, it would look quite similar -- and not just in that it would be a map of connections all around the world, but much more of a direct resemblance: Air routes are a pretty good predictor of relationships on Twitter.

This is the conclusion of a new study from three Canadian researchers, who compared Twitter connections and airline routes. Though local connections make up a good bulk of Twitter ties (39 percent), the frequency of airline connections between two places is a good proxy for ties that go outside of one's hometown. This means "the strength of prior ties between places matters more than the simple distance between them." 

Of course, this isn't only because the constant flights provide more opportunities for connection between residents of two distant places; the airline connections are themselves like the Twitter connections -- a manifestation of an existing relationship between two places. In this sense, it's no more surprising that New York and London are well connected on Twitter than it is that they are well connected by air travel.

That it would be any other way makes little sense. As Matthew Battles writes, "Here's the thing: Twitter is part of the 'real world.' The Internet is part of the world." Even though it's online and technically you can follow anyone anywhere in the world, the choices we make -- whom we follow -- are shaped by the "real" world, online and off. Unfortunately, the authors of the study present a world unfettered by geography as their null hypothesis, thus "proving" that Twitter doesn't exist in a vacuum. It would be more interesting to compare Twitter to other networks -- not just airline routes but capital flows, immigration patterns, and so on -- and see how it's different and think about why.


Image: Imaginary air-route map from Airminded.org.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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