New data suggest social media brings out the best in us, after all

Uplifted by sharing.
Uplifted by sharing.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Social media isn’t just another way to communicate—it’s an emotional roller coaster. Signing onto Twitter or Facebook means being bombarded with news articles, gossip, advice, daily musings, and earth-shattering life events. And research has shown that, often, it makes us feel terrible.

But a new computational social science study says the positive emotions associated with social media generally outweigh the negative ones. The study, published yesterday (Sept. 30) in Peer J Computer Science journal, examined the content and proliferation of more than 19 million English-language tweets from September 2014. It found that negative content spread faster than positive content—but positive content was shared more and ultimately reached a larger audience.

“Our results confirm the so-called positivity bias. That is, that humans on the long run tend to favor positive content, good news,” Emilio Ferrara, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California and one of the study’s two authors, tells Quartz.

Ferrara and his co-author Zeyao Yang used a sentiment analysis algorithm—which picks up on positive or negative tones by examining emoticons, slang, and certain linguistic clues—to assign every tweet a “sentiment score.” Then, they looked at how quickly and widely the positive and negative tweets were favorited and reposted.

Their findings: Social media users like to spread happiness and excitement much more than pessimism or dejection. (A 2014 study of Facebook posts also found that happiness is the most “contagious” online emotion.)

The notion that people share positive content more widely on social media is an important insight for marketers and advertisers. Ferrara adds that, on a policy level, the study’s results also illustrate the “need for timely interventions and countermeasures” when facing the spread of negative content—such as fear-mongering campaigns, cyber-bullying, or hateful personal attacks.