When Miley Cyrus made twerking a mainstream phenomenon in August, many an outraged foreign policy wonk lamented that more Americans were tweeting about twerking more often than about Syria. As of yesterday, the haters have a study to back them up. New research from Floating Sheep, a collective of academic Internet analysts, found that in August, more people tweeted about twerking than Syria in every state except Alaska and Vermont.
But while that certainly shows that a lot of people are interested in twerking, it doesn’t necessarily prove that they don’t also care about the Middle East. In the past 90 days, according to analytics tool Topsy, users sent 7.7 million tweets about Syria. That puts Syria in the same category, in terms of Twitter interest, as the term "twerk," which generated a combined 9.5 million tweets in that same period.
The fact that more people are discuss twerking than Syria is not necessarily bad news. They share, as Floating Sheep notes, “little in common apart from recent media attention”: One is a pop culture phenomenon (both more fun and more accessible to a wider swath of the population) and one is a tragic, complicated news event halfway around the world (critically important, but not very fun — particularly on a platform many use for recreation).
Second, Twitter isn’t a very good cultural barometer, as events like Sharknado demonstrate. Twitter users tend to be younger and more urban than the general U.S. population. So metrics about Twitter don’t tell us about how America feels — they tell us about how the small minority of Americans on Twitter feel.
Of course, even if you polled all 300 million Americans on their relative interest in twerking and Syria, twerking would probably win — and that’s okay, too. There are many justifiable reasons why an individual or a population wouldn’t care about foreign news — things like a lack of education and limited access to computers or newspapers. And there are plenty of very good reasons, like age and cultural background, why they would care about twerking. The analysts at Floating Sheep get at this in their analysis of what populations tend to tweet about Syria the most:
States with younger populations and a higher percentage of African Americans are associated with more twerking tweets. Interest in foreign affairs is more difficult to measure (at least with standard Census data), but a combination of housing price and population density provides a measure of a state's urbanity and presumed interest in international affairs. Locations with more expensive real estate and higher population densities, i.e., more urbanized states, have relatively fewer tweets about twerking and more with Syria.
Floating Sheep found these types of demographic differences explained 65 percent of the variation in volume between Syria and twerking tweets. We can attribute the other 35 percent to people who just don’t care to tweet about the Middle East — maybe out of apathy, maybe out of lack of interest. Maybe because, on a platform where you can write absolutely anything you want, Syria just doesn’t top the list.
That might very well say something about the way people use social media, but everyone should calm down — it doesn’t reveal anything about Americans or their interest in the Middle East.