When Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "the medium is the message," tweeting was still an activity limited to birds. Decades later, people argue about precisely what he meant, but evidence still suggests our messages are influenced by the medium in which they are delivered.
The latest example can be found in a newly published study, which compares Twitter messages sent from mobile devices to those sent from traditional computers. The study concludes, among other things, that tweets from mobile phones are more likely to be egocentric in nature.
"We found evidence that users tweet different from mobile devices, and that mobile tweeting is informing new behaviors, attitudes, and linguistic styles online," a research team led by University of London sociologist Dhiraj Murthy writes in the Journal of Communication.
If you're at the stadium, you're more likely to digitally brag about actually seeing that perfect pitch in person.
The study analyzed six weeks' worth of Twitter data from 2013—approximately 24 million tweets, all in English, mostly sent from North or South America. Using filtering software, the researchers searched for words associated with the notion of "self," including I, me, my, and mine.
They also looked at the ratio of traditionally masculine terms (competitive, forceful, aggressive) to feminine ones (gentle, warm, tender), and the ratio of positive words (happy, smile, joy) to negative ones (pain, grief, agony).
"We found that mobile tweets are not only more egocentric in language than any other group," they write, "but that the ratio of egocentric to non-egocentric tweets is consistently greater for mobile tweets than from non-mobile sources."
Specifically, the researchers found that tweets from mobile devices "are consistently around 2.5 percent more egocentric than non-mobile users, on average." What's more, while tweets in general contain more positive than negative words, "we found a higher percent of negative tweets from mobile users over an average day in our sample."
Why would this be? "Some of the differences between mobile- and Web-based platforms speak to the on-the-go nature of tweeting from a mobile device," the researchers write. "We increasingly tweet while we move through out day (e.g., while we walk, travel, and eat)."
It makes sense that this would impact the content of our messages. If you're watching a Dodgers game at home and want to share the experience with other fans, you might tweet, "Great strikeout by Kershaw!" But if you're at the stadium, you're more likely to digitally brag about actually seeing that perfect pitch in person.
These results are worth keeping in mind as scholars debate whether we're really becoming a more narcissistic society. They suggest looking at different data will give you different answers.
It's possible that we're self-centered while out in the world, and more self-effacing at home.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.