The mysterious rise of St Petersburg’s social media smarts

If you’re not familiar with Twitter, a quick immersion might give you the impression that it’s not a hugely smart place. Don’t get me wrong – it still looks like a Mensa meeting compared to your average YouTube comments thread, but the spatial constraints lead to discussion where grammar and spelling usually takes a backseat to brevity.

The mysterious rise of St Petersburg's social media smarts

But a fascinating new study from the National Research University in Moscow shows that, in St Petersburg at least, social media users are getting a lot smarter. Not only has the complexity of social media messaging grown over time, but a 15-year-old today is more likely to write a complex post than anyone did in 2008. The paper’s author, Ivan Smirnov, likens it to the Flynn effect: the consistent growth in IQ level since the 1930s.russian_social_media_word_length_study_1

But while there are plenty of plausible explanations for a bump in intelligence over a 90-year period, it’s harder to explain why vocabulary would have seen a comparable jump in eight.

But back to the original paper. Smirnov examined 1,320,572,032 words posted by 942,336 social media users in St Petersburg between 2008 and 2016. The internet users were aged between 15 and 60, and posting messages to VKontakte (VK) – a site that’s pretty similar to Facebook.the_mysterious_rise_of_st_petersburgs_social_media_smarts

Obviously with a dataset that size, reading every single message isn’t realistic. Sentence length could be used, but given the iffy punctuation often deployed casually on social media, that didn’t seem like a plausible option either. Smirnov settled on average word length in the end, with the reasonable generalisation that longer words tend to indicate more complex sentiment.

As you might expect, word length correlates with age and educational attainment – broadly speaking. It keeps going up until the late 20s, remains stable in the 30s, and then starts to rise again in the early 40s.russian_social_media_word_length_study_2

But things get really interesting when you compare the average word length over time. We’ve jumped from an average word length of 4.7 characters in 2008 to one of over five in 2016. More confusingly, a 15-year-old posting today is likely to have a longer average word length than anyone posting in 2008.russian_social_media_word_length_study_3

“Intriguingly, the observed growth cannot be explained by differences in characteristics of users who joined the social networking site at different time points,” writes Smirnov. “The average word length follows the same line, regardless of the year when the first post on VK was made.”

So what’s going on here? Smirnov doesn’t really have an answer for the most part, although he believes the jump between 2010 and 2011 correlates with a change on VK where the newsfeed and wall were joined up, changing the style of posting a little. Familiarity with the technology could be linked to word length, but it doesn’t explain why teenagers are now using longer words than 60-year-olds did eight years ago. Ease of text input might explain it too, but that doesn’t feel right either – in 2008 you would have been more likely to be typing on a keyboard than a touchscreen, and few would argue that’s a change that has made long-form writing easier.

Obviously this research only applies to a single city in Russia, but it provides a real mystery to chew on. There are plenty of plausible explanations as to why average IQ has grown since the 1930s – education and nutrition to name just two – but a sharp digital increase in just eight years is a mystery that linguists will just have to mull on.

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