- May 29, 2009 – 11:12AM
- Page 1 of 3 | Single Page View
As two Stanford University researchers described their experience watching public reactions in the initial days of the H1N1 flu outbreak, it sounded like one of those nature films in which tiny fish dart back and forth in perfect unison – thousands of individuals behaving as if they were one body.
But what the researchers were watching was in cyberspace, and they were tracking thousands of Twitter-posts pouring into an internet site in response to shifting developments on the flu.
With every twist and turn of the flu reports, the mass of Twitters swung in near perfect unison, the researchers noticed, even though the individual Twitterers had no contact with each other outside the web site.
It was a rare window on the public’s psyche as it reacted to the explosion of information – and uncertainty – on a potentially dangerous outbreak of disease.
The researchers, James Holland Jones, an associate professor of anthropology, and Marcel Salathe, a biologist, devised an online survey to gauge people’s anxiety about the H1N1 flu epidemic in real time.
Posted during the early reporting of the news, the survey generated about 8,000 responses in a matter of days, but promptly dropped off as doomsday predictions did not come to pass – a development that worries Jones.
“Swine flu is still out there and will be back next flu season,” he said. “We’ve dodged the pandemic for now, but I think it’s a very open question whether we have really dodged it. You certainly won’t hear that on the 24-hour news channels.”
As charted by Jones and Salathe, the shifting reactions over H1N1 suggest that as the country becomes more wired, a threat that is perceived as imminent can be amplified in the echo chamber of instant information and lightning-quick social networks.
But like those schools of fish that change direction in a flash, then instantly shift course again, people today may move from indifference to anxiety and back to indifference in the blink of an eye. Continued…
i’m fascinated by the schooling fish analogy to crowd behaviour seen on twitter. it redefines what we know of communication and reaction. and i still don’t know how.