News Column

Treatise on Tweets has Buffalo Atwitter

Aug. 22, 2012

Stephen T. Watson

The City of Good Neighbors? If you believe one study of what Buffalonians say on Twitter, we're the City of Cursing Sailors.

A study by a Ukrainian Web company, attempting to show which American cities are the friendliest or rudest based on a search of key terms on Twitter, was picked up by a handful of media outlets and blogs across the globe.

The study seems to indicate that Buffalo is a rude Twitter city, but regular social-media users in Western New York are laughing off the findings and questioning the purportedly scientific study.

"I just don't think the Twitter map accurately portrays Buffalo at all. It's important, I think, to separate what's being said on Twitter with the actual actions of a city," said Beth Silverman, a public relations specialist here who has sent 6,500 tweets and rarely, if ever, swears on the service.

The study, by the Web development company Vertaline, tried to use Twitter to determine whether a city is friendly or rude. The firm studied how often Twitter users said "good morning" -- a stand-in for friendly -- or an unprintable two-word profanity -- a stand-in for rude -- over the course of two different weeks in July.

Maps on the Vertaline website show uses of the words across the country over the course of each day studied by the company.

The greater the use of each term, the darker the coloring on the heat-intensity map, with red indicating the heaviest usage of all.

On several days, the area of the map that includes Buffalo flared red from use of the two-word profanity. Vertaline's website notes that the site studied 462 American cities, but some of the bright-red circles around Buffalo also reach up to Toronto and out onto Lake Erie.

It's not clear whether cursing Torontonians, or lake fish with a blue streak, are counting against Buffalo in the Vertaline study.

On the flip side, northern Texas and the New York City-Philadelphia metro area have consistently high rankings for "good morning."

It's also not clear whether the uses of the terms on Twitter are measured against a city's population to produce proportional results.

Questions on method aside, people who use and study social media say analyzing language on Twitter isn't a good way to rate the friendliness of a city.

And the study doesn't take into account the context and tone that determine how someone intends a comment to be taken, according to Jeffrey J. McConnell, a computer science professor at Canisius College.

"You can say 'good morning' very rudely, and you can say [obscenity] as a joke," McConnell said. "You have to look at the context that the phrase occurs in."

Silverman and Jeremy Juhasz frequently post tweets and interact with their followers on Twitter, and they say they haven't experienced out-of-control rudeness on the social-media service.

"I've never dealt with anyone who's particularly negative," Silverman said.

If they see people cursing on the site, typically it's directed at some outside entity or person who has upset them, such as the players on a team that has just defeated the Bills or the Sabres.

"We're a very sports-passionate town," said Juhasz, the social media and Web coordinator for the Food Bank of Western New York and Goodwill Industries. "People just use Twitter as an outlet to express their frustrations."

If telling Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to perform a physical impossibility is wrong, many Buffalo sports fans would say they don't want to be right.

These questions aren't stopping some blogs and media outlets from taking the study and running with it. Britain's Daily Mail posted a largely superficial article about the study under the headline, "Is Buffalo the rudest place in America?"

Headlines like that tend to bring out Buffalonians' latent sensitivity to any perceived slights, followed by concerns that we're too sensitive about our sensitivity.

But a lot of the locals reacting to this story on Twitter and Facebook on Tuesday were taking it in stride.

In Buffalo, that amounts to progress.

Source: (c)2012 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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