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On Twitter, your positive tweets are actually contagious

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If you’re happy and you know it, compose a tweet.

If you’re happy and you know it, compose a tweet. Once you hit “send,” your followers may spread that joy. 

Emotions are contagious on Twitter, and those ideas, thoughts, and feelings we put out into the world can impact our followers in a viral strain of sentiment. Research led by Emilio Ferrara, computer scientist at the University of California’s school of engineering, found that emotions can spread through tweets. And it urns out positive emotions are more infectious than negative ones. 

The phrase “emotional contagion” might sound familiar—it’s the same concept that Facebook scientists studied when they manipulated the News Feeds of 700,000 users to determine whether or not people’s emotions and posts were affected by what they saw on the News Feed. But Ferrara’s study looked exclusively at public data, and didn’t alter the timelines of any user, it simply observed the tweets and sentiment. 

The study was published in PLOS One earlier this month. 

Researchers looked at a random sampling of 3,800 English-speaking users and used an algorithm to analyze the sentiment in tweets, classifying them as positive, negative, or neutral. Then they compared the sentiment of someone’s tweet to the sentiment of all the tweets that appeared in their timeline in the preceding hour to see whether or not there was a relationship between the feelings. 

There was. The study explains: “It is evident that about 80 percent of the users have up to 50 percent of their tweets affected by emotional contagion, while the remainder 20 percent exhibits very high susceptibility and demonstrate that more than 50 percent of the content they post suggests the presence of emotional contagion.”

Researchers broke down tweeters into two different groups—highly susceptible and scarcely susceptible—and found that even those people who were less likely to be impacted by emotional contagion were still twice as likely to be affected by positive information viewed on their timeline than negative tweets. So even if you’re not super susceptible to emotional contagion, the positivity still spreads. 

“What you tweet and share on social media outlets matters. Often, you’re not just expressing yourself—you’re influencing others,” Ferrara said in the study. 

Twitter can hit you right in the feels, one way or another. The company conducted its own study to determine just how its product affects your brain activity, and how you view yourself and the world. It discovered that using Twitter evokes more emotional response than using other bits of the Web. Steven Levy explains in Backchannel:

Reading a Twitter timeline generates 64 percent more activity in the parts of the brain known to be active in emotion than normal Web use. Tweeting and retweeting boosts that to 75 percent more than a run-the-mill website.

The final measurement had to do with memory. Passive Twitter use indicated 34 percent more activity in areas linked with memory formation than normal online use. With active Twitter use, the number rose to 56 percent.

Emotional contagion isn’t exclusive to online social networks. The people and feelings we surround ourselves with in real life can play an important role in shaping emotions like happiness or sadness in both the present moment and the future. Two decades of research led scientists to discover just how important other people’s emotions are to our own happiness. A Harvard study published in 2008 took a look at 4,739 individuals followed from 1983 to 2003, and discovered clusters of happiness. 

Scientists concluded: “People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.” 

USC’s study shows us what an active role Twitter can play in affecting our feelings, and in turn, what we choose to share online. And because positivity is so much more contagious, perhaps we could all start sharing a bit more of it. Your followers will likely appreciate it. 

Photo via Glenn Sajan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Selena Larson

Selena Larson

Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.