When social media users vent their loneliness, for some, it’s a cry for help. For others, it’s a flippant expression of momentary boredom.
A new analysis that catalogued some expressions of loneliness on Twitter found compelling gender differences both in how people vent, as well as the replies they receive.
Women are much more likely to tweet about their loneliness, the study concluded, a finding that matches up with a large body of evidence showing women are more emotionally expressive than men. Some 70% of 4,450 tweets about loneliness over a two-week period were sent by female Twitter users. Only 30% were from men, according to work by researchers at Cornell Tech, Rutgers University, and the University of California, Irvine. Women were also more likely than men to tweet about "enduring" loneliness (i.e. "I hate feeling like this. I’m so lonely and depressed all the time."), rather than everyday or transient loneliness (i.e. "OMG, I’m so lonely right now.").
The findings don’t imply that women are more lonely than men. "It’s possible that men are just as lonely as women, but they are expressing it in different ways, or expressing it through private channels, or not expressing it at all," says Rutgers University graduate student Funda Kivran Swaine, the paper's lead author.
Being a man, however, did boost the likelihood of a lonely tweet received a response by 27%.
And regardless of gender, one worrisome finding was that fewer people responded to tweets of "enduring" loneliness, which could be interpreted as cries for help. "The people who suffer most are least likely to be offered social contact in return," says co-author Mor Naaman, a professor at Cornell Tech.
To get to these conclusions, the researchers analyzed almost 13,000 tweets sent out over only a two-week period that expressed explicit loneliness, with phrases like "I’m so lonely, "I feel left out," and "I feel isolated." They knew they wouldn’t be capturing all loneliness on Twitter, they just wanted to see what they could see. They later had to weed out tweets that weren’t really about loneliness, a task that involved building a lyrics detector to exclude messages involving Rihanna and Kelly Clarkson songs. About 1 in 4 of the more than 4,450 tweets remaining had at least one public reply—a much higher response rate than other tweets from those same users.
Researchers have tried to understand expressions of loneliness for decades. It used to be much harder to collect evidence. In 1978, for example, they collected 25,000 responses to a survey in a newspaper that asked: "How do you usually feel when you are lonely?"
Social media, says Naaman, provides a great opportunity for psychologists and researchers to dive more deeply and explore the very private emotion, as other researchers have done exploring cues for depression on Facebook.
However, despite all the attention paid to people’s social media postings after they commit violence to themselves or others, no one had taken a deep dive into the feeling of loneliness yet, says Naaman. He hopes the study highlights trends that other researchers can explore in a more controlled setting. Next, he and his colleagues hope to look at the same questions on Facebook. The team will be presenting their results in June at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.