In New York, where I’m writing from, people are first and foremost tweeting about butter. Then, naturally, chocolate candy, cookies and noodles. But on the plus side, we’re also tweeting about running, dancing and walking.
I learned all this by playing with the Lexicocalorimeter, an online tool that Chris Danforth and Peter Dodds, co-directors of the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab, built with their PhD student Andy Reagan, according to a profile Rowan Jacobsen wrote on the Story Lab in Outside.
At the Story Lab, Danforth and Dodds take data and study it to see what stories we’re telling about ourselves online. The Lexicocalorimeter in particular analyzes tweets to find out, generally speaking, what residents of a given state are eating and how they’re exercising. This might seem basic, but it’s more interesting than you might think—and the implications are wide-reaching.
And it all begs the question: is Twitter the tool of the future when it comes to health research?
Let’s start with the pros. The Lexicocalorimeter gets around one of the biggest issues with health research, which is the problem of self-reporting. Danforth told me via email that the Lexicocalorimeter is “observational, so we aren’t asking people to tell us what they’re eating or how they’re exercising," he wrote, adding “previous studies have shown that self-report is quite unreliable in these areas.” That's a polite way of saying that people often paint a more forgiving portrait of their lifestyle than it might be in reality. But we seem to be laying it all out on the web. “People leave so much of their ID on the web and they share it openly,” Danforth told Outside’s Jacobsen. “That’s enabled a whole host of new instruments to try to understand what’s predictable about our behavior.”
So what are we saying about ourselves on Twitter, and why does it matter? We’re mostly talking about unhealthy food choices according to the data, which I asked Danforth about. “We haven’t quantified the likelihood that people will tweet about unhealthy food choices specifically, but I’d expect people to share vices more often than garden variety meals,” Danforth told me via email. That makes sense: people are probably more likely to tweet a photo of a great donut they had than some artfully arranged crudité (Fitspiration accounts notwithstanding). Plus, “the geographic distribution of this behavior will vary depending on the food culture of communities in different parts of the U.S., so there is a lot going on,” he wrote.
But aside from being fascinating, the Lexicocalorimeter supports data on activity levels and health measured in more traditional ways. “We’ve seen that our instrument, while coarse, correlates with other data on well-being, ” like Gallup polls, Danforth told me via email.
For example, we wrote about how the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps ranked Colorado as having some of the most active counties in the U.S., which tracks with what the Lexicocalorimeter calculated.
Jacobsen wrote that in his home state of Vermont, residents are especially active (behind Colorado and Wyoming in terms of most active states), which matches with how Vermont has “some of the lowest rates of diabetes and obesity and one of the highest life expectancies,” Jacobson wrote.
The tool even allows you to see which state tweets the most about a given food or activity. For example, New Hampshire loves chocolate pudding, North Carolina can't get enough of orange creamsicles and Idaho is hooked on flounder. On the healthier side (sans flounder), of that spectrum, North Dakotans are busy ballroom dancing, people in Nevada are meditating and, unsurprisingly, Californians are playing water polo.
The Lexicocalorimeter is very fun (I suggest checking it out ASAP), but it has practical uses too. Researchers could determine—in real time—if a specific program or initiative was changing behavior in a state, something that could help inform future education around the importance of exercise and nutrition on overall well-being.
Plus, who doesn’t want to know what their neighbors are tweeting about?