Flaming drives online social networks, say scientists

Want more comments on your blog posts? A higher follower tally on Twitter? Then be prepared to resort to flaming to anger and upset people. That's the conclusion of a study into the role emotions play in online interaction.

A group of Slovenian and British researchers used something called "sentiment analysis" to identify emotional contentMovie Camera in posts left on the BBC's online discussion forums and the link-sharing website digg.com.

The team's algorithms look for features such as keywords, emoticons, and subtle linguistic markers such as misspellings, and use the results to calculate a "happiness score" for each post.

They have found that long conversation threads are overwhelmingly more emotionally negative than short ones, with happiness scores decreasing logarithmically with the number of messages. What's more, long conversations almost always start with negative comments.

"If you want a long chat, don't start by saying 'I love this!', at least not online," says Mike Thelwall, head of the Statistical Cybermetrics research group in Wolverhampton, UK.

Self-organised behaviour

The researchers also noticed that avalanches of negative emotion – floods of messages with low happiness scores, spurred by a single post – produce self-organised behaviour amongst users.

Negative emotions accelerate the number of messages sent by users, in turn generating social groups from nowhere, says Thelwall. A single post can quickly generate a community of feeling if it is provocative enough.

In fact, this is all typically human behaviour. "There is evidence that group cohesiveness may be related to negative feelings about others," agrees Tom Buchanan, a psychologist at the University of Westminster in London. "Members of an online community might unite around a perceived attack on them or some aspect of their identity."

Thankfully, the researchers have some advice for those that would rather steer clear of bad feeling online. "We've seen that the least vigorous discussions tend to be about ageing rock stars," says Thelwall.

Journal reference: The researchers have recently added two papers to the physics archive: arxiv.org/1011.5459, arxiv.org/1011.6268

This post originally appeared on New Scientist.