The mysterious rise of St Petersburg’s social media smarts

If you’re not familiar with Twitter, a quick immersion might give you the impression that it’s not a hugely smart place. Don’t get me wrong – it still looks like a Mensa meeting compared to your average YouTube comments thread, but the spatial constraints lead to discussion where grammar and spelling usually takes a backseat to brevity.

But a fascinating new study from the National Research University in Moscow shows that, in St Petersburg at least, social media users are getting a lot smarter. Not only has the complexity of social media messaging grown over time, but a 15-year-old today is more likely to write a complex post than anyone did in 2008. The paper’s author, Ivan Smirnov, likens it to the Flynn effect: the consistent growth in IQ level since the 1930s.

But while there are plenty of plausible explanations for a bump in intelligence over a 90-year period, it’s harder to explain why vocabulary would have seen a comparable jump in eight.

But back to the original paper. Smirnov examined 1,320,572,032 words posted by 942,336 social media users in St Petersburg between 2008 and 2016. The internet users were aged between 15 and 60, and posting messages to VKontakte (VK) – a site that’s pretty similar to Facebook.

Obviously with a dataset that size, reading every single message isn’t realistic. Sentence length could be used, but given the iffy punctuation often deployed casually on social media, that didn’t seem like a plausible option either. Smirnov settled on average word length in the end, with the reasonable generalisation that longer words tend to indicate more complex sentiment.

As you might expect, word length correlates with age and educational attainment – broadly speaking. It keeps going up until the late 20s, remains stable in the 30s, and then starts to rise again in the early 40s.

But things get really interesting when you compare the average word length over time. We’ve jumped from an average word length of 4.7 characters in 2008 to one of over five in 2016. More confusingly, a 15-year-old posting today is likely to have a longer average word length than anyone posting in 2008.

“Intriguingly, the observed growth cannot be explained by differences in characteristics of users who joined the social networking site at different time points,” writes Smirnov. “The average word length follows the same line, regardless of the year when the first post on VK was made.”