CONTAGION—From Justin Bieber to data scientists, how Twitter got hot in the academy

The social networking site is not the most likely of tools to have caught fire in the Ivory Tower. How did Twitter, a site that traffics in 140-character-or-less messages and that counts two pop stars—Katy Perry (with 55.6 million followers) and Justin Bieber (with 53.6 million)—as its most influential users, become so hot among the academic set?


A couple years ago, Sherry Emery, a health economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found herself reading tweets about “smoking hot girls.” Also about “smoking ribs,” “smoking weed,” and the “smoking chimney” of the papal conclave. If she got lucky, they’d be about “smoking squares” or just “smoking,” in an easily decoded context that referred to cigarettes.

Emery has studied the impact of tobacco-related advertising for years. Until recently, that meant looking at TV and radio spots, tracking Nielsen Ratings and regional smoking rates. But then, one night watching Netflix in 2011, she had a thought: if she was on the web, so were many others—and they were likely leaving a trail of their attitudes towards smoking on social media platforms such as Twitter.

In September 2011, the National Cancer Institute awarded her a $7.2 million grant to look into it—and so she went, a pioneer (in…

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