(RNS) What does a map of the U.S. religious landscape look like in 140 characters?
A new study of Twitter finds that self-identified religious users are more likely to tweet to members of their own faith than to members of a different one. The study examined people whose Twitter profiles identified them as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and atheist.
And while adherents of all six groups studied tweet frequently, atheists — among the smallest populations in the U.S. — are the most prolific.
“On average, we can say the atheists have more friends, more followers, and they tweet more,” said Lu Chen, a doctoral candidate at the Kno.e.sis Center at Wright State University who co-authored the study with Ingmar Weber of the Qatar Computing Research Institute and Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn of Rutgers University-Camden. They will present their findings in November at the sixth annual International Conference on Social Informatics.
The study is also remarkable for its size — researchers combed through more than 96 million tweets of over 250,000 Twitter users. They also studied the users’ friends — the people they follow on Twitter — and the users’ own followers. Subjects were Twitter users who self-identified as religious or atheist in their profiles, and only those who said they lived in the U.S.; researchers compared them to a “baseline” group of Twitter users who expressed no religious identification.
Other findings show:
* Of the five specifically religious groups studied, Muslims are the most active on Twitter based on the average number of tweets, and Muslims and Jews have the most friends and followers compared with other religions.
* For Christians, the most used “discriminative” words — those that distinguish them from other religious users — include “Jesus,” “Christ” and “Bible,” while the most discriminative words for atheists had to do with science — “evolution,” “science” and “evidence” among them.
* While Pope Francis may have a lot of Twitter followers — 4.54 million — other faith-related celebrities popular among those studied include the Dalai Lama, Rick Warren, Tim Tebow and Richard Dawkins. But the bigger the religious celebrity, the more likely he or she was to have a high number of followers outside his or her own faith group.
The study also found that while self-identified religious Twitter users talk about topics specific to the faith they adhere to (Christians talk about Jesus, atheists talk about science), all the studied faith groups had similar concerns. A tag cloud of the most commonly tweeted words across all the studied groups were “love,” “life,” “work” and “happy.”
“Human beings are not that different no matter who you believe in,” said Chen. “People still care a lot about our daily lives; that is quite similar. Love, good life, we care about the world, we care about other people. It is the same.”
Okulicz-Kozaryn, co-author of the study, said he thinks it shows Twitter is an important tool to religious groups and will become even more important in the future.
“Social media like Twitter are taking up more and more communication,” he said in an email. “People talk to each other less and use social media more and hence that kind of communication matters more.”
Twitter’s value to religious groups may not lie in recruiting new members, he continued, but in providing a platform for religious expression.
“It’s not like groups tweet, ‘Hey join us,’” he said. “It is having your voice heard, making people interested, etcetera, and through that some recruitment will happen.”