Can Social Media Predict Behavior?

"The Night Without a Riot," David Wiegel's weekend post in Slate covering the post-Zimmerman verdict and the absence of social unrest predicted in the wake of an acquittal, is cause to consider how social media shapes expectations about social behavior. Has Twitter become our national ID, a seething cauldron of our most primitive, least civilized selves? If so, is that a good thing, an acceptable sublimation of instincts and impulses that might otherwise lead to physical violence and/or the destruction of property? Are the most frequent and frightening online ranters and ravers truly dangerous, or just blowing off steam?

Social media has gotten the credit -- and, in some quarters, the blame -- for inspiring social and political revolutions around the globe. It's made possible the instant transmission of politicians' most embarrassing moments and celebrities' worst ones, as well as the amplification of everyone's home movies, vacation photos and cute cat videos. When people do otherwise unexplainable things -- like blow up a school or a marathon or express their uneasy feelings by shooting an unarmed teenager -- we look to their tweets and postings for clues to their behavior in a post-hoc forensic analysis of events, a backward-looking timeline that might have predicted them. But the predictive value of social media has yet to be established in any meaningful way.

Traditional media, particularly 24 hour cable news, has become an echo chamber for social media -- "What's trending now" on every local and national newscast (particularly on a slow news day) tells us what people are saying, on social media. How they're actually behaving, though, is questionable; on the Internet, anyone can be a dog. Even one that makes you want to shoot it, and would if you weren't too busy posting.