Recently, our group has taken on the task of capturing tweets related to e-cigarettes from the universe of Twitter data available to us. To accomplish this task, we use keywords.
Some are obvious, such as “electronic cigarette” or “e-cig,” while other more obscure terms and brands have emerged only as we sort through tweets and check online sources, including e-cig forums, Urban Dictionary, and Wikipedia. As e-cigarette users have established a community, the relevant vernacular has expanded massively and rapidly. E-cigarette users and advocates are self-described “vapers,” and their use of language signals their membership and participation in an emerging subculture.
It is only for those with knowledge of e-cig culture that a term such as “analog cigarette” takes on meaning. This term refers to the traditional cigarette. While “analog cigarette” is by no means the most common phrase we have encountered, it nonetheless captures one important reason e-cigarette use has taken off: e-cig users and advocates (and vendors) have managed to position traditional cigarettes as outdated and clunky. Thus, the most popular definition for “analog cigarette” on Urban Dictionary reads: “the common traditional cigarette, a crude, old-fashioned nicotine delivery device, consisting of processed tobacco wrapped in a paper tube, from which smoke is inhaled after being lit. So named to differentiate it from the more modern and less harmful electronic cigarette. Dude, you’re still smoking analog cigarettes? Get with the tech and vape, man!”
On Twitter, it is not uncommon to find tweets likewise relishing the anti-authoritarian gesture of smoking e-cigs where analogs are banned (one reads: “Just smoked a electronic cigarette in the mall. Yolo,” with the shorthand for “You only live once”). Smokers’ rebellious impulses are also targeted in a recent viral campaign by e-cigarette brand NJOY, in which Courtney Love raises eyebrows by smoking indoors at a stuffy black-tie affair. It is the coolness factor of e-cigarettes that has some public health advocates concerned. Could these devices glamorize smoking for a new generation of young people, getting them hooked on nicotine and susceptible to harmful tobacco products? Are e-cigarettes an instrument in smoking initiation or in tobacco control (if they are used for quitting)? Or both?
Our hope is that data from Twitter can shed light on these important questions of how e-cigarettes are viewed and used as well as how they are marketed. One of the early lessons of our work is that a high number of tweets advocating a particular point of view does not necessarily correspond to a high number of individuals holding that view. In a forthcoming study of e-cig content posted to Twitter during May and June of last year, we found that less than 1% of Twitter users in our sample produced over 50% of e-cigarette–related tweets.
While we should be mindful of the ability of these highly motivated users to influence the discourse around e-cigarettes, we must also make sure that other voices do not get lost. Given recent findings of highly specialized language used by subpopulations on Twitter, our keyword list must be continually refreshed to encompass the vocabulary used by vapers, advocates, marketers, tobacco control entities and the general public. While the loudest voices on Twitter might insist that e-cigs are sleek, modern and even revolutionary, what are the perceptions of e-cigarettes in the wider Twittersphere? With hundreds of thousands of tweets already collected using our e-cig keywords, answering this question will require finding new ways to efficiently code for content and sentiment, including automated coding.
Stay tuned for our studies of commercial and non-commercial (“organic”) e-cigarette content on Twitter and other social media.
This blog post was written by Rachel Kornfield, a research specialist at the Health Media Collaboratory who studies trends in the marketing and promotion of tobacco products.
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