Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
New Yorkers tweet about food and beer. Londoners tweet about tattoos and architecture.
It’s easy to spot the unique features of many cities. New York and London are financial centers, San Francisco’s increasingly dominated by tech, and L.A. is a hub for entertainment. Paris is famous for its culture and cuisine, D.C. is populated by policy wonks, and Miami centers on nightlife and fitness. But can social media—and sites like Twitter in particular—also offer insight into the more nuanced culture and mindset of individual cities?
To parse out how Twitter data might apply to cities, I enlisted the help of two graduate students who have been researching Twitter at the Geographic Information Science degree program at California State University, Long Beach: Wesley DeWitt and Therese Norman (who is also a doctoral candidate at the Jönköping International Business School, where she works with my colleague Charlotta Mellander). DeWitt and Norman identified the most frequently-used hashtags in five large superstar cities: New York, London, L.A., San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. They then collected the top 150 hashtags from each of these five cities for the first two weeks of November 2015. Finally, they developed word clouds for each of the five cities based on their research. Because we wanted to focus on unique terms, they filtered out common words and phrases such as “retail,” “sales,” “hospitality,” “hiring”, “job(s),” and “healthcare,” which tended to be among the most popular across all five cities.
Naturally, all five boroughs in New York ranked among the top 100 hashtags. Brooklyn was the most popular individual borough, beating out Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. Harlem topped downtown neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Soho, and Tribeca. Both Central Park (#31) and the Brooklyn Bridge (#72) outranked the Empire State Building and Times Square. A number of New Jersey communities like Newark, Jersey City, Livingston, Toms River, Princeton, White Plains, and Belleville all cracked the top 100, ranking higher than many Manhattan neighborhoods.
New Yorkers used the hashtag “traffic” (which was ranked #14) more often than any other city, and also made frequent references to highways like I-495 and I-278. Finance, not surprisingly, was a top-ranked industry. But creative industries like art, fashion, and music also topped the list. Surprisingly, the only sports team to rank highly was the Knicks, which came in at #144.
Hashtags like “foodie,” “beer menus,” and “weed” were especially popular compared to the other cities. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was also the 65th most popular hashtag—much higher than in any of the other cities.
Over in London, the most popular neighborhood hashtags were Stratford, Soho, and Greenwich, followed a little farther behind by Shoreditch, Richmond, and Camden. Big Ben was by far the most popular attraction, with Oxford Street close behind. The soccer teams Chelsea (#56) and Arsenal (#57) also ranked among the top 100 hashtags.
London’s unique hashtags included “breakfast,” “nature,” “architecture,” and “tattoo.” Many Londoners also tweeted about fireworks, bonfires, travel, the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, and the term “egaylity,” which expresses support for LGBT rights. Both “art” and “street art” ranked highest in London (#15 and #40), followed by New York (#19 and #85). The term “love” was also popular in London (#16), although it ranked in the 30s for L.A. and New York as well.
The most popular place-based hashtags in L.A. were Irvine, Hollywood, Long Beach, Santa Monica, Newport Beach, and Torrance, and included two theme parks: Disneyland (#27) and Universal Studios (#129).
For all the stereotypes surrounding L.A. traffic, the term barely cracked the top 70. Instead, Angelenos were concerned with transportation, which was the 23rd most popular hashtag—higher than in any other city. “Selfie” also ranked higher in L.A. than anywhere else.
Fashion, art, marketing, and real estate all topped the charts in L.A. “Legal” was the most popular professional hashtag, ranking considerably higher than in other cities. In a city known for its celebrity culture, manufacturing was also more popular in L.A. than anywhere else.
Unique terms like “beach,” “comedy,” “acting,” “filming,” “film shooting,” and “set life” were among L.A.’s top hashtags.
In San Francisco, places like San Jose, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Oakland, Redwood City, San Mateo, Sunnyvale, and Berkeley all made the top 40. The Silicon Valley did not make it on to the list. The most popular attraction hashtag was for the Golden Gate Bridge (#89).
“IT” (information technology) was especially popular in San Francisco (#6), as was “engineering.”
San Franciscans tweeted more hashtags about sports teams than just about anywhere else, with the Golden State Warriors (2015 NBA champs), Oakland Raiders, and two hockey teams—the San Jose Sharks and San Jose Barracudas—all high on the list. San Francisco was also the only place where the hashtags “solar” and “NFL” ranked highly, reflecting its status as both a nerdistan and a sports city.
In Washington, D.C., many of the most popular place-based hashtags were located outside the city proper. Baltimore, Fairfax, and Arlington were more popular hashtags than the District, and others like Columbia, Alexandria, Falls Church, Rockville, Bethesda, and McLean also ranked among the top 25.
Terms like “personal training” and “body building” ranked highly. Transportation and traffic were also high up the list, as was real estate. The term “labor” also cracked the top 50. The only sports team to make the list of highly-ranked hashtags was the Baltimore Orioles. Hashtags like “government” (#38) and “bilingual” (#59) were unique to the region among the cities studied.
While the topics people use Twitter hashtags to discuss are obviously an imperfect barometer of a region’s culture and mindset, social media can help to provide clues about conversations that are both common and unique to individual cities.