Regardless of whether the revolution is televised, it will almost certainly be tweeted.

The "Arab Spring" of social unrest that swept autocratic rulers from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and potentially Syria, also hit Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan — with minor protests occurring in a half-dozen other nations of the Middle East and North Africa.

From minor to major, these social movements begun in 2010 were largely fueled, and recorded, by social media including Twitter, an evolving platform whose best moments democratize the way individuals communicate with one another. And aside from providing a stage to Everyman for banal commentary on life and insipid quotes intended to inspire, the medium also promises researchers a tool for real-time measurement of health and disease across populations of the world.

Though Twitter users in the United States tend to be younger than the general population and more representative of racial minorities, roughly 15 percent of adult Internet users regularly use the platform, with indications that more will use it in the future. A team of mathematicians and computer scientists from Seattle and Burlington, VT, think the service may soon offer researchers an accurate way to observe real-time dynamics and health trends in population-scale measures, such as obesity rates.

On Wednesday, the researchers outlined in the journal PLOS ONE an analysis of a massive data set generated in 2011, comprising more than 80 million words of tweets — in a preliminary attempt to quantify levels of happiness and health across the American population.

Within the past half-decade, the United Nations and some member countries, including the U.S., United Kingdom, and Australia, have attempted to quantify levels of happiness and health across populations, though mostly through surveys. Now, with the explosion of personal data from social media, social scientists are beginning to investigate possible correlations between geography and Twitter health trends.

From the University of Washington and the University of Vermont, the researchers examined data comprising 10 million tweets from 373 urban areas in continental U.S. states in 2011, a data set of tweets from Twitter's "garden hose" feed representing 10 percent of all messages.

In the study, the investigators analyzed the approximately one percent of all tweets that were tagged by geographic location, allowing them to compare the information against data collected by the US Census Bureau.

Using an established tool measuring sentiment in language, researchers sought to measure happiness in aggregate, across the collective. Along a scale of 1-9, "rainbow" is among the happiest with a score of 8.1, while "earthquake" is one of the saddest at 1.9, for example, with neutral words ranking in the middle of the scale.

In ranking states and cities in happiness, the researchers said their findings on Twitter health trends matched those of more traditional surveys, such as the Gallup-Healthways well-being survey conducted that year. Boulder, CO, for example, ranked high in happiness on both measurement tools while Flint, MI, and Montgomery, AL, ranked low on both.

"Whereas our list uses only word frequencies in the calculation of [happiness quotient], the Gallup-Healthways is an average of six indices which measure life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors, and access to basic necessities," the researchers wrote. "We remark that our method is far more efficient to implement than a survey-based approach, and it provides a near real-time stream of information quantifying well-being in cities."

The measurement tool even accounted for regional and local shifts in language across geographic space, as usage changes slightly among speakers of American English. Interestingly, the "main factor driving the relative happiness scores for each city appears to be the presence or absence of key words such as 'lol,' 'haha' and its variants... 'love,' 'like' and negative words," too.

Happiness indicators from word usage were then compared to various social and economic measures, drawing on data from the 2011 American Community Survey covering everything from economics to housing to demographics — 432 different categories in total. Among findings, happiness in America was found to strongly correlate with wealth, particularly with regard to household income. Those who lived in poverty — but had Twitter accounts — were least happy, with levels of obesity also matching with unhappiness.

Although the relation between wealth and happiness is hotly contested among researchers, the study results fell in line with other attempts to correlate the two, making Twitter perhaps no more or less reliable in that one aspect. "In this work, we have only scratched the surface of what is possible using this particular dataset," the researchers wrote. "In particular, we have not examined whether or not these methods have any predictive power," as opposed to merely measuring after the fact.

The researchers plan to revisit the Twitter health trends project after the government releases 2012 census data, hoping to determine how demographic changes reflect happiness, as measured tweet by tweet.

Source: Mitchell L, Frank MR, Harris KD, Dodds PS, Danforth CM."The Geography of Happiness: Connecting Twitter Sentiment and Expression,Demographics, and Objective Characteristics of Place." PLoS ONE. 2013.