What Is Boston? Ask Twitter

Crowdsourcing the social network offers live insight into opinions on our city.


photo by Vernaccia on

The internet provides endless ways for people to crowdsource impressions of their city or state.

In Chicago, a Twitter bot called @WhatsChicago provides another way. It automatically retweets any tweet that begins with the words “Chicago is.” It’s a simple concept by by Luke Seemann, a designer and developer at Chicago magazine, writes The Atlantic Cities, one that provides “a live monitor of popular opinion of the city.” Plus, you read the feed long enough, and it sounds like a very simple poem.

Chicago is perfect.

Chicago is so rough man.

Chicago is ugly.

Without creating a bot ourselves, we wondered what a “@WhatIsBoston” account might have turned up in the past few days. Many of the tweets we found beginning with the words “Boston is” are weather related, though opinions on that weather are mixed.

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The @WhatIsChicago bot was inspired by a popular map of the 50 states that went viral last week showing Google’s autocomplete results to the question “Why is [state] so…” (Our result was “why is Massachusetts so smart?” More on that map here.)

Knowing what “Boston is” on Twitter, or what people are searching about Massachusetts, is just more amusing than anything else. But internet crowdsourcing is actually a powerful tool for cities looking to tap into the collective experiences of their inhabitants, one we’ve put to use in Boston already. The Citizens Connect App operates on that philosophy, asking phone-wielding citizens to be the eyes and ears of what needs fixing around town. A Street Bump app that senses when your car hits a pothole does the same thing, notifying the city to patch it up.

TED Conference organizers recognized this when they awarded their 2011 prize not to an individual but to “The City 2.0,” their word for the innovation required to allow people to live sustainably together in the future. Part of that innovation will entail more ways of using technology to harness the wisdom of crowds and improve city living. Finding out what “Boston is” on Twitter doesn’t have obviously tangible applications like filling potholes, but hey, we can at least enjoy the fact that people really seem to like it here, based on the results in the past couple days.