Friday, August 14, 2009

Twitter's 40.55% "Pointless Babble": The Insights Mainstream Media Missed

FOX News led their "Click This" segment with a laugh and this assertion: "If you feel like you're missing out on this Twitter thing, don't worry, because 40% of the tweets are just pointless babble." Courtney Friel delivered the line in the sort of disparaging tone FOX usually reserves for Nancy Pelosi.

To that, I respond: If FOX News was only 40% pointless babble, it would be a huge improvement!

My gripe isn't only with FOX News; other news sources were quick to jump on the story. For example, V3 featured an article titled, "Twitter is no business tool, says research," which claimed the findings of a Twitter study, "pour(s) cold water on suggestions that Twitter can be used as an effective business tool and news source." That will come as a surprise to the millions of people effectively using Twitter as a news source or the thousands of businesses of all sizes that are already seeing benefits from using Twitter.

All of this Twitter twattle came as a result of a study conducted by Pear Analytics, which certainly got the PR value it desired from the report. Pear says they studied "2,000 tweets from the public timeline over a 2-week period" and categorized these tweets "into 6 buckets: News, Spam, Self-Promotion, Pointless Babble, Conversational and Pass-Along Value."

The study's results as reported on are:
  • 40.55% "Pointless babble." Pear defined these as the "'I am eating a sandwich' tweets."
  • 37.55% "Conversational." Questions, polls, back and forth dialog in an almost instant message fashion.
  • 8.7% "Pass along value." Re-tweets passed along from other Twitter members.
  • 5.85% "Self promotion." Tweets about members' products, services, shows, or companies.
  • 3.75% Spam.
  • 3.60% News from mainstream media sources like CNN.
Pear concludes with this question, "So there is a lot of 'Babble' – What Can We Do About It?" The firm has a helpful answer, "One of our favorite tools we are currently beta testing is called Philtro ( Philtro will take your unruly Tweets and narrow them down to what you actually care about."

What is most interesting to me is how much of the news coverage missed several key points. News sources were awfully quick to repeat the "pointless babble" statistic, but how many dug deeper and drew out any insight? The way this study's "pointless babble" phrase was repeated time and again in headlines goes to show that, despite the fact some deride Social Media being an "echo chamber," this can occur in traditional media as easily as it can in the Social sphere.

Here are some key points that have been largely missed or at least given short shrift in all the media coverage:

Twitter isn't mostly Self Promotion: Pear Analytics conducted the study intending to prove that "Twitter was being used predominantly for self‐promotion." As it turns out, less than 6% of tweets are self-promotion, which hardly seems like a huge percentage given the nature of Twitter. It goes to show that at least one stereotype of the microblogging tool is incorrect, and it begs the question as to what other commonly-held perceptions may also be wrong.

The study was hardly scientific: Pear's White Paper says little about the methodology, and what it does reveal is awfully subjective. For instance, the "news" category only included tweets about topics "you might find on your national news stations such as CNN, Fox or others" and excluded "tech news or social media news." Considering Twitter's early adopters have tended to be tech and Social Media professionals, this seems an awfully arbitrary distinction on Pear's part.

Another questionable definition is that "Self Promotion" (a term that carries a judgmental hint of narcissism) includes "'Twitter only' promos," which some might consider "opt-in marketing." Also, the "Pass‐Along Value" category only counted "tweets with an 'RT' in it," thus omitting both the original tweet that contained the true "Pass‐Along Value," as well as other tweets that use "via..." as a means of conveying credit.

Finally, even the most casual of Twitterer will instantly recognize the inherent subjectivity of these categories. One person's news is another's babble; what is conversational to one person may easily be babble to another. This "study" involved a bunch of Pear Analytics employees eyeballing tweets and stamping them with one label or another, which is about as scientific a way to determine the innate quality of tweets as American Idol is a scientific way to ascertain the greatest singer in America.

For example, last night I tweeted, "Using Digsby? Buried in TOS is fine print allowing it to use your CPU, bandwidth, & electrical power when your PC's idle:" How would Pear have categorized this? It's news, but it's Social Media news, so it wouldn't qualify for Pear's "News" category. I was retweeted, but since my post wasn't a retweet, it wouldn't fit Pear's definition of "Pass along value." This tweet isn't spam, self promotion, or conversational, so I guess Pear would label this "pointless babble." I'd disagree, and I hope you would too.

Twitter is a Communications Medium! Twitter isn't merely a business tool, a marketing medium, or a news dissemination engine; it's a Communications Medium!

The fact that 40.55% of tweets are "pointless babble" is hardly newsworthy unless this statistic is put into some context. Given Twitter is a person-to-person communications medium, what percentage might we reasonably expect to be babble? Have you overheard the idle chatter in a food court lately? What percentage of that is babble? 80%? 90%? More?

How about the weather report in your local news program? All I want is to know is the temperature and precipitation forecast for the coming days, but I have to sit through jokes with the anchors, high pressure maps, the low temperature in International Falls, MN, and a photo of a sunset sent in by Edna Theirfelder of Oconomowoc, WI. If the weather portion of my nightly news was just 40.55% "pointless babble," it would make me ecstatically happy.

If Twitter is only 40.55% babble, that might make it the most information-rich medium in human history, a conclusion quite a bit different than the majority of news stories that covered Pear's study.

What's in it for Pear Analytics? As noted, the research firm published the report and recommended a course of action--use to filter your tweets. The report goes on to refer to Philtro as "they," conveying dissociation and increasing the objectivity of the recommendation. But is this as selfless and unbiased a recommendation as it appears?

You'd think news organizations that wanted to broadcast data from Pear's report to millions might have taken the time to ask a few questions about this recommendation. As it turns out, I found only one news source, The Register, that dug deep enough to uncover a potential (and potentially suspicious) motive behind Pear Analytics' recommendation: Philtro's Founder and CEO, Paul Singh, also happens to be Pear's on-staff Business Intelligence Expert.

I'm not suggesting this relationship colors the results (any more than the subjectivity of the study's categorization process), but Pear owed it to readers to disclose the relationship (some might even call it a conflict of interest) for the sake of professionalism and transparency. It seems evident that had the relationship been disclosed, it might have affected readers' perceptions of the recommendation and possibly even the study results.

With so many news outlets eager to promote this research and hardly any discovering the Singh connection, doesn't that make most of the news coverage nothing but "pointless babble"? I may be exaggerating a little, but the Pear Analytics coverage reinforces something I've observed over the past year: You can't really count on mainstream media to give objective and thorough coverage to topics of Social Media.

Social Media will continue to evolve and change the way humans communicate and brands are built, but you won't really find the interesting, perceptive, and important details conveyed by traditional news outlets. For that, digital and Social Media will remain the best source for those who want to see where Social Media is going.


Phil said...

Great article. I couldn't agree more with you. Today's trends clearly show that global marketing is moving towards a never-seen before place, where brands, companies and even corporate identity is built with the help of Social Media. I think the research by Pear is nothing but, wait... how did they put it, pointless babble.

Best Regards,

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Phil. I certainly agree with your philosophy on where Social Media is going. I think we're going to see a lot of companies trying to get a little PR with "studies" of one sort or another, and I hope most have more rigor than this one from Pear.