Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Here's the latest bit of Twitter-bashing that's roiling the social media/social advocacy crowd: U.S. market researcher Pear Analytics' short-term study of Twitter labels 40% of the messages sent over the microblogging service "pointless babble." Only about 8.7% of tweets, Pear says, have "value" as they pass along news of interest to others.

It's been enough to prompt some high-profile social media experts and advocates to rush to the defense of microblogging (again). danah boyd, a social media researcher for Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, weighed in with a post shared on the Progressive Exchange network:

"I vote that we stop dismissing Twitter just because the majority of people who are joining its ranks are there to be social. We like the fact that humans are social. It's good for society. And what they're doing online is fundamentally a mix of social grooming and maintaining peripheral social awareness. They want to know what the people around them are thinking and doing and feeling, even when co-presence isn't viable. They want to share their state of mind and status so that others who care about them feel connected. It's a back-and-forth that makes sense if only we didn't look down at it from outer space. Of course it looks alien. Walk into any typical social encounter between people you don't know and it's bound to look a bit alien, especially if those people are demographically different than you."

Josh Nelson, with The Hatcher Group, a communications and nonprofit consulting firm in Washington D.C., suggested on Facebook that "if you scanned thousands of random emails or phone calls, it would probably be mostly irrelevant 'babble' as well." Tomorrow's headline? "Ninety-five-plus percent of all telephone conversations are irrelevant to outside listeners," Nelson wrote.

Meanwhile, Elana D. Leoni, the online membership coordinator of The George Lucas Educational Foundation, added in a post, also shared on ProgressiveExchange.org:

I think it's all about how selective you are when you decide to follow someone. I run my company's Twitter account and I've found Twitter to be one of the most effective ways to reach out to experts, get opinions, promote our content, and do some great market research.

Still not convinced of Twitter's power? Hollywood studios are on edge because blistering, critical word-of-mouth via Twitter and other social networks is cutting—from days to mere hours—the time during which word of mouth can make or break a film at the box office. Bruno and G.I. Joe, for example, experienced an unexpectedly fast tumble within their opening weekends. "People will be Twittering during the opening credits—and leaving when they don't like the film," Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures told The Washington Post.

Twitter can also help to save a production. Just ask Damian Bazadona, president of Situation Interactive, an online marketing and advertising firm. Bazadona was part of the team behind the novel marketing, via Twitter, of the Broadway play, Next to Normal. In early May, six weeks after the show opened, the production began what New York Times contributor Andrew Adam Newman said was, by all accounts, a Broadway first: over Twitter, a special version of the show began to be tweeted out to people, one line from one character at a time—over 35 days. "About a week into the N2N tweetstream, Next to Normal had 30,000 followers; when the show ended June 7, about 145,000 had signed up. Then, as the cast began texting followers, their numbers continued to grow, recently topping 550,000," Newman wrote. "...According to the tracking site Twitterholic, N2Nbroadway is ranked 210th, attracting more Twitter followers than celebrities like Paris Hilton and Stephen Colbert and brands like Starbucks."

Bardona told Newman: "You wouldn't go to a social event and start selling someone something. The content itself was doing the selling for us, so we didn't need to bang someone over the head and say 'Here's how to buy tickets.' That would have smelled so advertising."

What do you think? Is Twitter mostly uncontrollable babble—or a new way to find power and safety in numbers?

—Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Jayesh for istock.com)

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