Forty percent of the messages on Twitter are “pointless babble”, claims a story doing the rounds at Fairfax and ABC News and elsewhere this morning. It’s rubbish.

San Antonio-based Pear Analytics says they took 2,000 tweets and sorted them into six categories: news, spam, self-promotion, pointless babble, conversational and pass-along value. They’ve published the results in a pretty little white paper.

“As you may have guessed, Pointless Babble won with 40.55% of the total tweets captured,” says Pear.

“However, Conversational was a very close second at 37.55%, and Pass-Along Value was third (albeit a distant third) at 8.7% of the tweets captured.”

Apart from the categories being subjective and poorly-defined, quoting numbers to two decimal places hides fundamental flaws in this “study“.

First, an awful lot of human communication that looks like “pointless babble” is actually phatic communication. That’s all the social functions like signalling that you agree or disagree; that you want to continue or stop or change subject; to acknowledge the social bond between you; to signal that you’re happy or sad; to signal your personality to see how others respond; or to gently tap the speaker and say they’re saying something inappropriate.

Second, who says “I am eating a sandwich now” is pointless? As a response to someone organising dinner, it’s thoroughly relevant.

Third, Pear didn’t compare Twitter with other forms of human communication. What proportion of comments over the cubicle wall in a typical office are also “pointless babble”? I’m guessing … 40%? More?

“We did not predict that Conversational would be as high as it was, or that Self‐Promotion was going to be as low,” Pear concludes. Is that because Pear Analytics is a “marketing intelligence” firm, looking at the world through a lens of self-promotion rather than normal human conversation?

MSNBC called shenanigans on Pear’s study three days ago, noting that the white paper cites two other dodgy factoids: a Morgan Stanley “study”  claiming teens don’t use Twitter, compiled by a 15-year-old intern merely polling his friends, and an infographic “If the Twitter community were 100 people” which, like Pear’s work, used vague, overlapping categories.

Marketer Stephen Dann has posted a far more scathing criticism. It’s attracted a defensive response from Sarah, one of Pear’s researchers, who perhaps unwittingly reveals the shoddy, subjective categorisation.

The kicker is at the bottom of Pear’s blog post

“Since Twitter is still loaded with lots of babbling that not many of have time for [sic], you should check out the Twitter filter, Philtro. These guys can not only help you filter the noise, but will also be allowing you to store the tweets you are most interested in real soon.”

Gosh. It’s all just tawdry Ponds Institute pseudo-science pimping a product. Don’t newspapers and the ABC check their sources any more?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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