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Aug 18, 2009

Twitter “40% pointless babble”? What twaddle!

40% of the messages on Twitter are “pointless babble”, claims a story doing the rounds of the media this morning. Except, the 'research' is just rubbish pseudo-science pimping a product.

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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24 comments

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24 thoughts on “Twitter “40% pointless babble”? What twaddle!

  1. Ken Benson

    surprised me too, I would thought it was about 90% pointless self -indulgent babble

  2. Adam Barker

    Is it just me, or is it only the Media who continue this love affair? Stop pushing this on us. Commercial Radio try it with Lady Gaga and Wes Carr, but the effect is the same. Cramming it down our throats will not make us enjoy it.

  3. Stilgherrian

    Ah, I should have placed that bet! There’s always a comment saying how it’s all babble, and you’re first this time, Ken Belson. Congratulations.

    Of course the point is that the tweets of random strangers are not for you, but their circle of friends and acquaintances. Should you choose to use Twitter, you’d doubtless follow the people who are important to you. Or, you may choose not to use Twitter, if it doesn’t appeal.

    Adam Barker: The story here is not so much about Twitter, but that the mainstream media uncritically ran a fluffy marketing piece dressed up as pseudo-science because that story was about Twitter.

    That said, Twitter has just passed the peak of what Gartner calls the “Hype Cycle”. After the bubble of over-inflated claims we’ll now see a surge of negative stories as the media pack turns. More on that tomorrow.

  4. Ken Benson

    And there’s a always a first to shoot back a rejoinder so congrats to you Stil…

    I don’t mind communicating with strangers, as per this conversation, just think twits are pointless and as I said self indulgent…pretty much who cares? I reckon Twitter has a self life that will be sooner rather later, however it’s just my opinion, millions of others can disagree

  5. Evan Beaver

    You’re making it increasingly obvious you’ve never used Twitter in any real capacity Ken. Keep commenting though, it’s really informative.

  6. Ken Benson

    Hey Evan will do, thanks for giving me permission..and you’re right, probably as always

  7. Stilgherrian

    Doug Clow (@dougclow) has also posted an excellent piece explaining how Twitter is social grooming, which is sort of my point. Some key quotes:

    Fundamentally, though, this study (almost) entirely misses the point of what people on Twitter experience. It sampled the Twitter public stream, which is the total assemblage of what everyone using the service is producing.

    But what looks like ‘pointless babble’ isn’t pointless, if it’s from people you know or care about. It’s social grooming, it’s keeping in touch. It’s what most human conversation is about. If you think this stuff is pointless babble, you’re really not going to enjoy parties. Or indeed be likely to maintain fulfilling personal relationships. On Twitter, you get to choose whose ‘pointless babble’ you want to follow. Almost nobody who actually uses Twitter uses it by reading the public stream.

    If you learn about Twitter by reading these sorts of reports, you’ll get a bizarre view that really tells you very little about what it’s like to use as a service.

    And this brings me to the general point about teaching with new technology: you can do the most methodologically sound research about Twitter you like, but without a decent appreciation of what it is to use the service, you’re going to struggle hard to make sensible use of it in teaching.

    Not just in teaching, of course, but that’s Doug’s thing.

    I found this post via Memex 1.1, where Pear Analytics’ white paper is described as “cod research”.

    The redoubtable danah boyd has also weighed in.

    However the icing on the cake is this news: The “Sarah” who got so defensive and sulky on Stephen Dann’s blog is none other than Sarah Monahan, who played the daughter “Karen” in long-running Australian TV sitcom Hey Dad…!.

  8. gef05

    “More on that tomorrow.”

    Uh huh. No hype here, folks. Just the hard stuff.

  9. Stilgherrian

    Gawd, if just mentioning what you plan on writing about tomorrow is “hype”, no-one can win.