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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 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.

  10. Stilgherrian

    Oh, and the Hey Dad…! character’s name was “Jenny”, not “Karen”. I am full of old-TV-sitcom FAIL. Which isn’t all that bad a kind of FAIL to be perhaps.

  11. Kirk Broadhurst

    “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.”

    For the past 3-4 months, if I pull my mobile phone out at a party/cafe/bar/park/work I am invariable asked ‘You don’t twitter, do you?’ with a look of disgust and awe. Friends who don’t twitter (i.e. almost all friends) reply with an indignant ‘No!’ or ‘Of course not!’, while I ignore the question.

    I think the alternative GenY crowd have already decided that Twitter is being forced upon them by MSM and that it is ‘not a good thing’. It’s probably not as bad as Facebook, but it’s a sham.

    On the other hand, the consumerist GenY crowd are interested – because they hear about it thru MSM – but don’t understand or are still waiting for a reason to sign up, i.e. once all their friends are on it, ala Facebook.

    But I think that the hype has been turning negative for weeks if not months. ‘Inane babble’ would probably be the biggest tag in the Twitter ‘Tag Cloud’ at the moment.

  12. Stilgherrian

    @Kirk Broadhurst: The reaction you describe is kind of the process by which something moves through the Hype Cycle. Indeed, some reporting on the latest Hype Cycle predicted just this Twitter backlash. That’s what I’m writing about today, in fact.

    I’ve also written a way-too-long comment on all this over at my own website.

  13. Kirk Broadhurst

    Interesting graphic describing where Gartner sees various technologies – Hype Cycle of Emerging Technologies 2009.

    There’s a Legend icon for ‘obsolete before plateau’ which is unused on the graphic. I don’t agree with some of the dates but their interpretation is generally quite good.

  14. Stilgherrian

    @ Kirk Broadhurst: Indeed, I did an interview with Jackie Fenn, the creator of the Hype Cycle, yesterday and some of the quotes are in my piece for Crikey today, From hype to backlash, Twitter’s path is inevitable.

  15. lyndenbarber

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

    Oh please! Spare us the crap.

    Who says it’s pointess? I say it’s pointless and I bet that 99% of the popualtionh, on or off Twitter, agrees with me. If you need to tell the person organising dinner you’re eating a sanwich, you TEXT them or RING them personally – you don’t announce it to all your twitter followers. How many Twidiots who Tweet this kind of ‘message’ are trying to communicate anything? It’s white noise.In a world of information overload, the challenge is not how to squeeze more and more white noise into our lives, it’s how to filter it.

  16. Kirk Broadhurst

    “Who says it’s pointess? I say it’s pointless and I bet that 99% of the popualtionh, on or off Twitter, agrees with me. If you need to tell the person organising dinner you’re eating a sanwich, you TEXT them or RING them… ”

    A lot of tweets are this kind of pointless – just someone describing what they are doing, what they are thinking, what’s going on. It’s not very hard to argue that this thread is pointless, or discussion of any kind is pointless. Whatever topic that teenagers are currently interested in is pointless. TV is pointless. Heck, even news is generally pointless.

    People’s tweets might become interesting if you knew them. If someone tweets ‘Going to see the exhibit at xyz’, I might be made aware of something of potential interest. If someone tweets ‘Trying to make/build/write abc’ and I know something about it I can potentially help out. If someone tweets ‘Movie x was great / sucked’, I might change my view of that movie. All of these really only make sense if I know the other person.

    So as has been said elsewhere, Twitter is much like IRC. Is IRC pointless? Is MSN / Yahoo chat or whatever else pointless? You might not find a use for it but that doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of time.

    Finally, if the popularity of Twitter continues then it will be a major online player; and therefore it is a newsworthy topic. The ‘Pointless’ argument is almost a moralistic one – and my response is the same: if you don’t like it, you have the right to ignore it. Don’t try to tear it down just because you don’t understand or see value in it.

  17. Vernon Brabazon

    Probably 90% of what passes for daily human communication is gossip; so I expect that rating “twitter” communication at being only 40% “pointless babble”, is to err on the side of caution.

  18. Mr Bascombe

    I used to twitter tweet nothings till I felt like a twat.

  19. acannon

    Twitter is a craze, like elastics and marbles. It’s fun. I’ve found all sorts of new and interesting things through the people I follow on Twitter. I like how I can keep up with both the big and small things happening around the world. But one of the most fascinating things about Twitter? How inevitably ‘etiquette’ springs up around any kind of human social interaction. When I joined Facebook, one of the first things I noticed was the vast new array of faux pas I could commit! Like, on Twitter, you can get in trouble (i.e. unfollowed) if you tweet TOO MUCH! LOL!! Seriously, if you’re interested in how people get along with each other, join up. If not, what do you care if we all tweet? You can go and talk psephology amongst yourselves…

  20. lyndenbarber

    Some of the repliers have missed the point. I’m not arguing agaisnt Twitter (I’m on it myself), I’m arguing that it be used wisely. Making lame, and I suspect intellectually dishonest excuses for people who issue dumb tweets is not addressing the issue.

  21. Stilgherrian

    You know, folks, just because you wouldn’t communicate in a certain way doesn’t make it wrong, pointless or stupid for someone else to do it that way.

    acannon is right, and Kirk Broadhurst is right: If you don’t like Twitter, well, don’t use it! But why go out of your way to denigrate those who do find value there?

    Yes, you can phone or TXT someone to arrange dinner. No-one’s stopping you. But if you do that in public, in what Shel Israel and Robert Scoble called Naked Conversations in their book of the same name, then someone else might join you serendipitously.

    But… If you don’t want that to happen, well, don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. But labelling it “pointless” is unnecessarily judgemental IMHO. And funny to watch. Feeling insecure about something…? 😉

  22. Mr Bascombe

    … I should mention that some of the best Tweeting is being done by famous dead people: http://soulellis.com/2009/03/twenty-five_dead_people_on_twi.html

    Charles Darwin, in particular, is a blast: “Caught an Armadillo, which was but a poor breakfast & dinner for two men”.


  23. mayaste

    Many of Twitter messages are automated and useless for me. I have many followers there, but rarely I can read something nice and interesting. Promotions, links, automated messages, RSS feeds…
    That is the reason to search less popular service similar to Twitter, but with quality content. For example I am testing the new start-up service, that is already popular Gloggy (http://gloggy.com) and I am satisfied for now.


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