23 August, 2009

Twitter: Neither Babble, nor Bubble, the Social Uses of Tweeting

Sergio Abranches

Twitter is no futile toy, nor a fad. You may find many uses for Twitter. It can be extraordinarily fun, and it can certainly be addictive. It may even have begun as a means for exchanging simple, routine messages.  But it has grown up as much more.

Professional political analysis and sociology are only beginning to grasp the weight and implications of social networking, especially after the arrival of Twitter. Twitter is on that account mostly uncharted territory.

There already are some interesting findings from Twitter analyses, though. Like Dan Zarrella’s comparative stats of tweets and retweets (RTs). He shows, for instance, that retweets carry more links (57%) than original tweets (19%); they tend to be more complex and less readable (as measured by the Flesch-Kincaid, and the SMOG readability grade levels) and, while more complex, thus requiring a higher level of education to understand, retweets tend to bring more novelty than original tweets.

Zarrella (@danzarrella) used the Regressive Imagery Dictionary, a coding scheme designed to measure the amount and type of three categories of content: “primordial (the unconscious way you think, like in dreams); conceptual (logical and rational thought); and emotional.” He found that RTs have more conceptual content, and “less primordial and emotional content than random Tweets.” He also shows that “social and instrumental (constructive words like build and create) behavior are ReTweetable, while abstract thought and sensation-based words are not.”

Zarrella has also performed a LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) analysis, to measure “various emotional, cognitive, and structural components present in individuals’ verbal and written speech samples.” It showed that “Tweets about work, religion, money and media/celebrities are more ReTweetable than Tweets about negative emotions, sensations, swear words and self-reference.”

Dannah Boyd, Scott Golder, and Gilad Lotan, analyzed a sample of RTs and found that: 52% contain a URL; 18% contain a hashtag, 11% contain an encapsulated RT; 9% contain an @reply that refers to the person retweetting the post (“Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter”). Oops! The authors ask not to cite. So, please, don’t…

People retweet for many reasons, they argue, among them, to amplify or spread the word to new audiences; to comment on tweets; to act as a curator of new information; to make one’s presence as a listener visible; as an act of fellowship or homage; for self-gain; to store information for future use. It can be a messy conversation, the authors conclude, but it certainly is a meaningful one.

These findings contradict Pear Analytics’ recent study on Twitter, showing that 40.5% of the tweets studied are classifiable as “pointless babble”: the ‘I am eating a sandwich now’ tweets.”

Taken separately, out of the context of a full ongoing social conversation, saying gratuitously I am at Starbucks, at Wellington and York, in Toronto, having a cappuccino, does seem like pointless babbling. But, to my followers, with whom I’m engaged on a continuous conversation, it is information they can use. Some could be on the neighborhood of the address and ask if they could join for a face to face conversation. Or, knowing I am there would mean I’m out of office or far away from home, and that may mean I’ll be tweeting differently, or sparsely from my iPhone.

When I say that I’m going to give a lecture at the Economics Department of the University of São Paulo, at a specified date, would that be “pointless babble,” or “self-promotion” (6% on Pear Analytics figures)? Again, put it in the context of an ongoing conversation it is useful information. Followers might want, for instance, to seat on the lecture.

As this is an actual example, some really did. And it was very good to have a face to face conversation. Call it a physical verification of “virtual impressions.” Happy me, positive impressions were more than confirmed.

There is a clear mistake on the categorization and classification of tweets on this study. They found only 3.6% of “News” on tweets. But they only consider as ‘news’: “any sort of main stream news that you might find on your national news stations such as CNN, Fox or others.” Tech news or social media news that you might find on TechCrunch or Mashable are excluded from the category.

‘Tech news or social media news’, and all the news that flow on Twitter from independent journalists, mainstream journalists not ‘mainstreaming’, and bloggers are either “conversational tweets” or “pass-along value tweets” – 9% – (“any tweets with an ‘RT’ in it”).

“Conversational Tweets”, 37.5%, become a catch-all category: tweets that fit into more than one category, starting with ‘@’, and “tweets that go back and forth between folks, almost in an instant message fashion, as well as tweets that try to engage followers in conversation, such as questions or polls.” The fact is that every tweet is a conversational one, because twitter is a conversation.

Improper classification lead to misinterpretation of results. It seems that most of the 40.5% of “pointless babbles” are neither pointless, nor babble. They reveal their meaningfulness when adequately put in the context of Twitter as a conversation that emerges because you meet interesting people, sharing views, thoughts, experiences, information, about almost everything one could look for.

Dannah Boyd (@zephoria) remarked that “Twitter – like many emergent genres of social media – is structured around networks of people interacting with people they know or find interesting.  (…) It’s all about shared intimacy that is of no value to a third-party ear who doesn’t know the person babbling.”

Social relations are ongoing interactions with a memory. I know what I’ve talked about with my fellows out there. That’s why I do not need to recall past dialogues to keep talking.

Socially built meaning, that is, meaning that comes out of the social interactions within the Twitter community, does not come only through back and forth exchanges. There are many twitterers following several dialogues silently, and getting meaningful information from them, gaining knowledge, insight, tips for their intellectual, professional or personal lives.

Dannah Boyd helps to better understand this point when she shows what twitterers are 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.”

Ok, but aren’t we making too much out of Twitter? What if it is a bubble? Won’t it wither away soon?

It does have a “bubble like” exponential growth. Twitter demographics are everything but precise, but, roughly speaking, twitterers were 4.4 million by the end of 2008, almost double that by February 2009, reaching 7 million; on August, some estimates say they are already 47 million. Staggering performance. Some argue that this is misleading, because many are inactive: at least 40% never twitted, or have any followers.

I’ve met some of these “silent” twitterers, and asked them why did they drop out. Most weren’t dropouts. They told me they were “listening”, trying to grasp the ways of Twitter. Some have started a selective following, after some time; some have already become active twitterers.

Twitter is not intuitive to everyone. It is nothing like Facebook, Orkut or other social networking. It’s different. To many it requires some learning.

A PEW study found that the use of Twitter is highly intertwined with the use of other social media: both blogging and social network use increase the likelihood that an individual also uses Twitter. Because it’s different, it adds new possibilities, and reinforces other social media.

It is unlikely that Twitter is a bubble about to burst. It can be replaced in the future by something that retains its functions, while adding new functionalities. But it can also adapt and evolve, as it has already done. Twitter today is a totally different species from when it came to life. It has dramatically changed its own nature, moved by the spontaneous innovation that resulted from millions of real time interactions.

I propose we start looking at Twitter as a diversified community. My own observation and active use tells me that there are at least three main types of twitterers:

Fellows – twitterers mainly interested on shared content. They are fellow discussants. Among them we can find leading fellows and engaged followers. Both are selective regarding their following, they tend to block unwanted followers (spammers, porn), and to unfollow those who prove inconvenient, ‘robotic’, or uninteresting.

Friends – real listeners, listening attentively to the rich intercourse of ideas taking place on Twitter; learning, preparing themselves to become active twitterers; eagerly jumping at every link that attracts their interest to benefit from the massive wealth of information that flows every second through Twitter.

“Following maximizers” – those interested on increasing their following, because they are looking for some gain or out of pure narcissism. They follow to be followed, and only listen to a tiny fraction of their following. There are also corporations, sellers and spammers, on this category, but they are even less engaged in the conversation than the “following maximizers”. As Danna Boyd says, they “are truly performing to broad audiences (e.g., ‘celebs’, corporations, news entities, and high-profile blogger types), are consciously crafting consumable content that doesn’t require actually having an intimate engagement with the person to appreciate.”

Twitter is no babble, nor bubble, you may call it a conversational community, with high viral potential (e.g. #FollowFriday), high political impact (e.g. #Iranelections), and high value as a means to convey ideas, and circulate the news. Most of the conversation going on would only be a “pointless babble” to those from Twitter’s outer space, as Dannah Boyd pointed out.

“Of course it looks alien. Walk into any typical social encounter between people you don’t know and it’s bound to look a wee bit alien, especially if those people are demographically different from you.”

That said, I’m about to twitter this post. See you there.

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