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Babble, Sure. But Pointless? (Clarified/Corrected)

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 3 2010

There's a good chance that by now you've seen this post by Ben Smith, as it's burning up the Twitter -- somehow breaking through the clamor of aimless chitchat on the platform. The gist: a study by Wyeth Ruthven for the firm Qorvis Communications looked at the use of Twitter in the recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (pdf). The finding that leaps out is that 40.55% of all tweets therein constituted "pointless babble."* (The video above is a recent interview with Ruthven on his study.)

"More than 40% Blather!" is a juicy confirmation of what we all might want to think of politicians and their silly Twitter habits. But it's worth considering what pointless babble means here. In the study, Ruthven glosses it as "off message tweets, personal observations not related to the campaign."On Twitter (natch!), he says that he borrowed the "technical term" from a study last August by Pear Analytics. Here's how Pear says they determined which tweets were pointless babble in their research, and which were more meaningful:

The criteria was this: the tweet did not have an “@”, “RT”, “via” or short URL in the tweet. If it met this, and did not appear to be useful to a large percentage of your visitors (more than 50%), then we put the tweet into this bucket.

"Useful" is an interesting way to categorize a tweet. We're going to outsource a bit of commentary to danah boyd, who tore into that Pear study when it came out:

I challenge each and every one of you to record every utterance that comes out of your mouth (and that of everyone you interact with) for an entire day...Now, turn all of your utterances over to an analytics firm so that they can code everything that you’ve said. I think that you’ll be lucky if only 40% of what you say constitutes “pointless babble” to a third party ear.

Pointless babble in the context of a political campaign is probably somewhat of a different beast than it is in regular life. After all, what a candidate says on the trail generally consists of repeated talking points and stump speeches. Matched up against non-Twitter campaign content, those "off message" tweets might actually look pretty good, nearly mimicking the behavior of actual humans. That said, Creigh Deeds did tweet a tremendous amount about what song he happened to be listening to in his car on the way to this or that campaign event. Talking Heads! Who knew?

Still, you probably want some Twitter data nuggets. Here are a few, quoted from the report:

  • @JonCorzine mentioned Obama 57 times on Twitter, compared with only 6 mentions by @CreighDeeds.
  • While media attention on the election focused on health care, other issues played a prominent role in the online campaign. Fiscal policy was the top issue featured in Scott Brown’s Twitter feed, while Martha Coakley highlighted her support of financial services reform.
  • Approximately one out of every three tweets by the [Jon] Corzine and Christie campaigns was a link to a campaign photo.
  • Unlike campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey, the Massachusetts Senate campaign used Twitter as a 2-way, conversational medium. Both Scott Brown and Martha Coakley used @ replies to engage their followers in conversation.

* Clarified/corrected: Ben Smith notes in an update that the report's reference to 40.55% pointless babble is a reference to an earlier study of the public Twitter timeline. More specific reference in the report, for example, put Creigh Deeds as 44.32% pointless babble, and Deeds' comm director at about 19% PB.

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