Twitter: ‘Pointless babble’ is the whole point


I had to laugh when I read Pear Analytics’ new research into Twitter. The shock exclusive – hot on the heels of revelations that the Pope is still Catholic and that bears like to evacuate their bowels in the woods – is that over 40% of tweets are pointless babble.

As you recover from that, I’m going to sock it to you with the other jaw-dropping findings.

  • 37% of tweets are conversational
  • Re-tweets (passing along someone else’s tweet) make up 8.7% of the total
  • 5.85% of tweets are self-promotional
  • Spam and news account for about 3% of tweets each.

Or, to sum it up in a headline:

Social media discovered to be ‘social’ — researchers left reeling.

I’ll come back to that in a minute. But the best bit about the whole business was the research report’s apparent bemusement at some of the results.

A few examples:

  • “we thought the news category would have more weight than dead last”
  • “Self-promotion was also less than expected”
  • “we thought that both spam and self-promotion percentages would be much higher”.

I didn’t, for two reasons. First of all, I actually use Twitter (this is me). Secondly, I have a rather unfashionable habit of relating what people do online to what they do in the real world.

It’s an approach that’s done best by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. She has a tendency to unmask murderers because their behaviour reminds her of the grocer’s boy, or the way the village solicitor’s spinster sister used to deport herself in the queue for the post office. But the wider point is that, by observing people in one context (a small village), she can infer how people will behave in other situations (such as the aftermath of a murder).

It’s quite a good discipline. Indeed, the Pear Analytics researchers would have done well to imagine Twitter as the village post office in St Mary Mead. If everyone was so much keener on news, self promotion and spam, the conversation would run something like this.

Postmistress: Hey you. Do you want a newspaper? Special offer, today only.

Vicar’s wife: No. I want six. I simply devour current affairs.

Village idiot (bursting into shop): Buy my meds! Viagra, Cialis, best meds. Lolz. Byee!

Bank clerk: Ah postmistress. 12 copies of the Times please. Then I’ll sell you a loan.

Village idiot (sticking head through window): Thanks for the follow! Are you interested in dramatically increasing your customers?!

Milkman: Did you hear the Bank Clerk? He said “12 copies of the Times please. Then I’ll sell you a loan.” Milk anyone?

Village idiot (standing at door with megaphone): More Customers = More Laughs = More Money = More Fun… You’ll LOVE it.

Yes, there is a proportion of Twitter users that behave just like that. But the point to remember is that social media is used by a society of people. In other words, people just like you and me who talk inconsequential nonsense most of the time, enjoy chatting with other people, and once in a while feel the need to sell something or pass on the news.

That’s why the average series of Twitter exchanges are rather like conversation in a real village post office (one of the still-open ones of course), but transplanted online. To reverse the fantasy:

@dapostmistrez Gd morningz peeps. How RU all?

@revsmissus Oh noes. My feets is killing me, oh dears. And I has no breakfasts.

@bankcounterman Hey @dapostmistrez. Have you any bunion lotion for @revsmissus?

@waynethemilkman Grt idea @bankcounterman. I think @revmissus cd do with an extra pt of milk! I’m so tired too!

@revsmissus Thx all. @dapostmistress Can I has lotion and milk plz. And some stampz. And a newzpapa.

@smmvillageidiot Meds, Cailis, Vaigra. Keep going all night. LOLZ!!!!!!!!!

In other words, people indulge in pointless babble about their meals, their ailments, their state of mind and all the rest because they enjoy it, and it’s part of the social lubricant — both online and off. People like talking rubbish to each other, and getting to know other people by exchanging nonsense is a necessary part of buying and selling.

That’s what social media is all about. Including the fact that some people, like spammers and tedious self-promoters, just don’t ‘get it’.

Anyway, now you’ve got to know me, can I interest you in @coastdigital‘s excellent digital marketing services? Or maybe the website usability guide? After all, they’re things that friends should see…

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