Going Totally Random With Twitter

The most frequent criticism of Twitter that I hear is that the service is a waste of time. It’s all about people telling the world what they had for breakfast or how long they’ve been waiting for a bus. Don’t we have better things to do?

I decided to try a short experiment. I clipped a 100-tweet block from my Twitter stream at random and examined the contents to see just how much useful content there was, if any.

A little background first: I follow about 1,150 people and I prune my list with some care. If someone’s tweets are completely irrelevant to my interests, I unfollow that person. I only follow people who interest me or who send me a personal request asking me to follow them. That weeds out the spammers and bots.

Here are my results

  • 42% of the tweets were what I’d call random. These were mostly along the lines of what people had for breakfast or ongoing conversations I hadn’t followed.
  • 12% contained news of general interest (BTW, Twitter has been one of the best places to monitor the ongoing news of the Samoan tsunami this week).
  • 33% were referral links to information that the writer found interesting.
  • 7% were notable quotes.
  • 6% were either self-promotional messages or requests for advice.

Two statistics interested me in particular. One was that 45% of the tweets contained a link. This indicates that Twitter is used at least as much to point friends to interesting information as it is to comment on everyday activities. After all, you can’t link to what you had for breakfast. The other is that at least 20 of the tweets interested me enough that I wanted to learn more.

This wasn’t the kind of reading I would find on a typical news website. Here’s a sampling:

It isn’t CNN.com, but then I don’t use Twitter for the same reason I use CNN. The bottom line is that the 4 1/2 minutes it took me to read 100 tweets yielded at least 20 items of interest. There are other places on the Web where I could consume more information in less time, but it’s a different kind of information. It’s not less valuable, just different.

Newspaper and magazine editors often complain that the rise of customized news services has shortchanged readers by removing the element of discovery that a printed publication delivers. However, the Twitter stream and Facebook news feed deliver just as much surprise and delight as any professional media entity, if not more. The only difference: the recommendations come from people I know instead of professional editors.

It turns out that avid Web users are just as interested in discovery as print readers. It’s just that they’ve found a faster, less intrusive, more personal and more ecologically friendly way to go about it. Is it any wonder mainstream media is dying?

9 thoughts on “Going Totally Random With Twitter

  1. I agree that Twitter is one other source of news and information — the same with Facebook. People I know tell me about things they think I would be interested in. Many of those things I would not have found on broadcast news or in newspapers.

    It also helps me as an editor to see what topics my audience is interested in and then be able to give them more information about those topics via Twitter and my website.

  2. I get sick of reading tech (and other) columnists who keep saying, “I don’t use Twitter, so here’s why I can tell you it’s useless.” They’re always repeating the canard that it’s for “narcissists who tell you what they had for breakfast.” Well, maybe it was in the first 2 days it was on the air — but as you point out, it is now used to get interesting and useful information out.

    I use it for following interesting people. On the sending end, I use it for a very specific purpose: To broadcast scores and results from candlepin and duckpin bowling tournaments — basically nothing else. True “narrowcasting,” no doubt about it — but a few dozen bowling fans are able to get real-time information not available from any other source, and basically impossible until Twitter made such real-time narrowcasting possible (and easy).

    Yeah, as in any new medium — e.g., radio — there’s a lot of tweeting-for-the-sake-of-tweeting going on. If you look at the history of radio in the early days, a lot of companies had radio stations because it was something new and they thought they had to get on board, for some reason. Eventually, the industry figured out how to make it useful. Same thing with the Web — it progressed from brochureware to company news, to e-commerce. The mainstream columnists need to stop complaining and start actually using the thing.

  3. Pingback: The PRagmatist » Blog Archive » Twitter or Chatter – Tweets Aren’t Just For Breakfast Anymore

  4. I follow the same ‘rules’ as you do regarding who I follow. So, ‘our’ type of selectors likely tend to ‘flock’ with similar interests – with the exceptional ‘interesting out of the blue’ tweeter. This keeps our interests narrowed and filters out much of the randomness you describe; it also, for me, becomes the doorstep for more open social sourcing and searching for information. The people I follow are much more likely to discover items of interest to me than the editors of ‘mainstream’ news.

  5. Twitter is the newest craze today. i tweet at least 5 times a day on my friends just to keep them informed about my whereabouts. I still keep my personal blog though.

  6. Hi Paul.

    Nice take. One question: How can you follow 1150 Twitter accounts? How can anyone be able to follow more then 50 accounts (or 100 max.)? What FOLLOW means to you?

    I follow 16 accounts (twitter.com/kolco) and those post more then 120 high quality tweets a day (99% containing links to other sites – looks like Twitter is another kind of bookmarking service). Let say, I might be more interested in half of them only – this means I need to explore 60 links. Again, let us say it takes me 5 minutes to read one article behind the link (plus discussion and sometimes videos, or clicks to other supporting materials). This would have taken me 5 hours a day!

    Ok, let us say it takes me only 3 minutes to read that article… it is still 3 hours a day… which I cannot afford to spend on Twitter only… I believe NO ONE can (unless you are paid for Tweeting and for reading tweets). So If you FOLLOW 1150 accounts on Twitter you might get cca 2000 Tweets daily to read (maybe even more). If 4 and half minutes takes you to read 100 tweets then it must take you 90 minutes a day to read ONLY YOUR TWITTER INBOX… then how long do you read the interesting links you find… (just a question).

    Based on above formulas and hypothesis I would like to ask you once again:
    What FOLLOW means to you?


  7. I think the issue is what “follow” means to you. It’s almost impossible to follow even 100 active Twitterers, not to mention 1,000. The point is not to try to listen to everything that everybody says (that will make your head explode) but rather to tune in regularly for snapshots of the conversation.

    So many people are producing so much content these days that it is unrealistic to try to keep up with it all. All we can hope to do is get a net into the water now and again and scoop up what happens to be passing by at the time. That doesn’t make that information any less valuable. In fact, the element of discovery is part of what makes the process so interesting.

    Active Twitterers use services that permit them to send the same message several times so that a larger percentage of their followers will see it. Still, they know that maybe 5% of their followers, at best, will see any given message at any given time. The key is repetition, retweeting and selective delivery to the people you know can spread the message for you. This is a science that is still being developed, but it’s impressive how quickly it is evolving.

  8. Paul.

    To me it is quite clear – FOLLOW means to listen = read what those I follow say. Otherwise there is no sense for following someone (as to me).

    I agree there is no point to listen to everything that everybody says – and that is why we are able to decide who (and how many accounts) will be followed. And if an element of discovery is needed – then usage of Twitter search can be even more usefull.

    Anyway. I like the fact people are different and wanted to have the other view.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

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