Reports of Twitter’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

Is Twitter in its death throes?

A recent analysis by RJ Metrics shows that the rate of new users has leveled off and includes some eye-opening user statistics:

  • About 80 percent of Twitter’s 75 million user accounts have posted fewer than 10 tweets.
  • 40 percent of the accounts have never sent a tweet.
  • 25 percent of the accounts have no followers.

RJ Metrics downloaded 2 million tweets from 50,000 users for analysis and extrapolated these results from that sample.

A post on Social Media Today contends that Facebook’s addition of a Twitter-like news feed is the cause of this “downturn.” Writer Nick O’Neill predicts that if Facebook were to open up its status-update API, Twitter would not survive.

That analysis, focused on user numbers and posting data, misses the fact that some people use Twitter strictly to follow others. Some users don’t want to say anything; they want a customized feed in an easy-to-read, portable format.

It also skips over the qualitative differences between Twitter and Facebook. Facebook is a personalized Web presence, a defined space where you can post pictures, articles, thoughts, and updates to your friends and family. It’s a place to stay in touch with acquaintances and reconnect with long-lost high-school buddies. Many users keep to a tight circle of friends, avoiding opening their pages to strangers.

Twitter is a freeform flow of news, ideas, links, and aphorisms. Its undefined nature appeals to a different audience than Facebook. People can use the service as a news feed, a stream of jokes, or a networking service.

Yes, many people try Twitter, only to let it fall by the wayside, put off by its 140-character limit and lack of structure. But millions of others remain, captivated by its malleability.

Why are the reports of Twitter’s demise greatly exaggerated?

  • It has proved itself a critical news source. It is the first place many of us saw a picture of a plane in the Hudson River. It is how outsiders can glimpse inside closed places such as Iran. It is where we can publicly express how we are affected by major events.
  • It provides the real-time pulse of the world, as Twitter’s trending topics give us a quick glimpse of conversation in the public sphere.
  • It lowers the wall between the famous and the ordinary. Users can follow everyone from Ashton Kutcher to President Obama, and it’s always possible that a tweet to one of these big shots may elicit a response — or more.
  • It is immediate and mobile. Because Twitter integrates easily with your mobile phone, people can instantaneously post tweets from their current locations.

Status updates and tweets are similar, but they are not the same. They serve different purposes for different audiences. As long as Twitter can figure out a revenue source and keep the capital flowing in, it will remain a viable social medium for years to come.

Massachusetts Senate race: Referendum on Obama?

Let the punditry commence.

The political chatterers have spent much time recently on the special election in Massachusetts as Republican state Sen. Scott Brown closed in on the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Tuesday, Brown defeated Coakley, taking the U.S. Senate seat held for 46 years by Ted Kennedy, known as “the liberal lion of the Senate.”

As many experts have done with other recent Republican wins, they extrapolated this race as a referendum on Obama and health care. How could a Republican win in such a Democratic state — unless people wanted to stop Obamacare and a growing national debt?

Such an analysis oversimplifies what led people to pull the lever for Brown on Tuesday.

Though Massachusetts elects many Democrats, a recent Gallup study showed that most people in the state consider themselves politically independent (49 percent), far greater than the national average. About 35 percent consider themselves Democrats, the same percentage as the national average.

In the waning days of the campaign, many independent voters did express worries about health care. But Massachusetts already has a state requirement that residents get health insurance.

Obama remains popular: people like him on a personal level, and an average of recent polls shows more Americans approve of the job he’s doing than disapprove.

Candidate Coakley also brought much of the outcome on herself.

Too often, pundits reduce complexity to a singular narrative. When hundreds of thousands of people are involved, however, the chatterers should refrain from generalizing what thought process led people to vote in a particular way.

Note to Mashable: Online polls are garbage

Mashable offers some of the smartest online commentary and how-tos about social media on the Web.

Except for its online polls.

As statisticians know, most open-community online polls are garbage. You cannot generate a reliable sample for generalizing, and the results basically mean nothing.

Take Mashable’s latest declaration: “Nexus One crushes the iPhone 3GS in reader vote.” It posted an online poll in its Web Faceoff asking, “Who would win in a fight: Nexus One or iPhone 3GS?”

A few of the problems with this poll:

  • There is no control over the sample. Anyone with a computer and online access could click on the survey. For a poll to be statistically valid, the sample has to come from a population of users. It should not be self-selected; the researchers should randomly select people from the population to participate in the survey. As a result, this poll is subject to manipulation.
  • We don’t know who is answering the poll. Yes, 10,000 users responded to the poll. But who are they? Have they actually used both phones? Do they know the difference among all the models? And which sites referred the most users to this poll?
  • The question is vague. What does the poll question mean? Do users think Nexus One will outsell the iPhone? That it offers better apps? That it is easier to use? That it costs less? We don’t know because users could interpret “fight” a hundred different ways.

As Robert Niles has noted, open-community online polls are great for engaging your users and sparking conversation. But it is inappropriate and misleading to report the results as “news.”

Bank bonuses: Recapture the outrage

JPMorgan Chase has announced profits of $11.9 billion in 2009, and the other large banks we bailed out are expected to follow.

Ah, we can heave a sigh of relief. All must be well with the financial system!

Wrong.

The bankers are prancing merrily along, returning to their derivative ways and awarding large bonuses. (JPMorgan, for example, has set aside $26.9 billion for compensation for 2009.)

Some analysts far smarter than I am have pointed out the bubble once again brewing as the financial wizards work their balance-sheet magic. What’s more appalling is that the banks do not seem interested in assisting the rest of us out of the financial mess they helped create.

My fear is we have lost the tangible moment to repair our broken financial-regulatory system. We must recapture the outrage from a year ago and continue to demand meaningful financial reform from the federal government.

Back then, the banking crisis was still fresh in our minds. Many of us were frustrated by a system consumed by greed — and the billions in taxpayer money being spent to bail out those foolhardy bankers.

Yes, we had to suffer bailout pain to prevent the global economy from spiraling downward. The key was seizing that opportunity to change the broken free-market ethos that had hijacked our economic thinking.

But efforts to overhaul the financial regulatory system — emasculated by the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 — stalled. The bill passed recently by the House gave new meaning to the phrase “watered down.”

Now, we are hearing reports about the billions in bonuses. Big dollars speak to people. Perhaps the outrage will be rekindled.

President Obama has tried to attack the bonuses, but that’s not enough. He should focus on the financial system.

A few suggestions:

  • Consolidate the plethora of financial agencies into one oversight body.
  • Do not allow investment houses, commercial banks, and insurance agencies to cross-breed.
  • Limit how big banks may become.

Have we not learned the lessons of the Great Depression and the S&L crisis of the 1980s/90s? In a completely free market, there are too many willing to risk it all, regardless of how many it may hurt.

Mr. President, reform now — before the momentum is lost once again. And let’s make sure the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (which started meetings this week) accomplishes something real, something that will actually prevent such a crisis from happening again.

(Addendum 1/16/09: The commission hearings confirm we should not listen to Wall Street, according to an excellent column by economist Paul Krugman.)

Pants on the Ground: A viral moment crafted by “American Idol”

Almost from the moment “General” Larry Pratt opened his mouth last night on “American Idol,” I knew.

Pratt’s rap “Pants on the Ground” was an absolute riot. My wife, three kids, and I all howled with laughter as he bounced and preached his message: Pants on the ground, pants on the ground, lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground. And when his age (62) was disclosed, we were all agog.

I turned to my wife and said, “That’s going to go nuts on YouTube.”

By noon today, “Pants on the Ground” was a trending topic on Twitter and versions of the video had received tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

It had several qualities similar to the Susan Boyle phenomenon that captivated the world last year. The video of the modest British woman wowing television crowds with her voice has received more than 80 million views on YouTube, and she has become a worldwide name.

Pratt does not have Boyle’s talent. But he has a number of other qualities that inspires mass appeal.

  • He is a courageous underdog. Part of the appeal of “American Idol” stems from the fact that these competitors are unknowns, plucked from everyday life. No one expects a 62-year-old military veteran to bounce around and boldly rap his frustration in front of Simon Cowell & Co.
  • He taps into a universal frustration. Many people (including myself) are sick of the low-pants fashion trend, and his simple rap reaches all people, regardless of background.
  • He is funny. Most of us love to share a laugh, especially one that is relatively clean and nonthreatening.

My guess is the producers saw the viral gold in Pratt. As Simon noted, there is an age limit for contestants. Wouldn’t the initial application process have weeded out Pratt and prevented him from ever stepping before the judges?

Watch Simon closely when he hears Pratt’s age. It appears that sense of surprise is quite manufactured.

Part II: What the Dell? The saga continues

Editor’s note: When we last left our Intrepid Whiner, he had kept his Dell order and sent a frustrated e-mail to Ikjot, the first customer-service human to call our hero by name. Still, the Dell rep refused to grant an inconvenience discount.

It appears the kudos Dell has received for social media is not unwarranted.

Within hours of posting my frustrated rant on Jan. 8, @LisaG_atDell commented on my post with a sincere apology and an invitation to correspond via Twitter. I promptly did so and asked once again for my inconvenience discount.

Her response:

I wish I could do that for you & several others. At this time, there’s nothing available to offer except for a Point of Contact

She lost me at “Point of Contact.” It sounded like a subsection in the Customer Service Manual. *Sigh*

So I chalked it up to the Corporate Decline of America (taking some solace in the power of capitalization) and waited to see what would happen next.

On Jan. 11, the beginning of the next work week, I received a flier in the mail from Dell touting another sale. Apparently, my request for discount was read as “Please send me more junk mail.”

Then, this morning, Jan. 12, came the most laughable missive of all:

Mr. Dell, if I were a “valued customer,” you would have:

  • Responded to my last disappointed e-mail and assured me the computer was coming.
  • Given me my discount (or some token freebie).
  • Not set another deadline for your survey.
  • Not referred to me as a case number and an order number.

Next time: Does the computer arrive? Have the makers spit on our hero’s processor? Stay tuned…

Where’s the news? Traditional media, but …

Industry watchers and newspaper lovers have latched on to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism showing that in Baltimore, most of the news was generated by traditional media, with newspapers leading the pack.

But before we beat the public over the head with these findings, a few points to consider:

  • Don’t generalize: A lot of markets don’t have a Baltimore Sun covering their communities. My local newspaper, the News-Leader, has cut its newsroom to the bone and has pulled in its coverage over the years from 25 southwest Missouri counties to six, and our top local station, KYTV, often breaks stories. Also, these data come from one week. It’s possible the source percentage might fluctuate, depending upon the week selected for the content analysis.
  • Fear the reliance on government: As @yelvington noted in a tweet this morning, the disturbing statistic is that 63 percent of stories were initiated by government officials. With fewer reporters, even the traditional media are being derivative in their coverage and allowing spokespeople to control the narrative.
  • Reconsider the focus on crime: Local TV and newspaper still devoted the most coverage to crime, according to the PEJ analysis. When you’ve got a small staff, you’ve always got time for crime: Sift through a few reports, chase the scanner, and churn out a quick-hit story that people will tune in to. But that type of coverage doesn’t necessarily further a mission of social responsibility.

In large part, these findings corroborate conventional wisdom. Newspaper movies have chronicled how much the broadcast media depend on print. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser wrote about the trend in “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril” in 2003.

But the public doesn’t seem to notice. Many don’t care so much where the information originates; they want the information when, where, and how they want it, especially online.

To survive as journalists, we must focus on the latter point.

(Postscript: I first heard about this study from a tweep, not the traditional media.)