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.)

OMG! Covering the personal failings of giants

Peter Orszag (courtesy of America.gov)

My first reaction to the NYT piece about the romantic maneuverings of Obama budget guru Peter Orszag was an audible gag.

Even in the piece itself, writer Mark Leibovich revealed a touch of nausea at having to write about the subject (boldface mine):

“Everyone feels the need to say, ‘I’m really sorry I have to ask you about this’ and ‘I’m only carrying out orders from my boss,’ ” Mr. [Kenneth] Baer [of the Office of Management and Budget] said. (For the record: this reporter was only acting on orders from his boss.) And, of course, the Very Serious Media are not writing the Orszag Love-Child Story, they are merely writing about the media frenzy surrounding it.

To Leibovich’s credit, he explores the idea of whether reporters should actually cover these under-the-sheets exploits. I believe it is journalistically valid to ask whether such a web of emotional involvement (two children with an ex-wife, a newborn with an ex-girlfriend, and a new fiancee) affects Orszag’s decision-making.

Unfortunately, most of the piece documents Orszag’s celebrity. The more I read, the more I wondered whether such a story would have been written about the less fair among us (especially since it was filed under the Fashion & Style section). What if Orszag were not a dashing 41-year-old? If he were not dating an attractive ABC reporter a decade younger than himself?

It reminded me of the torrent of Tiger Woods stories after revelations about his love life. Perhaps it is seeing the flaws in these giants that makes us feel better about ourselves.

I had to admit to myself that the headline — “If Peter Orszag is so smart, what will he do now?” — was the first I clicked on this morning, in part because of the picture of the handsome couple. I’ve listened to Orszag in many an interview and heard his praises sung by many. Perhaps it was morbid curiosity. Perhaps it was my own desire to see the celebrity flaw.

Perhaps it was intellectual laziness, going for the easy story rather than complex pieces about the bank crisis, Yemen, or  the mistreatment of immigrants in federal prisons.

When I finally clicked on Nina Bernstein’s investigative prison piece, I realized I had become the lazy public, favoring tales of individual failures over stories of systemic woes.

Unfortunately, it is also easier for journalists to cover the individual than the system. Why expend the effort for something far fewer will read or watch?

In the end, we will all get what we click for.

What the Dell? A tale of customer-service gone awry

Dell has gotten some notice for its inspired use of Twitter to connect with customers and earn money.  But customer service is more than posting a few tweets about bargains.

On Dec. 10, I discovered a great deal at dell.com: $400 off a powerful i5-series Intel processor with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 1 terabyte hard drive. I decided on Dell for another computer because my previous Dell machine (with a few low-cost upgrades) is still chugging along after seven years.

After clicking through the shopping cart, Dell estimated a delivery date of Jan. 5. I hopped on the customer-service chat, hoping to change to a faster delivery method, but the representative said an order could not be changed once it was in the system.

For a $400 savings, I was willing to wait. I should have realized it was a warning from the heavens.

On Dec. 29, I received an e-mail from Dell Inc. (who was the listed sender):

No “Dear Mr. Groves.” No clear explanation as to why the delay occurred. No contact information for a real person.

It was becoming the Best Buy Trade-Off: Suffer through painfully poor customer service for low prices.

So I waited. On Jan. 6, I received an e-mail with this threat:

It is true the Federal Trade Commission has a 30-day rule regarding telephone and mail orders. But 30 days from the original order would be Jan. 9 — three days later. Why the fear-inducing urgency?

That day, I received a call on my cell phone from an automated Dell woman, threatening to cancel my order unless I took action today. I responded to US_Dell_Notify@dell.com and then called a customer-service rep — just to make sure. He told me my request had be noted and hung up, without giving me a confirmation number.

Later in the day, the automated Dell woman called again threatening to cancel my order.

I buzzed Dell again and was put on hold for five minutes. I gave the representative my name and told him my situation. “Do you have your order number?” he asked. I admitted I didn’t, and he said he could not look up my information without the order number. I was told to call back when I had the order number.

A computer company that can’t search by name? Argh.

I checked my e-mail and noticed US_Dell_Notify had not replied. I sent another e-mail, this time with my nine-digit customer number, my nine-digit order number, and my 13-digit Dell Product ID.

I called Dell again. This time, I was on hold for 10 minutes, and when the person came on, I requested a discount for the inconvenience the company had caused me. He said he could not do that because he handled only order queries; he would have to transfer me to the customer-care department.

Another wait. This time, it was 13 minutes. A man named Fiel — he said it so quickly I didn’t quite catch it — popped on and said “Thank you for holding. We are experiencing high call volume. Please call back in 15 minutes.”

Click.

Yes, he hung up on me. Really.

I began to suspect an evil ploy on Dell’s part: Offer a really great discount, but delay the promise so long that the consumer gives up and buys something else, at full price.

An hour later, I called again. This time, I was on hold for 20 minutes before Abi answered. I told her my situation, and she said, “Our systems are down. I cannot help you.” Pause. No apology. No offer of other assistance.

A computer company whose order systems are down? A R G H.

At 8 p.m., I received a third call from the automated Dell woman threatening to cancel my order.

Frustrated, I churned out a long complaint letter demanding a discount for the inconvenience.

This morning, this e-mail appeared from US_CAG_Customer_Care@dell.com:

Well, “Dear Jonathan” is better than no salutation.

I replied with an e-mail of disappointment and a threat of my own: I would tell everyone I know of this customer-service nightmare.

Consider this my shout to the world.

Hey, dreamer: It’s about the money

Much has changed since I left the newspaper business in 2005 — including my sense of journalistic reality.

Over the intervening months, I have rethought many long-held assumptions about journalism and the relationship among audience, content and revenue. And my rethinking is still stewing in the crockpot.

One thing has remained constant, though: Regular hearty meals with the New York Times. (And, I should add, my penchant for overwrought metaphors…)

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the most recent “Talk to the Times feature focused on Denise F. Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer of The New York Times Media Group and general manager of NYTimes.com, answering revenue-related queries.

Blasphemy! The paragon of fine journalism discussing …(gasp)… revenue?!

Unfortunately, journalists can no longer afford to be so high-minded. The reality is that the days of easy profit margins in the media business are gone. And without profits, it is difficult to sustain large investigative journalistic enterprises.

Warren offers some interesting admissions in this realm, once you get past the corporatespeak.

In answer to a question about intrusive ads covering content:

We take great care to ensure that we balance the user experience against the need to produce advertising revenue to support our journalistic mission. The large-format advertisements you refer to command a significant premium, and drive a very sizable amount of revenue. This revenue allows us to invest in the types of journalism, multimedia experiences, and technological innovation that our readers have come to expect from NYTimes.com. We think that this results in a fair balance for the reader, and is one that we carefully monitor every day.

  • Translation: We are willing to inconvenience readers to make money to support high-quality journalism. So, Dear Reader, suck it up.

(She did add, however, that the number of such ad intrusions per user are limited. And there’s always the vaunted “Skip This Ad” button.)

She also tackled the accusation of spreading stories across several pages to increase page views and ad slots:

In the early days of the Web site, we paginated — as you rightly point out — to increase the inventory of advertising opportunities we could sell to advertisers. Now, our audience has grown dramatically since those early days, and we are no longer in that position. The question really has more to do now with cracking the code on the best way to present long-form journalism, and with the difficulty of changing our page templates. We will consider improving this experience, as we seek to improve the way we present our high-quality news and information more generally.

  • Translation: Yep. We went after the bucks. And we got them.

It’s nice to see such transparency and candor regarding revenue from the Gray Lady. As long as she keeps putting out innovative journalism in print and on the Web, I don’t mind.