Pointless babble

A study (warning, PDF) was published recently by Pear Analytics looking at Twitter usage, which found that more than 40% of all tweets are “pointless babble”. It’s a startling result – I for one was expecting a much higher percentage of spam and links posts – but I’m fascinated by the idea that a type of communication making up such a large proportion of a medium is defined as “pointless”.

The study authors defined six groups – news, spam, self-promotion, conversational, pass-along value and pointless babble – and babble is the only one that carries a value judgement. “Pointless babble” is a biased description, and I’m not sure why the authors of a statistical study decided to pass judgement on their data – or whether they even realised that’s what they were doing.

The implication is that we shouldn’t be babbling, we should be doing something else instead. No one wants to know whether you’re eating a sandwich or on a train – this is babbling, minutiae, and therefore without purpose – pointless.

For many Twitter users, someone else’s conversational tweets are often uninteresting unless they are directed at you, whereas your friend tweeting that their bus is stuck in traffic might be very relevant if they’ve arranged to meet you in half an hour. Sometimes status updates are far from pointless – “out of hospital, all’s well” is a long way from a pointless post even if it’s not directed at anyone in particular.

And I suspect, but can’t prove except with this very study, a lot of people use Twitter like Facebook status updates, following people rather than friending them and using the site as an easily-accessible Facebook lite. The description of that usage as “pointless” seems more than a little harsh – particularly when you’ve just found that 40.55% of the site is examples of that type of usage.

Many of these utterances are the sort of speech that human beings use to remind each other, and themselves, that they are still alive. It’s a way of keeping in touch without saying anything, akin to talking about the weather (if you’re English, of course). Rather than calling it pointless, wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask why this use is so common, and whether it’s a feature of Twitter rather than a bug?

There are a couple of other question marks for me about this study – why did the authors chose not to sample tweets on Saturday or Sunday? Why didn’t they sample between 5pm and 11am CST – that’s 11pm-5pm GMT, neatly missing the daytime usage of a lot of non-American folks? Did they include non-English language tweets?

But those are methodology quibbles, when my main problem with the study is the way it demeans a form of communication as “pointless” without asking whether or not it has a point. I don’t know if it does, but I’d retweet any study that had a go at finding out.

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Mary Hamilton

I’m a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

What do you think?