The Tweet of My Death Was an Exaggeration

Beyonce’s pregnancy. The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The arrival of the 7 billionth person on Earth. The passing of Steve Jobs.

What do these events have in common?

They were all considered major news on Twitter, driving exceptionally high traffic and retweet rates, which ultimately became more of a story than the original news.

Is this the Desperate Need to Be There First or the Desire to Try to Quantify Everything about Social Media in Order to Prove its Relevance? I think it’s a little of both, yet I’d argue that neither improves the quality of social media discourse.

I promise this isn’t one of those grumpy posts about social media. I think Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Cowbird, Digg and many, many other platforms are highly relevant, useful and engaging. They’re even great sources of news.

But, I’m suggesting that while there’s relevance to be found in studying social media content and usage, it’s not going to come from stories about who got there first or how much traffic is generated by a celebrity’s pregnancy – or divorce or death or Oscar win.

Here are four essential reasons:

First doesn’t mean best – The received wisdom is that “Twitter broke the news of bin Laden’s death” before traditional news media. If you look at what really happened the night of the bin Laden compound raid, what you get, according to this Fast Company article, is essentially Twitter-user Sohaib Athar’s account of a helicopter making a lot of noise over his neighborhood in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A helicopter circling overhead is not breaking news (especially if you live in L.A.), and it does not reveal what was happening in the compound, why, how, when, and to whom – the basic tenets of genuine news.

As the article continues, it reports Twitter’s attempts to quantify the tweeting as details of the raid spooled out. There’s even an update from Twitter, advising readers that while New Year’s Eve in Japan seemed to be more important than bin Laden’s death – in terms of tweet ratings – the news was more popular than similar news about Michael Jackson.

And, when it came to the 7 billionth inhabitant of planet Earth? We learned that the actual event and person was going to be impossible to identify, rendering social sharing on the subject moot.

Social media platforms are upgraded too frequently – Service improvements increase the speed of traffic, making comparisons of tweet rates (like Michael Jackson’s death vs. bin Laden’s) impossible.

These will always be Apples-to-Oranges comparisons – Since celebrities can’t die twice, or give birth to the same baby more than once, the Twitter counter is left to compare news about one person (who may or may not be popular among social media users) with similar news about another. Popularity contests of this sort will never generate information that allows you to draw meaningful conclusions about the social media platform or the value placed on news or human life.

This is counting not measurement –Counting just adds things up and gets a total. Measurement takes those totals, analyzes what they mean, and uses that meaning to improve business practices,” notes Katie Delahaye Paine in her groundbreaking book on social media analysis, Measure What Matters.

Steve Jobs was considered by many to be a cultural icon and technology hero, and it’s not surprising there were people who wanted to share their sense of loss with others using some of the very technologies that Jobs helped to invent. But, what exactly is the relevance of reporting the rate of tweeting following Steve Jobs’s death? Applying a number to it doesn’t make it meaningful or insightful; it makes it news from nowhere.

Avoiding the Echo Chamber Effect

In Delusions of Grandma, Carrie Fisher comments: “Talk show hosts interviewing other talk show hosts. Many held this to be one of the twelve signs that the world is ending.” What Fisher’s describing is a closed loop, and that’s exactly what’s happening with these so-called Twitter statistics.

So, next time you’re tempted to retweet one of these headlines that don’t add up to anything, take a moment to reflect before clicking: Does the world really need another tweet about Twitter traffic?

Trying to get there first with a tweet or clogging up the social media ‘verse with bogus statistics about social media statistics doesn’t create engagement or enlighten – and that’s really what being out there is all about. When you’re engaging with followers, customers, friends or fans on social media, you’re listening and sharing (not simply pushing) relevant content with the goal of encouraging meaningful dialogue and the exchange of valuable information that people need to know or find useful for managing their daily lives and workload.

Related post: Statistical Significance: Making Sense of Numbers

 

One thought on “The Tweet of My Death Was an Exaggeration

  1. As you know, Vickie, I’m a little bit slow on the uptake of social media. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t find it useful, engaging or educational—sometimes.

    I totally agree with the last sentence of your post and here’s is an example of what I mean: Our newspaper recently started printing “Tweets of the night” on the sports page. These tweets are usually about a Jazz basketball game and they say such things as “That was a good game” and “We showed them, didn’t we”. Now, I don’t know about you but I find such tweets totally irrelevant to anything at all. And if 1000 people re-tweeted those sentiments, what would it mean? What difference would it make to anything at all? Those tweets that the Salt Lake Tribune prints are certainly not news and they’re not even really social sharing—they’re just rather pointless (in my humble opinion).

    Relating the number of tweets or re-tweets to an issue’s social significance also seems meaningless to me. As you (and Mark Twain) point out, so-called measurements and statistics can sometimes be interchangeable with lies and damned lies!

    Rita

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