Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cracking the Twitter Code

The other day I was trying to figure out which of the appalling things that happened over the last few weeks I had anything to say about.  Candidates included the massacre in Afghanistan, of course, and the U.S. cutting off money to UNESCO because they had the nerve to recognize Palestine.  Then there are the hunger strikers, Hana Shalabi in Palestine and Abdulhadi al Khawaja in Bahrain both about to hit the one-month mark, and definitely getting close to the danger point, and Christian Gomez, who died in Corcoran prison here in California just a few days after renewing a hunger strike over prison conditions.

Also-rans are Rush Limbaugh and the Slut Wars, state-legislated transvaginal ultrasound, and the fact that the Nazis began their ascent to power by targeting women’s liberation (in 1930, Hitler campaigned on a promise to remove 800,000 women from the depressed workforce, so that men could have their jobs).

A part of me wanted to skip all that depressing stuff and write about the highly amusing “Game Change,” the HBO movie starring an eerily great Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin.

Since nothing was singing my song, I decided to look at Twittter to see what other people were talking about that I could riff off of.  My twitter feed was unusually quiet.  At least three quarters of the tweets were from Serena Williams, because as it turns out it was a #SerenaFriday, where people can tweet questions and she answers them.  No one had tweeted, “What social issues are most important to you?” so the most interesting revelation about my favorite athlete is that she hates breakfast.  In between the SerenaFriday minutiae, Billie Jean King congratulated Michelle Kwan on being inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame.  Democracy Now! thanked me for listening.  Apparently my usually enlightening and prolix friends were as stymied by the state of the world as I.

So I thought I would see what other people, that I don’t follow, were talking about.  Here’s what was trending in the U.S.:
Other than Victoria Azarenka (the new tennis #1) and Saint Louis, I don’t know what any of the other topics mean.  Wasn’t “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” like three years ago?  Why is it trending now?

Well, I thought, everyone knows the U.S. public is primarily nabobs.  Let’s see what’s trending somewhere where people care about weighty things.  I looked at the options and chose India, and got a popup asking which city I wanted.  Since my friend Preeti lives in Chennai, when she doesn’t live in Oakland, I chose Chennai.  These were the top trends in Preeti’s enviros:
Obviously, I’m going to have to study up on PenguinCam.

Before I went to Bahrain, I didn’t really get Twitter.  I occasionally ran across a good link that way, but it was probably something I would have found eventually somewhere else.  In Bahrain, where many people have smart phones but not computers, I saw how it could be used for organizing, disseminating information quickly and even getting around the government censors.  Photos and video from demonstrations could go around like lightning, where if they were just posted on a website, that site could easily be blocked.  It’s a way to spread the word rapidly about a change in plans or an arrest – when some Witness Bahrain folks were arrested a few days after I returned home, I heard about it from their lawyer’s tweets.  That’s also how I learned about Whitney Houston’s death, and apparently I’m not the only one.  Willie Brown, who was staying at the same hotel, saw the ambulances but found out what had happened from British tweeps.

But the real power of Twitter is in skillful use of hash tags to create trends.  This is an art that has developed over the last few years.  Apparently the TV show “The Voice” was the first U.S. organization to use it well.  The idea is that tweeps – people who tweet – on a particular subject agree on particular ways of tagging their posts so that they will clump and create a trend.  So the Bahraini protesters agreed to use #Feb14 and #LuluReturn (Lulu is the Arabic name for Pearl Roundabout) as well as #Bahrain.  When we arrived, they added #WitnessBahrain to their tags, which resulted in us getting 2700 followers in a single day.  You have to be careful not to create too many tags, though, because they count toward your 140 characters.  One of the things we learned when tweeting from WitnessBahrain is that tweets marked @WitnessBahrain were easier to find in our feed than #WitnessBahrain.  @ is a direct reference or response to someone, so someone who wants to argue with me can tweet “@katrap40 is an idiot” and that will go to my followers (of which I do not have many) as well as to me.  Within our group we had some discussion about whether responding to the people who attacked us on Twitter was a good idea.  Our instinct is to rise above, and obviously we are not going to change their minds, but Twitter’s all about creating buzz and we all know that controversy helps with that.

The other day I saw posts claiming that the Bahrainis had trended both #FreeAlkhawaja and a hunger striker in Saudi Arabia.  I can’t seem to get to the Bahrain trends from here, but I’ve never seen anything that profound trending here.  In October, there was a big article about the fact that #OWS and #OO had never trended, despite many people tweeting about Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland.  Activists were accusing Twitter of manipulating the algorithms to keep them off the top trends, and Twitter responded that their algorithms are picking up trends in the moment and not over time.

“Twitter Trends are automatically generated by an algorithm that attempts to identify topics that are being talked about more right now than they were previously. The Trends list is designed to help people discover the 'most breaking' breaking news from across the world, in real-time. The Trends list captures the hottest emerging topics, not just what’s most popular. Put another way, Twitter favors novelty over popularity” 

Needless to say, the ability to rapidly disseminate unsubstantiated rumors has resulted in some Twitter-bloopers.  A few false reports spread on Twitter:
Warren Buffett died
Wesley Snipes died
Lauren Spierer (missing child in Bloomington, Indiana) found
Michele Bachman going on Dancing with the Stars
Kim Jong Un assassinated

But as the late unmourned Andrew Breitbart demonstrated more than once, Twitter definitely has no monopoly on sending false information around the world at the speed of light.  Rachel Maddow’s show last night had a montage of Mitt Romney repeating over and over that President Obama has “made the recession worse” and “doubled the deficit,” both claims that are “counter-factual.”

On the other hand, getting anyone to pay attention to your tweets is harder than it sounds.  According to a 2011 blog post, 05% of entire the Twitter population (~20,000 users) attract almost 50% of attention on Twitter; 71% of Twitter tweets receive not reaction whatsoever.”

In general, as someone who finds even the blog format constricting, I’m predisposed against anything that leads to the expectation that you can get information in 140 characters.  I suspect it’s intensified the tendency to try to get the full story from the headline.  But is that the case?

According to a recent study of social media usage, the average Twitter visit lasts 14 minutes.  That would suggest that people are clicking on at least some of the links posted and at least skimming the articles.  It does seem clear that the reliance on electronic media leads to more skimming and less word-for-word reading.  But as for the perception that people are generally reading less, that seems to be debatable.

In November 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report called “To Read or Not to Read,” which contained the alarming news that “Americans are reading a lot less.”  One year later, the same agency released another report called “Reading on the Rise.”  This one found that “the percentage of adult Americans who read literature (defined as fiction, poetry, and plays) grew from 46.7 percent to 50.2 percent” from 2002 to 2008.  The report did not, however, endorse the contention of Carolyn Kellogg of the New York Times blog Jacket Copy that “the next generation of young adults found their way to literature through all the reading they do with new media.”

Just more evidence that Twitter has no monopoly on sketchy and incomplete information.

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