Early this morning I came across a tweet which announced:

Academic study – Most tweets are useless http://j.mp/xf85VN

The tweet provided a link to an article published in MacWorld which described how:

Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have found that even though Twitter users follow who they want to follow on the microblogging service, they say only about a third of tweets are worth reading and that a quarter of them are completely worthless.

My initial reaction was “Wow – a third of tweets are worth reading. What a high percentage!” I was then puzzled by the headline for the article which read “Twitter users: Most tweets are garbage“.

This headline reminded me of the comment made in July 2003 by Sebastian Rahtz, at the time manager of the JISC OSS Watch service, that “Of course 99% of open source software is a pile of donkey cr@p” (and subsequently making the point that “if it was not clear from my post earlier. 99% of commercial software is poor too. obviously“).

Sebastian was, of course, simply citing Sturgeon’s Law.  As described in WikipediaSturgeon’s observation [is] that while science fiction was often derided for its low quality by critics, it could be noted that the majority of examples of works in other fields could equally be seen to be of low quality and that science fiction was thus no different in that regard to other art”.

We can therefore conclude that Twitter is well above Sturgeon’s average!

More seriously, it does seem that the research was based on a flawed understanding of how experienced Twitter users obtain value from their Twitter stream.  The article describes that the researchers:

gathered their findings by first setting up a website called “Who Gives a Tweet,” where, over 19 days in 2010 and 2011, 1,443 visitors rated about 44,000 tweets from roughly 21,000 Twitter users. (Twitter claims more than 200 million tweets are sent per day.) Visitors were incented to rate tweets in exchange for getting some feedback about their tweets.

This seems to assume that Twitter users simply process the raw set of tweets in their stream.  That’s not how I, nor other experiences Twitter users I follow, use Twitter.

In brief the approach I use to gain value from Twitter is to:

  • Follow a sufficiently large number of Twitter users in order to ensure that there is likely to be value in the content of the tweets and the interactions between the users.
  • Group my Twitter followers (in my case Using columns in TweetDeck) into categories which supports how I use Twitter (for example, I have a column for users based around Bath for whom I might gain value from tweets about local issues).
  • Use Tweetdeck’s search facility to identify tweets of particular relevance. This is often for an event hashtag (whilst the event is running) but can also include general topics of interest (e.g. #openscience).
  • Be ruthless in marking tweets as read.

But in addition to these simple techniques for gaining value from Twitter I also use other tools which can aggregate the content of links posted by the people I follow on Twitter. My current favourite app for this purpose is Smartr (which is illustrated).  This morning, while waiting at the bus stop at 07.11 the most recent links tweeted within my Twitter community informed me of @timbuckteeth’s early morning blog post on “Human 2.0“; @dajbelshaw’s post on “Conferences as Catalysts for Educational Innovation and Change” and @malin’s link to an article on  “It Must Be Measured: #Scio12 #Altmetrics“.  By 07.30, as I got off the bus in the town centre I’d read those three articles – all thanks to this information being shared by three of the people I follow on Twitter and the tools I used to help me find the quality resources.

Only about a third of tweets are worth reading”? yes, I’d agree with that. But the time it takes to discard the rest is small whereas it is much more time-consuming to process my email to find useful information. And of course, finding something decent to watch on the TV – well most of the content there is crap. But at least I have my Twitter community to help identify the quality TV programmes – and I have to admit that I watch Wallander and  The Killing following the rave reviews I read on Twitter.  S0 thanks to @timbuckteeth, @dajbelshaw and @malin and the remainder of the 955 people I follow on Twitter for providing such great content!