Gannett Newspapers Demonstrate Complete Ignorance of Twitter

Written By: Robert Cox

AB419DCE-E6A2-44B4-B069-D54B9BB46E25.jpgWhile traditional media outlets around the country continue to put energy into paying lip service to embracing social media services they appear determined to put even more energy into demonstrating their profound ignorance of even its most basic elements.

As a frequent critic of the consistently lousy “reporting” at Gannett’s Journal News (Westchester/Rockland County, NY), I have to admit that even I was surprised to see an inane article purporting to list the “top Twitters” in communities across the two countries served by the paper. The list of “top Twitterers is based on nothing more than cobbling together misleading, incomplete data gleaned from meaningless searches of a “directory” of Twitter users called Twellow. I have nothing against Twellow. I have been interviewed many times by WebProNews which created Twellow. But if you think that their directory can used to provide meaningful location analysis you either do not understand how to use a database, do not understand how Twitter works or both.

As someone who is occasionally regarded as somewhat knowledgeable about social media it was immediately apparent that neither the reporter who wrote the article nor the editors at Gannet who assigned the piece to her have the faintest clue about what is going in the world of social media, how Twitter works or what constitutes a “top Twitter”. This failure, in turn, might explain why efforts by Gannett to embrace social media have largely fallen flat (full disclosure, I have consulted to Gannett papers on social media in the past)

In her article Welcome to the Twitterhood, Julie Moran Alterio gets off to a bad start:

There are more than 47,000 Twitterers in New York state, according to Twellow, a directory of Twitter users. Local hot spots include Yonkers (with 433 Twitterers listed on Twellow), White Plains (186) and New Rochelle (95). The numbers rise by the day.

Wrong. That’s not what Twello says. What it does say is that if you search the Twellohood section of their site you will get 47,000 results (now over 50,000) based clicking down on their interactive maps. And that’s about all it says yet from this Ms. Alterio begins to draw all sorts of unsupported conclusions.

She then goes on to describe various people as the “most popular Twitterer or “top Twitterer” in various towns and cities in countries within the Journal News coverage area. Anyone who has even a basic understanding of Twitter would understand why this analysis is entirely nonsensical because all of the location information contained in the Twello database comes from Twitter settings.

Alterio seems to acknowledge this in her own Twitter account:

If your profile just lists “Westchester” instead of a town, you probably didn’t make tops in your town.

In fact, if you listed anything other than your town you would not show up in the Twello database by that town.

It is actually worse than that. Location is not a required field in Twitter settings and many users leave that field blank. Even if they do fill in that field they may not list the town or city where they live — some might put in a general area or their state or even country or some tounge-in-cheek location like “outer space” or “the bottom of the ocean”, some might put in their work location or some other location. Any users who tweet using a “location aware” mobile device like an iPhone can update their location settings automatically from wherever they happen to be at a given moment. Even if they are blogging from their home town, the location data for such users will be GPS coordinates not a specific town or city and so will not be captured by Twello in a format that Ms. Alterio can effectively search.

The entire premise — that people who publish via a Twitter account can be tracked based on a fixed location like a newspaper — is flat out wrong. Twitter is modeled on SMS text messaging — a mobile messaging platform. In an article on a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Ars Technica, a leading technology news out, noted:

Since Twitter is pushed as a service that can (and should) be used from mobile phones, it also comes as no surprise that Twitter users are more likely (by fairly significant margins) to use their cell phones to go online and send text messages than the overall online population.

Wireless Week sounded a similar note:

Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, says using SMS (text-messaging) to access Twitter makes sense. “Twitter was designed to work well with what we consider to be the lowest common denominator for our real-time messaging system – SMS. We were inspired by the brevity and the creativity that seems to emerge from the constraint. That, together with our popular APIs, may help explain our popularity among mobile device users.”

Studies over the past year have shown that somewhere between 50% and 65%of Tweets originate from (i.e. via a web browser) but even these figures are misleading because 24% are auto-generated by “bots”. This is even more misleading due to the “long-tail” of Twitter users (95% of Twitter users have less than 100 followers) and that upper-tier are far more likely to tweet wirelessly with studies showing that the iPhone is light years ahead of other devices in connecting via WiFi to the Internet. An Ad Mob study finds that iPhones account for 50 percent of smartphone web traffic in the U.S.

The iPhone and an increasing number of devices associate GPS data with internet queries and content generated on the device. These “location aware” devices will tell you where to find the nearest Starbucks or “geo-tag” photos taken using the phone. Twitter apps on location aware phones can update the location settings for the Twitter account each time the user moves to a new location. The same is true for other social media services like Facebook and Flickr.

Herein lies the most fundamental error in an article festooned with errors. Elite Twitter users, the “Twitterati”, are updating constantly throughout the day and thus are far more likely to be updating their status via a mobile device and thus constantly updating their location settings as well. By definition, the Journal News article eliminates from consideration any user that uses a location aware device to update their status. In other words, they have created a list of “most followed” twitters after first eliminating almost all of the “elite” twitters. This would be like writing an article about the best baseball players in the United States and then leaving out all of those players who have signed professional baseball contracts. To be politically incorrect, it is like writing an article about the tallest midgets (sorry, “little people”).

The guy featured in the article is someone named Keith Driscoll who has over 17,000 follows on Twitter. Quite an achievement until you notice that Driscoll also follows over 15,000 twitter accounts. If you drill down a little further you will find that Driscoll is following all sorts of spambot accounts and is, in turn, being followed by all sorts of spambots (unless you believe Mr. Driscoll is fluent in Italian, Portuguese, Korean and Mandarin and has a deep-seated need to create home-based businesses and learn how strangers made their fortunes on the Internet). Anyone who knows even a little about Twitter would recognize fluffed up Twitter data when they see it. And who is Keith Driscoll? His claim to fame seems to be writing a blog humbly named SmartestGeek which launched a month ago and has a grand total of 10 posts but somehow has over 1,100 feddburner subscribers. Another impressive “achievement”.

Ms. Alterio not only fails to differentiate between genuine popularity and artificially created “followership” but actually rewards Driscoll with a prominent mention in her article including a photo.

Looking through their list there are only two (to me) recognizable names — Martha Stewart and C.K. Sample. C.K. is actually a real blogger/twitter but anyone who thinks that Martha Stewart is sitting in her Katonah living room updating Twitter all day probably also believes they have a personal relationship with Britney Spears or Asthon Kutcher via Twitter.

I do not intend to disclose them here because I do not know why they do not list their home location in their Twitter settings but I can assure that the biggest names in Twitter who live in Westchester are not even in the Twellow directory let along on the Journal News list.

OK. Enough. My work here is done.