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Twitter vs Email, the Noise Coefficient

It was just eight months ago that I was standing a mobile learning conference when a colleague told me that “we were tearing it up on twitter.”  This was my first introduction to the micro-blog service and I’ll be honest, I had no clue what my colleague was talking about.  While I don’t pretend to be a Twitter expert, I do see this medium as an opportunity to gather and share information.  As part of one of the estimated 18 million users that eMarketer predicts will be tweeting by years end, my philosophy is to “bring value to the conversation.”

However, not everyone shares in my optimism that there is value to be derived from twitter.  I recently had a discussion with my staff about utilizing twitter in some fashion as part of the tool sets utilized to support a university network infrastructure.  Questions arose during this conversation whether this would replace something we currently use.   Other comments during our brief discussion centered around concern the amount of noise we would  subject ourselves to.  The “noise” comment struck me as odd and to that end I decided to conduct a non-scientific research project comparing twitter to email.  My assumption was that email is noisier than twitter, simply because we have some control over the amount of tweets we can see.

During the week of September 27, 2009, I polled the number of email messages I received versus the number of tweets from folks I’m following.  Obviously the experiment was non-scientific as I only surveyed my own activity, and I have not reference point to determine if I’m a “normal” email or twitter user.  At the end of the week, I had received 464 emails and only 106 tweets by folks I was following, referenced me, or sent directly to me.  What I found as significant was that of the 464 emails I’d received during the week, 80.8% of these were either marked as spam or I deleted.  I should note that if I receive a message that I want to keep I tag it and then file it away.  So over 80% of the email messages I receive in a given week are what I would consider as “noise”.

The point of this excercise was to demonstrate that as Internet users, we are already equipped to manage “noise”.  To quible about the amount of “noise” that twitter might offer seems a mute point when we recognize the amount of “noise” we are already accustom to via email.  Couple this with the recognition that as twitter users, we can determine whom to follow, which gives us control over the amount of “noise” we are exposed to.

I will concede the point that twitter and the practice of “real-time status updates” can be daunting.  Two professors at Rutgers University recently identified in a research project that 80% of twitter users were “meformers” or individuals who “use the platform to post updates on their everyday activities”.  The research also indicated that “meformers” had significantly fewer followers than their counterparts who use the platform to share informational updates like links to news articles.  Another study from research firm MarketingProfs, suggests that the motivation from many twitter users is learning new things and getting information in a timely manner.

To conclude, I don’t necessarily believe “noise” is an actual deterant from utilizing twitter.  While there is a potential for information overload, I believe there is an opportunity to find valuable nuggets in the midst of these tweets.  It may be like looking for a needle in a haystack, so the question is whether the value of the found needle outwieghs the labor to find the needle.  My experience is that yes, the value justifies the labor.

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