More Trouble in the Twittersphere

With each passing day, we see more evidence that Twitter has become the social media platform that’s in the biggest trouble today.

The news is replete with articles about how some people are signing off from Twitter, having “had it” with the politicization of the platform. (To be fair, that’s a knock on Facebook as well these days.)

Then there are reports of how Twitter has stumbled in its efforts to monetize the platform, with advertising strategies that have failed to generate the kind of growth to match the company’s optimistic forecasts. That bit of bad news has hurt Twitter’s share price pretty significantly.

And now, courtesy of a new analysis published by researchers at Indiana University and the University of Southern California, comes word that Twitter is delivering misleading analytics on audience “true engagement” with tweets.  The information is contained in a peer-reviewed article titled Online Human-Bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation and Characterization.

According to findings as determined by Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks & Systems Research (CNetS) and the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, approximately 15% of Twitter accounts are “bots” rather than people.

That sort of news can’t be good for a platform that is struggling to elevate its user base in the face of growing competition.

But it’s even more troubling for marketers who rely on Twitter’s engagement data to determine the effectiveness of their campaigns. How can they evaluate social media marketing performance if the engagement data is artificially inflated?

Fifteen percent of all accounts may seem like a rather small proportion, but in the case of Twitter that represents nearly 50 million accounts.

To add insult to injury, the report notes that even the 15% figure is likely too low, because more sophisticated and complex bots could have appeared as a “humans” in the researchers’ analytical model, even if they aren’t.

There’s actually an upside to social media bots – examples being automatic alerts of natural disasters or customer service responses. But there’s also growing evidence of nefarious applications abounding.

Here’s one that’s unsurprising even if irritating: bots that emulate human behavior to manufacture “faux” grassroots political support.  But what about the delivery of dangerous or inciting propaganda thanks to bot “armies”?  That’s more alarming.

The latest Twitter-bot news is more confirmation of the deep challenges faced by this particular social media platform.  What’s next, I wonder?

Klout and Klouchebag: Action and Reaction.

Klout scoreIt had to happen: The combination of social media measurement capabilities and ego gratification has brought forth attempts to “quantify” a person’s influence level in social media.

One of the better-known of these endeavors is run by Klout, a San Francisco-based entity launched in September 2009 that applies social media analytics to measure people’s influence across their social network.

Underscoring the company’s sense of self-importance is its proclaimed tagline/slogan:  “The Standard for Influence.”

Klout purportedly accomplishes this by analyzing data mined from Twitter, Facebook and other social sites – information such as the size of a person’s network, the content created, and how others interact with that content.

Klout profiles built from these bits of information include a “score” ranging from 1 to 100 – the higher a score representing a higher assessment of the breadth and depth of a person’s online influence.

Reportedly, more than 100 million of such profiles have been built by Klout over the past two years. And how is Klout building these scores? It’s using Twitter data points such as:

  • “Follower” and “following” volumes
  • The incidence of “spam” or “dead” following accounts
  • List memberships
  • Retweet activity
  • Unique mentions

Somehow, it doesn’t seem surprising at all that Klout’s rating and ranking activities have come under attack. And the criticism is not just coming from people who are questioning the methodology behind the analysis and rating. Some social critics contend that scoring devalues authentic online communication.

Movie critic, writer and novelist John Scalzi has written that Klout’s very premise is “socially evil” in that it exploits the “status anxiety” of social media participants. Charles Stross, a tech writer and sci-fi author, goes even further: He labels Klout “the Internet equivalent of herpes.”

But perhaps the most biting criticism comes in the form of satire, courtesy of Tom Scott, a freelamce web developer and humorist who has launched “Klouchebag.”

What’s Klouchebag? According to Scott, it measures “how much of an asshat you are on Twitter.”

In the same fashion as Klout, Klouchebag establishes a rating score. But this one is based on the ARSE rating system, an eyebrow-raising acronym that stands for:

  • Anger (“profanity and rage”)
  • Retweets
  • Social Apps (“every useless check-in on Foursquare or similar location-based social platform”)
  • English Usage (“exclamation marks!!! … ALL CAPS … or no capitalization at all … will definitely raise this score”)

For Tom Scott, Klouchebag satirizes what he considers to be a “pseudo-scientific” effort to create a social media hierarchy. He hopes its emergence will contribute to a backlash against Klout and other similar ventures.

When it comes to Klout, Scott is merciless: “I’d been annoyed with the idea of Klout for a while … [which] is one of the worst ideas ever put online. Klout annoys me for the same reason that search engine optimization annoys me: It’s an enormous amount of effort designed to game an arbitrary and often-changing system. Imagine if all that time went into actually making interesting things, or caring about the people around you.”

Maybe Tom Scott has forgotten a thing or two about human nature: People are often smitten by vanity and pride – and the desire for fame. It’s been that way ever since the dawn of time. Why should we expect anything different from people today?

[One can only imagine what Andy Warhol would have said about people and their “15 minutes of fame” had he lived in our era of social media!]