A Twitter Experiment

I’m a long-time Twitter skeptic.  It’s difficult for an economist to see a 140 char lmt as a ftr.  My journalist friends tell me I’m dead wrong.  And a recent long and boozy evening with co-founders Evan Williams and Jason Goldman convinced me to give it a try.  Is Twitter worth the hype?  Let’s find out.

Today I’m beginning my Twitter Experiment. I’m now tweeting @justinwolfers. I’m going to keep this up for a couple of weeks as a “burn in” period—basically so that I can learn the ecosystem before my experiment begins. Then on the morning of August 1, I’m going to wake up, and flip a coin. Heads, I’ll open Twitter; tails I won’t.  And I’ll do the same on August 2, and then every day for three months. If the coin comes up heads, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll tweet, just that it will be a Twitter-aware day; I’ll consume the stream, and tweet away if I feel the need. Tails, and I’ll simply tweet “Tails, goodbye,” close the stream (unless I need it for research) and then resist the urge to tweet for the rest of the day.

So far, designing the experiment is easy. But what are the right outcome variables to track? I can think of three things that Twitter does:
1.      Distracts me, sucking valuable time from serious research.

2.      Broadcasts me, perhaps increasing my influence.

3.      Informs me, which may make me a better economist.

Here’s my question for you: How can I measure the influence of my Twitter Experiment on each of these outcomes? I think measuring distraction is easiest—I’ll just evaluate how productive I was each day, using a subjective 0-10 scale. I have some ideas about measuring influence, but none are particularly compelling. And I’m baffled by how I might measure the extent to which Twitter is informing me, making me a better economist.

Crowdsourcing can surely improve my experiment. Do you have any ideas for how better to measure distraction? Or ideas for useful indicators of influence or impact that I can track?  And how best to measure how informed I am? And does anyone else want to join me in this experiment? More data = more insight.

Please add your ideas in the comments.  Or if your idea is ez 2 expln, just tweet me.  #twitexpt.

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  1. Joshua Northey says:

    What I don’t understand about Twitter is that of the three things you mentioned, I don’t see how it is better at them than its alternatives in any way.

    It is great for journalists, and I can see how that would help it explode in popularity because journalists are influential, but there is no there “there”. It has no value for your average person.

    If you need to find out what is happening RIGHT this instant, and cannot wait 4 hours before it its all the major news sites Twitter is for you. Other then I am at a loss.

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  2. PHB says:

    See the Scott Adams blog entry for today as a start. Measure in someway your creativity on both days. Create a scale of how easy or not ideas flow. All else has too many independent variables.

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  3. Ben says:

    There are a bunch of (imperfect) free tools that will measure your Twitter influence for you – Klout, Peer Index, Retweet Rank, Twitalyzer

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  4. Terry says:

    you need to follow more celebrities. that is where the fun is.

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  5. Shane says:

    I’m still not sure, but I wonder if 140 characters is only enough to confirm someone’s prejudice by parroting a hollow slogan, but not enough to challenge prejudice. I also joined, but use it rarely. I find it a frustrating mode of communication.

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  6. Encelade says:

    When I read something interesting, I, usually, re-write it somewhere, save it, download it, whatever-you-want it. But I make sure the piece of information will be somewhere safe for me to use later.
    I suppose I’m not the only one to do that.
    Just count how many tweets a day were worth saving for later. And compare with the number of bits of information you get on your Tails days.


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    • Anon says:

      I think the outcome of this experiment will depend on who you choose to follow, and why.

      If I wanted to ensure I wasn’t distracted, I’d simply not follow any of those accounts that serve mostly for entertainment purposes (ie. comedians, celebrities, friends and others who tweet for social purposes only, etc). However, if I wanted to focus on a particular subject and chose to only follow accounts that tweet relevant information, then I believe chances of distraction will go down significantly.

      I think for those who perhaps do not have many friends who use Twitter, personal usefulness is minimal. However, for those who have a good chunk of friends and acquaintances who use Twitter regularly, think of it as a huge conversation that you can either read or choose to participate in if you have a view to express.

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  7. Ben says:

    If the 140 character limit bugs you, why not try out Google+?

    I get the feeling that it might someday serve as more of a Twitter substitute than a Facebook substitute.

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  8. Jen says:

    Influence: Retweets and mentions, maybe also @’s.

    Being informed: Number of valuable posts / articles etc. you were directed to via twitter. Naturally, just like the distraction variable via a “productiveness”-scale, this would be subjective, but since it’s meant for a personal assessment, why not?

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