Stat check: How is ‘tweets per minute’ a useful metric?

The Colbert Report
Stephen Colbert has some fun with Twitter’s announcement Tuesday that “First Lady Michelle Obama’s (@MichelleObama) primetime speech peaked at 28,003 Tweets per minute (TPM) at its conclusion — nearly double Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s (@MittRomney) 14,289 peak.”

“Fortunately, when it comes to social media, the news media have their cyberfingers on the infonet youth pulse,” Colbert says. “This is the greatest numbers-related reporting since Cronkite broke the horrific cannibal story that 7 8 9.”

“Given these unprecedented tweet numbers, what do they mean? Are they good or bad? … Who knows? Who cares? Point is, these numbers are out there, and it’s the media’s duty to report them without the liberal filter of meaning something.”

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So what good are measurements like tweets per minute? In March, TPM’s Kyle Leighton and David Taintor compared measuring hashtags, not favorably, to campaign lawn signs.

Claims that legitimate followers and retweets are “indicative of growing grass-roots support,” are likely too close for comfort, in the same way that lawn signs are no indicator of a winner. After all, rating the intensity of one candidate’s supporters means nothing if a rival’s supporters cast more votes.

And yet still it’s hard to look away from graphs that look like they’re conveying information, even if that information is without any application I can imagine.

It’s not like context helps here; you’d get as much predictive information about November’s election by counting silver cars driving by your house when President Obama speaks Thursday night.

In January, The Washington Post said, “Twitter was the real-time warning system.” But as Leighton and Taintor pointed out in March, Ron Paul was a perennial chart-topper for the Post’s “Mention Machine” app — which pulls data from Twitter as well as the Post’s Trove platform. He finished the primaries with fewer than 200 delegates.

Related: As news sites mine social media for data, intriguing challenges lie ahead

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