Whats Does the New 'Tweets per Minute' Metric Really Mean?

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Whats Does the New 'Tweets per Minute' Metric Really Mean?“Tweets per minute,” or TPM, has become the It metric of campaign season. That much became obvious yesterday when headlines like “Michelle Obama’s Speech Brings in 28K Tweets per Minute, Destroys Mitt Romney” dominated coverage of opening night at the Democratic National Convention. By comparison, Romney’s speech from Tampa generated about 14,289 TPM in its most Tweet-heavy moments, more than double the 6,195 TPM rate achieved by his wife, Ann.

And today the Twitter Blog reports:

President Bill Clinton took the stage in Charlotte tonight and fired up Democrats in the arena and on Twitter alike. The 42nd President saw the highest spike in Tweets per minute of the night right at the end of his speech: 22,087. Interestingly, though this peak was higher than @MittRomney’s highest last week in Tampa, Clinton’s was less than @MichelleObama’s peak last night.

When did we start talking about one’s TPM? So far, Twitter has not responded to Minyanville’s request for background on the metric’s origin, but a Web search shows usage of the term stretching all the way back to the 2012 Olympics. Who could forget the heart-stopping moments when Usain Bolt blew past the Tweets-per-minute London Olympics record? Just as he began to overtake his competitors in the 200-meter dash, his TPM was off the hook at a rate of more than 80,000. During the closing ceremonies, however, the Spice Girls soared to a 116,000-TPM high, passing Bolt and other Olympic performers to the top of the podium in social media chatter.

Somewhere there are media consumers and investors still tracking the sinking TV ratings for political   conventions, but most evidence suggests that the online audience is now the only one that's headline-worthy. More specifically, a quick survey of stories on social media and the political conventions of both parties would suggest that Twitter’s audience matters that much more than Google's (GOOG) -- remember when Google Trends drove every conversation? -- or Facebook's (FB). Let’s not mention Google+ or Bing (MSFT), since no one else is.

But what do TPM or Facebook friends have to do with public sentiment?

On his website, Adam Scheweigert, Director of Technology for Investigative News Network, offers four reasons why we should be skeptical of any “story” being fed to us by Twitter or any other social media company.

Twitter followers and Facebook fans can be bought. This is probably the simplest and most common critique of using these metrics for anything really. Since fans and followers can be bought (pretty easily, Google it) these numbers tend to not tell us much at all other than which candidate is best at getting Facebook fans or Twitter followers. (See what I did there?)

“Tweets per minute” or “mentions” are only a measure of activity. They don’t tell us how many of those said positive things or negative. These numbers MIGHT (in some cases) tell us something about enthusiasm, or perhaps which side of the political spectrum is more active on Facebook or Twitter, but they also don’t tell us who is “winning”.

Sentiment is hard to measure. When you see a reported metric that says X% of tweets were positive and Y% were negative, be deeply skeptical. I know I am, and here’s why: Measuring sentiment is still very difficult and the tools we have are not nearly as accurate as we would like. For example: “That speech was sick!” To a computer, that’s negative, but we know better, right? Some tools are getting better at this, but to please the statisticians, you’d have to go through and manually code each and every tweet or status update, by hand, and use your human brain (note: still subjective) to better determine the sentiment of each post before you could tally up the final percentage.

These metrics (often) come from dubious (single) sources. Is Twitter really a disinterested party? Should we trust the numbers they report? Do we know anything about their methodology? Could we verify their numbers independently? Is there another source for this data? I have no doubt that they have sophisticated tools for monitoring and analyzing activity on their network, but I’m equally sure they are selective in what they choose to share with the public. They also have a vested interest in making Twitter seem like it is driving the political conversation (same for Facebook) when this may or may not actually be the case. I would love for someone to do that story.

There’s no doubt that tomorrow we’ll be reading about Obama’s TPM as a reflection of something important about tonight's speech in Charlotte. I’m planning to pay more attention to exactly which phrases get Tweeted most. As the media also pointed out earlier this week, Lilly Ledbetter, whose convention night TPM was "the highest peak of any speaker at either convention NOT in the 10 p.m. hour” (according to Twitter’s @gov account), successfully summoned multiple followers with lines like “Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes” and “Maybe 23 cents doesn’t sound like a lot to someone with a Swiss bank account and a Cayman Island investment.”

Arguably, it’s Tweets like these -- the political sound bites of this century --  that offer a better reading of what’s resonating with Americans, especially when compared to traditional sound bites selected by TV and radio news directors. That’s not to suggest that the Twittering class represents all people, but it gets us closer.

Then again, maybe Obama should polish his version of Wannabe -- if he wants to be our leader.

By Lila MacLellan

[Photo via stevebott]

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