Thursday, April 28, 2011

Twitter is a massive musical echo chamber


The realisation that Twitter acts as a massive echo chamber is widespread in the technology sector but has, as yet, gained little traction among the classical music community. To understand the echo chamber effect try this simple test. Go to the Twitter home pages of a classical music tweater. Divide their tweats into two categories: Category A messages repeat someone else's tweet, this is easily identified by @XYZ appearing in the message; Category B messages point the reader to an idea or event outside the Twitter universe, which means no @XYZ is present in the tweet. The echo index is given by the simple formula [A divided by A + B] x 100.

In some cases the echo index among classical music tweeters is as high as 90%. Which shows how Twitter is a massive echo chamber with a limited number of messages being repeated by retweeting. And in many cases this retweeting does not reflect the merit of the original message, but rather is simply a function of the ease of retweeting coupled with the kudos of being an active tweeter.

This echo chamber effect has a number of implications for classical music. Because a relatively small number of tweets are being repeated, attention is artificially focussed on a narrow range of music in a way normally associated with a mass market. Yet there is very little evidence that classical music, which is a diverse agglomeration of niche sectors, has any of the characteristics of a mass market. In fact focussing attention on a restricted range of music runs counter to the 'long tail' potential of digital technology.

There is also the problem that the profile of a topic can be influenced by clever formulation of the tweet. Yesterday's Overgrown Path tweet, which read 'Why Twitter is making a hash of classical music' reached a very wide audience. Would the same number of people have read it if the equally valid wording 'The threat that faux-analytical thinking poses to Western art music' had been used instead? Because social media favours the shallow over the deep marketeers, whose stock in trade is the attention-getting headline, have not been slow to grasp the commercial potential of the Twitter echo chamber. Which is another good reason why social media should be treated with caution.

All of this does not mean that Twitter is evil. But it does help us take a more objective view of its use as a communications tool, particularly when read in conjunction with the narrow demographics of social media users. In some ways it is unfair to single out Twitter for criticism. It, together with other forms of social media, exhibits many of negative characteristics associated with today's digital and cut and paste culture, while the echo chamber effect itself is not a new problem in classical music.

* Header photo, which shows the acoustic reflectors used in many concert halls to control the echo chamber effect, is of the Kyoto Civic Symphony with the late Akeo Watanabe conducting. Watanabe made the first complete set of stereo recordings of the Sibelius Symphonies for the Nippon Columbia Company between 1960 and 1962 and went on to record a digital cycle for Denon.

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5 comments:

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for the echo chamber analogy. I can't stand the idea of restricting thoughts about music to under 140 characters and sending them to bounce, unread and unconsidered, from smart phone to smart phone, or from ipad to ipad. I hate the idea of amassing "followers" who are probably not concerned in having a serious conversation about music. I avoid the whole thing. I prefer to keep my twittering experience to enjoying the mating calls of the dozens of different varieties of birds that sing in the trees outside my window.

Fred-Olav said...

This is an interesting article, and it wasn't made less good by the catchy title. In fact, the title, found through Google Reader, made me read the whole post. Not being a native speaker of English, I would maybe not go for a complex title I couldn't understand. So thank you for choosing this one!

Twitter isn't necessarily a shallow place, but it is definitely a crowded place, and creating a good headline is a needed skill for those who want to reach people, in any field. In my opinion, we should accept it and get better at it, instead of mourning it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That's an interesting experiment that I haven't performed, but I was surprised at how useful I have found Twitter, for the following functions:

- Getting an answer from a performing arts organization much faster than I would have if I'd used email. ("When is your season announcement?", for example).

- Links to blog postings and article I haven't seen in my RSS reader and might not have found.

- Breaking news reports

- Spreading the word about a new blog posting

- Public instant messaging

The BSO tweeted my review of Stephane Deneve's SFS program the other day. Certainly they have their own interest; I floated his name as a candidate for their next music director. But it probably got my blog read by a few new people. (How did they find the posting? Well, good question: either they already read me, which is possible because they put me on their press release mailing list without my asking. Or they might have a Google alert on the organization name or on Deneve, who guest conducts at the BSO.)

Elaine, I'm not sure I see your problem with having "followers." Is it the terminology? Because functionally, they're just people who read one's tweets. It seems no different to me from people who read my blog.

Does it bother you that I often read your blog postings in Google Reader....on my smartphone? Does the tool matter more than the base fact that I read you?

Yvonne said...

This means of calculating an echo chamber index is fundamentally flawed:
"Category A messages repeat someone else's tweet, this is easily identified by @XYZ appearing in the message; Category B messages point the reader to an idea or event outside the Twitter universe, which means no @XYZ is present in the tweet."

There is a further category of tweet, which also includes @XYZ in the message but which is not repeating someone else's tweet. Let's call these Conversational Tweets. (Twitter would call them "mentions" but conversational better captures what's going on much of the time.)

If you really want to filter for repetitions of others' tweets then you're looking for retweets, which are marked by "RT" (or Twitter's retweet marker) in addition to the author handle of the original tweet. The number of retweets would then need to be set against the combined total of conversational and direct tweets. I suspect the echo index may look a little different then.

Late to the party, Elaine, but I have to agree with Lisa on this. There's no difference between someone following your twitter account or following your blog, with the possible exception that you're more likely to end up having a serious exchange about music with a twitter follower, simply because it's a more conversational medium.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Yvonne! This reminds me that I have a few blog postings to tweet...