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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