Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Twitter is making a hash of classical music


The myth that the views expressed on Twitter and other social media are representative of the whole market for classical music is spreading. There are two reasons why this myth is both wrong and dangerous: first because of the profile of the sample represented by social media users, and secondly because of the compressed nature of the content.

Social media users are a self-selecting sample. This means they are not part a group selected for research purposes as being statistically representative. Instead they are people who themselves choose to express their views - usually because they have some kind of agenda to pursue. It is well proven that self-selecting samples are highly unrepresentative. If you put a card in the box with a product and ask customers to give their views voluntarily, two small groups respond; those that are very satisfied and those that are very dissatisfied. The silent majority, who are the all important 'floating' customers, do not respond; hence the sample is unrepresentative. Which is why those infuriating market researchers phone you at home or stop you in the street instead of putting questionnaires in packaging. In fact the views of self-selected samples are not only invariably wrong, they also often dangerously wrong. This is because they comprise the vocal minority at either end of the opinion spectrum: which means their opinions are 180 degrees at variance with those of the silent majority who typically represent the bulk of the market.

Social media requires some form of content compression. The number of characters including spaces is capped in Twitter at 140 and in Facebook at 420. The dangers associated with capping communication content are well documented. PowerPoint is another communications tool that depends on content compression and there are clear parallels between the bullet points used in PowerPoint and Twitter messages.
Presidential advisor, Yale statistician and computer scientist Edward Tufte, a specialist in the visual display of information, investigated the role that PowerPoint played in the Columbia space shuttle tragedy in 2003. In his analysis Tufte concluded that PowerPoint encourages "faux-analytical" thinking over the sober exchange of information. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board cited Tufte's conclusions and criticised a space agency culture in which, it said, "the endemic use of PowerPoint" replaced rigorous technical analysis. A 2003 Washington Post article concluded "The seductive availability of PowerPoint and the built-in drive to reduce all subjects to a series of short-handed bullet points eliminates nuances and enables, even encourages, the absence of serious thinking". Doesn't that sound depressingly familiar?

Classical music is obsessed with reaching new audiences, yet there is still a dearth of quantitative research data on what actually needs to be done to bring that new audience into the concert hall. This means the seductive availability of views expressed on Twitter, Facebook, and yes, blogs, is encouraging faux-analytical thinking which at the best is wrong, and at the worst may point audience development initiatives in totally the wrong direction. Social media certainly has its uses as a messaging and networking platform. But classical music must beware of the new commercial shamanism that is blurring the boundaries between communications and research to suit its own ends. It is time to realise that the only Twitter capable of making a lasting contribution to the future of classical music is the one seen seen in my header image. Now back to the music, and let's go in search of the composer.

Funnily enough, also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

11 comments:

Pliable said...

Predictably one of the twitterati has posed the question why did I tweat this post?

http://twitter.com/#!/jessicaduchen/statuses/63158362946273280

Well, there is the obvious point that, as explained in my post "Social media certainly has its uses as a messaging and networking platform".

And there is also the point that to ride on the omnibus you do not need to buy the omnibus company.

My old brain has forgotten who that quote comes from. Can anyone help?

Brian R. said...

This is either a keen rebuttal of my own, much more positive article on classical music and Twitter, or the prologue to such. As you can see, though, I've got a different opinion (and when it's time to update the directory after the essay, Overgrownpath will no longer be oversighted out - sorry about that!). http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2011/Feb11/Music_and_Twitter.htm

Pliable said...

Brian, thanks for that. I must confess I had not seen your article, but now that I have read it I commend it to others.

In fact I do not think we have very different opinions. The thrust of your piece is to highlight the communication potential of Twitter. I do not disagree with that, and I use social media for that very purpose.

The thrust of my piece is in a different direction - that "classical music needs to beware of the new commercial shamanism that is blurring the boundaries between communications and research to suit its own ends".

Thanks for the contribution and thanks helping build the knowledge network.

Halldor said...

"The myth that the views expressed on Twitter and other social media are representative of the whole market for classical music is spreading."

I'm confused by why you've linked back to the Holst post - because the only reference on it to Twitter is in a comment by me in which I say no such thing.

I merely quoted a couple of bits of personal anecdotal evidence (gleaned off Twitter, but they might as readily have been heard down the pub or in the foyer of a concert hall) which tended (gently) to offer an alternative to the views you'd expressed in your article.

I enjoy using online social media while being intensely aware of their limitations. Most regular users I know are just as sceptical. Twitter is indeed very limited (much like the 7 inch single...).

I'm not aware of anyone working in the classical music sector in the UK who's building any kind of serious programming strategy based on what's currently trending on Twitter - with 18-month planning cycles for most major orchestras, it'a hard to imagine how they'd do that, even if there was anything useful to be gained by doing so!

It's always good to challenge conventional wisdom, and interesting things come of it. My guess is that Twitter will have run its course in a couple of years; meanwhile, as you rightly say, you can ride the omnibus without buying the company (though the journey is more rewarding if you take time to talk to your fellow-passengers).

And if your mission is to help people find their way to great music, you'd be mad not to use a currently-fashionable medium that's quick and free-of-charge. Don't you feel that there are bigger, badder windmills that you might be tilting at?

Reinhold Behringer said...

True, the briefness of social media like Twitter, Facebook and others is problematic. However, it often is currently used as a kind of headline, with a link to the longer post - and this is quite satisfying, because it allows to capture attention and divert it to the actual discussion with deeper argumentation.

One problem still remains: the "self-selecting sample". Which means that only people who (think that they) have to say something, do so. And the silent majority is, well, silent. But maybe this is not really a problem: in the "real" traditional media, there is also a self-selecting sample which writes: journalists. And "the rest of us" has only the choice to read - or, becoming part of another self-selecting sample and send a reader's letter. The only difference between this traditional publishing by self-selected journalists and self-selected twitterers is the required qualification: none (everybody can tweet). And that is also the great benefit of these new media. And if you do not agree with what the majority tweets, there is a solution: join the self-selected sample and tweet your opinion too!

(I also learned from this blog post that the Challenger catastrophe was caused by Powerpoint. So from now on I will only use Precis! :))

Pliable said...

Halldor, this thread confirms my point. Let us revisit the comment you posted on the Holst article -

'...and yet Twitter last night was alive with classical music aficionados commenting that they'd never realised Holst was such an interesting character - and non-classical listeners trying the music for the first time. Someone I follow listened to "The Planets" for the very first time last night, and described his amazed response online. Entirely down to the Palmer documentary'.

In that comment you clearly used without qualification views expressed on Twitter as somehow representative of the general reaction to the Palmer film. Now, when challenged, you backpedal to -

'I merely quoted a couple of bits of personal anecdotal evidence (gleaned off Twitter, but they might as readily have been heard down the pub or in the foyer of a concert hall) which tended (gently) to offer an alternative to the views you'd expressed in your article'.

This is just one example of how anecdotal views gleaned from an unrepresentative sample on Twitter are misrepresented as having statistical validity.

My concerns are not about the impact that this has on programme planning. It is more about the way social media has been turned into a pseudo-science by marketing and PR consultancies who are then in turn taking substantial fees from performing organisations for its use - see the link embedded in my article.

With regard to your question -

Don't you feel that there are bigger, badder windmills that you might be tilting at?

The problem is that for every windmill I tilt at - BBC Radio 3, the Proms, artists agents, errors in the paid for press etc - there is always someone who decides there are other targets I should be aiming for. Which is why I prefer to choose my own windmills.

Both of us have now had a tilt at this particular target, so let's now leave the floor clear for other Don Quixotes.

Reinhold Behringer said...

(sorry, I meant PREZIs http://prezi.com/ as a powerpoint replacement)

Pliable said...

Thanks Reinhold. It is nice that a number of people have commented on how interesting they found the Columbia thread. In fact I noticed a reader has tweeted a link in Spanish with the Columbia story highlighted.

I have long been fascinated by that particular piece of research and am glad that others have found useful. It is amazing what comes out of tilting at unlikely windmills.

Reinhold Behringer said...

ahem... yes, I meant of course Columbia.
I should never type without having the site or post directly in front of me which I am writing about...

Pliable said...

Another tweat leads me to an article on the 'Twitter echo chamber' -

http://www.cjr.org/the_news_frontier/beware_the_twitter_echo_chambe.php

Among interesting things this tells us that only 74 percent of American adults use the Internet, which means that Twitter users make up about 6 percent of the adult population of the country.

Which underlines my point about unrepresentative samples.

But even more interesting is this point -

Frequent Twitter users can lull themselves into believing that the Twitter-verse is representative of society at large; likewise, journalists and editors can mistakenly trust that their Twitter followers are representative of their organization’s audience.

So maybe it isn't such a little windmill after all...

Pliable said...

I have kept this windmill turning in a new post titled Twitter is a massive musical echo chamber -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2011/04/twitter-is-massive-musical-echo-chamber.html