Are You a Trusted Twitterer?

Measuring instrumentThose of you who love new social media and are measurement mavens, this blog’s for you.

Ever wonder how you’re doing on Twitter? Of course, you can’t miss the “followers” count at the top of your and everyone else’s twitter page. But, as you tell your fellow-twitterers, it’s not about the numbers. (Not that you’d turn down a doubling of your followership, of course…)

The urge to emulate former New York Mayor Ed Koch runs deep: “How’m I doin’?”

Well, courtesy of the Edelman PR agency  you can now measure your, well, your Tweetlevel. An interesting choice of words, because, well it’s hard to say just what’s being measured.

Measuring TweetLevel

Mechanically, you get a blended score of four attributes: Influence, Popularity, Engagement, and Trust. You can also get not only your own score, but the score of anyone else as well.

They tell you exactly how they compute each factor, and the total Tweetlevel. They also let you look under the hood, and and invite users to help improve the survey.

So let’s start by giving props. I’m no psychographic or statistics expert, but I’ve seen a few surveys, and this looks good. Note too that Edelman is perhaps the world’s leader in commercial trust measurement, authoring the Edelman Trust Barometer  for a decade now. CEO Richard Edelman builds conferences and speaking engagements around it. There are questions about any measurement of trust, but these guys are pros at doing trust surveys. It is a solid piece of work, and at the very least will raise good discussion questions.

Now for the fun.

Measuring Trust

Somebody hands you a ruler, the first thing you do is measure yourself. I clocked in at a TweetLevel of 43 (on a scale of 100). Higher than some, lower than others.

This blog is about trust, so that’s the one component on which I focused. My trust score was 39.9.

Now, just because I write about trust doesn’t mean I’m trusted. Oprah beats me. Her trust score is 64.5. OK, I can get with that.

Yet Oprah is surpassed by–Britney Spears! Spears sports a trust score of 68.7 Riddle me that one!

Now hold on to your hats; clocking in at third place, with a trust score of 95.7 is—Perez Hilton!  Of course. I should’ve seen it coming.

And hold on, in second place is—wait for it—John Mayer!  (In fairness, the NYTimes is number 5).

Why Measurement Mania is Death on Trust

It’s easy to lampoon surveys like this, but that’s only partly fair. The metrics for trust rely heavily on retweets, and on “via’s” (think of them as retweet derivatives, if you’re financially inclined). That’s not so crazy: number of citations is a decent metric for being ‘trusted’ in academia, for example.

I’ve written before  about measurement mania, the tendency in business these days to literally define management in terms of measurement (e.g. the silly phrase “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”). And I’ve written about the hazards of measuring trust in particular. 

The biggest problem comes not in the measurement, but in the subject matter.  So it is with trust. In the TweetLevel tool, trust is largely a function of how many people cite you. That’s perfectly reasonable. People definitely hang on Perez Hilton’s words a lot more than on mine.

But it does beg a huge trust question: trust Perez Hilton to do what? To say what? To behave how?  What is it that we trust about John Mayer–and is it the same thing as for which we’re trusting Oprah?

I trust my dog with my life–but not my ham sandwich. I trust Perez Hilton to tell me the straight poop in Hollywood–but not to show my daughter a night on the town. What is the object, the referent point, of the trust being measured?

Comparing trust metrics without defining the trust object is like comparing love metrics between a monastery and a brothel. By a perfectly obvious definition, the brothel gets a whole lotta lovin’ more than does the monastery.

In a sense, that’s right. And in another, ridiculous. Do we say a man with 5 marriages is ‘more loved’ than a man with one?  Is a parent with 5 kids more loved than a parent with one?  What is it that we’re measuring by using such metrics?

At this point, the numbers inevitably end up kind of looking like a popularity contest. There seems to be no referent point beyond the counting of incidents. Quality is overwhelmed by an onslaught of quantity. TweetLevel’s advice to increase trust scores is to get people to retweet you more. If everyone took this advice, Twitter would drown in derivative re-tweets. We’ve seen that movie before, on Wall Street.  It ends badly. 

On twitter, the mania to measure drives more empty-calorie retweets, which decreases original content, which ends in more retweet inflation as people try to game the game. 

It’s not that trust is ineffable, it’s just that it’s so contextual. Trust is a bit like obscenity; we know it when we see it, but that doesn’t mean we can easily define it, much less measure it. This is tail wagging the dog stuff.  The measurement system has a bad feedback loop to the content system; the mania for measurement ends up destroying the content it purports to measure.

Do You Want Meaning?  Or Measurement?

We can have meaning, or we can have precision. This is exactly the case in sub-atomic physics, where (as per Heisenberg) the act of measurement itself alters the thing being measured. It’s a perfect metaphor.

• You can say that you trust Perez Hilton to dish dirt, and Oprah to get real with you
• Or, you can say that Perez Hilton is 48.3% more trusted than Oprah
• But you can’t say one without rendering the other silly.

In accounting, there’s an age-old debate about how to define ‘profit.’ My finance prof Pearson Hunt said it the best: “Profit is–the bottom line of the income statement.” In other words: give it up; there is no one answer.

All you metrics mavens out there: when you get into the soft stuff, ask yourself: what is it you’re measuring? Is it the thing itself? Or is it some reflection of metrics in an infinite mirror? 

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