April 22, 2010

The Buzz Bots Brouhaha and Other Empty Statistics

On Tuesday, ReadWriteWeb and a number of other tech blogs (including Mashable) stirred themselves into a tizzy around a report from social media measurement firm PostRank, who reported that almost 90 percent of content in Google Buzz, the company's nascent social network, came from news feeds and other non-native sources. Their self-congratulatory conclusions, kicking dirt on the service which hasn't hardly had a chance to grasp for air following body blow after body blow after a stumble out of the gate around privacy, came with phrases saying Buzz had "fallen short of capturing the hearts and minds of the social web", and another, "Much of Buzz’s content may be hand-crafted — it just doesn’t originate on Buzz."

Oh dear! What a terrible thing! Prepare the wake! I would be honored to act as a pallbearer, if given the opportunity.

PostRank's data served only one purpose - to count the total number of entries from all individual services being aggregated by the downstream collection service (Buzz). It is no secret, and I don't think anybody has successfully ever argued against it, that every single network that has the potential to import Twitter entries can easily be dominated by updates from that service. It was true with FriendFeed. It is true with Ecademy. It can be true with Facebook, depending on who you follow, and there is also that potential with Buzz. Twitter entries are light, easy, and update often. Even the most avid bloggers post more entries to Twitter than they do on their own site - as they post their own blog entries in addition to other updates, so it is no surprise that many people see their own feeds dominated by their Twitter. Add in Google Reader shares, which are very well tied in with Buzz, and you can see how this so-called "automated" "bot" behavior can start to ratchet up the stat-o-meter.

But the data (and reporting) was an inch deep, and it very poorly associated the world of automated feeds with the world of automated non-human behavior on other social networks which is nefarious. (Twitter bots, for example)

Aggregation services are built to aggregate data from disparate networks. It's practically their core definition. However, many of them also offer the option to create net new content. Buzz lets you make very detailed blog-like posts if you like. It's a great engine for sharing pictures, or YouTube videos, or simply adding a link from a Web page, and adding your observations. These so-called native entries are what amassed the approximately 10% of all updates seen as non-bot behavior by the survey.

As I mentioned back in March, native entries to Buzz get the most engagement. Some people, such as DeWitt Clinton from Google, make fantastic high quality posts on Buzz, and can get dozens to hundreds of comments. So do native entries from highly-visible people like Robert Scoble, and very active supporters of the community, including svartling and Leo Laporte.

I recognize that the vast majority of my own updates on Buzz are feeds. I love feeds. RSS or Atom, whatever you like, I recognize they are great tools. I will not stop sharing my items from Google Reader on Buzz unless the community goes silent, or tells me to stop - but between my Reader shares and my native blog entries, my own 4 native Buzz entries represent a miniscule 2% of my last 185 Buzz updates (according to Buzz-Charts).

This doesn't mean I haven't supported the platform, and it doesn't mean people are not engaging. In fact, according to the Buzz-Charts site, the last 185 posts received 478 total comments, or between 2 and 3 replies for every single entry. Some got none, and others got much more. But every single share was originated by a human, and every single comment was a so-called native entry.

PostRank surveyed Buzz with the subtlety of a political pollster operating under payment by the Committee to Re-Elect the President. (CREEP) While it may be factual that many people imported their Twitter entries and other automated feeds to Buzz, the Buzz community knows to largely ignore those items, or to not follow those people who are using the service in a poor way.

Real Buzz Data That Shows Real Engagement By Source

Buzz-Charts shows a much different story. In their graph of actual replies (comments) on all entries in Buzz, they found that of 24,584 posts that gained comments, 13,520 of them were native Buzz entries, a full 55%, not the measly 10% created. In second place, Google Reader shares showed 3,978 entries with comments, or 16%. Add on Buzz Mobile's 1,572 active threads (6.4%) and those top three conversation starters represent more than three quarters of all active threads, more than 18,000 of the total 24,000.

In contrast, all those automated Twitter entries that PostRank said was 62% of Buzz? They only had 837 active threads, or just over 3% of active threads. That means more than 90% of all Twitter entries that hit Buzz are ignored. Given you can't really have conversations in Twitter in the same way you can Buzz, and the person's entries already seem disjointed, that's probably just fine.

So we now know the community can self-select and self-filter, and that Buzz users comment on native entries and Google Reader shares more than anything. But let's go back to what a "bot" is anyway.

According to Tweetmeme, that ReadWriteWeb story was retweeted 662 times on Twitter. Is that any different than making a share in Google Reader? Even if a human clicked that button, are those not 662 bot entries into Twitter? In addition, the main RWW feed (@rww) is dominated by entries from TwitterFeed. That very post about Google Buzz bots was fed by a bot to their Twitter account. So the underlying hint of "Buzz loses and Twitter wins" is dead on its face, if this is the measure.

Do I want Twitter updates in my Buzz? Not really. I can go to Twitter for that. Also, in March, I talked about the trend toward disaggregation and putting native data in native sites. There is a huge benefit of getting that right. I took Twitter out of my Buzz for a reason. But Reader shares obviously have a good role in the community, and they are part of my curation activity.

Want to get a real good idea of what is happening on Buzz, with real people? Spend some time with a statistical site that really knows Buzz at http://buzz-stats.appspot.com/. Run your own chart to see if you're as feed-crazy as me, or who the top 100 people are on Buzz for getting replies to their content. PostRank didn't do themselves a service with their shallow report, and neither did the guys who regurgitated their data, and then retweeted it, or let their bots do the dirty work for them.

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