Here’s the latest bit of Twitter-bashing to cause a stir among the social media/social advocacy crowd this past week: U.S. market researcher Pear Analytics’ short-term study of Twitter, which labeled 40% of the messages sent over the microblogging service “pointless babble.” Only about 8.7% of tweets, Pear said, have “value” as they pass along news of interest to others. It was enough to prompt some high-profile social media experts and advocates to rush to the defense of microblogging. (Again.)

Danah Boyd, a social media researcher for Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, weighed in over the weekend with a post shared on the Progressive Exchange network:

I vote that we stop dismissing Twitter just because the majority of people who are joining its ranks are there to be social. We like the fact that humans are social. It’s good for society. And what they’re doing online is fundamentally a mix of social grooming and maintaining peripheral social awareness. They want to know what the people around them are thinking and doing and feeling, even when co-presence isn’t viable. They want to share their state of mind and status so that others who care about them feel connected. It’s a back-and-forth that makes sense if only we didn’t look down at it from outter space. Of course it looks alien. Walk into any typical social encounter between people you don’t know and it’s bound to look a bit alien, especially if those people are demographically different than you.

Josh Nelson, with The Hatcher Group, a communications and nonprofit consulting firm in Washington D.C., suggested in a Facebook post that “if you scanned thousands of random emails or phone calls, it would probably be mostly irrelevant ‘babble’ as well.” Tomorrow’s headline? “Ninety-five-plus percent of all telephone conversations are irrelevant to outside listeners,” Nelson wrote.

Meanwhile, Elana D. Leoni, the online membership coordinator of The George Lucas Educational Foundation, added in a post, also shared on

I think it’s all about how selective you are when you decide to follow someone. I run my company’s Twitter account and I’ve found Twitter to be one of the most effective ways to reach out to experts, get opinions, promote our content, and do some great market research.

Still not convinced of Twitter’s social and marketing value? Just ask Damian Bazadona, president of Situation Interactive, an online marketing and advertising firm. Bazadona was part of the team behind the novel marketing, via Twitter, of the Broadway play, Next to Normal. In early May, six weeks after the show opened, the production began what New York Times contributor Andrew Adam Newman said was, by all accounts, a Broadway first: over Twitter, a special version of the show began to be tweeted out to people, one line from one character at a time—over 35 days. “About a week into the N2N tweetstream, Next to Normal had 30,000 followers; when the show ended June 7, about 145,000 had signed up. Then, as the cast began texting followers, their numbers continued to grow, recently topping 550,000,”

Newman wrote. “...According to the tracking site Twitterholic, N2Nbroadway is ranked 210th, attracting more Twitter followers than celebrities like Paris Hilton and Stephen Colbert, and brands like Starbucks.”

Bardona told Newman: “You wouldn’t go to a social event and start selling someone something. The content itself was doing the selling for us, so we didn’t need to bang someone over the head and say ‘Here’s how to buy tickets.’ That would have smelled so advertising.”

For more on the use of Twitter in marketing, fundraising, and nonprofit community-building, see this recent post on Generation Give about Operation Smile’s efforts to craft a Twitter strategy.

What do you think? Is Twitter mostly babble—or a fledgling way for businesses and nonprofits (and other social networks) to find safety in numbers?

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.