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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Twitter's Credibility Problem

Research shows that users have little trust in the information they get from Twitter.

  • September 29, 2010

Two new studies suggest that Twitter, the microblogging site responsible for everything from a Justin Bieber backlash to Iran’s Green Revolution, isn’t exactly a fount of credibility, in the eyes of the general public.

In one set of experiments, just published in a paper ominously entitled A little bird told me, so I didn’t believe it: Twitter, credibility, and issue perceptions, survey respondents were asked to rate the credibility of the same news story as delivered by a handful of sources, including the Twitter feed of the New York Times and the homepage of the same newspaper.

Twitter came in dead last in terms of believability, behind even the same story linked from a completely random and anonymous blog. And this, mind you, was a tweet from the Times’s own Twitter account.

While conducted independently of the first, the second study, Are You What You Tweet? Warranting Trustworthiness on Twitter, evaluated whether or not twitter users’ damaged credibility could be repaired through a phenomenon called “warranting”.

Warranting, which has previously been found to be a powerful force for mutual trust on social networking sites like Facebook, is when users decide other users are trustworthy based on what their friends say about them. (In other words, based on their Wall postings, for example.)

It turns out warranting is completely absent on Twitter. Just because Justin Bieber is following you doesn’t mean his fans think anything you say is worth a hill of beans. Instead, it turns out users on Twitter evaluate the credibility of a source based solely on information coming directly from that source. That’s odd, because, as we all know, everyone on the Internet lies.

If you want to rectify the shady reputation of your own Twitter stream, these studies suggest two things you can do, both of which are fairly obvious to begin with:

  1. Make your Twitter profile as descriptive as its limited capacity allows. No one is evaluating your credibility based on your followers - all they’re looking at is your profile and your spelling ability, or lack thereof.
  2. Link out, link out, link out. No one believes whatever compressed, 140 character koan you mangled that headline into in order to get it to fit on Twitter, so if it’s not paired with a link to a real site, it might as well be the accidental gibberish that popped out when your cat walked across the keyboard.

These results suggest that Twitter is a tool. A bridge between the user and whatever the real information is. It’s not a proper medium, any more than casual conversation is: it’s chatter.

mega fail whale image cc cantwork

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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