At around 11:50 p.m. Pacific time Sunday night, uber-blogger Robert Scoble posted a short note to Twitter: "@dtan just reported an earthquake in Beijing. Wonder how large it is? Off to check out USGS site."
Of course, as the world knows by now, Scoble was referring to the devastating quake that is already believed to have killed at least 12,000 people.
Some may be skeptical about Scoble's subsequent claims that news of the disaster was flying around Twitter before the U.S. Geological Survey posted anything on it, but one thing seems clear. Because it was Scoble who picked up on the quake and soon began writing dozens of Twitter posts about it, news of the catastrophe and direct reports of what had occurred in China spread a lot more quickly than it might have otherwise.
Scoble, after all, is one of the most followed users of Twitter. His activity on the micro-blogging service is currently monitored by 23,264 people. That, according to the site Twitterholic--which tracks the 100 most followed users--makes him the fifth most followed user of the service.
But what exactly does that mean to Scoble and the thousands who follow his posts? Does that mean he's one of the people whose participation provides the most value? Some observers are looking for such answers in numbers that measure users' behavior: how many people they follow, how many follow them, and the total number of posts they've made.
"The many thousands of people who use Twitter do so in wildly different ways," Louis Gray, author of LouisGray.com, wrote in a widely discussed blog post. "I feel there are different categories of Twitter users--from those who have a listening audience, measured by a high 'followers'-to-'updates' ratio; those who are engaging, seen with near equal 'followers' and 'updates;' and those who are more noisy, with a lot more 'updates' than actual 'followers.'"
As part of his post, Gray introduced what he called a "noise ratio," which looked solely at the ratio of someone's posts--known on Twitter as "updates."
For those who make less than one Twitter post per follower, Gray assigned the term "listener." Those in the "middle ground" had posted up to twice as many updates as they have followers. After that, Gray called users "conversationalists" and "megaphones."
"If you look at some of the most visible and vocal Twitter users, like Scoble and (Mahalo founder Jason) Calacanis, if you look at their total number of followers, they have tens of thousands of followers," Gray told me by phone Monday. "Those people must be following them for a reason."
Indeed, many Twitter users employ the updates/followers ratio when evaluating other Twitter users, something they have to do each time they get a new follower and must decide whether to follow that new person in return.
To be sure, making such a determination can be tricky. You might want to follow everyone who follows you, but that can be a time-intensive proposition, since you will subsequently have to wade through every single such person's updates. As anyone who follows more than a few dozen people knows, that can mean a flood of information.
Tracking the Twitterers
But to some people, measuring the value another Twitter user offers them comes from more than just looking at their noise ratio.
"What I (look) at," said Chris Heuer, the founder of Social Media Club, "is the idea that you could see very easily from the number of followers to the number of following, what someone's intention was."
Heuer calls his statistic the "Twitter intention barometer."
"The idea," Heuer said, is looking at "the one number relative to the other. If someone has a very high followers-to-following ratio, that just shows a more intentional use of the service where there might be a lot of people interested in you."
I pointed out to Heuer that well-known writer Seth Godin is followed by thousands of people but follows no one.
"That shows a clear intention to use (Twitter) as a broadcast medium," Heuer said, and not to take part in the larger Twitter water cooler conversation.
One site, TweetStats, allows anyone to get a glimpse of the Twitter activity of any other user. By entering any Twitter account ID, it is possible to see that person's Twitter usage, by month, as well as the times of day they most often post and the people they interact with most frequently.
But while TweetStat's creator, Damon Cortesi, said he would like to come up with a way to definitively nail down Twitter behaviors, he's finding that very difficult.
"Everybody uses Twitter for different purposes," said Cortesi, "so the given value of one Twitter user is different depending on your point of view."
Still, Cortesi thinks there are ways to approach the question.
"What I think would be interesting to see is a statistic showing the frequency of updates combined with certain keywords for topics I might be interested in," he said, adding that he's also seeking a system to determine if someone is "chatty, (or) are they picky about who they follow."
Yet through all this, there is a great deal of useful dialogue going on on Twitter. To understand how to access it, it helps to recognize that the value of Twitter as a service comes from its mesh quality. Used properly, Twitter is a blend of conversations between individual users and the people they follow and those who follow them, and all the other people who expand out in an ever-growing ring from any individual.
"I think that's one of the great viral aspects of the system," Heuer said. "By having it open and architected this way, it allows us to find people who might have something interesting to say."
A 'real meritocracy'
More to the point, Heuer said, "It is a real meritocracy at the end of the day," referring to the fact that those who add the most value to the system are the ones who get the most followers.
Yet, some argue that it's not just about how many people follow you, no matter how much our egos want it to be.
"One thing Scoble says," Gray told me, "is that power comes in whom you follow, not who follows you...The more data you can take in, the stronger and smarter you are."
But one thing that's important to realize is that people likely are going to want to measure things if they can be quantified. That's probably why Twitter allows people to see everyone's statistics.
"I think that Twitter understood that if they didn't put (the stats) up there," Gray said, "people would make scripts to do it."
Heuer takes that thought even further: he thinks the peoples' attention to stats has a secondary effect.
"By looking too closely at the stats, it ends up modifying our behavior," Heuer said. "If we care more about the numbers than the engagement, it can impact our behavior."
On June 10, Geek Gestalt hits the highways for Road Trip 2008. I'll start in Orlando, Fla., and visit many of the South's most interesting destinations. Stay tuned, and be sure to keep up, both now and during the trip, with what I'm doing on Twitter.