A brief look: To tweet, or not to tweet?

By Theresa Mallinson 3 August 2011

How does Twitter affect our productivity, influence and how informed we are? Economist @justinwolfers has constructed an experiment designed to answer these questions. By THERESA MALLINSON.

On Monday 1 August Justin Wolfers flipped a coin. Heads he would use Twitter that day, tails he would not. It was heads, so he got to tweet for the day. On Tuesday, when the coin landed on tails, he wasn’t so lucky. Wolfers is going to be determining his Twitter engagement this way until the end of October. But what’s the point?

Well, Wolfers is an economist and he’s conducting a randomised trial to see whether using Twitter benefits him or not. He announced his experiment on his Freakonomics blog on 13 July: “I’m a long-time Twitter sceptic. It’s difficult for an economist to see a 140 char lmt as a ftr.” Wolfers started using Twitter in mid-July, and gave himself a grace period to figure it out before he began the experiment proper.

In his initial blog post Wolfers proposed tracking three variables: his distraction, his influence and how informed he was. He’s since stated: “I think Twitter may have (an) impact beyond my productivity. I’m now also convinced it’s worth tracking my anxiety (yes, that damn debt-ceiling debate), as well as my feelings of being engaged (ditto).” But he hasn’t yet detailed how he’ll be measuring each of these variables; we’ll have to wait for his methodology to be revealed.

Wolfers has already drawn several observations from his Twitter usage. Number 11 was: “I’m convinced that Twitter is essential for journalists. I remain sceptical that it is important for economists.” He’s not wrong on the first one  – you wouldn’t be reading this story if this journalist hadn’t found out about the grand Twitter experiment via, well, Twitter.

Thing is, there’s an important caveat in the way Wolfers designed his trial. “If the coin comes up heads, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll tweet, just that it will be a Twitter-aware day. I’ll consume the stream, and tweet away if I feel the need. Tails, and I’ll simply tweet “Tails, goodbye”, close the stream (unless I need it for research) and then resist the urge to tweet for the rest of the day.”

Seeing as he’s already committed to using Twitter (if he needs it for research), the social-media platform is of some importance after all – even to economists. DM

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