Ethan Zuckerman ’93:

It’s nice to be listened to. I guess. Maybe. Though I now find myself wondering whether I wouldn’t be better off shutting up.

Me too.

I saw the first reports of Michael Jackson’s death on Twitter around 6pm. I ran a little script I threw together some weeks ago called “twitcent” to see just how many tweets would share the news. Twitcent takes advantage of the fact that Twitter gives a unique, sequential ID to each tweet to estimate the intensity of posting around certain terms. It retrieves a page of 100 search results for a particular search term – say “Michael Jackson” – and looks at the ID numbers of the first and last tweets listed. Take the difference of those numbers, and you get how many tweets were posted between search result #1 and #100. Divide, and you’ve got a percentage of tweets on the system in a discrete, small interval mentioning the term.

Being able to use technology to perform this sort of analysis is not rocket science. Take a couple CS courses at Williams (134 and 136) and you could do it too. Making the computer do what you want it to do is an incredibly valuable skill. If you are a Williams undergraduate, you should get some.

Is it accurate? I dunno. If my assumptions are right, it should be – if Twitter’s not always numbering sequentially, or if some large percent of tweets on the system are unsearchable, less so. Anyway, I ran several search terms through the engine and saw something I’d never seen before – search terms registering in double digit percentages, and the term “Michael Jackson” appearing in 13 – 20% of the tweets.

So I tweeted the following: “My twitter search script sees roughly 15% of all posts on Twitter mentioning Michael Jackson. Never saw Iran or swine flu reach over 5%” And then I went to make dinner.

When I got back online this evening, the tweet had been quoted in Wired News, the New York Times Bits blog, Washington Post’s mocoNews, and in the San Jose Mercury News.

Geez, think these guys read each other much? I’m flattered, I think.

A proper quote from me would probably have been something like: “The search string ‘Michael Jackson’ is getting intense interest on Twitter at the moment, showing up in between 13-20% of tweets. It’s unlikely this level of intensity will continue through the night, but at the moment, it exceeds the intensity I’ve seen on Twitter during slower-breaking stories like #swineflu, #pman and #IranElection.” That, unfortunately, is 337 characters – far too long for anyone to read anymore. And a clarification in the form of a blogpost? That’s so 2006.

Indeed. Are you reading Ethan and the other interesting bloggers at Eph Planet? You should be.

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