Twitter’s cost in productivity? Zero

I’m not sure whether Pat Phelan of roam4free has decided to join the Techmeme troll parade, but his post about the “cost of Twitter” is ridiculous on its face. In a nutshell, he takes an estimate of the number of users, multiplies by the average time spent and — after some mathematical sleight of hand — comes up with a whopping $13-billion or so in “lost” productivity. Shocking, isn’t it?

It would be if it were true, but luckily it isn’t. There are a number of problems with Pat’s little thought experiment, including the assumption that all of Twitter’s users are active ones when most estimates are that only 10 per cent are highly-active — as Alan Patrick of Broadstuff notes in a comment on the TechCrunch UK post. Much of the math is also questionable, but let’s leave that aside.

The really dumb part of Pat’s analysis is the assumption that Twitter is a useless waste of time, like Solitaire used to be, or Minesweeper. While it’s true that much of Twitter is aimless chat, there are also some extremely useful aspects to it, including the ability to get links and news updates almost in real time, as many people discovered during the Iowa primaries. You might as well call the phone a waste of time.

The unfortunate fact is that people will find any number of ways to waste time: chatting in the hallway, taking a smoke break every 10 minutes, standing around the water cooler, checking Facebook a hundred times a minute, and so on. Are all of these things a waste of time? Of course they are. But they are also social moments that play an important role in our jobs and our lives (okay, except for the Facebook one).

Computing the loss in productivity assumes that we would be perfectly productive automatons if only our employers could arrange for us to never look up from our desks or think about anything but work.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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