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Will Twitter Change the Way We Measure Public Opinion? Let's Hope Not.

Bad political analysts received a gift today: a new tool to reinforce their worst instincts. Twitter has launched the “Twitter Political Index,” which will apparently provide a daily assessment of political sentiment on twitter.

What exactly does that mean? Well, computers will analyze every single tweet and determine whether they're for or against Obama or Romney. Twitter sentiment is then boiled down into a number from 0-to-100, where a score near 100 means that tweets are resoundingly positive. At the end of each day, both Romney and Obama will be assigned a score.

So how is that going to influence our daily lives? It's going to make us miserable.

Check out this graphic from Buzzfeed:

See that faint blue line reminiscent of Dick Cheney’s pre-surgery heart-rate? That’s the Twitter Political Index’s daily reading. Notice how it fluctuates wildly from 10 to 80? That’s what we’re about to endure.

The Twitter Political Index—the "Twindex" for short—is essentially a glorified news cycle-tracker. When Romney or Obama says something stupid, not only will the political media give it undo attention, we’ll see how that attention percolates out into a highly unrepresentative universe of politically-interested twitter users. Then we’ll get to read articles and tweets about how the latest twist of the news cycle is resonating with people on twitter, which will justify further coverage since, well, it’s having an impact on twitter, which is news. 

And yes, twitter users are wildly unrepresentative. It's a young, diverse, urban crowd that likes social media. I know plenty of young, diverse, urban people who like social media, and they're not going to decide this election.

If there's anything good that might come out of the Twitter Political Index, it's the vanishingly low chance that someone might notice how little it actually matters. The news cycle swings wildly and yet it rarely has an impact. That's something that you can see for yourself thanks to the Twitter Political Index: Obama occasionally has great days and terrible days, but it rarely moves the race. When news does move the polls, I suspect we won't need the Twitter Political Index to find out.