Insomnia can be great when you’re looking for metaphors to explain ideas. That’s what happened to me this morning. I started relating the measure of online activity to the measure of activity in (my limited knowledge of) power distribution systems.

I identified three metaphor-metrics — base load, spikes and surges — with base load being the most important. Base load is critical since it provides the context for understanding spikes and surges.


Essentially, base load is the continuous chatter on a particular theme or issue. We see this, graphically, as an average of the sustained amount of content and number of participants which make up a community of interest. In the case of health care related discussions in the United States, this looks to be about 27,000 online mentions (media, blogs, forums, twitter) each day over the last nine months (excluding spikes and surges).


A spike is a very brief, seemingly instantaneous, peak of hyper-activity on a particular theme or issue. Spikes are brought about by a particular event. While spikes attract the participation of people connected to or affected by the issue, most peaks can be viewed as a pile-on; an opportunity to join a movement or be part of group-think (whether a noble cause or a mob). The online discussion about US health care spiked 2,149% from the base load to 580,242 online mentions on June 28 of this year. Like most, this spike had something of a half-life and petered out over the following five days for an average of 180,630 online mentions. Some spikes will be the catalyst for a surge.


A surge is an extended period of increased activity on a particular theme or issue. Surges typically result from a growing community of interest. Any form of campaign can lead to a surge. The current US election has resulted in a number of issue/theme-specific surges. Online discussion about health care, for example, is up about 150% from the base load. In fact, the health care surge immediately followed the spike I just mentioned. We can expect US political issues to surge for another few months. The question is, does the surge wind down or become the new base load?

It’s worth noting some issues may be entirely event driven and as such have a base load of zero, appearing only as spikes or surges.

These are the things you think of when you can’t sleep.

Analysis performed using Marketwire/Sysomos Heartbeat and MAP.

Photo: Birds On A Wire uploaded to Flickr by Adam Melancon.

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