A Typical Twitter User

twitter_logo_headerI often need to remind myself that the way I use Twitter is probably not typical when considering the population as a whole. Like many of you, I am online most of the time: sitting at my computer or checking in with my iPhone when I’m away from the laptop. Since I’m always connected and usually working in some form or another, I read tweets frequently and post many times per day.

According to some new Twitter research published on the Harvard Business Blog, my usage is unusual:

A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.

At the same time there is a small contingent of users who are very active. Specifically, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production.

To put Twitter in perspective, consider an unlikely analogue — Wikipedia. There, the top 15% of the most prolific editors account for 90% of Wikipedia’s edits. In other words, the pattern of contributions on Twitter is more concentrated among the few top users than is the case on Wikipedia, even though Wikipedia is clearly not a communications tool. This implies that Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.

I suspect than many of us fit into that top 10 percent of users who contribute the majority of the content, but I’m a bit concerned about the conclusion that Twitter might be more of a one-to-many publishing platform rather than a community of peers interacting with each other. I’m not sure that the data shown in the blog post leads to that conclusion. I do worry about all of the brands jumping on Twitter to broadcast their marketing messages and tell people about their products and services without really engaging in the conversation. However, there are also many people and companies who engage effectively in the conversation by becoming a part of the community. @replies and retweets are part of the community-focused culture of sharing content that is also a part of Twitter.

As a freelance consultant, clients often ask me about using Twitter, and it can be difficult to get them to understand the conversational nature of Twitter to shift them from thinking of Twitter as a broadcast medium to Twitter as a community of people holding conversations. It’s also important to remember that most people are not likely to be using Twitter as obsessively as I do, which makes techniques for mining and monitoring Twitter even more important for the average Twitter user.

(As an aside, the Harvard Business blog post also contains some interesting observations about gender and Twitter usage that are outside of the scope of this post, but are definitely worth a read.)

What are your thoughts about Twitter as a conversation vs. a way to broadcast content?

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