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A Typical Twitter User

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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?

9 Responses to “A Typical Twitter User”

  1. Seems to me the study says that Twitter is not a social network at all: the one-post-only folk are the socialites, who drop out. But all the stats sound more like business, or getting-things-done, networks: many of us bemoan, for example, the relative lack of women in open source work, and especially leadership.

  2. People never really ‘got’ rss , I think with it’s nice branding and celebrity endorsement Twitter has taken it’s place for the public

  3. Dawn,

    I’ve found that the most effective way to ‘infect’ potential Twitter users so that they ‘get it’ is to dispense with the web interface almost right away.

    Once I show potential users something like Tweetdeck, Seesmic, or the forthcoming Mixero client, all of the sudden, the light bulb goes on, *especially* with the searching/mining part (as you’ve covered in the past).

    Still, even with using a more full-featured external client, you have to fight against potential people asking ‘why do I want to know what Dawn is having for dinner?’ :) I actually had someone ask me that when they saw a series of your @Whiffies tweets in Tweetdeck on my screen! However, once I filter on your username and show them the other community related things you post, they seem to get it.

    Twitter as a company was very very smart to put engineering effort into the API, because they get the best ‘Tom Sawyerism’ that way. Everyone wants to paint their fences for them!

  4. I’m new to twitter, with like 19 followers. However, I think for blogging it is a great source of ideas for posts and a great place to meet others in the field your in. I typically tweet once a day. I’m a big fan of it though, and anyone with a website should be using it.

  5. I agree with Dawn. It takes a while to get the right mix of followers and followings. I am still working at it. I consider my part of the conversation to cross-pollenate between the two spheres. Since my specialty is so narrow – correctional nursing – it will take time to cultivate a community. However, the dialog among a diversity of tangential groups has been very fruitful and productive.

  6. Scott,

    I have no data to back this up, but I talk to quite a few people who sign up for Twitter and don’t really get into it, so they stop using it. Then they go back and try again at some point later before they really start to get into it. For some reason, it seems to take some people a few tries before they really start to see the value.

    I also think that it is only valuable when you can find the right people to follow. It sometimes takes a while before people find the right mix of content to make it really interesting.

  7. While I am not surprised that a minority of Twitter users supply the majority of the tweets, I am surprised that the disparity is so large (i.e. only 10% of prolific Twitter users accounting for over 90% of tweets.) A potentially bigger issue for Twitter is their retention problem. There has been a surge of new people signing up to use the service. But the majority of people tend to lose interest in Twitter relatively quickly and stop tweeting.
    I personally love Twitter and I am on it daily. But I am concerned about its viability going forward.