Tweet Surrender: The Truth about Twitter

tweet_twoThe decibel level of Twitter buzz only continues to crescendo. Harvard Business School is even studying the complexities of Tweet-ology. A Harvard MBA student examined the activity of a random sample of 300,000 Twitter users in May of this year—to try to understand the phenomenon that is Twitter. We hear it referenced almost daily—and more and more, you can follow just about anyone or anything on Twitter, but what’s really going on? And this begs the question—just how do we make it work for us?

Continuing along my own journey of social media comprehension, I have to admit I was startled by this recent data—especially in comparison to what I know about other popular social media sites, such as Facebook. The researchers discovered that 80% of those sampled were “followed by” or “followed” at least one user. By comparison, only 60 to 65% of other online social media site members have at least one friend (measuring these stats for sites at similar levels of development). This suggests that entrenched, active users really do understand exactly how Twitter works. (Unlike much of the non-Web 2.0 world.) The initiated get it — not really too much of a revelation, methinks.

However, it’s the metrics around gender behavior that particularly intrigue me. Although men and women follow a similar number of Twitter users, men have 15% more followers than women. And, men also have more reciprocated relationships, in which two users follow each other. This “follower split” suggests that women are driven less by followers than men, or perhaps they have more stringent criteria for reciprocating relationships. This seems somehow counter-intuitive, though—especially given that females hold a slight majority on Twitter—45% are men, and 55% are women.

Even more enlightening is— who follows whom:
• A man is two times more likely to follow another man than a woman.
• A woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.
• A man is 40% more likely to be followed by another man than by a woman.

This cannot be explained by different tweeting activity, either, because both men and women tweet at the same rate. These results are remarkable in light of previous social media research. On other social networks, most of the activity is focused around women. Men seem to follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know.

Generally, men receive comparatively little attention from other men or from women. The researchers conjectured that perhaps men and women find the content produced by other men on Twitter more compelling than on other social networks. And maybe, men find the content produced by women less compelling because of the lack of photo sharing, detailed biographies, etc. After all, men are visual creatures.

Or could the cryptic nature of the 140-character-post limit and truncated URLs inhibit more meaningful sharing—that women often prefer? It’s a thought-provoking question.

Overall, Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical online social network. On Twitter, there is a small, very active user group. Specifically, the top 10% of Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. Oh, there’s that old 90/10 rule again! Fundraising 101, indeed. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for only about 30% of all production.

From this perspective, Twitter is actually more of a one-way, one-to-many communication vehicle than a two-way, peer-to-peer network. Perhaps this is why it has logged greater success in the fundraising realm for nonprofits than some of the other more widely distributed social media options. Worth considering. The leaders initiate and the followers acquiesce. Hmmm . . . a whole new way to think about the social web? Perhaps a new social science. I wonder.

What do you think? @ellagantz