Twitter might seen as a “global connector” now – a borderless, international meeting place – but it wasn’t always so.
New research from MIT suggests that Twitter’s early growth was a result not of the global nature of the internet, but an offline group of people in the US, connected by geography and socioeconomics.
Today Twitter announced that it was translating its services into four more languages, bringing the total number up to 21. And this isn’t really a surprise to anyone: it seems like Twitter has always been a global phenomenon, with users strewn across the world.
But that hasn’t always been the case. Between 2006 and 2009, Twitter’s growth pattern was quite different from what we see today.
Twitter’s birthplace is San Francisco, so it makes sense that its earliest adopters would be centralized around that area. However, as Eurekalert reports, that geographical closeness remained a big part of Twitter’s growth for several years.
The MIT researchers examined 16,000 US cities, choosing to focus on the 408 with the highest number of Twitter users. From here, they determined the critical mass of Twitter adoption for each city, and when it occurred between Twitter’s creation in 2006 and August 2009.
Interestingly, Boston was the second city to see critical mass after San Francisco, and Twitter’s growth was largely determined by proximity to these two cities.
For instance, the site’s popularity traveled short distances from either Boston or San Francisco: reaching critical mass in Somerville Massachusetts. and Berkeley California next. The researchers note that this type of growth – to cities with geographical proximity to Twitter’s birthplace and to Boston – indicates that Twitter relied on face-to-face networking rather than simply spreading on the internet.
Marta González, a professor at MIT and co-author of this research paper, has this to say about the findings:
“Even on the Internet where we may think the world is flat, it’s not. The big question for people in industry is ‘How do we find the right person or hub to adopt our new app so that it will go viral?’ But we found that the lone tech-savvy person can’t do it; this also requires word of mouth. The social network needs geographical proximity. … In the U.S. anyway, space and similarity matter.”
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