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On Twitter, 10% Account For 90% Of All Tweets, The Rest Barely Tweet At All, And Men Like Other Men

There’s been a little bit of buzz the last couple of days about a new Harvard study that makes some very bold statements about Twitter.

The study was certainly broad – 300,542 Twitter users, collected in May 2009, were sampled – and this gives the claims some weight. However, when you think about the results, it’s not too difficult to put the pieces together. That said, there are a few ‘hard truths’ in here, and you may not agree – I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments area below.

1. The Top 10% Of Prolific Twitter Users Account For Over 90% Of Tweets

At first, this seems like a staggeringly disproportionate number – as the article states, on a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production. So why is Twitter any different?

First of all, it should be fairly obvious by scanning your own feed that 10% of the people you follow – at most – are responsible for nearly all of the tweets you see. You’ll see the same few faces again and again in your stream, irrespective of how many people you follow. In fact, I’d suggest that 10% seems a little high. I think I’m responsible for 1-2% of that number myself. :)

Secondly, the article makes a comparison between Twitter and Wikipedia, with the latter’s statistics suggesting that 15% of users contribute 90% of all edits.

Twitter vs Wikipedia vs Other Social Networks

When you consider Twitter as a delivery medium for news and content, this is a very logical comparison. It makes absolute sense that a core but relatively minor percentage of ‘in the know’ users would be responsible for the bulk of all the ‘important’ messages that are read and then re-tweeted out to the rest of the network. Links are by far the most re-tweeted submissions on Twitter; people rarely re-tweet what you had for breakfast.

2. Among Twitter Users, The Median Number Of Lifetime Tweets Per User Is One

Broken down, this means that over half of the network tweets just once every 74 days. This, again, seems like an amazing revelation, but consider your own experiences. If a relative few numbers of users are responsible for the vast majority of tweets in your stream, then by definition the majority of people you follow most be responsible for a minority. And a lot of these users are inactive; they’ll often never tweet again, or very, very rarely.

I Don't Get Twitter

You can uncover this data very quickly using a service like UnTweeps, which scans your network for inactive participants. When I first did this, I had several hundred users that hadn’t updated their Twitter stream in the last 30 days. Several hundred. I continue to check UnTweeps once per month, and there’s always another 25-50 inactive accounts in my stream. If this is a constant for all of us, the results become fairly self-explanatory.

Now, as to whether these accounts are actually inactive or are simply lurkers is open to some debate. But I’m not entirely sure it matters. If all you want to do on Twitter is lurk, then go ahead – be my guest. To continue the analogy, it’s not only the editors who are allowed to read Wikipedia.

But if you never contribute, if you never submit any tweets, surely you can’t realistically expect somebody to want to follow you? What would be the point?

3. An Average Man Is Almost Twice More Likely To Follow Another Man Than A Woman

This seems a little shocking at first, especially as women make up 55% of all users. But the reason this takes place is quite straightforward – men are reluctant to follow women on Twitter because they don’t want to be seen to be pursuing them, at least not openly.

How you doin'?

Twitter is an open social network. Direct messages aside, we can all see what everybody else is doing, should we so choose. On Facebook and other similar social networks, there is far more privacy. We can see who each other’s friends are but we can’t see much beyond that. On Twitter, any message two parties exchange openly on the network is fair game.

I’ve had a few of my male friends say they’re uncomfortable following women they don’t know on Twitter because, quote, they “don’t want to give them the wrong idea.” I thought this madness, at first, but I’ve heard it enough times now that the results of this study start to make sense.

Moreover, and putting a complete spin on what I just said – I also know that a lot of men like to follow women on Facebook because it’s an ‘in’ for them, both to further contact with that woman and, for many, to gain access to their photo library. As the Harvard study states, “most of the activity is focused around women – men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know.”

You may not like this – it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. :)

On Twitter, the only genuine reason to follow somebody is to find out if they’re interesting. Looks, and things like photos, videos, and other features on networks like Facebook, are of relatively little importance.

This also likely explains why men are more likely to follow another man back.

I have to say this has never been an issue for me, simply because gender never comes into my decision. If you’re interesting, and you engage with me, I’ll follow you back. Meantime, I’ll die a slow death before I follow somebody like Tila Tequila, who, attractive as she is, is about as relevant to my interests as Karl Rove (who I also don’t follow).

(I speak from experience here; blinded by my adulation for her, I once attempted to follow Brooke Burke. Unlike the lady herself, it wasn’t pretty.)

I’ve also noticed a lot more active couples on Twitter than I have on other social networks. And again, because the tweets are visible, it behoves the man to behave. At least, that may be the thinking.

It also worth observing that, like all social networks – and the very internet itself – that men are not always men, and women are not always women. The latter in particular is a near-truism, and leads me to suspect that a gender bias in favour of women on the Twitter network is perhaps a little unlikely, at least in a real sense. Certainly, it is to be taken with a hefty pinch – Harvard’s idea to cross-reference ‘real names’ against a database isn’t exactly the finest example of modern science at work.

Conclusion

“Figures often beguile me,” wrote Mark Twain, in Chapters from My Autobiography, “Particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”

The Harvard study is certainly deep enough to have merit. The results are interesting and I think certainly warrant further investigation. But these are early days on Twitter – the network is still seeking its identity, and one could quite justifiably throw this data aside as being both inconclusive (the methodology for determining a given user’s gender and indeed whether they are actually a real person seems disappointingly simplistic) and also fairly self-explanatory (as above).

I’m interested to hear your thoughts about this data, and about my own conclusions. Please hit the comments below to share your ideas.

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