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May 7, 2010, 11:15 a.m.

Why Twitter looks like a social network but feels like news media

Information Week posted an interesting account of an academic paper presented at the International World Wide Web Conference last month. The paper, written by four Korean researchers, analyzed 41.7 million Twitter user profiles, 1.47 billion social relations, 4,262 trending topics and 106 million tweets to examine the relationships between tweeters and the distribution of information across the microblogging network. (The paper is available here as a PDF.)

Their conclusion: Twitter isn’t a social network, but something more akin to traditional news media.

Why isn’t Twitter a social network? The researchers noted that Twitter relationships don’t have to be reciprocal — there’s no need to follow someone back who is following you, while Facebook relationships are two-way “friendships.” (Though that’s changing with the capability to “like” something.) Only 22.1 percent of Twitter user pairs follow each other, the researchers said. Moreover, they noted that most follower-followed relationships on Twitter are more akin to traditional-media relationships between subscribers to information and distributors of that information, with subscribers consuming information but having little contact with distributors. A relatively small number of users are the primary sources of news, with others redistributing that news; most tweets are related to timely topics; and retweets typically come very quickly — 35 percent in the first 10 minutes.

A question of definitions?

The researchers’ rationale for saying Twitter isn’t a social network strikes me as more a question of definitions than anything else, but it’s an intriguing discussion nonetheless — one I think touches on deeper questions. Is a social network still a social network if reciprocity is largely theoretical? Does that untapped reciprocity undermine its value? Will any large grouping of people exchanging information settle into a pattern akin to that of traditional media?

I have nearly 700 Facebook friends, but I’ve never communicated with the majority of them. They’re folks who walk in the same digital-journalism circles, or know my writing about sportswriting, baseball or even Star Wars. I’m happy to have them as friends (I could never get past the squick factor of setting up a fan page for myself) and I respond to their messages and comments. But I don’t get very many of those — those relationships are largely one-way. I’ve initiated such relationships myself, reaching out to be Facebook friends with people whose activities interest me, but whom I’ve never contacted. Yes, we’re linked in a social network. But in many cases the friendship is really just a vehicle that allows information to flow, and that flow is largely one-way.

Moreover, that’s a pattern on all social networks — and probably all networks, period. Last summer, a Harvard Business Review study found that 10 percent of Twitter users accounted for more than 90 percent of tweets. The researchers noted that was a more concentrated level of activity than is typical for social networks, in which the top 10 percent of users produce 30 percent of content. But again, the difference strikes me as one of degree, not kind: When you put people together in a network and let them create information, you get a few producers and a lot of consumers, just as discussions get a handful of engaged commentors and a lot of silent (but interested) lurkers. Social networks may move the percentage needle this way or that way depending on their parameters, but the pattern holds.

Untapped potential

This can strike us as a shame: Why should two-way media produce mostly one-way interactions? But I don’t think it’s anything of the sort — because “mostly” is not the same as “entirely.” Social media carries with it the potential for reciprocation and replies, for conversation and connection. That potential lies fallow, waiting to be used — but it can be used instantly. And social media carries with it the expectation of response or at least acknowledgment — perhaps not to everybody, but to enough people to demonstrate that one is listening and not just talking. That’s a sea change from traditional-media information flows, even though they may look the same when transposed to social networks.

I’m still amazed at how thoroughly 140 characters and an @ sign level the playing field on Twitter, erasing relative status and power. When I think of my Twitter and Facebook experiences, I think not of the many relationships that haven’t yielded conversation and relationships, but of the few that have — and I know that those other relationships have that potential too.

POSTED     May 7, 2010, 11:15 a.m.
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