Twitter is more “social” than the data show

May 20, 2010
Mike's social graph

A pair of recent studies attempt to shine some light into the vast user base of one of the Web’s social networking giants, Twitter.

The New York Times has a brief report on a Twitter study that shows:

  • 87 percent of Americans 12 years old and up know what Twitter is
  • 25 percent of Twitter users are African-American, about double their percentage of the American population
  • Twitterers are more likely to follow brands and companies than are users of other social networking sites

More interesting is a report from the Advanced Institute of Science and Technology that finds “Twitter isn’t very social,” at least as far as “social networking sites” go. On what grounds? From ReadWriteWeb:

After analyzing over 41 million user profiles and 1.47 billion follower/following relationships, the researchers concluded that only 22% of all connections on Twitter are reciprocal. On Flickr, this number is closer to 68% and on Yahoo 360 it’s 84%. The large majority (78%) of connections between users on Twitter are one-way relationships.

I can’t argue with the data, but I’ll sure as hell argue with the conclusion to which the data led the researchers. They say that, because only 22 percent of all “follow” connections made on Twitter are reciprocal, it’s more like a broadcast medium than a social medium. But that assumes I only see messages from and interact with those I’m following, which is simply untrue. With my personal account and with @fast_horse, I hear from and interact with far more people than those we’re following. Any time someone talks to us, we respond. That’s social.

There’s no proof, of course, that simply following a user means the follower is actually being social, actually paying attention. Does anyone really think CNN’s Rick Sanchez is actually following the tweets of 47,000 people? If simple and technical reciprocation is the basis for being “social,” Facebook — where every connection, by definition, is reciprocal — would be the world’s perfectly utopian, non-broadcast social network. But that’s not true. A lot of crap shared on Facebook is simply broadcast to the masses, drivel no one cares to see or respond to. But there’s also a lot of fun, interesting, time-sucking stuff shared on Facebook (and Twitter), and that’s where the social value comes in.

Further, we know (or at least believe) from other studies that many people who’ve created Twitter accounts basically did so out of curiosity and never really used the service. Does their initial but irrelevant follower-following data factor into this AIST study? I’m not certain, but I didn’t see anything that indicated is was ruled out. If you’re going to suggest Twitter’s users are very social, doesn’t it make sense to focus on Twitter users?

[image courtesy Friendwheel]