Skip to Content

The author

Epiphany Search

Mention the words ‘social network’ to most people and apart from Facebook (and the eponymous film), the first thing that will spring to most people's minds is Twitter. On the surface, the 140 character powerhouse seems to be the very definition of social, allowing users to maintain their existing relationships and foster new ones. Yet recently, there's been significant debate as to whether Twitter really is social. At an event last year, Twitter's vice-president Kevin Thau asserted that Twitter was not a social network, and should be viewed as a means of distributing news and other information. This leaves us with two views of the same service that are at odds with each other: one as a means of social interaction and the other as a more traditional content distribution service.

So just how social is Twitter? Well according to the good people at Yahoo! and KAIST, not very. The two studies, along with what we already know, raise some interesting points:

Twitter activity isn’t reciprocal

Unlike the other social networks, activity on Twitter isn’t truly reciprocal - far more people follow accounts than are followed back. Looking at some of the highest profile accounts, it’s easy to see this in action. As we can see, following a user doesn’t automatically see a reciprocal connection in return, as with many other networks. According to the KAIST study, as pairs only 21.1% of Twitter accounts follow each other, compared to nearly 70% on other networks such as Flickr, suggesting users base their activity on topical interest rather than familiarity. Similarly, estimates put the number of users that never tweet as high as 55%. For many then, Twitter is less about connecting with people and more about subscribing to them.

Twitter is dominated by a few users

As anyone who uses Twitter is aware, there are a number of profiles that you simply can't avoid. The aforementioned Mr Fry, Lady Gaga and Barack Obama are all prolific tweeters who have significant influence on the site. However this influence is perhaps greater than many realise, with Yahoo finding that half of all tweets containing links are generated by 20,000 'elite' users. Although it’s never publicly been revealed, the number of Twitter users is currently thought to be somewhere in the region of 200 million, generating on average 140 million tweets a day. That being said, Yahoo! only looked at those tweets containing links, which obviously lend themselves more to sharing a piece of information rather than just chatting to a friend. So while it’s perhaps more understandable that a few dominate these kind of tweets, with figures like that it's still tempting to view Twitter as a more traditional form of top-down media, rather than a social network.

The majority of conversation is up-to-date

Unlike other social networks, information shared on Twitter tends to be extremely current. Our helpful studies show that of their sample, nearly 54% of tweets contained headlines and a further 31% related to events occurring that day. Equally, the whole concept of topics 'trending' is connected with this idea and while you'll always find the odd celebrity death hoax (RIP Jackie Chan), many of the trending topics will be directly connected to breaking news stories. Both Moussa Koussa’s defection and Eddie Stobart’s death are examples of trending news topics on Twitter. Again, the current nature of the information on Twitter is far more reminiscent of news media than a social platform.

So is Twitter unsocial?

Yes and no. As you can see from the studies, it certainly has features which are more in keeping with traditional forms of news media. Yet that clearly isn’t the whole picture. The KAIST study concludes that the majority of retweets come from users focusing on a similar topic, with celebrities for example largely interacting with other celebrities – in a similar way that we largely interact with our friend and peer groups on other networks. The retweet in itself is surely a sign of the social elements of Twitter, with users sharing with those inside their own groupings. It’s undeniable as well, that users do interact with each other. We all likely follow more people than have followers, but I certainly keep in touch with friends and colleagues as I’m sure most users do, even if this makes up a small percentage of our total use. Equally, there will always be the argument that any platform which allows users to interact and publish information is a social networking service, and Twitter certainly provides this service. So how does one define Twitter? Is it a social network as often thought or a more traditional means of news and content distribution? Certainly it has hallmarks of the news media and many people use the service as such, but there are also many social elements. Ultimately the service is unique, occupying both camps and perhaps it’s this dichotomy that makes it such an interesting prospect for marketers.