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What is Twitter? Quite simply, it's pretty much anything you want it to be.

But who is using it? How are they using it? The results of two new studies might surprise you.

The first study, conducted by The Participatory Marketing Network and the Lubin School of Business’ Interactive and Direct Marketing Lab at Pace University, found that Twitter is quite different from your typical social network. Unlike 'traditional' social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, for which 99% of the Gen Y'ers surveyed have a profile on, only 22% of those surveyed indicated that they had a Twitter account.

Of those, it's primarily an affair between friends, with 85% following their friends. Despite all the hype about celebrities on Twitter, only 54% of the Gen Y respondents report following celebrities and despite all the excitement over Twitter for business, only 29% report following companies.

The message is clear: right now at least, Twitter is not the best platform for reaching Gen Y'ers.

Another study, published on Harvard Business School's Conversation Starter blog, looked at the activity of 300,000 random Twitter users in May to find out how Twitter is actually being used. Its findings are even more intriguing:

  • 55% of users are women; 45% are men. They used a database of common names to ascertain this so it's probably not a perfect reading.
  • Men have more followers. 15% to be exact. They also seem to follow each other more often than women. According to Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski, this "suggests that women are driven less by followers than men, or have more stringent thresholds for reciprocating relationships".
  • Men are more likely to follow other men. But it's not just about bromance; the same is true for women, who are also 25% more likely to follow men. The researchers note that this is extremely strange because on typical social networks, "most of the activity is focused around women".
  • 10% of the users account for 90% of the tweets. No 80/20 rule here. Activity is even more concentrated on Twitter than it is on Wikipedia, where 15% of the users make 90% of the edits. According to the researchers, "This implies that Twitter's resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network". Wow.

So what do we now know about Twitter?

  • It's not all that popular with the kids.
  • Men may be in the minority but they get all the love.
  • The conversation on Twitter is more of a one-way street than a two-way street.

Obviously, depending on how these findings are interpreted, Twitter's true characteristics are quite a bit different than those that are popularly promoted. In particular, the Harvard data indicating that the conversation on Twitter really isn't much of a conversation is potentially upsetting to a lot of people who have sold Twitter as the perfect two-way communications platform.

Those using Twitter for business purposes should take heed and figure out if the goals they've developed based on the Twitter they've been sold are consistent with @TheRealTwitter.

Photo credit: respres via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 2 June, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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