When discussing the internet’s social media revolution, you can count on
Twitter being mentioned. While Twitter may not be
structured like, say, Facebook, Twitter is commonly thought of as an online social network.

But what if it really isn’t much like a social network at all, and what if the media sharing on Twitter isn’t very “social“? According to a study conducted by Yahoo Research, which looked at 260m
tweets sent on Twitter between July 28, 2009 and March 8, 2010
containing bit.ly-shortened URLs, that seems to be the case.

A whopping 50% of all content consumed on Twitter is generated by only 20,000 users. This is no 80/20 rule: even if we assume that a significant number of Twitter accounts are dormant (which appears to be a valid assumption), a very, very small group of “elite” users (0.05% of all users by Yahoo Research’s calculation) is producing half of the content that gets consumed.

Although these elite users are not part of the traditional media, the researchers observe that “information flows have not become egalitarian by any means.

What’s more:

  • Yahoo’s researchers found that Twitter isn’t very “social” in another important respect: individuals on Twitter follow back far less than they’re followed.

    According to the researchers, “The Twitter follower graph, in other words, does not conform to the usual characteristics of social networks, which exhibit much higher reciprocity and far less skewed degree distributions, but instead resembles more the mixture of one-way mass communications and reciprocated interpersonal communications“.

  • There’s significant fragmentation on Twitter. In other words, “Celebrities listen to celebrities, while bloggers listen to bloggers.” Even if this isn’t necessarily surprising, it does highlight the fact Twitter users organize themselves around subjects more than they do other people.

The full Yahoo Research report is well worth the read, particularly for social media wonks. But the basic findings raise some important questions for anyone involved in social media in a professional capacity.

Is Twitter really a social network?

If it isn’t because of the way individuals interact and information is shared, what is “social” about Twitter? If the answer to that is “not a lot” or “far less than is commonly thought“, is it beneficial to approach Twitter as a “social media” platform for marketing, content distribution or customer service?

After all, many social media experts frequently implore brands to treat Twitter differently (read: avoid thinking of it as merely a one-way communications channel). But what if it really is a one-way communications channel?

Certainly, platforms are largely what we make of them. But separating the Twitter hype from the Twitter reality is increasingly important as brands invest more heavily in social media.

Understanding how individuals interact and share via online platforms is crucial to setting expectations, developing goals and using those platforms effectively.

Recognizing that Twitter has a lot in common with more traditional one-way mass communications channels may be one of the most important steps marketers can take as “being there” gives way to “finding ROI.