“Nobody tweets” trumpeted a study created by Harvard B-School grads last month. Well, the authors quickly explained, almost nobody.
After analyzing a random sample of 300,000 Tweeters, MBAers Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski discovered that — in contrast to the behavior seen on social networks like Facebook, where most users both write (or throw vampires, etc.) and read (or have vampires thrown at them, etc.) — only 10% of Tweeters create the vast majority (90%) of the content. Another report from research firm, Hubspot, confirmed this, and added that more than 50% of Tweeters have no followers and have never Tweeted. But, really, why should that matter?
The reaction from both bloggers and the mainstream media was shock. “Twitter hype [is] punctured,” happily headlined the BBC. Leading tech analyst Om Malik called the data “ironic” and “astounding.” Almost most everybody considered this bad news for Twitter.
But why would the fact that most people on Twitter passively consume the thoughts of a small number of writers be surprising at all? Even though Twitter is probably the easiest to use publishing tool of all time, it’s still a publishing tool. And that’s what publishing is.
Most people don’t have the time, talent, persistence, or (to be polite) self-confidence to generate a following large enough to be worth maintaining. Of course, this becomes less challenging if you are already a known celebrity, have a site or mailing list from which to promote your feed, or are well-regarded enough to land on Twitter’s much-debated Suggested User List. But that’s obviously a very small percentage of people. Based on the reader-to-writer ratios of other (sorry) user-generated content platforms, even 10% seems high and likely to decline over time. More importantly, if you’ve used Twitter, this is just common sense: most people don’t see the value in doing it.
So why would anyone consider the Harvard/Hubspot data ‘ironic?’ The answer lies in the ideological and commercial interests of the people who write on and about Twitter. On the ideological side, there’s a strong and genuinely noble motivation among Web thinkers to help foster something that fundamentally rearranges the rules of media, where everyone will be a publisher, not just an elite. This is reinforced by their own atypical delight and success in using these tools. ‘Why wouldn’t everybody want to Tweet a lot? I do it, it’s not hard to be moderately successful, and I get a lot of pleasure and benefit from it!’
The second reason is Twitter’s growth rate, and with it, the viability of their commercial interests in Twitter as a platform and subject of their punditry. As anyone involved in the Internet now knows, a product is only given that most magical of all marketing gifts — viral growth — when User A convinces User B to use a service, when it gets better for everyone the more people use it. This is why email, instant messaging, SMS, and Facebook grew and are growing so fast. If the only people who have a strong interest in everyone using Twitter are the 10% of folks who write most of the content, it will obviously grow less quickly. Put another way – someone who is primarily just reading Tweets doesn’t have an interest in convincing his friends to get on Twitter also. He may recommend it — in the same way I’d recommend getting a HDTV to a buddy — but my HDTV experience doesn’t get better because my buddy gets one also.
But is the 90/10 ratio (or whatever it ends up being) a bad thing for Twitter? Well, it depends on what Twitter is looking to achieve. If your goal is an egalitarian media world driven by a virally explosive platform, this is bad news. But if your goal is to create the easiest to use publishing platform of all time, to empower more people than ever before to reflect on the world as it happens in real-time, and to have steady reader growth driven by the quality and impact of those reflections, it’s just fine.
Jonathan Glick is the CEO and Founder of Tgroups, the real-time curation platform. Before Tgroups, he was was Director of Research Operations for Gerson Lehrman Group, the world’s largest expert network. In that capacity, Glick was responsible for strategic oversight of Gerson Lehrman Group’s product offerings and research services. Before joining Gerson Lehrman Group, Glick was CEO of OuterForce, a provider of a software platform for the management and compensation of expert networks. Prior to OuterForce, Glick led Product Development and Technology for The New York Times Electronic Media Company and was responsible for the design and development of all products and services, including The New York Times on the Web. Mr. Glick received an undergraduate degree from McGill University and pursued graduate studies in Cognitive Science and Instructional Technology at Columbia University. He will be writing “The Feedia” column for Mediaite.
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