Monday, February 1, 2010

The Rundown on Twitter

Unless you live in a cave or under a rock, pretty much everyone in America has heard about Twitter by now - even those who do not own, or even use, a computer! The social media platform had been around for a while before one Ashton Kutcher started a "war" with CNN, in which he challenged the news network to amassing 1 million Followers before he did, but that friendly rivalry made the social service a household name.

Like Facebook, Twitter was already a social media darling. Research suggests Twitter's traffic increased by nearly 1500% between February 2008 and February 2009! Facebook's traffic jumped 228% in this same period. However, this same research shows that the top 10% of Twitter's users are responsible for 90% of its activity! Compare this to any other social network, including Facebook, where the top 10% account for only 30% of the site's content.

A Harvard team discovered that most people only "tweet" once their entire lives, and more than half only updated their Twitter account once every 74 days. While Twitter remains the fastest-growing social network with some 10 million or more users, 60% of those from the U.S. were unlikely to return the month after signing-up. Overall, very few Twitter users actively tweet or follow others' tweets consistently. The average number of tweets a user issues is one (1) - in their entire lifetime (so far - remember, Twitter is still "young," even though it's been around for "decades" by Web standards)!

What too few people understand about Twitter, and what is rarely discussed in its coverage, is what we Netizens had discovered months before the Kutcher v. CNN incident: Twitter is an announcement platform, not a traditional social network. Sure, it is still "social media" and technically, it fits the definition of a social network, but Twitter is not a two-way communications service, even if it is used as such by any percentage of its members. "Twitter is a broadcast medium," the Harvard graduate who carried-out the study, concluded.

This hasn't gone unnoticed by Twitter's sysops. Most recently, the staff changed the methods used for its "Suggestions" list to de-emphasize celebrities and big-name brands and businesses, which had been using the site as an advertising, marketing, and promotional service. Twitter now offers a directory of "Suggested" users, divided by topic. It also revised its popular "Trending Topics" feature with the addition of "Local Trends."

Twitter's phenomenal growth spurt has been said to have "flatlined," but that is disingenuous; Twitter's growth set online records and I cannot emphasize enough just how unusual its numbers are. To say Twitter's growth has "slowed" is akin to saying the sun has "cooled a bit." However, given the results above, Twitter has to continue gaining members by the thousands in order to increase that active 10% and remain relevant.

The changes are meant to turn the tide back in the site's favor, but also to make Twitter more useful - by focusing on content relevance, as opposed to providing (or at least facilitating) entertainment and promotion. Another study, from 2009, showed that we use social media (including e-mail, IM, blogging, et.al.) more today than ever before, and that our general use of the Web is more focused on communications than entertainment. In fact, the time spent pursuing and engaging in entertainment online dropped from nearly 50% in 2006 to 20% in 2008!

Responding to claims that Twitter's growth has slowed, the company's CEO pointed-out usage statistics following the recent earthquake in Haiti. He claimed that January 11th was the site's busiest day in its history, and some analysts agree. Further, research proves that active Twitterers now have more followers and tweet more frequently.Twitter is also reaching a larger worldwide market; less than 51% of Twitter's users were from the U.S. as of December, 2009 - down 10% from just six months earlier! A lot of people are also using mobile devices and third-party programs to access the site, which accounts for at least some of the "missing" direct hits.

Overall, it is safe to say that while Twitter's sign-up numbers may have peaked, they are finally starting to crack that "top 10% = 90% of all content" barrier, which means more of Twitter's users are active than ever before - and those are the kinds of numbers on which a site like Twitter needs to be focused, and really the only numbers which are relevant.

Some formerly active users complain the service has become bloated with senseless chatter, thanks in large part to its overexposure. Maybe Twitter's changes and focus on relevance will change that.

© C Harris Lynn, 2010

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