Twitter hype punctured by study

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Is it possible that anyone is surprised by the news that 10% of Twitter users are responsible for 90% of the tweets? Or that over half Tweet less than once every 74 days? I suppose it is interesting when compared with the social network norm (10% produce 30% of the content) but it is certainly not newsworthy nor does it show anything unexpected about Twitter. There was no hype bubble to burst.

The study’s authors suggest that this makes it a one-to-many publishing service as though that is a bad thing. Of course, it *would* be a bad thing if there were any limits on who could publish, but there are not (well, censorship issues to one side for a moment).

It is much more interesting that, in the space of year, it grew by 1382%. That’s a big number – even Facebook only grew 228% in the same period. I’d be inclined to put that down to a few factors apart from the usual variants on Metcalfe’s law:

1) it’s very fast, very simple, very easy to get going – there is little investment needed in time, attention, computer power, etc

2) It exploits multiple technologies and their associated networks – not just computers but cellphones – and it fits neatly in everything from a widget to a web page.

3) unlike phone, email or SMS, it’s a push technology that doesn’t usually intrude too much or demand a response – even if it distracts, for most of us the 140 character limit keeps the distraction small, even less than RSS feeds.

4) Media hype and prominent celeb twitterers – there’s something very intimate and immediate about tweets that makes the view into someone’s personal life compulsive reading with very little effort.This certainly gave a boost.

5) Perhaps most importantly, it can ride on the back of other social networks. Despite their best belated efforts to compete, Twitter started by competing with no one and so was able to take full advantage of people exchanging info about their Twitter profiles on many social networks like Facebook, email, MySpace, etc. Throw in a dead simple API that makes it easy to integrate with other sites, so there is very little reinvestment in building a new social network needed, and it is almost surprising that it did not grow any faster. It is a compelling symbiotic (or maybe a bit parasitic) organism that thrives on other networks as well as building its own.

I find it interesting not so much for what it is but as an example of the way we must go forwards – to build small, open, agile, flexible, integratable services that enable a federation of networks and functionalities, building on what is already there and evolving fast. It is more than likely that Twitter will some day crash and burn or, more probably, get sucked into the genetic material of something else, but that is the nature of evolution and nothing to cry about.

Created:Fri, 12 Jun 2009 03:21:48 GMT

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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