A rare tweet

A recent study from Harvard Business School has dared raise one of the most important unspoken questions since a small boy wondered aloud why that Emperor fellow was naked. Exactly what is the point of Twitter? The technorati—and the media—may be enamoured with the micro social-networking site, where people can keep their “followers” informed of their every move in 140 characters or fewer, but, it turns out, very few others are. The study, conducted by Bill Heil, a Harvard student, found that Twitter’s usage patterns are different from other on-line social networks. “A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely,” says the report. “Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.” The study, which examined the activity of over 300,000 people who had signed up to the site, also found that the top 10% of users accounted for over 90% of tweets.

So, to return to the original question: given those figures, what exactly is the point of Twitter? Despite describing itself as “a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected,” Mr Heil believes that, in reality, it has become little more than a marketing tool for companies and celebrities. Quoted on the BBC, he said: “Twitter is a broadcast medium rather than an intimate conversation with friends…The Twitter management need to decide if this is a problem, and if they decide it is, how they will tweak Twitter to become more acceptable to the average user?” Answers in 140 characters or fewer please.

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6 Responses to “A rare tweet”

  1. Jo Jordan Says:

    Ow! Begs the questions of whether usage is homogenous and thus amenable to an average (of whatever description).

  2. Matt Says:

    “Dell said on Thursday (June 11, 2009) it has raked in more than $3 million from Twitter followers who clicked through its posts to its Web sites to make purchases”

    Perhaps the boys over at Harvard should have asked if any companies are seeing benefits from Twitter.

    Read on:

  3. Walt Campbell Says:

    It seems far too early to declare Twitter a success or failure. There seems little doubt that Twitter differs from other forms of electronic communication. We’re still figuring how to use it and get use from it.

    So what if relatively few users are tweeting? That doesn’t mean people don’t get value from it. For example, Twitter is useful for searching on (near) real-time events. It’s also useful for seeing how particular topics are trending. Lastly, as the Iranian protests are showing, Twitter is useful for circumventing communication controls and for what I call “masscasting: large volumes of people posting information about the same general topic.

    Let’s give Twitter and ourselves a bit more time to get comfortable with one another before passing (too harsh a) judgment.

  4. Brian Butler Says:

    oh, noooo. Harvard? I thought you guys were smarter than that!

    Its like reading the newsweek story back in ’95 ….. http://www.newsweek.com/id/106554/page/1

    “After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

    Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

    read the rest here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/106554/page/1


  5. JT Says:

    Sure, 90% of tweets are from 10% of users. But is that horribly different from some other social media and collaborative tools? Wikipedia, for instance. Most folks who visit Wikipedia do so to review content, not contribute. Might that be the case for Twitter users as well? There are times when I might go for a couple of days without tweeting, but I check every day, a couple of times per day, to see what’s going on with those I’m following.

    And even if there are relatively few people worth following on Twitter, given the huge number of folks who use Twitter, that leaves a “relatively few” in at least the tens of thousands. There’s no way I could follow all of the interesting folks out there.

    Personally, I don’t tweet a whole lot. I’ve posted 600+ tweets over the past year. That’s not much. But I follow NPR Science Friday, CNN, prominent educators, politicians, pundits and many more, in addition to friends and family. Just because I don’t tweet much doesn’t mean I’m not visiting and getting value from Twitter.

    Finally, don’t tell the folks who are customers of Public Services of New Hampshire that Twitter has no value. During a power outage, Twitter emerged as a useful communication tool between PSNH and customers. I spoke with the PSNH spokesperson who used Twitter for this purpose. He characterized it as a lifeline.

    The hype over Twitter is very likely overblown. But the backlash against it may also be an overreaction, especially since the metrics Harvard (and others) are using to judge Twitter’s value seem archane and outdated.

  6. @ukroads Says:

    What happened to the old MBA principle of ensuring these types of research provide a holistic view?

    The stats provided for Twitter need to be compared with other similar sites and service surely?

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