Harvard Research on Twitter Promotes Controversy about it’s Purpose

Twitter, the micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users’ updates which is taking the hype around it as best social networking site for year 2008 and still attracting tremendous attention from the public and icons including the royal family in Jordan – Queen Rania (http://twitter.com/queenrania), a research released out of Harvard Business Publishing highlights the uncertainty about Twitter’s purpose: Is Twitter a communications service for friends and networking tool, a means of expressing yourself freely by answering “What are you doing?”, or simply a marketing tool that is being used by everyone for branding, customer contact, generate traffic and leads?

HBP examined the activity of a random sample of 300,000 Twitter users last month in May 2009 to find out how people are using the service. Then comparing findings to activity on other social networks and online content production venues. Their findings are very surprising and promotes controversy among twitter users (aka tweeple).

The sample (300,542 users, collected in May 2009), 80% are followed by or follow at least one user. By comparison, only 60 to 65% of other online social networks’ members had at least one friend (when these networks were at a similar level of development). This suggests that actual users (as opposed to the media at large) understand how Twitter works.

Although average follow for men and women is similar in number, men have 15% more followers than women and more reciprocated relationships, in which two users follow each other. This “follower split” suggests that women are driven less by followers than men, or have more stringent thresholds for reciprocating relationships. This is intriguing, especially given that females hold a slight majority on Twitter: they found that men comprise 45% of Twitter users, while women represent 55%.

They found that an average man is almost twice more likely to follow another man than a woman. Similarly, an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.

These results are stunning given what previous research has found in the context of online social networks. On a typical online social network, most of the activity is focused around women – men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know

Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski wrote in their report: “Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical on-line social network. A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. 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.”

Another beating finding was that: the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production.

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Tarek is the founder and chief researcher at Youngberry, a youth research and marketing firm dedicated to the region. Tarek founded interactiveME.com and previously worked as Manager at Flip Media (Interactive Agency), Bayt.com (Job Site) and Consulting House Qatar (Consulting firm). He is researcher and writer on internet & disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, and youth culture.