Twitter: top-down, male-dominated social media

A new study by the Harvard Business Review reveals some surprising (or maybe not) insights about everyone's favourite over-hyped, potentially useless social media network, Twitter. Unlike almost every other social network, Twitter is dominated by a small cabal of self-absorbed men. This makes Twitter a lot more like, say, politics and professional sports than Facebook or Wikipedia. The numbers are pretty illuminating. On other social network sites, the vast majority of activity is focused around women. Men follow content created by females they do and do not know, while women follow the content of other women they know personally. But on Twitter, the reality is very different:

We 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. Finally, an average man is 40% more likely to be followed by another man than by a woman. These results cannot be explained by different tweeting activity - both men and women tweet at the same rate.

But the really surprising thing is the dynamics of Twitter content creation:

At the same time there is a small contingent of users who are very active. Specifically, 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. To put Twitter in perspective, consider an unlikely analogue - Wikipedia. There, the top 15% of the most prolific editors account for 90% of Wikipedia's edits ii. In other words, the pattern of contributions on Twitter is more concentrated among the few top users than is the case on Wikipedia, even though Wikipedia is clearly not a communications tool. This implies that Twitter's resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.

But the really crazy thing is that the median number of lifetime post for Twitter users is one. ONE. That means that over half of people with Twitter accounts tweet less than once every 74 days.

So what does this all mean? Well, for starters, that Twitter is not a social network site at all. It's most obvious analogue is stand-alone blogging, but with vastly diminished control over length, structure and form. And since such a small number of users, of a specific gender, create so much content, you've got to wonder if Twitter is little more than a marketing tool for high-powered users with established web identities. And what will that mean if Twitter decides to adopt some sort of a business model and move towards some sort of a pay-per-service model?

I've expressed some concern over the utility of Twitter in the past (full disclosure: I am, and will likely to continue to be, a Twitter user). Clearly more research is needed here, but this new info makes me even more concerned about the role it will play in the evolution of Web 2.0.