Is Twitter dominated by 0.05% of users?

October 3, 2011
Joe Hagan's NYMag cover story on Twitter dredges up one of the most misunderstood factoids about the service:

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Joe Hagan’s NYMag cover story on Twitter dredges up one of the most misunderstood factoids about the service:

To surface the content, and keep the audience happy, you have to make sure that the content keeps flowing in, and this, too, is far from a sure thing. A study conducted by sociologists working for Yahoo concluded that 50 percent of all the tweets come from just 20,000 users. “It’s really dominated by this media-celebrity-blogger elite,” says Duncan Watts, one of the researchers. “It’s a small number of users who are hyperconnected, and then there’s everybody else just paying attention to those people.”

Joe doesn’t link to the study, which is here; in any case, it’s not the easiest document to understand. The paper’s language is different to Joe’s:

It remains the case that 20K elite users, comprising less than 0.05% of the user population, attract almost 50% of all attention within Twitter.

I asked Watts to explain exactly what this means, and he replied:

What we actually found is the following: if you take a random Twitter user and look at their feed, roughly 50% of the tweets that you see will come from one of 20,000 users. What we did NOT find is that 50% of all tweets originate from one of 20K users. That is NOT true, and actually is impossible given rate limits on posting tweets.

Joe’s point is absolutely right: if you look at how Twitter is used in practice, a lot of people do a lot more reading than writing, while a very small group of people are responsible for a huge proportion of what is read.

But at the same time, Twitter has actually been astonishingly good at getting people to write anything at all. Back in June, Twitter reached the point at which it was publishing 200 million tweets per day:

For perspective, every day, the world writes the equivalent of a 10 million-page book in Tweets or 8,163 copies of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

It’s true that a lot of those tweets are read by a relatively small number of people, and that a tiny minority of those tweets get broadcast to millions, either directly or by being retweeted. But Twitter — along with Facebook — is at the forefront of what Arianna Huffington astutely identified as an incredibly important and powerful new trend: “self-expression has become the new entertainment”.

Think about it this way: what would happen if Twitter was reduced to just those 20,000 accounts broadcasting to the Twitter user base, with nobody else writing anything at all? The service, obviously, would die in a matter of days. The 20,000 most-read Twitter accounts are the bread in the typical user’s sandwich; the flavor comes from everything else — their friends, their unique interests, and, crucially, their own contributions to the stream.

Contra Hagan, then, this particular statistic says nothing in particular about the quantity of content flowing in and around the twittersphere. For that, you’re better off looking at the total number of tweets per day — something which is still rising at an impressive rate. When you have millions of users contributing hundreds of millions of tweets to the ecosystem on a daily basis, some are going to have much more reach than others. But the real power and longevity of the platform will come from its breadth. Not from the broadcasting-like attributes of a handful of power users.


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