March 29, 2011 at 6:07 PM ET
If it seems like you keep seeing the same people over and over on Twitter, it's not just the fact that they're the people on your "follow" list — not everyone you follow tweets with the same frequency. You know the folks I'm talking about. They seem to live on Twitter, either on their laptops or out and about. You worry about them, wondering if they have real lives.
Well, now a study confirms what you've probably suspected for awhile, if it ever crossed your mind in a pseudo socio-anthropological "Bones" kind of way: that 50 percent of tweets that other people pick up are generated by only 20,000 "elite users," in which "the media produces the most information, but celebrities are the most followed." So those that squawk on Twitter a lot, dominate the conversation a lot, even if they are fewer in numbers.
The 10-page study, a joint project by Cornell University researchers and Yahoo! Research, elaborates on this finding:
Clearly, ordinary users on Twitter are receiving their information from many thousands of distinct sources, most of which are not traditional media organizations even though media outlets are by far the most active users on Twitter, only about 15 percent of tweets received by ordinary users are received directly from the media. Equally interesting, however, is that in spite of this fragmentation, it remains the case that 20K elite users, comprising less than 0.05 percent of the user population, attracts almost 50 percent of all attention within Twitter. Even if the media has lost attention relative to other elites, information flows have not become egalitarian by any means.
The study also makes three big observations:
These "elites" have learned to cut through the middlemen of mass media, reaching their fans directly.
Then there are those "semi-public" individuals that include bloggers, journalists, authors and experts of every kind, contributing heavily to the Twitter stream. The study also looked at those big media corporations, governments and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), which are not only extremely active, but well followed.
"And finally, Twitter is primarily made up of many millions of users who seem to be ordinary individuals communicating with their friends and acquaintances in a manner largely consistent with traditional notions of interpersonal communication."
These researchers used all five BILLION tweets "generated over a 223-day period from July 28, 2009 to March 8, 2010 using data from the Twitter 'rehose,' the complete stream of all tweets."
That's a whole lot of tweets. I can barely keep up with my daily allotment! (Twitter celebrated its fifth birthday on March 21 and announced that "Twitter users now send more than 140 million Tweets a day which adds up to a billion Tweets every 8 days — by comparison, it took 3 years, 2 months, and 1 day to reach the first billion Tweets. While it took about 18 months to sign up the first 500,000 accounts, we now see close to 500,000 accounts created every day." As of September 2010, there were 175 million registered users.)
The study reinforces other findings, as previous academics have also found that the loudest squawkers in the Twitterverse are but a few, compared to the vast numbers of Twitter users out there.
In 2009, a Harvard Business School study found that 10 percent of Twitter users generated more than 90 percent of the content, as reported by Reuters. That research found a significant divide between the Tweets and Tweet-nots: "More than half of all Twitter users post messages on the site less than once every 74 days." Now, I know some people who might go into shock if they haven't posted a tweet in the last 20 minutes. (They might need some social media detox. See link below!)
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