Is Twitter a Conversation or Broadcast Platform?

Are we seeing the Twitterverse through rose colored glasses?

In January 2009 I pondered whether or not Twitter was a viable conversation platform. After all, Twitter is one of the darlings of Social Media and it is conversations and the democratization of content that fuel the rapid expansion and adoption of social tools and services.

Just ask any social media “expert” and they’ll tell you that you must absolutely establish a Twitter account and commence the process of responding to everyone who Tweets about your company, market, or competition. But the more I observe interaction on social networks, and in the this case Twitter, I believe that sometimes it’s effective to also maintain a presence simply by reading, listening, and sharing relevant and timely information without yet having to directly respond to each and every tweet – perhaps replying to only the critical or influential individuals that may need immediate information or direction to steer strategic activity.

Before you react, continue reading. Observations are just that, but there are numbers now surfacing that continue to reinforce my examination. Is Twitter a conversation or broadcast platform? Perhaps it’s both. I’d also interject that it’s also a listening platform – for the majority of users who use Twitter to garner insight and information without necessarily sharing updates on their account.

As Twitter continues to elicit discussions on its cultural and interpersonal impact, in-depth analysis reveals that perhaps Twitter isn’t currently a pervasive platform for hosting conversations at all. And as Nielsen suggests, with only a 40% retention rate, it may not be growing as fast as we believe either. As a comparison, during the important stages of defining growth for MySpace and Facebook, retention averaged 70%.

Yet everywhere you turn, Twitter is regarded as the catalyst for people flocking to engage in the proverbial “conversation” that is so vital to fostering vibrant online communities between peers and also brands and consumers.

At a micro level, Twitter is indeed significant. The unique, loyal, and revolutionary culture and behavior it’s inducing may well ignite macro reverberations that ultimately effect how we discover, share, and consumer information. In the long-term, it will at the very least, influence human interaction, business services, information dissemination, events, and also media in general.

Just in the past week, Twitter was Time Magazine’s cover story “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live.” Sports Illustrated also documented how Twitter is “Rapidly Changing the Face of Sports.”

This (r)evolution will take time to cross the bell curve of adoption however.

Comscore recently reported that in April, 32 million people around the world visited, sending the micro-community surging past, Digg, and LinkedIn.

Indeed, statistical exploration indicates Twitter is growing in prominence. But, perhaps its importance, at this moment in time, is more closely aligned with a powerful, new, and seemingly engaging one-way broadcasting ecosystem rather than a two-way dialogue channel we initially suspected.

As observed in a recent Harvard Business Report, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. In correlation, the top 10% of users in other typical social networks account for 30% of all content production. Harvard crystallizes the gravity of this metric though a parallel comparison of Twitter and Wikipedia, “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.”

The Harvard study also noted that among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is “one.” This equates to over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every ~74 days.

According to an analysis of seven million Twitter accounts conducted by Purewire and presented to TechCrunch, 80% of Twitter accounts have fewer than 10 followers and 30% have zero followers.

Purewire documented Twitter activity by number of followers, followings, and Tweets:

Accounts with 0 followers: 29.4%
Accounts with 1 to 9 followers: 50.9%
Accounts with 10 or more followers: 19.7%

Accounts following 0 people: 24.4%
Accounts following 1 to 9 people: 43.4%
Accounts following 10 or more people: 32.2%

Accounts with 0 Tweets: 37.1%
Accounts with 1 to 9 Tweets: 41.0%
Accounts with more 10 or more Tweets: 21.9%

As TechCrunch notes, 1/4 of all Twitter accounts are not following anybody and more than 1/3 have not posted a single Tweet. Of active accounts, which PureWire defines as those possessing more than 10 followers, 10 followings, and 10 tweets, 63.6% follower more people than they have followers and only 2.8% maintain an equal number of followers and followings.

This is not unlike content production and consumption behavioral patters across the Social Web however. Looking at Forrester’s 2008 Technographics data, a vast majority of people are merely spectators with less than one quarter actively publishing any content anywhere.

Forrester also segments online engagement and participation by analyzing the actions of individuals who populate the Social Web. They’re labeled as Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators, Inactives.

Right now, Twitter and its potential for progress is limited only by the information, direction, and education provided by Twitter itself in order to demonstrate and teach existing and new users how to truly use and take advantage of this new and dynamic information ecosystem. While Twitter’s API is empowering third-party developers to create Twitterverse of exciting, useful, and entertaining applications that enhance the Twitter experience, it can not outsource nor rely upon the community to teach the world how to use Twitter. Providing recommendations on people to follow doesn’t really help at all.

In the meantime, Twitter will continue to flourish as a rapid-fire broadcast network until people learn how to communicate, understand how to participate and what to contribute, and eventually ease into a collaborative, two-way meaningful dialogue that represents Twitter’s greatest promise.


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Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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