Twitter needs to become more ‘social’, less ‘elite’

30 Mar 2011

It’s called a social networking platform, but is it really social? Jack Dorsey’s return to a more permanent role at the company he kick started may see Twitter endeavour to be more social and mainstream than the rabid highway it is today.

Rabid? Um, well, rapid. Unlike Facebook, where things have a context, a timeline and a holding pattern of sorts, Twitter fulfils its role as a speedy exchange of information almost too well. It’s like a public street with cars whizzing buy but with no place to stop. It’s fast and efficient, but blink and things have moved on.

No one for a second can doubt its power as a medium to exchange information. A journalist yesterday tweeted that he finds Twitter provides more information on breaking news stories than any wire services at his paper. The use of hashtags to follow unfolding events whether it’s the Budget, what’s been said on Prime Time or disasters like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami make the value of Twitter clear.

But outside of DMs (direct messages), the use of hashtags and including other users in your tweets, where is the glue? Blink, and things move on.

It’s for this reason that Twitter is still a challenge for many people and this is something Dorsey, who sent the world’s first tweet five years ago, has returned to an executive role at Twitter, to fix. He will run his other start-up, payments firm Square, simultaneously.

In recent days, since returning, Dorsey has been quite candid about his intentions. He has said he believes he needs to make it easier for people to navigate the technology and find better ways of helping Twitter users get information rather than pour every vacuous thought in their head into 140 characters.

A study of 260m tweets by Yahoo Research that contain shortened URLs found that 50pc of all content consumed on Twitter is generated by only 20,000 users. If this is right, then it’s astonishing when you consider Twitter has 200m users worldwide.

Ordinary Twitter users and elite Twitter users

The Yahoo Research also suggested Twitter isn’t really that social. For example, individuals on Twitter ‘follow’ back much less than when they’re ‘followed’.

There is also a bit of a clique phenomena on Twitter, journos talk to journos, bloggers talk to bloggers and celebs talk to celebs. The Yahoo study points out that predominantly there are “ordinary” and “elite” users of Twitter, dividing the “elite” users into four categories: media, celebrities, organisations and bloggers.

“Clearly, ordinary users on Twitter are receiving their information from many thousands of distinct sources, most of which are not traditional media organisations,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Even though media outlets are by far the most active users on Twitter, only about 15pc 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 20,000 elite users, comprising less than 0.05pc of the user population, attracts almost 50pc 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.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years