There are two questions about Twitter:

  • Why do people post to Twitter (and other social sites)?
  • What happens when they get many followers?

There are answers to these questions in a research paper by Prof. Olivier Toubia, Columbia Business School, and Prof. Andrew Stephen, University of Pittsburgh. They used test groups and statistics to show how people behave on Twitter.

They picked 2,500 random users and looked at their tweets. They selected some of those users and added 100 fake followers to each to see if people changed their postings.

  • There are two reasons for using social: Intrinsic and Image, by which the researchers mean “for its own sake” and “to enhance status”. To put it bluntly: people either post for fun (“Woohoo! Party!”) or to show off their status (“Dinner at the Paris Four Seasons!”).
  • When people have few followers, postings are generally personal.
  • As followers increased, people post more often.
  • When people get more followers, they tend to become less personal. They begin to broadcast. See p. 33 and Table 7.
  • But at a certain point, people actually began to post less.
  • Companies want to get people to post more about the company, but if companies start following people and this increases the numbers too high, people will reduce the number of postings. Companies may actually decrease the number of mentions of the company. See p. 20.

Here’s my summary: When people first start on Twitter, they’re posting updates about themselves. When they see an increase in followers, they begin to post more. But postings become broadcasts to show off their status. As the number of followers reaches a certain point, people post less.

The researchers predict Twitter will evolve from a production of content to a consumption of content, i.e., from a social townsquare into traditional broadcast media, dominated by celebrities.

My Comments: This mirrors the evolution of the web. Starting in the mid-80s and into the early 90s, many people used Usenet and IRC to chat. The dotcom boom and commercialization brought companies onto the web (they saw the web as an opportunity to reach consumers, i.e., broadcast at them for marketing). The web evolved into a broadcast platform as websites became technically complex (database-driven sites with transaction capability, such as Amazon), which pushed the personal sites to the bottom. The collapse of the dotcom boom and the crash in April 2000 forced a retreat of commercialization of the web (some 5,000 dotcoms collapsed). In 2003-2005, developers used the ideas of AJAX to build interactive sites. This launched another attempt to build a social web. If the same happens to social, it will evolve from a townsquare conversation into broadcast. However, people will begin to look for another form of tools that allow townsquare conversation (UseNet, IRC, personal websites, blogs, Twitter, etc.).

See the discussion at p. 35.

See the summary at p. 36 plus Table 1 and Table 2 at p. 45.

An interesting note about Table 1: The study sample of 2,400 users have anywhere from zero followers to 18,940 followers. The median number is 704 (that’s the median, not the average). Very often, people use 1,000 followers as the cut-off point as a person with large number of followers, but it’s actually 704.

Get a copy of the research at Intrinsic versus Image-Related Motivations in Social Media (PDF)