Twitter: More a news medium than social network

A team of researchers has concluded that Twitter is used more for news than for socializing

While Twitter tends to get lumped in with other social-networking sites, a group of Korean researchers has analyzed how people use the service and found that it more closely resembles a traditional news media outlet.

In other words, think of Twitter not as a truncated Facebook, but as a speedy news site where anyone can be a reporter but the dispatches must be no more than 140 characters long.

Haewoon Kwak, one of the researchers, presented the work Friday at the WWW2010 conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Kwak listed the ways that Twitter differs from other social-networking sites, and then described the mathematical analysis the researchers performed to show how people share information differently on Twitter than they do on other networking sites.

For the study, the research team gathered information on 41.7 million user profiles. They pulled 106 million tweets and followed 4,262 trending topics, identified through hash tags.

Unlike with most social-networking sites, a Twitter user does not need to get the permission of another user to follow that person's missives. With Twitter, anyone can follow anyone else (as long as that person makes his or her tweets public).

This approach, Kwak said, is closer to that of blogs, which can be subscribed to via an RSS feed. This led the team to wonder if Twitter was more of a news medium than a social-networking site.

The numbers backed up their idea. The team found that only 22 percent of "follows," where one person chooses to include another's tweets on their page, were reciprocal. This is far lower than the reciprocal rates of typical social media sites, such as Flickr (68 percent) and the popular Koran service Cyworld (77 percent).

And like other forms of media, including news outlets, Twitter has its stars. About 40 Twitter accounts have more than a million followers. The data indicates that amassing this level of popularity cannot be achieved simply by tweeting as much as possible. Rather, all the most popular Twitter accounts belong to celebrities, who are famous in channels other than Twitter.

The messages themselves more closely resemble those of a news dissemination medium as well. Of the tweets registered, more than 85 percent were news-related in some way.

The newsy aspect of Twitter is reflected in the question its users are now asked when posting tweets -- "What's happening?" -- as opposed to the earlier question, "What are you doing?" And many people use the service to search for up-to-the-second information about unfolding events, such as a football game or a natural disaster.

The researchers compared how often Twitter contained the first mention of a breaking news event to how often the CNN Headline News site got the scoop. While CNN broke the news first more than half the time, news appeared on Twitter before CNN a considerable number of times as well.

The question of whether Twitter is a social-networking service or a media outlet, albeit a new form of media, is a pertinent one, especially given Twitter's decision to start interspersing mini-advertisements in its search results.

On the April 15 edition of the Slate "Disrupters" business podcast (episode #4), Matthew Yeomans, a founder of the Web 2.0 consulting firm Social Media Influence, pointed out that people have different expectations with news media sites than they do with social media sites, especially in terms of privacy and level of acceptance of ads.

"If [Twitter] was to grow into a pure-play social network, then the acceptance of advertising would be a lot harder by the Twitter community than if Twitter just becomes a hardcore way of people getting information," he said.

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