Sunday, January 11, 2009

Twitter's follower/following/@ ratios

At Confused of Calcutta, JP examines a study of Twitter in the latest First Monday. The conclusion of the study: "the driver of usage is a sparse and hidden network of connections underlying the “declared” set of friends and followers." Specifically, the people receiving the @ messages.

JP interprets:

This by itself is not surprising: as the authors point out, every community, every social network, evinces a similar pattern. We send e-mail regularly to a very small portion of our address book; we call a very small portion of our mobile contacts; we reach out to a very small portion of our Facebook “friends”. This sort of behaviour is true even in other communities; for example, there are a number of opensource projects that behave similarly.

But he believes that this number of direct contacts has the potential to be raised in social software. I think he's probably right, but I also think that Twitter's - and Facebook's, LinkedIn's, MySpace's, and others' - status messages serve other purposes.

Here's how I explained it in a recent talk. When I was a kid, I played soccer. And my coach - who was also my father - emphasized that we should communicate constantly. So in our games, we would constantly be calling things out. Often this was encouragement (“good work!”); sometimes it constituted alerts (“man on!”); and sometimes it was just status (“I’m behind you”). But in aggregation, this chatter constituted what we might call ambient status: when the whole team does this, any given player has a pretty good idea of where the other players are, without looking. If I have the ball, and I hear my team's voices, I know where they are without having to scan the field.

For me, the bulk of my Twitter usage is in assessing ambient status. I get a sense of the trends in the fields in which I work, but also the well-being of my contacts. I see when they're engaging in activities similar to mine. I can tell when they're struggling with particular issues. I can get a sense of what they're reading, writing, and studying. I know when they're sick and when they're enthusiastic and when they're uncertain. And sometimes I push out encouragement, alerts, and status myself, not necessarily directed to a specific person, but to the whole ad hoc "team."

So, yes, directly addressed connections are important, but they aren't the point of my individual Twitter use. I suspect this is true for many people who use Twitter heavily - and people who try to use Twitter primarily as a medium for direct connections are consistently disappointed by it.


Gordie said...

That's good. It connects to Ed Hutchins' basic point about socially distributed cognition, that people learn how to join in a social activity by first being sensitive to social relations.

Chris Finlay said...

Completely agree. Actually describe Twitter as IM without the pressure to post or the need for constant engagement. It also lets me have better conversation at conferences about interesting things with people I enjoy but would otherwise have to spend a lot of time catching up with to have a meaningful conversation.

Bill said...

I think other social software serves similar purposes that are just below the surface of their stated ones. My family uses Flickr not so much to share photos but to do something much more mundane: coordinate experience. Very few of the pictures we post are worth looking at for very long as artifacts, but they create both an updated status/stream of experience and, overtime, constitute a visual history that we enjoy tuning into and revisiting.