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Who Says what to Whom on Twitter?

December 10, 2011

 Hoffman, Wu, Mason and Watts have shared a great piece of academic research via Yahoo! Research: "Who Says What to Whom on Twitter" is interesting because it rises head and shoulders above the normal fare of people claiming to be Twitter experts.


The part that resonates for me, and deserves some further examination, is the bit that challenges our perceptions of ‘mass communication’ and ‘interpersonal communication’.




I have long been tossing ideas about around the requirement for a new ‘media literacy’, but this has me wondering if we need to revise all of our assumptions about communications.


The conclusions make interesting reading, given that on Twitter people choosewhat to share and what to consume. The paper focuses on what’s broadcast, but we all know that what’s shared and what’s read are two different things. And therein lies a researchers nightmare, since following someone tweets doesn’t mean you read them any more than buying a newspaper means you read the share listings that happen to be in it. (We used to call this OTS – opportunities to see. Social media monitoring tools have a tendency to refer to this as ‘influence’, which is problematic, and we’ll probably end up having to revise the term we use for genuine influence if it becomes too pervasive.)


Some of  the study’s  interesting conclusions (if only as proof points of things we already ‘sensed’)   include:

– “…although audience attention has indeed fragmented among a wider pool of content producers than classical models of mass media, attention remains highly concentrated, where roughly 0.05% of the population accounts for almost half of all posted URLs.” (Twitter as a broadcast model, but with its own set of user behaviours/media consumption behaviours.)

– “Within this population of elite users, moreover, we find that attention is highly homophilous, with celebrities following celebrities, media following media, and bloggers following bloggers.” That’ll be the echo chamber then.

– “almost half the information that originates from the media passes to the masses indirectly via a diffuse intermediate layer of opinion leaders, who although classified as ordinary users, are more connected and more exposed to the media than their followers.” Now this, for me, is the golden nugget in understanding the new communications/media landscape and one which PR people must be aware of – and handle with care. 

– “….although all categories devote a roughly similar fraction of their attention to different categories of news (World, U.S., Business,etc), there are some differences—organizations, for example, devote a surprisingly small fraction of their attention to business-related news.”  This too merits some examination. Business stands to gain everything in this new environment, and small businesses do particularly well because they have a genuine voice on line.  Why are we afraid to share? Is it because we’ll be doing PR for our competition? There are some interesting assumptions to be challenged in this space!

– “… different types of content exhibit very different lifespans: media-originated URLs are disproportionately represented among short-lived URLs while those originated by bloggers tend to be over-represented among long-lived URLs. Finally, we find that the longest-lived URLs are dominated by content such as videos and music, which are continually being rediscovered by Twitter users and appear to persist indefinitely.”


Personally I find this latter part unsurprising. Media generated URLs are likely to be news based, and are therefore, by their very nature, ephemeral. Today’s news, tomorrow’s chip wrappers!  Bloggers generally create more ‘feature led’ content – an in depth look, or an ‘under the bonnet’. Videos and music are creative works – and in the offline world we have some of these that have been around for centuries – even millennia.


The study only looks at shared content with trackable URLs, and on a single platform (Twitter), but it’s a worthwhile piece of work if it does nothing more than discredit the gurus who constantly broadcast their own content (oh the irony!) telling the world that:

– the only kind of communication worth its salt on Twitter is peer to peer (person to person). I saw a tweet (and apologise, I didn’t keep it to attribute) from a conference where a very engaging, very successful  corporate Twitterer acknowledged that is becomes almost impossible to be person to person once you are visible to over a thousand people.  Good quality ‘broadcast’ content (articles, video, pictures) travels and has an extra life. (See comments above regarding the middle layer!)

– old media is dead. Their tweets are amongst the most shared which suggests being anything but dead. So there’s a new interplay between old content delivery and new, not in the content itself. But the ‘old’ media already knew that. It’s the funding model that’s needing to change to support it. I’m going to stick my neck out here and stand up for newspapers as purveyors of good quality content. It still makes the news when they overstep the mark, and whilst they do get some bits wrong, they are generally better writers than the rest of us, and there are moderation mechanisms in place. (Don’t believe me? Place a story with the WSJ – every flippancy gets examined, checked, chased. No complacency there!)

– all businesses do is broadcast things about themselves: “organizations, for example,devote a surprisingly small fraction of their attention to business-related news” (This is a minefield – I’m sure I’ll regret going there.)


Myths busted, I sense an interesting debate brewing.

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