9 June 2009

Twitter and participation inequality in social networks

There has been a lot of noise in the media around some recent research that concludes that 90% of Twitter content is accounted for by 10% of users. This is not much of a surprise for two reasons: as a new service Twitter is bound to have more than its fair share of inactive users who are trying the service out and, more to the point, this inequality is a common feature of large scale social networks.

The research, by Bill Heil at Harvard Business School, was based on a sample of over 300,000 Twitter accounts taken during May 2009. Among the many findings, Heil saw that the majority of Twitter accounts are inactive – the median number of updates being one. He also observed that a small army of active Twitter users are responsible for the majority of content – hence the headline 90\10 split. Heil compared these figures to other social networks with more active participation rates, offering the example of Wikipedia where 15% of users are accountable for 90% of content.

The number of inactive Twitter accounts can only be expected at this stage of Twitter’s development. The majority of these users will be people who sign up to see what the fuss is all about, quickly moving on to something else. A new and recently-hyped technology such as Twitter is bound to have more than its fair share of dormant accounts at this stage in its development.

There is nothing new in the notion of a minority having a greater influence over the end result. Joseph Juran coined the phrase Pareto Principal to suggest that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This principal is derived from an observation made by economist Vilfredo Pareto over the unequal state of land ownership in Italy. It can be used in a variety of other contexts, such as a rule of thumb for business – e.g. “80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients”, or even in optimising computer software as Microsoft once suggested that fixing 20% of the most frequently reported bugs can eliminate 80% of errors.

Jakob Neilson wrote extensively about what he called “participation inequality“, suggesting that In most online communities “90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.” Neilson is emphatic that participation inequality “will always be with us” and has existed “in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.” Participation inequality can be mitigated by making it easier to contribute or enticing some of the “lurkers” via rewards, but it cannot be completely eliminated.

The risk with participation inequality is that it can render the overall system unrepresentative of the community at large. Neilson offers the example of Amazon book reviews which is supposed to provide an unbiased guide to buyers yet the majority of reviews were provided by a small number of users with one contributer being responsible for more than 12,000 entries. The problem here is that the mood of the community at large cannot necessarily be guaged from the contributions that have been made by the active minority.

So Twitter has a simialr issue – the majority of users appear to be “lurkers”. Is this a problem that undermines its value? Most research in this area has concentrated around specific communities that have particular intentions – i.e. the Wikipedia community is concerned with developing an online information resource, while product reviews at Amazon are geared around providing a guide for consumers. These intentions are ultimately undermined by participation inequality.

Twitter on the other hand is not a community in the sense that Neilson describes. Twitter is more of a technology than a community as it provides an immediate, open and flexible means of communication where the purpose is left to the individual user. It cannot necessarily be compared with online communities that have specific aims and intentions. With this in mind, should anyone care that the majority of Twitter accounts that have been opened are left unused?

Filed under Strategy.