Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.
On Monday, Harvard Business School released the results of one of the first extensive sociological studies of Twitter, the frenetically popular micro-blogging site. The data was culled from a random sample of the May 2009 activity of 300,000 Twitter users; it was then compared to user patterns on social networks such as Facebook.
"Twitter has attracted tremendous attention from the media and celebrities, but there is much uncertainty about Twitter's purpose," Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski, two of the study's principles, write on the Harvard Business Publishing site. "Is Twitter a communications service for friends and groups, a means of expressing yourself freely, or simply a marketing tool?"
So what did Heil and Piskorski discover? Brace yourself. Among the findings:
Men are from Mars...
Men are twice as likely to follow other men than women, and men are 40 percent more likely to be followed by other men than women. At the same time, women are 25 percent more likely to follow men than women. In other words, both men and women prefer following men. (For the record, this particular Twitter addict follows men and women almost equally – so don't point any fingers.)
"These results are stunning," the authors explain. "On a typical online social network, most of the activity is focused around women - men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know." So what's happening on Twitter? Your guess is as good as mine.
... and women are from Venus
The study also identifies a "follower split": although women and men follow a similar amount of users, men have more followers. Furthermore, men are more likely to engage in reciprocal Twitter relationships with other men – "reciprocal" here defined as a situation where each user is following the other.
"This 'follower split' suggests that women are driven less by followers than men," the authors argue, "or have more stringent thresholds for reciprocating relationships. This is intriguing, especially given that females hold a slight majority on Twitter: we found that men comprise 45 percent of Twitter users, while women represent 55 percent." How to explain the split? Maybe women have more refined tastes than men.
Plus, some people are using Twitter a lot and others not at all
Finally, the study finds – not surprisingly, for anyone who tweets – that "the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets." This is certainly not the case on Facebook, for instance, where time spent is spread more evenly among users. The data, the authors conclude, "implies that Twitter's resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network."
It also implies that Twitter – more than Facebook – could be just a passing fad.