There’s a story on The Telegraph website today entitled Twitter ‘elite’ send most tweets. That’s not quite a fair representation of the story itself – the most important parts of the story are these:
Fifty per cent of all tweets read and shared on Twitter are generated by only 20,000 ‘elite’ users, despite there being more than 200 million registered accounts on the service.
Information flows have not become egalitarian by any means
The researchers also found that individuals on Twitter follow back far less than they’re followed, making it a less ‘social’ platform than the likes of Facebook.
The research that informs the article is from Yahoo Research, and there is a much more detailed and nuanced review of it from Nieman Journalism Lab here.
Just think about the nature of Twitter for a moment, and how it compares to Facebook.
On Twitter there is one type of account – for everyone. Whether you’re Lady Gaga, the Foreign Office, Jeff Jarvis or a mere mortal like me, your account is essentially the same.
On Facebook that’s not so – there are essentially two ways of using it. ‘Friend’ is a reciprocal relationship, liking a ‘Page’ is not. Is the Telegraph story really trying to imply that there’s a reciprocal relationship between Lady Gaga and 31 million fans on Facebook? Taking that to the absurd other extreme, I have 3k followers on Twitter, but don’t have an ego large enough to want to set up a Jon Worth ‘Page’ on Facebook – it would surely gain very few ‘Likes’ – but it would give me a non-reciprocal interaction on Facebook.
Social networks hence do not imply reciprocity or egalitarianism. They imply connections between equals, and they give users an ability to establish some sort of non-egalitarian connection with people they admire or respect (and no, I don’t follow Lady Gaga and am not a fan on Facebook, but you get the idea). The long tail of the internet is just as valid in social networks as it is anywhere else.
Hence those that have the ability to lead become a de facto elite in social media. The important question therefore is how these elites form and how to understand that process.
Take Wael Ghonim for example in Egypt – not part of the old elite (the Mubarak regime) but undoubtedly from an educated business elite. I don’t for a moment doubt his determination and commitment, but this was not a poor kid from the street forcing a revolution thanks to social media. There’s an undoubted advantage for early adopters, as I’ve previously argued, and social media can be used to redistribute power within a society. But egalitarian it is not, and never will be.