Twitter is Not a Social Network


That’s right, Twitter is not a social network. There, I said it.

Just because a service connects people doesn’t automatically mean we should call it a “social network.” What’s more important is what the service actually does with all those connected people.

Cheers to Ben Parr at Mashable and his piece the other day for getting me thinking about this question and leading me to some really interesting research on Twitter by four academics in Korea. But more on that in a minute…

What does the network actually do?

First, let me back into my conclusion about Twitter with a few examples of other services that use networks of people in order to achieve specific ends.

You could call eBay a social network and you wouldn’t be wrong. eBay does connect people; people who want to sell stuff with people who want to buy stuff. What’s interesting about eBay though – what defines it, really – is how those connections are used. What flows through the eBay network are bids, transactions … and products. That’s because it’s an online marketplace; an online marketplace that rests on top of a network of people.

How about Amazon? One of Amazon’s most valuable assets is its user-contributed product reviews, which are essentially just Amazon connecting people who know something about a product with people who want to know something about a product. Clearly, that’s not all Amazon does, but connecting people is a really important part of what they do. So, is Amazon a social network? Well, yes, you could call it that, but that would be confusing ends with means. While less obvious than eBay, Amazon’s marketplace also rests on a network of people.

Why Twitter is an Information Network, not a Social Network

So, back to Twitter. Yes, Twitter connects people – lots of people. The latest figure is 160 million. And yes, between all those people there are lots of connections. Lots of people, lots of links – that’s a social network, right?

Not so fast … again, the key is what is being done with all those connections and I have a particular frame that sets a pretty high bar for calling something a “social network.” We’ll get to that at the end of this post, but first, let’s take a look at how the folks at Twitter describe their service:

Twitter is a real-time information network powered by people all around the world that lets you share and discover what’s happening now.

A “real-time information network” – that’s how the people at Twitter describe their own service. Yes, it’s “powered by people” but note that they’re not using the term “social network” and they’ve become increasingly deliberate about this choice of terms just recently. These folks have access to the data. They know how people use the network – and apparently it’s for sharing “real-time information.”

If that’s not good enough for you, and you want to dig into the data yourself, I have good news for you. And no, I’m not talking about the just released Sysomos Twitter research, which seems to be getting a fair amount of attention thanks to Wired. Though that study is very interesting, the data I’m talking about is even more extensive. It’s a paper called “What is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?” and you can download the PDF here. The paper’s authors, Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, and Sue Moon don’t mess around. In 2009, they downloaded pretty much all of the member and usage data that then existed on Twitter – and then they analyzed the hell out of it. Let me tell you some of what they had to say, and why it completely transformed the way I see Twitter.

Here’s the first finding to share:

Twitter shows a low level of reciprocity; 77.9% of user pairs with any link between them are connected one-way, and only 22.1% have reciprocal relationship between them.

What this means is that only one-in-five of the connections between people on Twitter are actually two-way. Contrast that with Facebook where the connections are mutual, two-way ties by default. Yes, Facebook is doing some things to change this, but this is a pretty fundamental difference between the two services. Yes, yes, you say, but people like David Kirkpatrick (whose work I just stumbled on as I was finishing writing this piece) have been telling us for a while that Facebook ties are reciprocal and Twitter ties are asymmetrical. Why does that make Twitter an “information network”? Well, here’s where the really interesting figure comes in:

Moreover, 67.6% of users are not followed by any of their followings in Twitter. We conjecture that for these users Twitter is rather a source of information than a social networking site.

Let me break this one down a bit because I had to do some noodling to really understand its implications. Britney Spears and Oprah have five gazillion followers, whereas the vast majority of us have relatively few. So, you – and lots of other people – may follow Britney and Oprah, but well, how do I put this gently – Oprah and Britney aren’t following you back. Twitter is a living, breathing example of the power law at work; an information distribution network with a small number of heavies followed by lots of people, and lots of people followed by few, if any. There are people in between, but that’s not the majority. This research strongly suggests that two-thirds of the Twitter base – the vast majority of Twitter users – are really just using the service as a human-powered information distribution and filtering service. Maybe it should be called Lurker.

Why the Myth Persists

Whether or not this conclusion comes as a surprise to you will depend on who you are. If you’re like most people, you already know that Twitter is more of a passive experience and that Tweets are something you read rather than post.

If you’re like me though, and are actively involved in blogging or other forms of content publishing, you probably suffer from a little myopia on the question of Twitter. Like me, you probably see Twitter as being as much about connecting with people as connecting with information. That’s because many of the people we’re connected with on Twitter are also information disseminators who can help us further spread our ideas with their retweets and replies. Most of us who write about things like Twitter haven’t quite reached the star stage, like Oprah and Britney. Reciprocality between following and follower is an issue that we care about. For us, Twitter is a social network because it connects us with other information distributors out there – like us.

So, yes, I’m saying that the confusion about Twitter being a social network starts with people like me. While the vast majority of people use Twitter as an ‘information network’ (or next generation “cable box” as David Kirkpatrick puts it), people like me think of it as a social network because it connects us to peers who also use it to distribute information. We writers are good at getting our ideas heard, so the confusion about Twitter being a social network continues to get lots of attention, despite the company’s efforts to counter that view.

Twitter and Google, Twitter and Facebook

Once you start to see Twitter as an information network rather than a social network, its competitive edges start to look a lot closer to Google than to Facebook. Google is also an “information network” and I don’t use that term lightly. Google’s web crawlers bring order to a vast network of web pages connected to each other by hyperlinks; it literally is an information network. The company’s PageRank algorithm uses “the collective intelligence of the web” to assess the relative importance of individual web pages and give us better search results. Exactly what constitutes this “collective intelligence” is only partially known, but it’s clear that much of it depends on the collective actions of many people doing simple thinks like linking to other websites and phrasing ideas in particular ways.

What this all means is that, like Twitter, Google’s information network is also “powered by people.” The difference is that, at least until recently, Google hasn’t placed as much emphasis on the “real-time” aspect of its information network, whereas real-time is what makes Twitter Twitter. To use an old computer science frame, Twitter is real-time processing, while Google’s web crawling is batch processing. Though very different in the way they’re operated, both services tap networks of people to produce networks of information.

Given these similarities, it’s particularly interesting that Google and Twitter have worked so hard to build synergy between their services. A relationship that could have been competitive has instead become deeply collaborative thanks to a mutually perceived threat. The interesting thing about the challenge that Facebook represents to both Twitter and Google is that Facebook did not set out to directly challenge either of these companies’ information networks. Facebook ended up there because the Achilles heel of both Google and Twitter is the “human powered” aspects of their information networks.

By building a better mousetrap for managing our relationships with people, Facebook is becoming the future platform for computing and communication. This position gives them a lot of potential power over other services that rely on connections with large numbers of people. Posting status and links on Facebook is an obvious challenge to Twitter, and Facebook is already taking steps to allow better broadcasting functions directly aimed at undermining Twitter. The long-term challenges to Google are no less real. With each new post and link from Facebook, the “collective intelligence of the web” morphs just a little. Do that enough and you loosen the crown jewels of Google’s information network.

Social Network as the New Platform

It’s not a perfect analogy, but Facebook is on its way to building a general purpose computing and communications platform with the same kind of power Microsoft held in its hay day. Back then APIs and device drivers were the critical connections in networks of computer hardware and software. Today it’s the social graph that connects networks of people. The relationship between Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office is roughly analogous here.

Facebook conquered the online photo sharing business a few years ago. The company made some changes to its user interface that helped cement their dominance, but the overwhelming factor behind their success is simple: Facebook has a lot of interconnected people, and one of the things they like to do with their connections is share photos.

Real-time information broadcasting like Twitter is something Facebook is already experimenting with through groups, pages and changes in how you accept friend invitations. There’s real advertising money in information broadcasting, so you can bet that Facebook will continue to encroach on Twitter functionality in the years ahead.

Competing head-on with Google in search services would be tough, but not impossible. Today, Facebook covers the web portion of its search needs through a partnership with Microsoft’s Bing and is reportedly already helping to enhance Bing results with ‘social signals’ – presumably links from posts as well as likes, comments and other social data. Would it be hard for Facebook to eventually take over this work themselves? Of course, but there’s a lot of money there as well that might make that an attractive option over time.

What about other profitable service areas that rely on big networks of people, networks like Amazon or eBay – are these future partners, or competitors? Like search, that will depend on how lucrative the opportunity is and how expensive it would be for Facebook to build it themselves. And when they do build some of these services themselves, I guarantee you that they won’t start off having to match their competition feature for feature. Microsoft Office beat its competition by using the underlying platform – in this case Windows 95 – to make it easier for “information workers” to move information between their different applications. Developing add-on services will cost Facebook less money than its competitors because they’ll make up for any near-term shortcomings in their features by offering you something more valuable – and that’s features that are better integrated with your connections with the people you care about most.

Conclusion: General Utility

Just because a service connects lots of people doesn’t automatically make it a “social network.” And yes, I’m purposely being a little dogmatic here, but just to help shift our thinking about services that rely on connections between lots of people. The above research on Twitter shows that most people use the service to connect with information, not people.

People are a means to information on Twitter; information is the end goal. The end goal for Amazon and eBay is selling things. For Flickr, it’s photo sharing. For Google, it’s organizing the world’s information. Like Twitter, all these services rely on the collective actions of millions of people for their services to have value.

Facebook really is different in this sense, because its end goal is connecting people. What those people do with those connections is a work in progress; it has an open-ended aspect to it that is what makes Facebook’s social network similar in function to a utility or an operating system. You might even call it a “social network utility.”

Facebook is becoming the platform for future computing and communications because it is the social network, the one social network utility to have achieved escape velocity. Does this mean that Twitter’s fate is sealed or that Google, Flickr and the others mentioned above will inevitably fall to Facebook? No, of course not. Corel, IBM and others continued to compete with Microsoft Office for many years. But they definitely had their work cut out for them competing with the company that controlled the operating system and knew how to build great applications on top of it.

I started this post by boldly declaring that Twitter is not a social network. Now, after you’ve heard me out, I’ll modify that statement with a more nuanced version, which is that Twitter is not a “social network utility.” Sorry, but you can see how that wouldn’t have been as interesting a title for this post as the one I chose…

If Facebook is the social network utility, Twitter is a social network application. It’s a great social network application. You might even say it’s a killer social network application. But over time, that’s not where the power lies. Utility is power and general utility is power squared. When it comes to connecting with people, that general utility is Facebook and it’s just a matter of time before Twitter and other social network applications feel the consequences of this new kind of power.

Follow Gideon on Twitter: @gideonro

More stuff about Twitter. More stuff about networks.

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56 comments

  1. Totally agree. Twitter is a micro-blog aggregator and should be compared more with, say, Google Reader than with Facebook (and as you say, FB wants to take over some of that too).

    But don’t you think Twitter can become more of a true social network over time? I think of Twitter as a piece of (relatively-open) web infrastructure that can build other things over time, including social networks.

    • How though? Twitter doesn’t even differentiate between organisations/feeds, and actual humans. Twitter’s data model and messaging system is so primitive compared to Facebook’s, or even that of Buzz or MySpace or Friendster or Digg etc. – that’s why it is unlikely to ever become a social network, especially if the owners are focused on it being a medium/network for spreading real-time information.

  2. Thanks Richard. Yeah, I suppose that from a web infrastructure perspective, Twitter could move towards more of the kind of social network utility that I’m talking about. But intention is everything and that’s not where they are pointed as a company right now. It would really shift the focus of their feature development and be hugely expensive to compete with Facebook in building this broader, more generic kind of connection utility. Plus, I think the user base would revolt in the process. Right now, most of their “platform” appears aligned with the “information network” vision.

    The company I didn’t talk at all about in this post is LinkedIn. They are the dark horse in this race, I think.

  3. Great post, Gideon. Mark Zuckerberg was calling Facebook a “social utility” as early as 2 years ago, iirc.

    A few thoughts, in no particular order:

    Yes, Twitter seems to be organized around being an information network, not a social network. But its sheer size — about 25% of FB, and growing at roughly the same rate — means it could potentially make a serious stab at becoming a more general social utility. Some aspects of Twitter’s recent redesign make it feel a bit more social network-y. And I wonder if recent moves like blocking the third-party app ReFollow.com (which helps users manage their follows and followers) mean Twitter intends to build more of that sort of functionality into its own site.

    Could the closed nature of Facebook ultimately be its Achilles heel? Twitter’s growth has been fueled largely by the company’s more open approach to its data, embracing third-party developers and encouraging them to make cool shit with its API. OAuth could also pose a threat to FacebookConnect if there are any more significant privacy scandals at Facebook.

    Do you think Mozilla &co’s desire to build an open-source, portable, user-centric identity/authentication and social-graph management system poses any real threat to Facebook’s dominance? Or will it be like Linux v. Windows? Maybe Twitter will become like the MacOS of social nets vis-a-vis Facebook and whatever open-source system emerges. What about Diaspora?

    I agree that LinkedIn is a dark horse. But its focus on a business audience limits its growth potential. What other social nets might be out there that pose a real threat to FB, especially ones that have large followings outside the US, like Orkut and Hi5?

    Thanks again for such a thorough and provocative piece.

    • Gideon Rosenblatt

      Thanks for the great thoughts, Leif. A couple responses:

      That’s interesting about Zuckerberg calling it a utility. I did not know that. Probably not the best term for *him* to be using though in case the company starts generating the same kind of interest from the Dept of Justice that Microsoft did at its heights.

      As far as the closed nature of Facebook, well, that’s one of the reasons I find myself writing about these companies right now. A lot is riding on this new platform of social connections. The worlds would be better off if these services, like email or the web, were based on an open set of standards or protocols that everyone could riff off of so that there’s more competition. That was one of the things that was particularly interesting about Google’s Wave – they were building it with a protocol approach that would have made it possible for others to build their own implementations of the technology. Dead now because it was too weird and hard to use. But the ideas were interesting.

      As you know, there are interesting, open alternatives, but the sheer escape velocity that Facebook is maintaining makes it harder and harder for these efforts to build critical mass with each passing day.

      Here’s some additional thoughts on Twitter and even LinkedIn. I think that what *may* be happening here is that these two are targeting a more narrowly defined set of social networks; both of which are pretty important. With Twitter, it’s information publishers. With LinkedIn, it’s the business community. My guess is that these two will optimize their services so that the apps that are built into them are narrowly targeted on utility for these particular audiences, rather than the more general utility that Facebook is pursuing.

      Thanks again for the comments. I always appreciate your perspective on things.

      • Yep, Facebook have always called themselves a ‘social utility’ (you can see it in the meta data on the home page [when not logged in] right now!) as far as I know – certainly from as far back as over 3 years ago when I was at the second ever Facebook Developer Garage London event and a Facebook engineer described it that way, knowing that a room full of developers would or at least should understand that since they opened it up as platform in May 2007, it became as much of a back-end utility as a front-end service for users. A great new example of that is the ‘Like’ button that we now see all over the web – that’s Facebook being a social utility – telling you which of your friends like the content you’re looking at, and letting you add yourself to the list.

        To be fair on Facebook, your social graph is actually available in an open format, through the Graph API – it’s just protected using OAuth 2.0 as nobody would be happy if all the data were freely available. And they’ve pioneered the Open Graph protocol too: http://opengraphprotocol.org – Twitter or LinkedIn or bit.ly or Reddit or whoever would be very wise to make use of it, so they can offer similar services to Facebook in terms of interactions with the pages that use it.

        And Google Wave really is not dead – all that’s happened is Google won’t be putting more resources into it – the protocol will live on.

    • Twitter is not 25% the size of Facebook, by the way, by any metric.

      Facebook currently has around 550 million monthly active users (i.e. individual people who have actively used the service in the last 30 days). Twitter claims that around 150 million accounts exist on their service, but they don’t tell us how many have been used in the last 30 days. Realistically it will be less than 50 million, given that half of them have never tweeted, don’t follow anyone nor are followed by anyone (http://arstechnica.com/web/news/2009/06/report-most-twitter-users-dont-tweet-dont-follow-anyone.ars) – admittedly those numbers are from the summer last year, but it’s unlikely they will have changed.

      • Great info, Dave. Thanks for including this. It actually makes me also wonder whether those inactive accounts might account for why 2/3s of users are not followed by the people they’re following. Dead accounts could have a significant impact on pushing up that number.

  4. I see Twitter as a mechanism for distributing and receiving information, making new contacts and interacting with existing ones. I then try to encourage those contacts to connect on Facebook and Linkedin, so that I can then have a more meaningful connection and dialogue with them.

    • Gideon Rosenblatt

      Thanks for the note, Patrick. That’s an interesting approach. First contact via Twitter, with deeper engagement on Facebook or LinkedIn. I wonder if others are doing that too?

      • Definitely – Twitter’s only real social aspect is that of finding new people to potentially connect with if there is reason to do so.

        You follow someone you think looks interesting, maybe respond to their tweets, maybe they follow you back, maybe you then meet in person or at least have a proper direct conversation (which is virtually impossible on Twitter due to the limitations of message size, and the minutes it can take for most Twitter clients to update) and you’ll move on to Facebook, e-mail, LinkedIn or whatever should you get on well.

        So I would class Twitter as a networking site (because of how it can introduce you to new people/sources/feeds etc.), but like you say Gideon, not a social network.

        • Or better still, class Twitter as: a real-time information and networking application.

          Facebook is a social utility and application.

          ‘Dark horse’ LinkedIn is a business networking application (and utility to a lesser extent).

  5. Great piece. I’ve never thought of Twitter as a social network. I think of Twitter as a massively-decentralized syndication service. One where syndication caters to sound bites and can be broken or initiated at any link in the human chain. So yeah, information. Similarly, Twitter seems to have very clear providers and consumers, much more so than FB or LinkedIn, etc.

    • The thing is though, Twitter is not decentralized at all – it’s one big service that all the clients (including the new twitter.com) connect to using an API. If it goes down, as it often does, there is no Twitter.

  6. I agree with most of what you’ve said… about Twitter at east. It’s an enlightening viewpoint.

    I hope you’re wrong about Facebook, however, I really do. I want to see Facebook have that kind of power about as much as I wanted to see Microsoft have it “in its hey day”.

    But then, I’ve been collecting comparisons between FB and Twitter. FB continues to falls short in those comparisons (for me, at least). Maybe I care more about the information than about “people I used to know”.

    • If you don’t know them any longer, either you or they aren’t making best use of Facebook (to communicate with each other and share information)!

      Or you shouldn’t be connected to them on there at all if you have no interest in them now.

  7. I’m not particularly concerned with the problem of defining Twitter as a social network, or otherwise.

    Once fact remains (in my case). Since joining Twitter in 2008 I have genuinely expanded my real life network of friends and professional contacts. I am better networked, socially. Go figure :D

  8. Ok, I get the utility/application distinction – So, I have curated my own social layer on top of the Twitter platform. Not quite as catchy.

  9. Why don’t we just base whether or not Twitter is a social network on who its competitors are? Although, let’s say, a tomato may be a fruit, I doubt anyone says to themselves ‘should I have an orange or a tomato’. So then a tomato is just looked at as a vegetable. Same with Twitter. Twitter is considered social network because its main competition is Facebook, and maybe after that, Myspace. Google and Yahoo have also tried to incorporate networking. Yet, honestly they are just search engines and mail providers.Sure, Amazon and EBay could be networks, but in no way do they compete with social networks. This is the difference.

    • I’ll bet the folks at Twitter would strongly argue they are not trying to compete with Facebook, and that they are offering a different kind of product (a generally public, real-time, information network vs. a sophisticated social and sharing utility and platform).

      Google ad Yahoo are just search engines and e-mail hosts? Haha, look again.

  10. I see Twitter as an attractor (people around themes), a connector (a “plug”?), an aggregator (streams), a propagator (memes), that privileges the flow and the interactions, the meshing rather than the constitution of a stock, with possibilities for conversation, expansion of relationship and creation of stock elsewhere, freely.

    From a user perspective, there is a feeling of being in control of the flow by choosing its direction, content and intensity, with nothing unchosen invading the private space, and a sense of movement and growing with the flow…

    By contrast in Facebook, I feel stuck in buckets (someone said mousetrap?) where all kinds of things I don’t want are thrown in to add to a showcase, with some difficulty to discern patterns and to actually learn from the experience… for things other than fun and entertainment…

    Now the question is: how do you channel the flow, explore some unknown, let things emerge while discerning patterns and keeping a direction…

    • Thanks for the note, Helene. I know what you mean. Twitter is where I get more information. I still do get some information from time to time on Facebook though, but it’s way more spotty. Facebook is where I tune into friends and what they’re doing, more than go looking for information on specific topics. I do still think Twitter needs to do a better job to help folks fine-tune the information they’re following and that’s the idea behind the Tweet to List idea.

      • What information you get on Facebook entirely depends on the connections you have made on there. If you have connections to friends, but have not liked (m)any brand pages, you’ll just get news about friends. If you’ve got little friends on there but have liked lots of brand pages, you’ll get their news more instead. If you like me, you have lots of friend connections and have liked lots of pages, you’ll get lots of both! In any case, Facebook gives you plenty of ways to filter the home page so that you can just see what you want. Twitter’s only way of doing this is through lists, which have limited quotas.

  11. This was very helpful in clarifying the Twitter/Social Network debacle I was having. Well constructed arguments.

  12. I agree Twitter is not really a social network. It’s just a bunch of blurbs – some trying to sell things, others just talking about what they’ve eaten for lunch. 

  13. I agree, I love Twitter and use it for a two-way real-time information data stream and have yet to really connect or converse with anybody on a social level. good article.

  14. Except that Facebook is actually pretty poor at creating new connections, which is where Twitter has the edge. The number of people I have come to know after meeting on Twitter is about 10 times higher than on Facebook. Arguments about primary utility ignore that second round effects can be greatly important.

    Via Twitter, I am now connected to activists in South Africa who share a common cause. Via Facebook,  I am connected mostly to people I know.

    Like gossip, information on Twitter plays what you might call a ‘strange attractor’. Parties who would normally not cross each others paths do.

    I see more of this on LinkedIn that I do on Facebook and a lot more on Twitter,
    I fear this argument, is really a rehash of they are biggest therefore they will win.

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