Researchers say that the site is set up like a traditional news media outlet and can’t be defined as a social network.

by Anton Gonsalves (original article posted on Information Week, May 5, 2010)

Twitter has evolved into a major distributor of timely information, as opposed to a social network, making the microblogging site an oracle on the future of news, a recent study shows.

In a paper presented late last month at the International World Wide Web Conference, a group of Korean researchers found that people use Twitter as a means of communication that reaches and influences people widely. Such a use fits the definition of media, such as radio, television, newspapers, and magazines.

The findings dispelled the notion that Twitter is a social network, similar to Facebook or MySpace. Instead, Twitter users were more in the business of disseminating news quickly, much of it based on current events, the study found.

The research is important, because it represents the first quantitative study on Twitter, its users, and the information distributed across the network. In reaching their findings, the researchers analyzed information culled from 41.7 million user profiles, 1.47 billion social relations, 4,262 trending topics, and 106 million tweets, which are the short messages broadcast on Twitter. The messages, which have a strict 140-character limit, are called tweets.

In dismissing Twitter as a social network, the researchers pointed to how the site is set up. On Facebook, for example, people must first agree to be “friends” and then enter a relationship in which information, pictures, video, etc., are shared. On Twitter, people merely sign up as followers of someone else’s tweets, and no other interaction is required. Therefore, the relationship is not social, the researchers said.

Twitter is set up much more like traditional media, in that a person, or subscriber, signs up to receive information, and typically doesn’t have much other contact with the distributor. On Twitter, the same relationship exists between the sports stars, musicians, actors, and other popular tweeters and their followers, the researchers said. Only 22.1% of user pairs follow each other, versus roughly three-quarters of the pairs on online social networks.

The study also found that Twitter users typically talk about timely topics, which fits the broad definition of news. These topics can make up more than 80% of discussions on a given day. In addition, more than 54% of tweets are “headline news,” making the service a fast distributor of breaking news.

Relatively few users reach large audiences directly, making them the primary source of news, which is then redistributed by others. Again, this is much like traditional media, where the most influential organizations, such as The New York Times, generate news that is then repeated and commented on by others news outlets.

The researchers also found that news on Twitter, much like traditional media, has a short lifespan. Most re-tweets of a topic occur within the first hour, with 35% of them occurring in the first 10 minutes, the study found. This makes Twitter the equivalent of a digital “word of mouth.”

The impact of this “word-of-mouth” phenomenon has already been felt in the area of breaking news. Among the most notable events was the crash of a US Airways jetliner into the Hudson River near New York in January 2009. The first reports of the crash were broadcast by witnesses on Twitter.

The impact of Twitter’s as a distributor of news is still evolving and is being watched closely by traditional media. Researchers in the latest study did not offer any predictions.

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