In this article we explore the results of a survey among over 100 students in the Social Data Revolution class at Stanford University. This class is taught by Andreas Weigend, former Chief Scientist of Amazon.com, and deals with the impact of data mining in business and social life. We focus on user trends and expectations for the popular micro-blogging site Twitter.
The questions asked to the students were the following:
1. Do you use Twitter? If so, is tweeting yourself more important, or reading what others wrote?
2. How many people do you follow on Twitter? Why those?
3. What do you expect you will use Twitter for in half a year?
4. If you had one wish that Twitter could implement, what would it be?
Only half of the students were already Twitter users prior to starting the course. This is understandable, since Twitter only recently gained momentum and grown to its current size of more than 32 million users (compared to Facebook with more than 200 million users). The results discussed below concern the 50% of the class who use Twitter.
A majority of people on Twitter still use it to communicate/update their friends. In fact, about 40 people follow 20 users on Twitter, five people follow 40 users, five people follow 60 users, and three people follow more than 100 users. Of these users, 34% follow friends, 28% follow news, tech sites and blogs, and 13% follow celebrities. The remaining 25% follow miscellaneous people.Since the majority of users said they only follow 20 users, it is safe to assume that these 20 users are very likely to be friends. Nevertheless, 28% of the people being followed are news, tech sites and blogs, which suggests that Twitter has the potential to become a very powerful tool for keeping up to date. A student mentioned “I follow 130 people on Twitter. And 350 people follow me. The people I follow on Twitter are all of the major tech blogs/bloggers (i.e. Mike Arrington, Pete Cashmore, etc) who tweet the most up to date information about the tech world. I follow these guys because what they tweet is directly relevant to my career aspirations in the valley. I use Twitter as my RSS feed now, because it allows me to browse through my stream and find things of interest relatively quickly.”
The vast majority of Twitter users said that following people is more important to them than Tweeting. This is in line with a study recently published by Harvard that found that the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. From our survey, we can understand that usage evolves with time. For example, a student pointed out that “When I started out (over a year ago), reading what others wrote was more important that tweeting myself. Now that I have a good idea about the majority of use cases for Twitter, my own tweeting and reading what others tweet is of equal importance. I certainly want to add value to that ecosystem.”
Indeed, students had interesting ideas for how they expect to user Twitter in half a year, the majority of them intend to use Twitter in a new way: 39 people said that they would use it to connect with friends, 31 people said that they would use it for news and to keep up to date with their interests, 10 people said that they would use it to promote their business and careers. The rest said that they would not change the way they use Twitter.
This suggests that there is a certain incubation period one spends on Twitter before one is comfortable enough to tweet. Some felt intimidated by the limit of 140 characters of text, and others just posted once. This phenomenon, posting once and abandoning Twitter has been recently covered by Slate.
Finally, in regards to changes people would like to see implemented by Twitter, the majority of people wished for a sorting mechanism. This however, is a problem that is being addressed by many different groups, notably Mr. Tweet. Many suggestions circled around a user-created groups filter (the filter could be such things as family, friends, news etc), which is also being addressed by groups such as Tweetdeck. Another interesting way to create custom groups on Twitter that is mentioned is to use Yahoo Pipes! People also wished for a Twitter-built recommendation system, longer tweets, and foreign language compatible versions of Twitter.
A student indicated “If there were one thing I’d wish for Twitter to implement it would be for some kind of automatic filtering. That would make Twitter visualizations in the media space really compelling and fun to experience. For example, CurrentTV ran a program called “Hack the Debate” in which twitter users tweeted in their thoughts about the Barack Obama and John McCain debates. Those tweets were seen on the television screen but they were filtered manually by CurrentTV employees. Is there a potential crowdsourcing solution? Would love to see this done.”
Twitter visualization is another hot topic. Among the different efforts in the market, students seemed surprised by Twistori. Twistori is a social experiment that uses data from Summize to provide first person visualization. A student pointed out “This is Twitter Visualization done right. Constantly streaming and updating.”
Given the recommendations for improvement, they also sound hopeful about how and what Twitter will do to accommodate its rapidly growing user base.