Visualizing Activity on Twitter

What if Twitter, a social media community with millions of registered accounts, could be seen as just 100 people?

If the Twitter community was 100 people...

This graphic—created by David McCandless—was inspired by Rohit Bhargava’s analysis of the Sysomos study, released in June. Ignoring the fact that the David’s viz now has only 95 people, not 100 (he hacked off an extra row), the idea behind the graphic is appealing: reduce Twitter to a number we can wrap our heads around.

The problem with doing so—and adding the snarky comments about these sub-groups—is that the value of Twitter is being pre-determined by the most obvious metrics, followers and posts. It is also misrepresenting the actual numbers in the Sysomos report.

Let’s critique David’s graphic based on the groups he identifies using color coding.

5 with more than 100 followers (blue)

On the surface, so many small networks seems bad. There are many blog posts and several Twitter applications that are geared specifically toward cultivating lots of followers. The biggest Twitter membership drive to date was fueled by a race to 1 million followers. However, there are two important things to realize about Twitter that soften the shock of this figure.

First, social networks follow a natural growth based on age of the account. Merely being around the service long enough is bound to find some random attachments that accumulate over time. Almost three-fourths (72.5%) of all Twitter accounts were created in 2009. It would be interesting to re-examine the data trying to normalize for length of membership.

Second, the implication is that only large networks are valuable. This is a decidedly blogger mentality, where readership means impact. With Twitter, value comes in many forms. An oft-overlooked value is strengthening small, known, local connections. I consider the small overall percentage with large networks to be a sign of strength of the service, not a weakness.

Technically, the body count in the graphic should be 6 (not 5). Sysomos found that 93.6% of the 11.5 million Twitter profiles they examined had fewer than 100 followers.

5 creating 75% of the content (purple)

When the uneven distributions of content was disclosed in analysis earlier this year, the popular implication was there was some problem with Twitter. While I haven’t seen a formal comparison of Twitter’s distribution of activity with that of other communities (both online and offline), I suspect that these numbers match up well with what we know about group participation.

At a certain size, the group dynamics influenced by signal-noise and turn taking will start to encourage inactivity in the majority of the group. When in the same room, there is a scarcity of attention that tends to be owned by the person doing the talking. Some people are more predisposed to be that talker, and others the listener. Online, the same is true with posting and consumption of information. That doesn’t mean the group is dysfunctional.

There is also a relationship between network size and posting activity. According to Sysomos, as Twitter users attract more followers, they tend to Tweet more often. At 1,000 followers, the average daily posting rate climbs from three to six tweets. Above 1,750 followers, that number rises to 10. There is no effort made in this study to parse out the quality or type of tweet. Replies, for instance, increase with network size simply because there is more consumption of social artifacts around which to communicate. It may also be true that those most likely to have large networks are the kinds of users who believe Twitter to be about broadcast (news media, A-list bloggers, celebrities)

20 with empty accounts (red)

Here again, the graphic is a bit off. The Sysomos data suggests 21 out of 100 are empty accounts, never having posted a single tweet. It is not clear from the report, however, if all 21% also have no network (i.e. following no one, being followed by no one).

Empty accounts can be placeholders or test accounts, as Rohit speculates, but they can also be requirements to use desktop clients or web/mobile applications that allow for consumption of other content. The absence of posts is not necessarily an indication of an unused account. I guarantee there are lurkers in the Twitter community, as much as any other. Lurkers are active in a different way, not “dead.”

50 with no tweets in the last week (green)

“Active” is a very ambiguous term. Most commonly, it is defined by the available statistics that can easily prove a member is using the system. There are no such statistics available for readership, for instance, or to take into account specific use cases or network size. One man’s active is another’s dormant, or—in David’s eyes—”lazy.”

It is also unclear, with so many new users, what percentage of these will grow into more active usage. There are a number of accounts that would have been classified as dormant a year ago that are now active. For some people, it takes time to learn to integrate Twitter into a routine.

20 with a small following and recent content (gray)

This is the most ambiguous group. It is viewed on the map as “leftovers” without considering how these previous groups might overlap.

For starters, the flip side to the previous statistic is that about half of all twitter accounts are using the service at least on a weekly basis and about 70% are posting at least once a month. The implication from the graphic is that none of the 50% who haven’t tweeted within the past week are the same as the 20% who have never tweeted. With so many new accounts, however, it is likely that many of the dead accounts fall into the Green group. So rather than a 30-70 split of dormant to active, it’s actually 50-50, making this gray group considerably larger.

The same is true with overlaps with Purple (lots of content) and Blue (lots of followers). As pointed out earlier, there is some relationship between tweeting and network size. It wouldn’t surprise me if most of Purple and Blue groups were the same people. Recognizing that makes the Gray group larger. In fact, since Sysomos found that 85.3% of all Twitter users post less than once per day, about 35% of all accounts fall between daily and weekly use.

I’d love to see someone take another crack at this visualization with a deeper understanding of how the statistics overlap. Perhaps even turn three of those male icons into women to further improve its precision—the Sysomos survey discovered there are more women on Twitter (53%) than men (47%).

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