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December 18, 2008

The @ crowd

Writing at life under electronic conditions, Benedikt Koehler discusses Networks that matter on Twitter: the @-Crowd, suggesting that there are three kinds of networks at play: your direct network of followers/followees, a wider indirect network of their followers/followees, and your so called '@-crowd', the people you are actively in conversation with using the @andypowe11 mechanism of directed tweets.  He cites a very interesting paper by Bernardo A. Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu called, Social networks that matter: Twitter under the microscope which provides some analysis of this last network and suggests that:

the driver of [Twitter] usage is a sparse and hidden network of connections underlying the "declared" set of friends and followers.

The paper ends with:

In conclusion, even when using a very weak definition of “friend” (i.e. anyone who a user has directed a post to at least twice) we find that Twitter users have a very small number of friends compared to the number of followers and followees they declare. This implies the existence of two different networks: a very dense one made up of followers and followees, and a sparser and simpler network of actual friends. The latter proves to be a more influential network in driving Twitter usage since users with many actual friends tend to post more updates than users with few actual friends. On the other hand, users with many followers or followees post updates more infrequently than those with few followers or followees.

I sense an (unwritten) assumption in the paper that the use of this sparser network somehow has more impact than the wider one. Perhaps I'm being unfair? Speaking personally, I would hesitate before suggesting that people who have more "friends" (using the definition from the paper above) are somehow getting more impact out of their use of Twitter than those with fewer. It's not hard to think of cases where lots of directed posts are used to share complete drivel between people - equally where a one-way feed of undirected tweets can be powerful alerting mechanism. Nonetheless, it's very interesting to see this kind of analysis taking place.

Other than that, I have two very minor gripes with the paper. Firstly, it defines "friend" in a very particular way (see above) whereas that term has traditionally been used by Twitter to mean 'a person that you follow'.  The paper introduces 'followee' for this which I quite like. (Note: although 'friend' is no longer used in that way in the Twitter Web interface, the word 'friend' still appears in the URL for the list of people that you follow). Secondly, the paper doesn't acknowledge that Twitter can also be used to send private 'direct messages' (DMs), the use of which surely forms part of this sparser network. Clearly, such usage is difficult to measure in an automated way, since it is private and not exposed through the Twitter API.

If you are interested in playing with this stuff, Benedikt Koehler's TwitterFriends application let's you see how your network of "friends" (as defined in the paper) shapes up.

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I note that a version (I'm not sure if it it is modified or not?) of the "Social networks that matter" paper referenced above has also been published in First Monday - http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2317

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