Who Says What to Whom on Twitter | Yahoo! Research ⇢
Who Says What to Whom on Twitter
Wu, S.; Hofman, J.M.; Mason, W.A.; Watts, D.J.
We study several longstanding questions in media communications research, in the context of the microblogging service Twitter, regarding the production, flow, and consumption of information. To do so, we exploit a recently introduced feature of Twitter—-known as Twitter lists—-to distinguish between elite users, by which we mean specifically celebrities, bloggers, and representatives of media outlets and other formal organizations, and ordinary users. Based on this classification, we find a striking concentration of attention on Twitter—-roughly 50% of tweets consumed are generated by just 20K elite users—-where the media produces the most information, but celebrities are the most followed. We also find significant homophily within categories: celebrities listen to celebrities, while bloggers listen to bloggers etc; however, bloggers in general rebroadcast more information than the other categories. Next we re-examine the classical “two-step flow” theory of communications, finding considerable support for it on Twitter, but also some interesting differences. Third, we find that URLs broadcast by different categories of users or containing different types of content exhibit systematically different lifespans. And finally, we examine the attention paid by the different user categories to different news topics.
From the report:
Recent changes in technology, however, have increasingly undermined the validity of the mass vs. interpersonal dichotomy itself. On the one hand, over the past few decades mass communication has experienced a proliferation of new channels, including cable television, satellite radio, specialist book and magazine publishers, and of course an array of web-based media such as sponsored blogs, online communities, and social news sites. Correspondingly, the traditional mass audience once associated with, say, network television has fragmented into many smaller audiences, each of which increasingly selects the information to which it is exposed, and in some cases generates the information itself. Meanwhile, in the opposite direction interpersonal communication has become increasingly amplified through personal blogs, email lists, and social networking sites to afford individuals ever-larger audiences. Together, these two trends have greatly obscured the historical distinction between mass and interpersonal communications, leading some scholars to refer instead to “masspersonal” communications .
Nowhere is the erosion of traditional categories more apparent than in the micro-blogging platform Twitter. To illustrate, the top ten most-followed users on Twitter are not corporations or media organizations, but individual people, mostly celebrities. Moreover, these individuals communicate directly with their millions of followers, often managed by themselves or publicists, thus bypassing the traditional intermediation of the mass media between celebrities and fans. Next, in addition to conventional celebrities, a new class of “semi-public” individuals like bloggers, authors, journalists, and subject matter experts have come to occupy an important niche on Twitter, in some cases becoming more prominent than traditional public figures such as entertainers and elected officials. Third, in spite of these shifts away from centralized media power, media organizations—along with corporations, governments, and NGOs—all remain well represented among highly followed users, and are often extremely active. And finally, Twitter is primarily made up of many millions of users who seem to be ordinary individuals communicating with their friends and acquaintances in a manner largely consistent with traditional notions of interpersonal communication.
Twitter, therefore, represents the full spectrum of communications from personal and private to “masspersonal” to traditional mass media. Consequently it provides an interesting context in which to address Lasswell’s maxim, especially as Twitter—unlike television, radio, and print media—enables one to easily observe information flows among the members of its ecosystem. Unfortunately, however, the kinds of effects that are of most interest to communications theorists, such as changes in behavior, attitudes, etc., remain difficult to measure on Twitter. Therefore in this paper we limit our focus to the “who says what to whom” part of Laswell’s maxim.
To this end, our paper makes three main contributions:
- We introduce a method for classifying users using Twitter Lists into “elite” and “ordinary” users, further classifying elite users into one of four categories of interest— media, celebrities, organizations, and bloggers.
- We investigate the flow of information among these categories, finding that although audience attention is highly concentrated on a minority of elite users, much of the information they produce reaches the masses indirectly via a large population of intermediaries.
- We find that different categories of users place slightly different emphasis on different types of content, and that different content types exhibit dramatically different characteristic lifespans, ranging from less than a day to months.
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