Twitter, and why social networks are not social

Social media site Twitter isn't actually very social - that's the conclusion of new research from Yahoo. It's the latest proof of what many have suspected all along: that self-regarding sites like Twitter, Facebook, Orkut, Bebo et al. have little to do with the real world.

In theory, the micro-blogging site's 'any-to-many' model provides anyone with an online megaphone with which to share their insightful analysis, flatulent pontificating or banal chatter on subjects from protests in the Arab world to Justin Bieber's alleged holocaust denial.

But according to the study by Yahoo Research a whopping 50 per cent of all media shared via Twitter is sent by a tiny elite of 20,000 users - just 0.05 per cent of the site's user base, according to Yahoo Research's calculations.

The study, 'Who Says What To Whom on Twitter?', analysed 260 million tweets sent on Twitter between July 28, 2009 and March 8, 2010 which containing bit.ly-shortened URLs.

According to the researchers' findings, "information flows have not become egalitarian by any means". Far from being equal and interactive, as social media advocates suggest, the Twitter portrayed in Yahoo's research is "a mixture of one-way mass communications and reciprocated interpersonal communications".

It turns out that Twitter users aren't a very 'social' bunch either. They're much less likely to follow someone back than they are to be followed - only 22 per cent of 'relationships' on Twitter are reciprocal - and many users stick to their own peer groups: celebrities listen to celebrities, and bloggers listen to other bloggers.

Yahoo's research is the latest study to explode the notion that so-called 'social' networking is more democratic than conventional media - and that it's an accurate reflection of users' real-life tastes and interests.

For anyone who's ever been bemused by Facebook's attempts to corral all human emotion into the term 'Like', there's the finding of Jeff Widman, CEO of social media agency BrandGlue, who recently revealed that 88 per cent of users who 'Like' a celebrity or company Facebook page never go back to it.

And following celebs on Twitter doesn't mean we really 'like' them, either. Figures from research firm Twitalyzer, recently published by the New York Times, charted the 'influence' of various celebrities by studying the number of times their tweets were retweeted - and offered the surprise conclusion that the most-followed celebs were not the most influential.

Top of the heap was a stand-up comedian called Rafinha Santos, with a score of 90 out of 100. Although popular in his native Brazil, Santos trails, with a relatively measly 1.7 million followers, behind Twitter's most-followed, including professional show-off Lady Gaga (9 million) and Canadian teen pop muppet Justin Bieber (8.4 million).

Comedian-cum-tech evangelist Stephen Fry flies the flag for Blighty, with fourth place and 2.2 million followers - three places ahead of possibly the most 'influential' man in the real world, Barack Obama...