The Social Science Behind Twitter

Twitter – Why can it be so compelling and so satisfying? Why does it strengthen friendships? And how?

I think that the reason is that it is tightly linked into the most important social process that all primates have to do well to survive – Grooming! Sounds weird, I know – stick with me and read on.

Let’s take, as an example, going to the office and facetime – why is it so important? Intellectually we know that most of what happens at the office is a huge waste of time – all those meetings – all that posturing! Why can’t we mainly work remotely?

Perhaps it’s because we are in truth Primates and that what the office really presents is lots of opportunity for that central primate social lubricant – Grooming. A recent study on grooming shed lights on its economics:Monkeys ‘pay’ for sex by grooming: study. From the article, which suggests the primates may treat sex as a commodity.

“In primate societies, grooming is the underlying fabric of it all,” Dr. Michael Gumert, a primatologist at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in a telephone interview Saturday…

Other experts not involved in the study welcomed Gumert’s research, saying it was a major effort in systematically studying the interaction of organisms in ways in which an exchange of commodities or services can be observed — a theory known as biological markets.

All social systems are in effect “Biological Markets” we need other people to care about us to get things that we want.

This is, in effect, what Twitter does, allowing us to do this over time and space at a very low cost in time, effort and dollars.

This realization raised another “aha” for me: we have been here before… the prevailing ideas about how language itself began are rooted in humans finding a cheaper way of grooming. Language enabled us to groom at a distance and left our hands free and our eyes on the look out.

Robin Dunbar (Dunbar Numbers etc) has a theory about the evolution of language that enables us to see tools like Twitter in a new light.

In short, it is this: grooming is central to social cohesion in all primates, including we humans. But traditional grooming is socially very expensive – you and I have to stop everything and focus on each other and have to be very close physically. Hence facetime at work. Hence physical grooming as primates.

Dunbar’s theory is that we started to use vocalizations to groom each other instead of touch. This enabled us to extend the distance between each other and also freed up our hands to do other things such as get food.

Earlier theories are based on the idea that language began as a response to complex hunting. But we all know that men don’t talk when hunting and that when wolves and lions engage in complex hunting, they don’t vocalize then either.

Intuitively Dunbar makes sense to me. Twitter, then, might prove a way of dramatically reducing the social costs of our essential need to Groom, now most manifest in office settings where we need to be in the physical presence of our colleagues and our bosses.

Just as the emergence of language may have eroded the need for proximity, so too might Twitter enable us to break the cost of going to the office.

Maybe, this simple little tool might be the most important breakthrough in how humans work and unleash the huge costs that we have embedded in having to go to the office to meet our primary social need as primates – Grooming!
How can you use it? Why is it so econonmical? Why has it such a high ROI?

But how can you do this? Especially if you and/or your organization is new to the game? How can you get the reach that you will need to “see” what is really going on or get the help or information that you want?

A lot of the recent debate about Twitter has been about “Authority”, i.e., who has the biggest megaphone. I won’t go into this except to say that what we know about social networks tells that it will be less about you and more about your inner circle. It will not be essential for you to get value out of Twitter by being an A-lister, nor will you have to have thousands of followers.

Stowe Boyd has a powerful intuition about these things. His gut feel is that there is a sweet spot of about 100 in your Twitter group that gives you the best ROI – Time and Effort versus return.

I have suggested for a longtime that to ‘get’ Twitter you need to follow 100 people at least, for several weeks. This cursory recitation of stats suggests that there are thousands of users out there happily communing with a handful of friends. I don’t buy it. I bet most of those accounts with small use, small links, and small time online represent a fringe of uninvolved people who aren’t getting much value from the service, if they login in at all. The sweet spot is far north of the center of some bell curve, I believe.

The real analysis of meaningful trands will have to wait, but here’s some cross tabs that would be interesting:

  1. What’s the distribution of perceived value? Does more use translate into higher perception of utility? My bet is yes.
  2. What’s the distribution of use? Do people with few connections use the service less? My bet is yes.
  3. Do people gain more followers based on hours online, and numbers of Tweets? I bet yes.
  4. Where is the magic dropout number? A lot of users abandon services like Twitter, but I bet that once you have a network of size N, the likelihood of dropping out decreases dramatically. What is N?

Here’s a nasty freehand drawing of what I am suggesting:
On the left, the vertical access is some formula based on an aggregation or ratio of following, followers, numbers of tweets, relies, direct messages, time spent usign the tool, etc. The horizontal access represents perceived utility. I have drawn the utility curve as being exponential, but it may actually be more of an S curve, with utility tapering off after some psychological maximums have been reached.

Valdis Krebs, a leading observer on networks, goes further. In his view – it is the quality of your immediate circle that gives you the reach and value. He tells me that he follows 70 and agrees with Stowe that the sweet spot may be 100.

In a simple view of Twitter we may think that it is all up to us – this is how Valdis shows this idea:


This is the current reality I think of most pre-2.0 organizations – they have to use huge resources to get their message out or intelligence back from this perspective.

Here is Valdis’ view of the leveraged ecosystem that Twitter enables:


All the leverage comes from the system itself. His summary below fits Stowe’s experience too.

So, if many of the social circles above are already interconnected do I have follow an individual in each social circle/community on Twitter? Probably not. The trick is to find the people that reach many social circles and follow them. Of course, we need to find more than the minimum of people to follow — you want some redundancy in your network so that there are multiple paths to places of interest for you. Finding these key nodes is what social network analysis is all about.

And this is why I follow so few people on Twitter! For the time invested, I want maximum return. I use the redundancy of connections, between the many social circles I am interested in, to my advantage. I follow a select group of people that give me the same access as following someone in every group. Follow the few to reach the many!

Because I have chosen them carefully, I want to actually read the tweets of the people I follow. A small part of my “following network” is always in churn, but the number of people I follow on Twitter never exceeds 100. Those who follow thousands of people readily admit that they can not read the fire hose of tweets they get every day.

Can we be more precise? Can we know the nature of this “sweet spot”? I think we can and I bet that it is found in the Fibonacci Sequence. Below are the numbers I posted in April of 2008 that support Stowe and Valdis’ point of view. I have posited that the Fibonacci sequence may give us the answers because it is the sequence that nature uses in ALL systems when seeking the most effective distribution.

So here is the data – based on the early part of the Fibonacci sequence and where I have assumed that the Circle of Influence may be to the Power of 4.

So a circle of 8 – the ideal Trusted Space – can attract, affect and influence 4,096 people. If I have 144 in my circle we can reach just over 400 million others. BUT my bet is that just as the reach goes up, the gravitational pull goes down.

2 – 16

3 – 82

5 – 625

8 – 4,096

13 – 28,561

34 – 1,336,336

55 – 9,150, 625

89 – 62, 742,241

144 – 429, 981, 696

Notice anything? As we look at the sequence we see a Pareto or power curve – it’s the Long Tail.

So what do I also “see”?

I think that there are two power curves here. One is reach and the other is power or gravity.

The greatest gravitational pull is at 2 – the most effective reach is 144.

There is likely a “sweet spot” along the curve where reach and pull are best found in concert.  My bet is that it is in using the circles of 8 – 13 – 34. You can reach more than a million people with 34 and you can really attract 4,096 powerfully at 4.

If my intuition is correct, then the full power of social software might be revealed as we explore these numbers and their meaning. Does this not put a new face on marketing? Does it tell us how we will find and attach to content in a universe of infinite content? Does this say something about how to organize anything?

We are just starting to see the power of Twitter and I think it is that a very modest investment in your time in effect opens up the world to you. The 1.- world was based on brute force, i.e., money. It, like a steam engine, looked impressive but was very inefficient.

Twitter’s tight connection to the reality of our social networks will, I think, unlock an entirely new opportunity to get messages out and in that will help all of us – from people like me who work alone at home to the largest of organizations.

3 thoughts on “The Social Science Behind Twitter

  1. Pingback: The Math of Work Space – All Nature is based on math – so why not us? | Rob's Fast Forward Blog Posts

  2. Pingback: Boingo – Using the Network to aid Sales and Marketing | Rob's Fast Forward Blog Posts

  3. Pingback: What is the core of the new banking model? Trust! | Queen Street Commons

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