Researchers predict future of Twitter will be less social, more commercial

Tweet smell of success

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Serial tweeters hoping to amass an army of followers through the social network may have to get used to a Twitter that's more marketplace than meeting space, according to a new study. And if behavior patterns noted by the study's authors hold true, the shift from socializing to commercializing will happen because the most frequent tweeters make it so.

"Conventional wisdom says that once you get users on your social media site engaged and reactive, they'll stay reactive, but what we found [with Twitter] is completely the opposite," said Andrew Stephen, University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of business administration and co-author of "Intrinsic versus Image-Related Motivations in Social Media: Why do People Contribute to Twitter?"

Mr. Stephen and Olivier Toubia, professor of business at Columbia University, began researching use of the short-messaging tool Twitter after noticing the company's data showed average users tended to pull back the number of tweets sent per day after gaining high numbers of followers.

Hoping to understand the diminished output through the lens of economic theory, the researchers theorized that Twitter users fall into two categories: those who tweet strictly to connect with peers and those who tweet to raise their social status. The idea was that status seekers hoping to reach a certain benchmark of followers for bragging rights put less effort into the task once their goals are reached.

To test the theory, the researchers conducted a field experiment with 2,500 average Twitter users that artificially raised the number of followers for some members.

They immediately noticed that users with more followers stepped up the number of tweets sent per day compared with the control group, but only to a point. By the time the users with the increase in followers had gained around 85 new followers, there was less urgency to post messages.

If peer-to-peer messages decrease among the heaviest everyday users, said Mr. Toubia, the next logical conclusion is that the parties who will tweet most will be those with some kind of financial or branding incentive pushing their buttons.

In other words, as he summed up through a 140-character statement in the study's press release, "Get ready for a TV-like Twitter."

"We expect existing non-commercial Twitter users will post less in the future and new users would mostly get value from consuming [tweets] from others, just like on TV, in the radio or in print," Mr. Toubia said.

So the more than 40 million people following pop singer Katy Perry or the millions who saw President Barack Obama's tweet telling the first dog to "stop trying to make fetch happen," should expect to see much more from those high-profile sources.

The study was recently published in the academic journal Marketing Science.

Sam Ford, research affiliate with Massachusetts Institute of Technology's comparative media studies program and co-author of "Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture," said the study is a good start but could use greater examination of Twitter users' motives.

He noted that people using the service to connect with colleagues or to find followers who can serve a business purpose may later use the service to connect with those same followers on a more personal level.

"We're all egotistical creatures up to a certain point. We all want to be seen as an expert on what we write about on the Internet but it's far from our only motive," he said.

With Twitter usership in constant flux, it's hard to say one way or another when the shift in user habits could change, said Mr. Stephen. Newer users on a mission to recruit followers will most likely make up for the lack of posts left by longtime users with large numbers of followers.

Regardless of when the change in tweeting patterns occurs, or even if the changes unfold on the scale the study predicts, Mr. Stephen said the new paradigm will challenge celebrities, corporations and marketing executives to make sure disengaged Twitter users are keeping the conversations going, even if non-famous users aren't starting any of their own.

"This puts the onus on companies to come up with compelling content people will feel strongly motivated to pass on," Mr. Stephen said. "This raises the bar for marketing firms."

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Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652. First Published August 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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