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Twitter Hype? Or Social Media Ignorance? Harvard Business School Blows It

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 9, 2009

Here is a blockbuster “discovery” from Harvard Business School—just 10% of Twitter users generate 90% of the content. Most everyone else is there passively for the ride.

Sorry, HBS, but anyone following social media has known about this ratio of active to passive participants for YEARS. I remember talking about this with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales at the World Economic Forum in Davos three years ago. He said that 1% of Wikipedia participants did 90% of the posting and editing, another 9-10% were somewhat active and the rest just used the encyclopedia without changing it.

Anywhere from 2% to 5% of YouTube and Flickr participants post, the rest watch.

The HBS study says that Twitter is a broadcast medium, not an intimate conversation medium for friends. I half agree with that. You

are broadcasting on Twitter, but you are also linking and shouting out cool new ideas and comments on blogs and web sites to your followers. For me, it's nice following John Byrne on Twitter on his daily journey through journalism but it's also nice following David Armano on his journey because he's constantly linking me to new sources of great ideas (John does that too). So Twitter is both broadcasting and conversing at the same time.

The real problem with Twitter is that it is hard for newbies to use. It isn't nearly as intuitive as other social media. And it's not the 140 character limitation--that part is fun. Haiku-talk. It's the formulas for linking and compressing that are a pain. Enough of a pain to push first-time users away from active participation to passive participation.

And hey, what's wrong with being actively passive anyhow? Ever sit in a classroom? Or watch hulu?

Reader Comments

Steve Portigal

June 9, 2009 7:10 PM

Thanks, Bruce, for calling this one the way it needed to be called.

David Armano

June 10, 2009 7:15 PM

The stat is valid. It's analysis of that stat which needs to be explored. If very small percentages of social networks are very active—what insights does this provide us as we move forward?

To your point Bruce, it's certainly not a surprise. No "aha" moment here.

Ginger Lennon

June 10, 2009 7:23 PM

I have to agree, and in fact think there can be quite a bit of value in being a passive participant -- at least at the outset. What so many people forget is that in addition to being a tool for communication, Twitter is also a great tool for "micro-listening".

So many brands are quick to jump into conversation without stopping to listen, and really hear and absorb what people are saying about them. Maybe if companies/brands listened more, and talked less, they'd have more satisfied customers.


June 10, 2009 7:32 PM

WSJ article above is example of power of Twitter as conversation medium... an actual politician communicating... His staffers not likely tweeting for him...

I don't agree with Grassley, but I do think the power of Twitter is demonstrated with this.

Livia Labate

June 10, 2009 8:45 PM

Right on the money.


June 10, 2009 9:09 PM

In the online communities space, the rule is quite similar to Wikipedia's:

1% provide 30-50% of the content
~9% are somewhat active

The rest are readers but don't contribute their own content.

Ted A. A.

June 12, 2009 2:58 PM

Considering your link back goes to a BBC article about the research instead of the original HarvardBiz blog post ( that has been circulating Twitter for the last 10 days AND you dismissively reference Wikipedia contributor usage without acknowledging that Wikipedia is referenced (for same reason) in the original post about the research, I have to conclude that this is a great report about the reporting on the study. The 90/10 is just one interesting data point. Take a look at the original and see how much more incredulity can be mustered up.

Misiek Piskorski

June 15, 2009 7:09 PM


Like Ted, I would like to encourage you to actually read the original article and pay close attention to the graph comparing production on Twitter and on-line social networks.

What you will see is that on a typical many-to-many platform, like an on-line social network, the top 10% of producers contribute roughly 30% of content, and the top 20% generate about 50%. Very few people talk about this statistic - even though it clearly does not conform to the 'received wisdom.'

This is very different from the one-to-many platforms that you cite, such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, etc. where the ratio is 90/10 or even less.

The question is then - which one is Twitter - many-to-many or one-to-many? With the statistics we provide, the answer seems rather obvious...

The question you should be really asking is: why is there so much more equal production on on-line social networks and what can Twitter do if it ever wants to become a many-to-many platform....


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