So…is Twitter a social network, or not?

Kevin Thau, Twitter's Vice President of business, speaking at Nokia World in 2010No, apparently not. Kevin Thau, Twitter’s Vice President of business and corporate development, made this point during a presentation at Nokia World way back in 2010.

Thau said that Twitter is not a social network, rather ‘It’s for news, content and information’.

Thau argued, you can see a clip of the video below, that Twitter is in fact transforming the news business (“transforming” may really be a synonym for “destroying” ). This thought was more recently re-iterated by Twitter’s co-founder Evan Williams this September, when he pointed out that 65% of tweets are just thoughts, with no shared links in them at all.

Interesting – so what exactly is a Social Network and is Twitter one, or not? I think this is an even more relevant question than in 2010, given the strategic direction that Twitter has taken, in the intervening years.

The definition of a social network in the broad sociological sense (from Wikipedia) is as follows:

A social network is a theoretical construct useful in the social sciences to study relationships between individuals, groupsorganisations, or even entire societies . The term is used to describe a social structure determined by such interactions. The ties through which any given social unit connects represent the convergence of the various social contacts of that unit. This theoretical approach is, necessarily, relational. An axiom of the social network approach to understanding social interaction is that social phenomena should be primarily conceived and investigated through the properties of relations between and within units, instead of the properties of these units themselves

This with more specific relevance to social media, from The Computing Dictionary:

“Any website designed to allow multiple users to publish content themselves. The information may be on any subject and may be for consumption by (potential) friends, mates, employers, employees, etc. The sites typically allow users to create a “profile” describing themselves and to exchange public or private messages and list other users or groups they are connected to in some way. There may be editorial content or the site may be entirely user-driven.”

In actual fact a lot of social media is not very ‘social’ and some other types of digital media are very social.

What about Facebook? A friend of mine posts on Facebook and then never replies to any comments – not very ‘social’ behaviour. And what about those faintly enigmatic and somewhat annoying posts that don’t encourage much interaction, such as ‘bored’ and ‘frustrated’. Email and Text channels are not ‘social media’- but you often get a good deal more genuine interaction and communication within these channels, than in official ‘social’ ones.

Twitter is, in part, an important channel for the purveyance of news. How important you think Twitter is in the news space, depends on what research you choose to believe. According to one piece of research : European business execs prefer Twitter to ft.com and bloomberg.com - http://ow.ly/e6e0A but Twitter is not good for news according to this - http://ow.ly/e6dYb.

Taking the broad sociological definition (above), Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc..can all be ‘ investigated through the properties of relations between and within units’. With Twitter there may not always be active and overt interaction between users (units), but this is not the point – where people are following other users, reading their content and (sometimes) interacting, then this still falls within the official definition.

For sure, Tha and William’s assertion is driven by their desire to accentuate the part of their offering that they feel can be commercialised most easily. This is for Twitter to become a curater of content and even a media platform in it’s own right - Twitter’s future lies in capturing more user attention.

Twitter (like Google) has historically acted as a ‘discovery’ agent – making money by ‘telling people to go away’ , rather than ‘inviting them to stay’. Google has moved away from this model, to an extent, with the launch of Google +. Here they are seeking to imitate the Facebook approach that focuses on engaging users and ‘persuading them to stay’ .

Critics such as blogging pioneer David Winer argue that Twitter is more of a competitor for media companies than a partner, because it is trying to do fundamentally the same thing that media outlets are trying to do, and it is doing so by using content that belongs to others – in essence very close to what Flipboard or Zite are doing already.

The flow of Twitter moves with the flow of the web, it has historically been a discovery platform that ‘tells you to go away’. Now they want to be a media company – curating and creating their own content. But for that to work they have to change direction, and become a company that ‘asks us to stay’ , and seeks to keep us within their walled garden… and that’s not very social.

Nick Hammond of Thedigitalfilter.com also blogs here.