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Twitter's 16 million silent voices

Most users have little use for their 140-character limit.

New research has cast the social networking site Twitter as somewhere hordes of people have signed up, tuned in and vegged out: only 21 per cent of its 20 million account holders are "true" Twitter users.

The analysis, by the technology vendor Barracuda Networks, looked at 19 million Twitter accounts. It found that only 21 per cent are "proper" Twitter users, which they define as a user with at least ten followers, following at least ten people, and who has tweeted at least ten times. Arbitrary, perhaps, but not a particularly high bar to set, either.

We shouldn't be overly surprised. Similar research by Harvard Business School last June found that 10 per cent of Twitter users were generating 90 per cent of the "noise" at that time.

Meanwhile, an analysis of 4.5 million Twitter accounts by HubSpot, a technology start-up, found that 55.5 per cent of Twitter users are not following anyone, while 52.7 per cent have no followers. And 54.9 per cent had never tweeted (and probably never will).

The Barracuda Networks analysis also found that the cult of celebrity is nowhere more pronounced than in the 140-character world of Twitter: 49 per cent of Twitter users, and 48 of the top 100 most followed Twitter users, joined during the "Twitter Red Carpet Era".

The "Twitter Red Carpet Era" -- yes, they are really calling it that -- apparently occurred from November 2008 to April 2009, when loads of celebs started Twitter accounts and started banging on about Twitter both online and offline.

The silence of most of Twitter's approximately 20 million account holders, and the comparative noise generated by Twitter celebs, somewhat contrasts with the idea that the site is full of people having conversations and discussions. Rather, it appears to consist of a few people talking to the masses. Much like most other "traditional media", then.

Anecdotally, readers will have noticed that any conversation about Twitter invariably includes the sentence: "Didn't Stephen Fry tweet about being stuck in a lift once?"

What all this also suggests is that the immense growth of Twitter -- from zero to ten billion Tweets in four years -- is thanks at least in part to celebs. Which means that if the allure wears off for them, as it so nearly did for Stephen Fry last October, that could have dramatic consequences for Twitter. A caTwastrophe, perhaps (sorry).

Jason Stamper is the NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review; and yes, he confesses he is a "true" Twitter user.

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