First-of-its-kind data shows social media is shallower and lonelier than we thought.
A new collaborative study by researchers at Microsoft and Columbia University has found that 59% of URLs shared on Twitter are never clicked—including, it seems, by the people who share them.
The study’s data was collected over one month, and included 2.8 million shares on Twitter, encompassing shared links to the BBC, CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, and the Huffington Post. The study’s authors say it’s the first of its kind, and laudably, it was published on an open-access platform, so you can read it in full here.
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As the study puts it, “there seems to be vastly more niche content that users are willing to mention in Twitter than . . . content that they are actually willing to click on.” The bulk of actual clicks on social media were generated by a small group of “blockbuster” articles, with about 9% of shared links capturing about 90% of Twitter TWTR 1.49% clicks.
In another important finding, the study discovered that despite Twitter’s reputation as a “live” platform, clicks have a consistent “long tail,” with tweets generating a steady drip of shares and clicks even after an initial 24 hour surge.
There are two sets of implications here—one for publishers, and one for Twitter and other social media platforms.
For publishers, the news may be dispiriting, but it’s not surprising. Headlines are king, because they both generate shares and encourage clicks. That leads some outlets to aim for the lowest common denominator with so-called “clickbait” headlines. But the study failed to find any consistent pattern to the few links that became “blockbusters.”
Exaggerated headlines were hardly born on the internet, and this study actually suggests they could be self-defeating on social media. Sensational or misleading heads may be more useful for social sharers looking to make a point about themselves, than for actual readers trying to curate their information intake.
The implications for Twitter itself are a bit grimmer. For one thing, it’s clear that social sharing is less directly connected to news impact than has been widely assumed. Further, The Chicago Tribune argues that the predominance of shallow, performative sharing helps create an environment of uninformed debate, trolling, hoaxing, and bile. Many observers have blamed that high-velocity, low-context vibe for scaring off new Twitter users and, over the last six months, driving down its stock by 30%.