"Maybe Twitter is for girls," postulates Vanity Fair columnist and professional provocateur/pontificator Michael Wolff. It's the airiest of thought bubbles, only hazily fleshed out. But could he be right?
If he is, it's an accident. But I don't think he's right at all.
Let's get this out of the way: It is a waste of time to take anything Wolff says as sincere or in any way at face value (as I learned well when I profiled him for WWD last year.) He incites outrage for sport and profit, and earnestly engaging any of it is usually a lose-lose proposition — the proverbial wrestling with a pig.
And for the record, unproven assumptions in Wolff's post on Twitter yesterday include, more or less in order, that "the Twitter demographic skews notably female," that girls write better diaries than boys, that "women's tweets seem much more likely to be personal rather than professional, upbeat rather than serious, confessional instead of political," that most Tweeters are young journalists, that most young journalists are women, that if true, this is because of the declining statue and pay of journalism, that women are naturally more social, that men who are successful on Twitter "sound like women," that only women can and do tweet about "relationships and fashion," and that all this somehow constitutes both a maturation and a future business model for the platform.
In that mess of the empirically unverified (and sometimes unverifiable) and the merely subjective rendered universal, let's start with an easy one: whether Twitter has more female users than male users. Wolff says, "As far as I know, this is yet impossible to actually know. But it makes sense," and proceeds heedlessly from there. (This, it appears, is how he believes it works on the Internet.)
It's true that Twitter's metrics are both limited and contradictory. One study's sample showed Twitter skewing 58 percent male, while a larger sample in a Harvard Business School study found the opposite, that 55 percent of Twitter users (as of May 2009, and the near-year in between may matter) were women. Quantcast data indicates that visitors to Twitter.com (not the only way to access Tweets) were also around 55 percent female in recent months.
It is also a notable omission to write about Twitter and gender without noting the existing research on who talks and who listens — arguably way more relevant to the dynamics of a site than how many men and women sign up, especially given Twitter's high drop out rate. That Harvard Business Review study from last June, "Men Follow Men and Nobody Tweets," got a lot of attention with the following conclusions:
"Although men and women follow a similar number of Twitter users, men have 15% more followers than women. Men also have more reciprocated relationships, in which two users follow each other...We found that an average man is almost twice more likely to follow another man than a woman. Similarly, an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman."
So Wolff may have it backwards — generally speaking, women dominate most social media except Twitter, which skews male — at least if you count the participants who are actually active and successful, as opposed to the ones who just sign up. Why the difference? It's more speculation, but the authors of the Harvard Business Review raise the question of whether it's Twitter's pure text interface that makes it different from say, Facebook or the unmourned MySpace:
On a typical online social network, most of the activity is focused around women - men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know. Generally, men receive comparatively little attention from other men or from women. We wonder to what extent this pattern of results arises because men and women find the content produced by other men on Twitter more compelling than on a typical social network, and men find the content produced by women less compelling (because of a lack of photo sharing, detailed biographies, etc.).
The implication here is either that men listen to what women say because, on some level, they want to sleep with them, or, as in Wolff's take, because women tell better stories about their personal lives:
The form seems to sing most when it's about relationships and fashion. Beyond war and devastation, what more compelling Twitter content is there than a young woman setting out for the evening, all expectations colored by certain disappointment.
I wonder which girly, wistful Tweets are singing to Wolff. After all, by my count he only follows 20 women, out of 161 accounts he follows (though a few are institutional feeds). But generally speaking, all of these insights — both research-based and Wolff's anecdotal "evidence" — seems to add up to the idea that Twitter is for girls — and guys — to listen to guys, not the other way around.
On Twitter, everyone crafts their own universe, and the results demonstrate whose voice you want to hear, and which voices are the loudest or most prominent. Because as collaborative and conversational as the medium can be, and as much as it can be a meritocracy that catapults relative unknowns, there are still reinforcements of the hierarchies that exist in the world. People who are famous IRL (forgive me) tend to get more followers. Beyond the celebrity space, if you follow people who tweet about politics — pundits, reporters, elected officials — well, the best-known and recognized people in that space are overwhelmingly men, fairly or unfairly. Same with tech and media, from which Wolff drew most of his choices.
As a regular Twitter user, I sometimes wonder whether the form, which rewards the punchy and opinionated, accentuates a social tendency for women to exercise more self-censorship, worried about sounding stupid by opining on a topic we know less than everything about. Anecdotally, it's something the men I follow seem less concerned with.
But this is falling into the Wolffian school of evidence-gathering. In the absence of rigorous study, one thing is clear: On this particular point, one blogger has relied on anecdote and something a friend said to illustrate a point. Another has earnestly, if imperfectly, tried to rely on data to answer the question raised. Guess which one's a man and which one's a woman. Now who's all about diaries and relationships?
P.S. Now follow me!