Is Twitter the Next TV? Even a small Twitter following can be good for small businesses. / Credit: Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

The popular social media site Twitter may be much less social in the future, new research proposes.

A study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University suggests Twitter may eventually resemble a broadcast medium like television or radio, with users reading messages written by celebrities and businesses rather than writing their own messages of up to 140 characters.

"So what it becomes is another advertising channel, a broadcast medium, as opposed to a socially interactive one," said Andrew T. Stephen, one of the study's co-authors and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Stephen and co-author Olivier Toubia, from Columbia University, came to their conclusions after conducting experiments in which they found individual-user activity on Twitter declined as their number of followers increased. 

As part of the study, the researchers identified approximately 2,500 Twitter users who had Twitter-follower totals ranging from 13 to more than 10,000. All were noncorporate, noncelebrity users who were not tweeting for commercial purposes.

Stephen and Toubia then hired 100 undergraduate research assistants to gradually start following each of the Twitter accounts to boost their number of followers. They found that users who had just a few followers initially showed no change in their tweeting habits. The results were the same for the other end of the spectrum (those with more than 10,000 followers).

However, Twitter users in the middle range — those with between 62 and 245 followers — started posting less frequently as their number of followers increased. Stephen said these users had already achieved some level of status and wanted to preserve it by avoiding posting anything that would offend their followers.

"As they get more followers, they want to be careful about what they post," he said.

The researchers believe the results indicated many users were more interested in gaining followers than in using Twitter to broadcast their views. Based on the study, they concluded that users will reduce their Twitter usage as they gain more followers.

If this trend were to perpetuate, Twitter would remain a viable channel for businesses, celebrities and other high-end users to communicate with their fans, Stephen said. He speculated that they might utilize their Twitter feeds the same way they use mailing lists to announce products and promotions to their followers.

"Longer term, to get value, they'll need the people who start following them to react to these tweets and to retweet them," Stephen said.

If Twitter does, indeed, become more like a broadcast medium, marketers using Twitter will be challenged to offer rewards and other incentives to engage users and counteract the tendency to tweet less often — and to keep the social network truly interactive, the researchers said.

The study was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Marketing Science.

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