If the ongoing social networking revolution has you scratching your head and asking, "Why do people spend time on this?" and "How can my company benefit from the social network revolution?" you've got a lot in common with Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski.
Only difference: Piskorski has spent years studying users of online social networks (SN) and has developed surprising findings about the needs that they fulfill, how men and women use these services differently, and how Twitter—the newest kid on the block—is sharply different from forerunners such as Facebook and MySpace. He has also applied many of the insights to help companies develop strategies for leveraging these various online entities for profit.
On why social networks?
"Online social networks are most useful when they address real failures in the operation of offline networks," says Piskorski.
"If I am looking for someone who can help me with my start up, I would ask my friends if they know such a person, and if they don't, I would ask them to inquire with their friends. The problem is that those friends of friends don't always have an incentive to help, so they won't work on my behalf. But here is where LinkedIn comes in handy—there I can go and search through the network of my friends of friends and find the person I am looking for."
Photos - the biggest driver of activity
The biggest discovery: pictures. "People just love to look at pictures," says Piskorski. "That's the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people's profiles."
Usage by gender
Piskorski has also found deep gender differences in the use of sites. The biggest usage categories are men looking at women they don't know, followed by men looking at women they do know. Women look at other women they know. Overall, women receive two-thirds of all page views.
For Twitter - Everything turns upside down
Piskorski says these findings do not hold for one network: Twitter.
Looking at who uses Twitter, which restricts users to 140-character messages, Piskorski and student-researcher Bill Heil (HBS MBA '09) found that 90 percent of Twitter posts were created by only 10 percent of users. This was not surprising, he says, because the technology uses words without photos to communicate.
"Only the people who are willing to put themselves out there publicly in words to people who they may not know will use Twitter. Some people will find this incredibly appealing, others will find this too scary."
But the remarkable finding was the gender dynamics. According to the research, there are more women on Twitter than men, women tweet about the same rate as men, but men's tweets are followed by both sexes much more than expected by chance.
"That was stunning because on all these other social networks you see the opposite," Piskorski says.
No one uses MySpace
MySpace has a PR problem because its users are in places where they don't have much contact with people who create news that gets read by others. Other than that, there is really no difference between users of Facebook and MySpace, except they are poorer on MySpace."