Thursday, April 23, 2009

Framingham Heart Study has lessons for Twitter

In 1948, the National Heart Institute embarked on an ambitious study of the causes of heart disease. By studying 5,209 men and women between the ages of 30 and 62, who lived in the town of Framingham, Massachussetts, and who had not yet developed overt symptoms of heart disease, researchers were able to learn about the underlying causes and symptoms of one of the leading causes of death and serious illness.

The Framingham study was groundbreaking in its contribution of knowledge about heart disease, and has become the foundation of medical diagnosis, practice, and treatment in the area throughout North America and Europe. It has led to over 1200 articles in medical journals in the past half century.

However, in recent years, there have been questions of its ability to correctly model the risk factors on certain patients, especially those of South Asian and African descent. The population of Framingham, Mass, when the study was conducted, was predominantly caucasian, and thus the guidelines it produced have been cause for question in today's multi-cultural world.

Quite simply, as populations change, rules and guidelines built before the change may need to be re-examined for their applicability after the change.

So, what does this have to do with Twitter? Twitter too, has guidelines, practices, and approaches that work. The vanguard of Twitter, folks like @guykawasaki, @chrisbrogan, @armano, and @conversationage have communicated these guidelines and practices, and in doing so have made Twitter into a very effective and very popular tool for communication.

But in becoming so effective and popular, the population on
Twitter has fundamentally changed.

Now, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, and Oprah are avid Twitterers, colleagues who had not heard of Twitter 6 months ago are joining to "see what it's about", every politician is borrowing a page from Obama and joining the fray, and radio stations seem to mention their Twitter handle more frequently than their web address. @MackCollier has already recently written about the changing population.

Plenty of people are debating whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I think that debate is moot. The population of Twitter has changed and is changing, and the change will continue to be interesting.

The real question is, much like the Framingham Heart Study, does a change in the population on Twitter mean a change in the guidelines?

It's difficult to believe that Ashton and Britney are following the "rules" that were tacitly understood prior to their arrival, and in fact I don't think it would make sense for them to. They bring a different persona to the population, and in doing so, change the landscape a small amount.

I don't profess to know how the guidelines of Twitter will evolve with a new, larger, more mainstream population in place, but I do have some questions:

- will it be accepted for celebrity Twitterers to be "outbound" only, rather than interactive?
- will we accept that many Twittering celebrities will be ghost written? Or will we insist on authenticity?
- will Twitter become the defacto standard for news distribution for outlets like radio stations and news publishers?
- how does our organization of Twitter communication evolve beyond Tweetdeck filters and the like when there are "updates" from celebrities or news outlets and "communication" from individuals to manage?
- what measures of influence will evolve to indicate the most influential writers?

What are your thoughts? How will the norms of communication on Twitter look 12 months from now, as the population continues to change?

Many of the topics on this blog are discussed in more detail in my book Digital Body Language
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