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Social Media as an Innovation - The Case of Twitter

Andrew B. Whinston

University of Texas at Austin - Department of Information, Risk and Operations Management

Huaxia Rui

University of Rochester - Simon Business School

March 10, 2010

Social media services such as Twitter and YouTube are offering unprecedented opportunities for ordinary people to access a huge amount of content and to publish their own content for a global audience. The key innovation of these services, however, is not technological, rather, it's about recognizing and connecting people's need for information and attention. To better understand this, we model a social media environment as an economy where consumption of content means supply of attention and consumption of attention is through supply of content. Both the supply of content and the supply of attention involve investment of time, hence time is money in this economy.

We show that as the population in this economy grows large, there exists an attention wage for content production and the segmentation of the population is neatly characterized. Surprisingly, if users' utility functions satisfy a certain linearity condition and the population size is large enough, then with probability 1, users will self-select into either the group of content producers or the group of content consumers, resulting in a perfect division of labor. Moreover, the macro-level content consumption and production of such partition equilibrium is stable, suggesting the sustainability of the social media.

Based on our model and a massive collection of data from Twitter, we propose and test four hypotheses, and the statistical results give strong support to our theory.

This paper gives important insights into the unique innovation of recent social media services like Twitter and YouTube. It also provides a new perspective on the free-riding phenomenon in many large social media sites.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 38

Keywords: Twitter, innovation, social media, user-generated content

JEL Classification: D5, D51, D12

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Date posted: March 4, 2010 ; Last revised: October 22, 2014

Suggested Citation

Whinston, Andrew B. and Rui, Huaxia, Social Media as an Innovation - The Case of Twitter (March 10, 2010). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1564205 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1564205

Contact Information

Andrew B. Whinston
University of Texas at Austin - Department of Information, Risk and Operations Management ( email )
CBA 5.202
Austin, TX 78712
United States
512-471-8879 (Phone)

Huaxia Rui (Contact Author)
University of Rochester - Simon Business School ( email )
Rochester, NY 14627
United States

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References:  15
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