Yesterday I realized that even if you count his daughters (the @jon2012girls) three times (as they are three girls), fewer than 10% of the 114 people Jon Huntsman follows on Twitter are women. I thought that was mildly startling.

Before going any further, I should say that this isn't meant to be a cryptocritique of Huntsman. The reason I was thinking about him in particular is that yesterday he tweeted the following, and this triggered a chain of thought that led me to look at the people he follows to get a sense of how he (or his campaign) uses the medium:
Another way to describe Huntsman's lopsided list is to say that he has a tendency to follow journalists, with a special interest in those who lean right or are based in New Hampshire, which makes sense, given that his presidential campaign is going for a big finish in the first-in-the-nation primary. So the fact that Huntsman mostly follows men probably says more about the gender distribution in American media than about Huntsman himself. I also tend to follow journalists and policy wonks, and my list isn't that much more equitable; about 20% of the people I follow are women.

But maybe the explanation isn't so anodyne (if the fact that the majority of journalists and analysts are men can be considered anodyne in the first place, which I don't think it can). Eric Hellweg of the Harvard Business Review online pointed me to some research about Twitter use from 2009:

Even more interesting is who follows whom. 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. Finally, an average man is 40% more likely to be followed by another man than by a woman. These results cannot be explained by different tweeting activity - both men and women tweet at the same rate.

2009 is ancient in social media terms, but it's an interesting finding, particularly given that women outnumber men on Twitter. I'm not sure how to interpret it. One explanation would be that people (men and women) are more interested in what men have to say than women. If so, that might merely ("merely") be a reflection of pre-existing imbalance in the world: if I follow a random sample of ten Congressional representatives, eight will be male. Another explanation would be that even if men and women tweet at the same rate, men tweet differently, in a way that makes them more interesting to follow--maybe they're more argumentative?

Whatever the explanation, I'm going to make a conscious effort to follow more women on Twitter. Among those I already follow, several come immediately to mind as having informative feeds: my friend Kate Galbraith (@kategalbraith) does a great job circulating news about energy and the environment, especially but not exclusively in Texas. Garance Franke-Ruta (@thegarance) of The Atlantic and Karen Tumulty (@ktumulty) for American politics. Catherine Rampell (@crampell), who writes about economics for the New York Times. And Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM), the foreign policy-focused public intellectual.
Francis
11/30/2011 19:29

Are you sure that your methodology is correct? When I checked my feed, I found 25% women, 40% men and 35% unknown. Your post implies that if it is not a woman's account, it's a man's.

Also, why not follow less men instead of more women? I'm surprised that most tweeple seem to add people as if it didn't dilute every other account they follow.

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12/02/2011 07:11

I think about 10-20% of my feed is gender-indeterminate (mostly institutions). Among the people I follow because I know them socially, it's about a 50/50 split. I have more men than women who follow me, but that might be a reflection of the things I tweet about (which has lately been a lot of politics and energy/environment). In any case, the numbers come from HBR.org, not me--and they are from 2009, which is half a lifetime ago, since Twitter launched in 2007, so maybe things have changed...

The question of dilution is interesting. There's not much cost to following a low-volume tweeter--I typically only take the trouble to unfollow someone if they're tweeting a lot about things that aren't hugely relevant to my interests. That's not a comment on the intrinsic quality of their tweets, just a reflection of my desire to streamline...

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