Following, not leading on Twitter

Followers don't necessarily equal influence on Twitter. Content that flows downstream appears to be more valuable to the Twitter-verse at large.

Dave Rosenberg Co-founder, MuleSource
Dave Rosenberg has more than 15 years of technology and marketing experience that spans from Bell Labs to startup IPOs to open-source and cloud software companies. He is CEO and founder of Nodeable, co-founder of MuleSoft, and managing director for Hardy Way. He is an adviser to DataStax, IT Database, and Puppet Labs.
Dave Rosenberg
3 min read

The number of followers a Twitter user has doesn't directly correlate as an indicator of influence, new research by Meeyoung Cha of the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany demonstrates.

After looking at data from 52 million Twitter accounts including a more detailed look at the 6 million "active users" (or roughly 8.6 percent of the user base), Cha found that popular users with large number of followers "are not necessarily influential in terms of spawning retweets or mentions."

The data in the paper also provides a number of interesting points related to how followers interact with the Twitter service, and how influence and fame don't always match up.

  • The most-followed users span a wide variety of public figures and news sources. They were news sources (CNN, New York Times), politicians (Barack Obama), athletes (Shaquille O'Neal), as well as celebrities like actors, writers, musicians, and models (Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears).
  • The most retweeted users were content aggregation services (Mashable, TwitterTips, TweetMeme), businessmen (Guy Kawasaki), and news sites (The New York Times, The Onion).
  • The most-mentioned users were mostly celebrities. Ordinary users showed a great passion for celebrities, regularly posting messages to them or mentioning them, without necessarily retweeting their posts.
  • Most influential users can hold significant influence over a variety of topics. The top Twitter users had a disproportionate amount of influence, which was indicated by a power-law distribution
  • Mainstream news organizations consistently spawned a high level of retweets over diverse topics. In contrast, celebrities were better at inducing mentions from their audience.
  • Influence is not gained spontaneously or accidentally, but through concerted effort. In order to gain and maintain influence, users need to keep great personal involvement.

One of the follow-up questions that Cha suggested in an interview is "how should one measure influence?" And perhaps more importantly what other factors play a role in the influence.

And is influence really the correct term? As a blogger/writer, I am always trying to influence something, even if just trying to sway readers to my argument. For example, the retweet function of these blog posts has proven to be far more valuable to me than comments. This is because Twitter is where more quick conversations are taking place and also because it removes the anonymity from the commenting process.

There is another aspect of the report that shows that Twitter may actually be best for downstream communications, more of a snowball rolling downhill than an actual conversation. This suggests that Twitter is right in incorporating advertising into the stream (at least from a business perspective) and that social media programs will push further into viral strategies and less about two-way communications.

With Twitter, you can simply ignore the stream or pass the data on. Social networking sites like Facebook mean you have to go back and acknowledge every thing that someone sent or wrote on your wall. There is no right or wrong, but it's important to differentiate how we as consumers and purveyors of social media are looking for in terms of net results.