Research on 41.7 million Twitter profiles explains everything

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retweetgraph.gifI stumbled across some interesting Twitter research by a few academics at the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology via MIT's Technology Review. They analyzed 41.7 million user profiles, 1.47 billion social relations, 4,262 trending topics, and 106 million tweets. Here are the highlights of their findings and my commentary:

1. The average path length between two people on Twitter is 4.12. Given Stanley Milgram's original experiment uncovering the "six degrees of separation" phenomena, being four degrees apart from each other on Twitter just shows how powerful a medium it is. Also, Twitters users who have reciprocal relations of fewer than 2,000 are likely to be geographically close and exhibit some levels of homophily. For reference, on the MSN network with 180 million users the average path length is also 6. So yes, Twitter can be an effective communication medium for your brand if you have something valuable to share. 

2. The ability to re-tweet gives people immense power. You actually don't need to have thousands and thousands of followers to be influential. Even with a relatively small number of followers, you ability to re-tweet (and be re-tweeted) gives you far greater reach than you'd normally assume. For example, a hundred people with a hundred followers each, re-tweeting have the ability to spread information very broadly too. This appears to complement Duncan Watt's hypothesis about social influencers playing an extremely large role in disseminating information.

3. There is something special about the time of day that a tweet is published. It is not that tweets happen to spread more quickly at certain hours but rather that 75% of all re-tweets happen within in the hour of the tweet. This means that you need to be cognizant of when your followers are online and viewing their own twitter accounts the most. Do you know when your followers are online the most? You can tell by examining their post frequencies.

4. The researchers also analyzed the influence of Twitter users and found that there's a discrepancy in the relationship between the number of followers and the popularity of someone's tweets. This basically means that the number of followers is not the only measure of someone's value. In of itself, this isn't surprising but it does validate the point that you shouldn't get too caught up in the number of followers you have on your brand account.

5. In examining the top trending topics, the research discovered that 85% of those topics are headline news or persistent news in nature. This shows that twitter serves effectively as a news source and that's probably one of its most popular uses. This is a very different conversation dynamic than what one sees on Facebook or elsewhere. This has implications for what brands should tweet and how they should use the platform versus FB.

6. On Twitter only 22.1% of the users have reciprocal relationships. This means they follow each other. 77.9% of the relationships are one way where someone is followed but doesn't necessarily follow the person back. And 67.6% of users on Twitter are not followed by any of their followings. For them Twitter is primarily a source of information than a social networking or information dissemination platform. This shows there's a lot more of spectator activity on Twitter than we realize.

7. As the graph above shows, the time between tweeting and re-tweeting is typically very short. While it may take approximately an hour for a tweet to be re-tweeted, once that happens it spreads through the network far more quickly especially as it gets re-tweeted again and again. What this means is that when you tweet something you should expect some re-tweeting to begin within an hour (as long as the content is of value) after which it'll move more quickly. These numbers are useful to keep in mind as you try to gauge the effectiveness and potential reach of a tweet. 

Twitter is still a relatively young social platform. What is obvious though is that it behaves very differently to a social network and  therefore those comparisons aren't useful. Also, it also requires unique strategies if a brand is to leverage it effectively as a social medium to engage social influencers. Knowing the medium well and how tweets spread is critical for to be successful on Twitter.

Follow me on Twitter (@shivsingh) for more insights on digital strategy and social media.


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