Expert Commentary

Measuring influence in Twitter: The million follower fallacy

2010 study for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence on how social media users wield influence.

Usage of the social media tool Twitter has exploded globally, and it now serves as an information and communications hub for millions who seek news, conversation or just amusement. Messages, known as “tweets,” are restricted to 140 characters or fewer, and they can be “retweeted” (republished) by anyone, provided they are in the public stream. As with any evolving information environment, the dynamics of “influence” — a concept of long-standing interest to social scientists and marketers alike — have only begun to emerge clearly.

In the 2010 study “Measuring User Influence in Twitter: The Million Follower Fallacy,” published by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, an international group of researchers measured the influence of some 6 million users in 2009. The three areas of measurement they used were: (1) the number of followers a user had attracted; (2) the number of times a user’s message had been republished by other users; and (3) the number of times a user’s name was mentioned by others. The researchers focused on a user’s ability to “lead others to engage in a certain act.”

The study’s findings include:

  • The most followed users were generally public figures, celebrities and major news sources; the most retweeted users were content aggregation services, business people and media outlets; the most mentioned users were celebrities.
  • There was a strong correlation between users who were frequently retweeted and those who were often mentioned — leaders in one category did well in the other. Celebrities stood out for being able to garner mentions.
  • Having many followers does not necessarily correlate with getting many retweets or mentions, meaning that the most-connected Twitter users are not necessarily the most influential.
  • Certain influential users can receive disproportionately more mentions across topics relative to the majority of users; this “power law” dynamic means that an influential user can surpass other influencers by orders of magnitude.
  • The top influentials came down to a set of 233 users who garnered massive mentions and retweets: on average those “all-time influentials” saw up to 20,000 retweets and 50,000 mentions over a 15-day period.

For those interested in a Twitter-based publicity campaign, the authors conclude, this evidence suggests it is more effective to target top influentials than try to reach a large numbers of less-popular users. The study also states that “influence is not gained spontaneously or accidentally, but through concerted effort” and great personal involvement, suggesting that influential users are “more predictable than suggested by theory.”

Tags: technology, Twitter, social media

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