Drawing a huge following on Twitter does not necessarily mean that your tweets will have much influence. It turns out that some noncelebrities with meager followings have the greatest ability to start discussions and spread ideas.
That was the conclusion of a team of researchers who analyzed some two billion public Twitter messages to see which users had the most influence, measured by the number of times the tweeters were mentioned by others or their messages were forwarded to others (or “retweeted,” in the language of Twitter use). The scholars presented a paper on their findings Monday at a conference on “Weblogs and Social Media” organized by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.
“Having a million follows may not be everything in terms of influence,” said Meeyoung Cha, of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, in the presentation, held at George Washington University. In relative terms, she said, one of Twitter’s most influential users turned out to be a librarian who had few followers but a high rate of success at having messages mentioned or forwarded.
Ms. Cha said most Twitter users had very few followers—24 was the most common number—and 99 percent had fewer than 200 followers. Only a small number of tweeters, about 500, had more than 100,000 followers. The data were gathered from September 2006 to August 2009.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the largest Twitter data set that has ever been studied,” said Ms. Cha. The researchers are waiting for Twitter’s permission to make their corpus of tweets available to other researchers as well.
I asked another one of the researchers involved in the study, Krishna P. Gummadi, who is also from the Max Planck Institute, whether he had any advice on how to be an influential tweeter. “I have to confess that I wouldn’t know,” he responded. He has only a few dozen followers on his personal account and he hardly uses it.