This past weekend, we had yet another tempest in a teapot here in the blogosphere, this time over what, exactly, determines the authority of a tweet on Twitter. Some argued that the number of followers is the best yardstick with which to measure how important a […]

This past weekend, we had yet another tempest in a teapot here in the blogosphere, this time over what, exactly, determines the authority of a tweet on Twitter. Some argued that the number of followers is the best yardstick with which to measure how important a tweet was, while others argued that it is who you follow that’s more valuable.

The high drama made me wonder: Why can’t a tweet just be a tweet? Why does it have to be about authority? (I assume authority means “power to influence or command thought, opinion or behavior.“) Nevertheless the discussion reminded me of a recent conversation I had with Bernardo Huberman, director of HP’s Social Computing Lab. He (along with Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu) recently collected and analyzed information from the Twitter network to find out which people truly matter in an individual’s social graph – and what ultimately influences a person’s ability to absorb content.

For each user of Twitter in our data set we obtained the number of followers and followees (people followed by a user) the user has declared, along with the content and date stamp of all his posts. Our data set consisted of a total of 309,740 users, who on average posted 255 posts, had 85 followers, and followed 80 other users. Among the 309,740 users only 211,024 posted at least twice. We call them the active users. We also define the active time of an active user by the time that has elapsed between his first and last post. On average, active users were active for 206 days.

Huberman explained that in these time-constrained modern times, our relationships can be measured by the attention we accord to people. We do so by interacting with them — whether by making phone calls, meeting them for coffee, writing on their Facebook wall or in the case of Twitter, sending either direct or indirect replies. Interactions define the social relationship.

On Twitter, he found that regardless of the number of followers or followees, there were very few friends in a personal Twitter circle. He used a very weak definition of “friend” — anyone to whom a user has directed a post at least twice. And because of that, Huberman says that in order to “influence a person’s absorption of content, there is a need to find the hidden social network; the one that matters when trying to rely on word of mouth to spread an idea, a belief, or a trend.”

Huberman’s study found that:

  • Users with a large number of followers are not necessarily those with very large number of total posts.
  • Even though the number of friends initially increases as the number of followees increases, after a while the number of friends starts to saturate and stays nearly constant.
  • The number of people a user actually communicates with eventually stops increasing while the number of followees can continue to grow indefinitely.
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  1. Interesting stats… although a lot of this is pretty obvious stuff. And for the record, I am ANTI-AUTHORITY. Of course, this could be because I have none and would thus be on the bottom of the totem-pole. lol.

  2. [...] Each day, you speak to more twitter friends than IRL friends. In fact, you would consider your twitter friends as real friends, anyway. [...]

  3. [...] a slow news weekend it took just one request from Frenchmen Loic Le Meur to set the tubes a blaze.  He wanted to see Twitter search results by authority ( number of followers). While this [...]

  4. Thanks for sharing this study. It confirms one of the things I have long suspected, which is that a measure of interaction between Twitter users is much more meaningful than a simple count of followers or followees.

    I think the study is overlooking a couple important measures, however. If we’re talking about “authority” or a measure of influence, I would really like to see some statistics about the number of @-replies per post for a given user. I’d posit that one of the most important measures of influence is the extent to which a user gets others thinking or talking about an idea. By that logic, a tweet which initiates a conversation on Twitter should be given more weight than one which goes out quietly and generates no responses.

    Similarly, the number (or percentage) of “retweets” generated from an original tweet could be considered a very useful measure. Though less conversational in nature, retweets are usually an indicator of content which people not only find interesting for themselves, but which they like so much that they want to pass it on.

    In the absence of this data it’s tough to make meaningful conjectures about the relative importance of the @-reply and retweet metrics, but I’m pretty sure we’d see some interesting results if the authors (or someone else) collected these stats.

  5. Interesting data. One thing it does not take account of is the fact that sometimes people who started out as followers on Twitter turn into friends in real life. This is one of the great benefits of Twitter. It opens up your range of acquaintance enormously, and sometimes that turns into a deeper relationship. I’ve met a lot of people who I’d never have even known existed via Twitter. On the other hand, some people just like to lurk & see the passing interchanges – and Twitter is also good for that.

  6. Isnt “No of followers” is similar to Google’s page-rank, some how nobody has problem with page-rank. When we have accepted page rank as the measure of authority in Internet, why all the fuss with authority in Twitter (Both are democratic systems) ?

  7. So i’m the exception?


    I have over 33 thousand tweets but had nearly 2000 followers prior to Twitter’s “spam cleanup” last week.

  8. hi Om,

    I think followers is closer to the number of RSS subs you’ve got. twitter is closer to blogging than social networking although it’s clearly a mix of both.

    the people you reply to and who direct replies to you is more like the number of “friends” you have in the system.

    some are strong friends and some are weak friends.

    the great thing about this model is you don’t need to create a strong one to one relationship like you do in social nets

    i think blogging is an interesting medium to study to learn about real social networks in action


  9. Hi, Om! At first, I also thought the definition of Twitter friends as contacts you replied to more than once was a bit limited and technical. But when I took a look at my own hidden network (see analysis here: http://blog.metaroll.com/2008/12/12/relevant-networks/) I found out that many of my close contacts in this hidden network were indeed “friend-like” contacts. It’s not always friendship in the classical sense but those are people that are so meaningful to me, that I give them more attention (via @replies) than I give others. Here’s your “hidden network”: http://twitter-friends.com/?user=om&mode=net I’d bet the larger nodes (size of nodes is proportional to number of replies) are in some way standing out of the 500 people you are following.

  10. I am sure that it helps to have many followers, however, does it help when most of them are spammers or unsavoury marketing types? And is someone an ‘influencer’ if he or she is only (or mostly) interacting with his or her friends?


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