Blog Post

On Twitter, Followers Aren't Really Friends

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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 (s HWP) 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 inde?nitely.
  • twitterposts21

76 Responses to “On Twitter, Followers Aren't Really Friends”

  1. The issue is, as far as I can speculate, the more followers means you only see people you communicate with the most; Other social networks do the same, so we can’t throw Twitter out of the party without sharing the blame.

    That said, if something like Tweetdeck became commonplace, which again as far as I know, allows you to see more of your users, then Twitter does become more about friends than a two way RSS.

    It really depends on an individual’s experience with the service and what sort of user they are, doesn’t it?

  2. This study shines some light as to what will happen with Twitter as it scales. At its core, as @FredWilson points out, Twitter functions as a 2-way RSS feed. The term “Followers” is not coincidental.

    When someone is new to Twitter, the volume of Tweets is low, and there is room for interaction. When the volume of Tweets increase, there is a firehose of Tweets that must be “managed” or ignored. At that point, the social aspect starts dropping away, and it becomes only about publishing and following. For example, if I were to start following @FredWilson today, I would be approximately his 10,000th Follower. There can be no expectation beyond hearing what he had to say.

    If Twitter manages to become mainstream, then its social aspect will be be very small. But Twitters ability to be a information channel will be significant. That is why bloggers and mainstream media are starting to get their Twitter addressess out in public (

  3. Good insight..

    I am more interested in ‘what are you thinking?’ instead of ‘what you are doing?’ – kind of Tweets. Bloggers put their quality blog links [as opposed to all of their blogs] as what they are thinking, and having more followers than people with just status updates. The more quality contribution [perceived by others] make someone authority – a nice democratic process.

    Twitter is really the ‘power of Now’ [borrowing from Tibco]. I have been using it since March ’08, and it has expanded my horizon.

    Hope Twitter will find a way to make money without killing the goose.

    Subhankar Ray

  4. Loic’s post ALSO related the search by authority to “branding” i.e to me, a commercial context, that seems to have ben missed in the responses. First of all, as I had tweeted over the weekend, All of the Twitter users COMBINED is les of an audience or brand influence in raw numbers than the average prime time TV show. In fact a TV show with twitter numbers would be a candidate for quick replacement so large brands are only going to give even the twitter elite only so much “cred” anyway or put another way an “oprah” or even “Angelina Jolie” plug or total twit community endorsement which would you go with.

    Now, for the army of nobody’s (hey Kawasaki’s term :-) search by authority would be pretty meaningless – Im not looking to Twitter for deep or hell, even relevant insights. A little bit of free promotion, some light commentary and sometimes some news or even a post that makes me go “hmm”. But authority? no way, and as for the number of followers as a criterion of some sort, most of the big names made their following well outside of twitter and outsi of a few of the elite actually have little to say to their followers outside of self-promotion.

  5. @all … oh wow…. i am waking up to so many awesome and smart comments. Thank you and yes, I will try and reply to most of the them after I am done thinking about what you have to say. MEanwhile @Peter, @Fred, @Dean make some awesome points. Be back in a bit.

  6. @ Ken Leebow

    Sir your comment is truly baffling. On your website you tout the wisdom of Vint Cerf

    …but in an interview, Mr. Cerf cites Twitter as one of the most powerful, influential technologies available.

    “…As we increasingly realise the web as a vital social utility and important marketplace we cannot ignore an even bigger potential. The power of the internet is not limited to the PC. Twitter has emerged to create a seamless layer of social connectivity across SMS, IM, and the web. Operating on the simple concept of status, Twitter asks one question: “What are you doing?” Friends, family and colleagues stay connected through short responses.

    The potential for this simple form of hybrid communication technology is strong. For example, a person in India may text “Follow Biz” and get online via Twitter over SMS in a matter of seconds. Biz might be updating from the US on a PC. Nevertheless, the updates are exchanged instantly.

    Our future holds in store the promise of increased connectivity to a powerful social internet which truly extends to every little spot on our Planet Earth. We’re all affected by and defined by each other’s actions. What are you doing?”

    – Vint Cerf

    Is being so self-contradictory common or are you here link baiting with artificially inflammatory comments just to get attention?

  7. Ken’s right. 99.9% of twitter is useless. Maybe that correlates with real life chit chat? Either way, I doubt the majority of twitter users have met the majority of their followers. I know I haven’t. Not to mention so many are spam now I’m surprised that twitter hasn’t improved it’s spam monitoring. Twitter seems most useful for the web 2.0 glitterati as either a tool or bragging rights.

  8. Does anyone really want to repeat the mistake of Technorati link counts? I sure don’t. It would also solve a symptom and not the root cause issue. At SES Chicago, Bill Tancer discussed how some people are maxing out on Twitter and asserted this was due to a lack of relevancy. I think he’s absolutely correct.

    Authority based on follower numbers isn’t going to solve this issue. Setting up Google Alerts for your 5 favorite topics and reading the points of view of random people you never heard of would solve this issue.

  9. Daniel Tunkelang

    If following someone meant allocation from a fixed pool of attention, then number of followers could be a great measure. But of course there’s not cost to following someone–no requirement to actually pay attention to their Twitter stream. Which means that if people start thinking that number of followers is a source of value (as some evidently do), then enough people will game the system that the statistic will become meaningless.

    A much better thing to measure would be actual influence, but that’s hard to do quantitatively. But the idea is this: how much do someone’s tweets affect the collective conversation? Re-tweets are a step in the right direction, though even those can be gamed.

    There’s still a question as to whether anybody cares, other than those few who expect such a measure to help them gain influence personally. But if you’re a company using Twitter to monitor your customer base, it’s probably a good idea to monitor known influencers more carefully, rather than just waiting for the avalanche of influence their tweets will eventually trigger.

  10. Agile Cyborg

    When you factor in the oppressive blandness there is a reducible similarity among the hundreds of thousands that has absolutely nothing to do with the broad set of need Twitter has been able to tap into.

    Which leads me to my point: the term follower is over-simplified by a large number of digital scribes.

    I think the follower concept needs to be fragmented and studied more deeply because I am not convinced that friendship has much to do with following (except initially) especially as each Twitterer evolves along their singular curves.

    New accounts will be most prone to amassing a concentration of followers who are friends mixed with popular personalities who are anything but. This process of initializing and pragmatically? evolving fascinates me.

  11. Funny that the friend ratio peaks around 150 people. Pretty much the exact number Malcolm Gladwell mentions in Tipping Point as the maximum social net a person typically can keep.

  12. Good Morning Om;

    I would understand the Authority of a tweet lie in the hands of the person that created that tweet, and I would judge the importance of that tweet to be measure by the number of times it has been retweeted. I usually do not follow the public timeline, which may be something you to consider, but I assume that is the component you used. I usually borrow a follower, see how interesting their tweets are, their webpage, and their profile. The reason to follow is not contained in one tweet, but what they will contribute to your Twitterhood. Even one’s appearance plays an important part, today’s picture may get you more followers. Basically, a single tweet does not a follower make. The eventual drop-off in followers I feel is related to Twitter saturation. There are still people you have never heard of it and feeling MySpace or Facebook are better alternative. Twitter does have a instant messenger appeal because it provides more than an instant update, it provide time, place and thought, visuals and is easily accessed, which implies that it is IM 2.0.

    I plan to stop following quite a few people on New Years. Hope yours is great.

    Anyway, good question, keep you the good work. Everyone’s a naysayer. Don’t you think comment boards mimick tweeter somewhat. lol.

  13. Om et al,

    The problem with arguing authority within the confines of a discussion of followers is akin to the Wiki editors who use any random entry to furtively argue whether the Table of Contents was built right. In other words, it’s a false argument because being an authority on a given subject has nothing to do with followers prior to joining Twitter, and having a larger number of followers doesn’t make you an authority on more subjects than any other.

    To wit: When those being affected by (or actually in the middle of) the terrorist attacks in Mumbai were Twittering, they certainly had a higher authority on the subject than, say, Robert Scoble.

    So I do agree with Om, in that more often than not a Tweet is just a Tweet. The person behind the Tweet may be using Twitter more effectively than others, but “authority” is contextual and not something we can apply a simple algorithm to. Or, something we can expect Twitter to provide a filter for.


  14. Anyone who uses Twitter as chat ( dozens of @replies to a single person all in rapid fire succession, often with no context provided ) has no “Twitter authority” – I don’t care how many people are following them. Twitter is not chat!!!

    Also, I would stress “Twitter competency” over “Twitter authority”. I could care less if someone has 30,000 followers, if they are an idiot or narcissist, who bring no value, just use Twitter as a megaphone ( when in fact it is a parabolic microphone ) their authority is zero.

  15. I agree with you Om

    Followers on Twitter aren’t all friends – but then the word ‘friend’ has been redfined through facebook to mean ‘someone I’ve interacted with or met once – or who knows someone I know and wants to be my ‘friend’.

    Applying any credibility to simple numerical stats of follows or followers on twitter is hopelessly naive. I suspect that the sample population is much smaller than that which contributes to google pagerank – thus highlighting a critical distinction between the two. Any old numpty can choose to follow hundreds of people and if their settings are sch that they automatically ‘follow back’ then ‘hey presto’ an apparent high influencer. Others will secure many followers who do not in practice monitor or receive all of the tweets from all of the people they ‘follow’. I know that’s hard for active twitterers to appreciate but it’s true of many people who have a look, experiment and then drop out but don’t go waste time deleting all of the follows they set up out of curiosity.

  16. Interesting stats. As much as I agree with some of the points I’ve always believed that with these Social Media Platforms people are given the creativity and freedom in which to pursue relationships-at any level, be it, online marketing, online acquaintance, mentorship, dependable survey group, what have you.

    I can never be sure of what my moods may be at a given tweet in time, nor am I sure of my interests will be as well. I follow people based on a combination of their level of engagement, funny tweets, personal tweets and informative tweets. My followers need to have a balanced tweet history in order for me to feel that what they contribute to my online Twitter life – will be meaningful to me.

    Tweet. Tweet.


  17. So, what does this say ? If a follower would be a friend. it would have been called friend :) But even in our succesfull german comminity called “wer-kennt-wen” (who knows who) are people that not only invite people they know, or knew. There it is called friend :)

  18. Twitter is kind of depressing for a lot of reasons and this is just one of them. It’s all about numbers? Popularity? Of what value is any of this to the average person? It seems awfully petty. The only people I really understand on Twitter are those who post interesting links. The ones who say something into the great void and hope someone will read it are kind of sad. Which describes nearly everyone, including me. I see the biggest use of Twitter in the near future as being what has taken over podcasting and everything else — commercial advertising for commercial websites or mainstream media. CNN is already unleashing its “anchors” to interact and spam them during live broadcasts.

  19. 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?

  20. 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: 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”: 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.

  21. 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


  22. anonymous

    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) ?

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.