Blog Post

On Twitter, Followers Aren't Really Friends

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. that is some good information. I think it is important new users or people that are wanting massive followers can use the same tools upcoming signed recording artist are using. I found 3 links that a new recording artist is using and people say will have over a million followers soon!
    If you are wanting over a million I suggest you get on board with them before they get banned!

    -j. eubanks

  2. As @everycentcounts says, even i started off with the idea that its a good way to track what friends are upto and vice versa. But it is more of a marketing / networking tool , and most people i know who actively use twitter are in it to promote “their” brand image.

  3. I used to use twitter w/ friends only, but I recently realized it’s not at all about friends. It’s about influence. Everyone is promoting something on there. That’s really the only reason to use it frequently, unless you are a college student and/or are really bored. I spent a few hours this weekend staring at twitter, building my follower base.

    It is, however, a good way for influencers to market to other influencers with similar interests.


  4. blindfoldedmonkey

    Crap…who’s behind the TWITTERLIKE application? It actually works. I just compared GOOGLE with FACEBOOK, and a few other comparisons, and it totally makes sense. Anybody know the equations behind this???

  5. I didn’t realize the intention of Twitter was to make friends. In fact, by asking you the simple question of “what are you doing?”- there is little
    interest in understanding you in relationship to others. It simply asks you to respond to what you are doing at that moment. Inevitably relationships will form, but it seems like more a by product of Twitter than a stated purpose.

  6. After reflecting further on my earlier comment above and the measures I highlighted in it, I’m more and more inclined to think that there is no single metric which accurately reflects a person’s Twitter authority.

    I’m still convinced that the @-reply count and breadth of retweets are much more meaningful measures than just follower count, but they, too, are incomplete. Frankly, I’m not convinced there’s any metric or combination of metrics which can ever measure Twitter authority completely. I’ll keep things brief in this comment, but I’ve expanded on this on my blog.

    In short, the best we can hope for is a good approximation compiled from an analysis of multiple metrics – a critical component of which must be some measure of interactivity.

  7. Om,

    This is truly fascinating stuff. Completely agree with your observations and find the graphs a brilliant way of visualising it all.

    I’ve recently become quite involved in the idea of authority and how it works online. Granted, it’s a hugely subjective matter. One person’s authority is another’s minority.

    I’d be interested to get your thoughts on the following blog post – and your readers too! All the best. M

  8. @bookmarklee …”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’.”

    I think it is an apt reflection of the times we live in!

  9. I think it depends on a few things. One metric of success could be looking at analytic software and actually seeing how much traffic is actually generated from tweets. Another could be how much actual interaction between yourself and other twitters.

  10. Om,

    Great post and analysis. While I think the defining “active users” is a bit generous (may be more appropriate to define active users as those who have posted at least twice per week over x number of weeks) I want to thank you for crunching the numbers and helping to validate a theory I’ve been working on.

    I wrote a post titled “Your Followers are NOT Following You” earlier this month asserting that the numbers game has reached a point of absurdity. Your analysis highlighting the reality that people only interact with a small subset of the large hoards of followers/followees they are accumulating is another much needed wake up call.

    Shameless Plug Warning: I have a vested interest in seeing things change as the founder of Tweetworks. :) But, I think Twitter users have an interest in seeing things change as well.

  11. Didn’t Om comment on Mumbai that Twitter needs context (
    So much for having authority, like the one coming out of a Terrorist attack. One must understand that those are tainted by very limited local experience and emotions from People who have never been in a situation like that before. Therefore it sometimes takes time to step back and look at all the data coming in to make sense, basically broaden the context, then putting it in a easily shared context like a time line. And suddenly data make sense, local data like a tweet. Welcome to good Journalism.
    In other words one has to know how things relate for one self and to some one providing data. If you don’t you will have a false understanding, since you will supplement data with your own context. Which in specific cases can be quite wrong, or it’s so broad that ones only reaction is, duh.

    In other words take tweets as data, if you understand the context they are send it maybe you get some information. But we careful with what you trust no matter where it comes from, since if you try to solve it mathematically the information value of a tweet maybe close to 0. Or a lot of 0 don’t make a lot of information.