The number of followers you have and the exact wording matter less than you think. What makes a difference is having the right message for the right people.

Visualization of meme diffusion related to the Arab Spring and the 2011 uprisings from the #Egypt hashtag, which shows strong connectivity and many users linked to one another to form a dense cluster. [Courtesy of Indiana University]

"Influence" doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does. In the age of the social-media celebrity, a glut of Twitter followers or particularly pugnacious sampling of pithy updates are often the hallmarks of an influencer. But new research suggests that influence is situational at best: as people compete for the attention of the broader online ecosystem, the relevance of your message to the existing conversation of those around you trumps any innate "power" a person may have.

In a new paper entitled Competition Among Memes in a World With Limited Attention, Indiana University researchers Lillian Weng, Alessando Flammini, Alessando Vespignani, and Filippo Menczer analyzed 120 million retweets connected to 12.5 million users and 1.3 million hashtags in order to model how information (as discrete units, or memes) disperses on the social network. The study is the latest application of social-media data to human and social phenomena by the Indiana team: the team had previously tracked the relationship between social data and the stock market, the spread of infectious diseases, the promulgation of misleading information. The object of this particular venture, write the authors in Scientific Reports, is to "disentangle the effects of limited attention from many concurrent factors," such as the structure of the underlying social network, audience size, baseline behavior for users, and the "intrinsic quality of the information they spread." The goal is to figure out exactly why some memes last longer and travel further than others.

What did they find? According to co-author Vespignani, having millions of followers does not denote an important message. Rather, the messages with the most immediate relevance tend to have a higher probability of resonating within a certain network than others. Think of it as "survival of the fittest" for information: those tweets that capture the most attention, whether related to a major geopolitical or news event or a particular interest, are likely to persist longer. This competition sounds bad, but it's generally good for messages in general: thousands of tweets about Japan's 2011 earthquake or the ongoing conflict in Syria don't cancel each other out, but help refocus the attention of the wider Twitter audience on those issues, which in turn provides an added lift to individual messages over other off-topic ones.


Nodes represent Twitter users, and directed edges represent retweeted posts that carry the meme. The brightness of a node indicates the activity (number of retweets) of a user, and the weight of an edge reflects the number of retweets between two users. (a) The #Japan meme shows how news about the March 2011 earthquake propagated. (b) The #GOP tag stands for the US Republican Party and as many political memes, displays a strong polarization between people with opposing views. Memes related to the "Arab Spring" and in particular the 2011 uprisings in (c) #Egypt and (d) #Syria display characteristic hub users and strong connections, respectively.. [Courtesy of Indiana University]

It's not that the content of messages doesn't matter: studies have shown that phrasing strongly influences memorability online. But the messages that achieve longevity aren't just the ones that have the right phrasing but those that are most relevant to the existing conversation of the people near them in the ecosystem. Take example (b) above, denoting the diffusion of the hashtag #GOP. The meme #GOP persisted because of its relevance within the community of tweeters who focus on American presidential politics: at the same time, the meme was diffused in two distinct ways among liberal and conservative tweeters. In example (c) the topic of #Egypt was diffused over a highly dense cluster of users for whom the nascent revolution was a pressing issues, which, in this case, included virtually every Egyptian citizen. Some highly-visible commentators may have had a greater impact on the conversation, but they were only able to do so by diving into the existing competition for attention surrounding the country's nascent uprising.

The study reinforces what most journalists and marketers have known intuitively for some time now: that piggybacking on the trending ideas that constitute "the conversation" online maximizes the ability to spread tweet-sized ideas. Where people fit into preexisting networks certainly matters: Ashton Kutcher's millions of followers represent a powerful hub of connections. But could Mr. Kutcher's messages about Nikon's new camera overwhelm hundreds of tweets about Trayvon Martin from hundreds of smaller, less-connected individuals? The research suggests that it doesn't fully matter who you are or how many connections you have, but what you're saying relative to the existing conversation is what really matters in spreading knowledge online.

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