Don’t Worry, It Doesn’t Matter How Many Twitter Followers You Have

If you’re the type to measure your self-worth by how many people follow you on Twitter — and perhaps more importantly, who — this morning was rather exciting. Gizmodo published directions for a simple way to make other Twitterers follow your account, resulting in some users gleefully playing with the loophole to make it look as if they were tight with the likes of Ashton Kutcher and even Jesus. Twitter’s clunky way of fixing the problem included temporarily resetting follower counts to zero, which set off additional squeals of protest from from the navel-gazers.

There's little overlap between the different types of influential users on Twitter. (Indegree refers to # of followers.)

But does your number of followers actually matter? A new paper out of the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany finds that Twitter follower counts are a poor indicator of influence. Interestingly, the research, which was led by a post-doctoral researcher at the institute by the name of Meeyoung Cha, found two quite different forms of engagement on Twitter. First, retweet influence — when a user’s content is likely to be passed along — and second, mention influence — in which users engage one another in conversation by mentioning each other by Twitter handle.

Cha’s study, for which Twitter administrators contributed data, looked at the relative influence of the 6 million active Twitter users it counted within 52 million active accounts circa August 2009. First of all, retweets are about content; 92 percent of them contained a URL. Influential content aggregators include technology-specific sites like Techmeme, but the study also indicated that sources like the New York Times have widespread influence, and are retweeted on a variety of topics. However, it’s possible for relatively unknown users to gain influence and rise from obscurity by focusing on a single topic.

Meanwhile, the most-mentioned users were celebrities. Only 30 percent of all Twitter mentions contained a URL, indicating that they’re more personality- than content-driven. I’d be interested to see a deeper look at the retweeters and mentioners themselves. I wonder if there are two types of Twitter users: those who go on Twitter in order to talk to celebrities (and only rarely get a reply, in many cases) and those who tweet to an audience of their own, sharing content with followers with via retweeting.

Sean "Diddy" Combs is a rare Twitter influential on all three vectors studied.

But back to the Max Planck study: There’s very little overlap between the different types of influence on Twitter. Only two users made the top-20 lists for followers, retweets and mentions: Ashton Kutcher and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

There’s at least one startup, San Francisco-based Klout, that focuses specifically on measuring influence. Klout accounts for more factors than the Max Planck study, including number of followers, retweets and mentions, but also follower-follow ratio, the number of lists a user is counted on, how many unique retweeters they have, how many inbound messages per outbound message, how many updates and many more. Then all those factors are applied to everyone in the network who retweets, mentions, lists and follows any user, and the value of users’ networks are added to their own score. The recently funded Klout makes this data available via an influence score. It has signed its first paying customer, the Idealab company TweetUp.

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