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Indegree, retweets, and mentions: What does it take to be influential on Twitter?

Published on 26 October 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

Just condense your message into 140 characters and launch it into the world. Those who like it might forward it to their friends, some of whom might then choose to follow you. You, too, need to follow others and retweet their messages. And gradually the numbers will add up, and your influence will increase. Sounds simple?

A research team from Germany, London and Brazil says otherwise. Using a dataset of 2 billion follow links among 54 million users producing a total of 1.7 billion tweets, they compared three measures of influence – indegree (number of people who follow you, i.e. your popularity), retweets (number of times others forward your tweet, i.e. the value of your content), and mentions (number of times others mention you by name, i.e. the value of your name). Interestingly, the research found very little overlap between those who are popular, post good content, and have a recognised name. It also found that while most influential users can be influential in a number of topics, ordinary users can become influential by focusing on a single topic, posting content that is considered valuable by others and not simply having a conversation.


Your average Twitter user interacts in three ways: following updates from those who sent interesting tweets, forwarding these interesting tweets to their own followers (retweeting), and commenting or responding to the initial tweet (mentioning). [Note: A tweet that starts with @username is not broadcast to all followers, but only to the replied user. A tweet containing @username in the middle of its text gets broadcast to all followers.]

The indegree measure identifies users who get lots of attention by interacting with their audience one-to-one. Think CNN, or Barack Obama, or Britney Spears. When it comes to retweeting content though, content agregration services like Mashable and TweetMeme featured alongside businessment and news sites like the New York Time; in other words, those who are tacking trending topics  or are knowledgeable in their field. Retweets are more about influence than popularity somewhat akin to a citation of another user’s conent. Another interesting finding from the research is that  92% oftweets that had a RT or via marker contained a URL and 97% of them also contained the @username field implying that retweets are about the content (indicated by the embedded URL) and that people typically cite the authentic source when they retweet (good practice). However, fewer than 30% of tweets that were classified as mentions contained any URL, indicating that a mention is more identity-driven.

It follows then that while mainstream news organisations spawn a high level of retweets covering a wide variety of diverse topics, celebrities use their name rather than their content to get responses. One of the few exceptions to this rule would be British English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian, television presenter and film director, Stephen Fry, who gets a lot content referrals.

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