Sunday, January 25, 2009

Twitter, Chris Brogan, and Black Swans

Chris Brogan asked an interesting question the other day on Twitter, and it got me thinking. He asked "Why do you try to acquire followers? Meaning vs just building relationships?" It's a great question because we've all seen people on Twitter aggressively trying to acquire new followers. Why? Past about 500, it's virtually impossible to have a meaningful relationship.
Peter Kim wrote a great piece on this a while ago, that describes it as an "Ego Trap". The piece was brilliant, and a fun read, and it describes the various social tools "counting" mechanisms, and the trap we all fall into to have the most followers/friends/etc.

But then, the underlying question is; why does that even work. We are all smart enough to know that these numbers are not meaningful in themselves.

I just finished reading "The Black Swan" from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and he has an interesting theory that might apply. He calls it "preferential attachment", and the idea is that for some systems, the dynamic is such that the more of X there is, the more of X there is likely to be. Think of things like personal wealth, the population of a city, bacteria populations, and project overruns. It's an interesting dynamic with interesting effects.
I was curious, so I pulled some data off of Twitterholic that looks at the 1000 Twitterers with the most followers to see whether the Twitter follower counts followed a pattern that would suggest they obey that dynamic. The raw data is above, and you can see an interesting Long Tail on it. Think about things that don't follow this pattern to realize how this is interesting. Things like human heights and weights would fall off extremely rapidly after about 7 feet, and there are none over 12 feet.

Looking at the data another way, the chart on the right shows the number of users who have more than a certain number of followers. With 35,812 followers, there are 25 people out there who have as many followers as Chris Brogan or more. Guy Kawasaki at 51,506 is among only 10 peers, and Barack Obama caps the list at 144,000.

This gets very interesting, because follower counts are what is called "scale invariant". The chance of someone having twice as many followers as someone else follows the same ratio whether the two users being compared are in the low follower counts or the high follower counts.

If we look at some of the ratios, you'll see what I mean. If we compare the number of people who have more than 5k followers with the number who have more than 10k (a 2x ratio), there is a 3.1x reduction in the number of users. If we compare the users with 10k and 20k followers (again, a 2x ratio), it is a 3.0x reduction in numbers. Between 20k and 40k, and between 75k and 140k, the numbers are again very similar at only a 4x reduction in user counts.

(*Note that this data is ONLY the absolute top end of the scale - just the top 1000 - but I would be willing to bet that the same trend is followed throughout the population.)

But so what? Well, to get back to Chris's original question, why do we all try for followers? Because followers attract more followers according to the theory of preferential attachment. That's why the big names on Twitter become even bigger names on Twitter. That's why Chris Brogan and Guy Kawasaki are who they are.

I'm absolutely not saying that (a) content and integrity have nothing to do with it, and (b) the mighty cannot fall. Similarly, great cities can crumble if they neglect the things that make them great, the wealthy can become poor if they do not invest wisely, and large bacteria populations can die off for a multitude of reasons. However, the dynamics of the system are such that all else being equal, having more followers will lead to having even more followers.

**Data from Twitterholic - - January 22, 2009**
Many of the topics on this blog are discussed in more detail in my book Digital Body Language
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Anonymous said...

I agree with your preferential attachment theory as it applies to Twitter. For Guy and Chris (I'm a follower, so I can use first names ;) ), part of following them is about being part of the conversation that is so critical to the efficacy of social media. People who I know, follow and trust were communicating with them, and that created an awareness and an accessibility that I think is what this is all about.

Anonymous said...

Good article; As a relative newby to twitter and a follow of Chris [ and other's mass tweeters], I was sceptical about how relationship value could come, from those who have such a large group of followers.

Over time, my view on this has changed a little, as I have experienced real connections with a few well estabished tweeters.

If a common set of views, feelings or frame on the world exists this will cut through the noise. There is something of a buzz that comes from knowing this, perhaps even enough to feed the ego.

As you acquire more followers I can see how that would feed an ego trap. For now at least, I am not there, and only follow or seek to follow those with which I have a some level of commonality. Would this change if I was inundated by follow me requests ? Maybe time will tell.

Kingbee said...

Great post. I’m also reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and my head is swimming after learning about so many ways in which we’re surprised (in both good and bad ways) by unexpected random events.

In addition to the preferential attachment theory, his application of Kolmogorov complexity to narratives really caught my attention. Our love of creating order and reducing complicated and seemingly random bits of information into easily digestible chunks so that it sticks into our memories better increases the chances of us recalling it later. The problem, writes Taleb, is that “the more [we] summarize, the more order [we] put in, the less randomness. Hence the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it actually is.”

What's been running through my head is this: is Twitter, a simple and effective tool for reducing large chunks of information into 140 characters or less, guilty of helping to facilitate this false sense of order and simplification in the world?

Steven Woods said...

@KingBee that's a great question. I suppose that depends on whether Twitter is actually creating the narrative or just providing a link to it. In the extreme of that example, if you look at @minilit summarizing great works of literature to 140 characters then yes, absolutely, the randomness comes out as the narrative gets compressed.

Great question though, you've got me thinking about that...

Anonymous said...

Interesting thinking - I'd love to comment, but I need to get smarter about the things you've mentioned here! The beauty of social media and its "conversation."

Anonymous said...

I'd say that the percentage of new followers per time decreases with the total number of followers.

Anonymous said...

In this time and place we can electronically "sit" at the feet of Kawasaki, Godin, etc so why wouldn't, shouldn't we? Everyone has something to say and we want to hear from someone who has imagination, insight, and charisma...which is why some of us simply talk to ourselves as well.