Despite what many might expect, a study conducted by Hewlett Packard reached the remarkable conclusion that mainstream media outlets, and not prolific tweeters, appear to dictate what topics trend on Twitter.
"You might expect the most prolific tweeters or those with most followers would be most responsible for creating such trends," says Bernardo Huberman, HP Senior Fellow and director of HP Labs’ Social Computing Research Group. But that turns out not to be the case.
In a new paper, Huberman and three fellow researchers demonstrate that "user activity and number of followers do not contribute strongly to trend creation and its propagation."
"We found that mainstream media play a role in most trending topics and actually act as feeders of these trends. Twitter users then seem to be acting more as filter and amplifier of traditional media in most cases." concluded Huberman.
The study found that trending topics are usually the result of retweets – items passed from one individual’s network of followers to another’s. 31% of tweets of trending topics are retweets, their analysis showed.
Over a period of 40 days in the fall of 2010, the HP team collected data from Twitter’s own search API. From the resulting sample of 16.32 million tweets, they identified 22 users who were the source of the most retweets when a topic was 'trending'. Of those 22, 72% were Twitter streams run by mainstream media outfits such as CNN, the New York Times, El Pais and the BBC.
Predicting the longevity of a trend proved a little more difficult, but the HP team were able to show that very few trends last as little as "40 minutes at the top" and those that do that do persist engage an especially diverse audience.
In any case, the study does show that typical media outlets, well known for their stubbornness in change, can in fact manipulate social media quite well.