Study: Mainstream Media Drives Twitter Trending Topics

Who is influencing major topics of conversation on social media? And how? A new study by researchers at HP’s Social Computing Research Group reveals a fascinating look at how information flows on Twitter, the popular microblogging portal.

“You might expect the most prolific tweeters or those with most followers would be most responsible for creating such trends,” writes Bernardo Huberman,  HP Senior Fellow. “But as it turns out, that is not the case.”

Huberman and fellow researchers found that “user activity and number of followers do not contribute strongly to trend creation and its propagation.”

Instead, they say “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.”

The main determinant of whether an item trends – much more than who tweets about it or how often – was the specific subject of the tweet, researchers found. That can be seen in the degree to which trending topics are 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.

The researchers collected data using Twitter’s own search API over a period of 40 days in the fall of 2010. 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 72% were Twitter streams run by mainstream media outfits such as CNN, the New York Times, and the BBC.

Click here to download a PDF of the report.