The Popular Thinking Behind Popular Twitter Topics

During the recent Egyptian protests, many Americans took to Twitter but it wasn’t to talk politics, it was to tweet about their love lives. Blame it on hashtags, the community-driven shorthand used to identify conversational themes. Ironically, during one hour at the height of Middle East unrest, the hashtag “icantdateyou” received nearly 274,000 Twitter mentions while “Mubarak” racked up fewer than 11,000.

Why are some Twitter posts more popular than others? The New York Times reports that a new study of hashtags offers insight into why some Twitter topics take off and turn up everywhere.

In the hashtag study, computer scientists analyzed the 500 most popular hashtags from more than three billion messages posted on Twitter from August 2009 to January 2010. Their results show that more contentious and political themes take longer to catch on, while universal or lighthearted themes are more acceptable and pose less risk.

However, researchers at Cornell and Stanford are uncovering patterns in the way that information catches on in cyberspace. It appears that the way information spreads is more complex than one person passing a link to another. Instead, people usually wait for a number of trusted sources to suggest an idea before spreading it themselves. These findings could be useful for politicians, social activists, news organizations, marketers, public relations teams and anyone else trying to reach their target audience.

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Researchers also say that the structure of a social network can have more influence than the size of a group. For example, a new smartphone app would gain larger acceptance if promoted by a leading technology blogger rather than a celebrity because a smaller, connected group would be more likely respond to a recommendation from one of its own members.

The research seems to validate the techniques that many industry experts are already using, with marketers moving away from an intrusion strategy, such as interrupting TV shows with ads, to a more cooperative approach of stimulating discussion via social networks.

Overall, the popularity of certain Twitter topics may have to do with seeing the same catchphrases and links over and over in our social networks. Since these phrases are accepted by our peers, there is a stronger tendency to accept them for ourselves. Based on this thinking, more and more marketers are cleverly infiltrating our social media circles to spread their ideas in the hopes that we will accept them as our own.

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