What makes a tweet go viral?

There is a lot of recent research studies that investigate what factors influence the popularity of memes on social networks. Much of this research analyzes twitter posts and has identified many reasons why certain tweets go viral. These include factors related to the tweet itself (e.g. how controversial the tweet is) and factors related to the tweeters (e.g. number of followers, influence, and frequency of posting). New work says that ‘going viral’ is a random process.

Visualizations of meme diffusion networks for different topics.

This new study uses an agent-based model to study this phenomenon. This model simulates message sharing on a social network and incorporates two key characteristics of such a context: users have limited attention spans and can only view a portion of all tweets.

The predictions of our model are consistent with empirical data from Twitter, a popular microblogging platform. Surprisingly, we can explain the massive heterogeneity in the popularity and persistence of memes as deriving from a combination of the competition for our limited attention and the structure of the social network, without the need to assume different intrinsic values among ideas.

Or in other words, the pattern of twitter memes can be replicated in the absence of tweet or tweeter based factors.  This raises interesting questions regarding the direction of causality – do tweets go viral because of certain factors, or is the popularity of posts on social networks a random process and we find mere correlations in our bid to find explanations. While some say that this correlation versus causation conundrum can be solved only empirically, others say that a controlled, experimental approach is the way to go.

Suppose, Menczer says, that in his study he randomly assigned different colours to each tweet. If red tweets ended up being the most popular, one could argue that colour was a predictive factor for success when in reality the popularity of red-coloured tweets was coincidental.

Read more at  Going viral on Twitter is a random act – tech – 13 April 2012 – New Scientist and Competition among memes in a world with limited attention : Scientific Reports : Nature Publishing Group.

References:

Weng, L., Flammini, A., Vespignani, A. & Menczer, F., Competition among memes in a world with limited attention, Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 335 doi:10.1038/srep00335

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