Monday, 14 February 2011

Lesson from the Cairo Revolt for Twitter: its not the number of Tweeters but the network

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We have been following the intensity of tweeting in Cairo and have learned an important lesson: tweeting is best viewed as a Network rather than as a collection of people with tweeter accounts.


Social media intelligence firm Sysomos spent a lot of time analyzing the tweeting coming out of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen over the past several weeks. Sysomos was only able to identify about 15,000 tweeters with geo-locations in the three countries. This is less than 0.03% of the global population of 52 million tweeter users. Sysomos did conclude that a number of tweeters in these areas may be covering their identities.

We went on to observe that actual tweeting with geo-tags for Tahrir Square often reached levels about what we might see in major European cities like Paris.

So what was going on?

We believe a number of things happened to caused a small initial number of tweeters giving their geo-position to produce such a large number of geo-positioned tweets:

  1. As the revolt went on there was likely a large number of people opening tweeter accounts and wanting to give their geo-position, or not knowing they were giving it.
  2. People who had been hiding their location stopped doing so as they became more confident that they would win.
  3. Geo-tagged tweeters were re-tweeting from the Square tweets posted by people without Geo-tags, so those political activists who were hiding their position were reposted in to the stream with a geo-tag.
  4. A large number of people around the world were retweeting geo-tagged tweets, which carried the original geo-tag from Tahrir greatly elevating the counts for Cairo.
  5. That journalist and other observers on the square with phones registered in other places were tweeting with geo-location turned on (wouldn't you?).
  6. That people at the Square were motivated to tweet at very high levels.
  7. That organizers were using Twitter as a kind of radio and were using many mobile devices and tweeter accounts constantly.
We conclude that it is better to look at the overall network for a specific place than just trying to count unique tweeter users. The network community gives a level or emergent social network behavior that is not well understood by looking only at unique users.

That is to say Social Media is media that is best understood as social not individual, which should probably have been obvious.

Networks can often make use of a small number of nodes to create a vast amount of content. While other networks full of more nodes may produce much less content. This is seen again and again in web studies and is called the power law effect. For example a tiny percentage of bloggers can produce most of the blog posts read and linked to. A small number of Twitter accounts have vast numbers of followers and get the most retweets.

What we saw in Cairo was probably a small group of tweeters who were concentrated, motivated and growing in number. While most tweets are never retweeted people all over the world were retweeting almost anything coming out of Tahrir Square. This then also meant that people in the Square were more likely to see the tweets of others around them and respond. A power law came in to effect.

So even though the population of tweeters in Cairo an Tahrir Square was lower than at any given time in the center of London or New York, these Egyptian Tweeters were able to produce a vast quantity of information which was of very high value to global users.

A tweet from Tahrir Square while Mubarak was refusing to resign simply is not the same as a tweet from Time Square for a foursquare check-in or two friends discussing lunch. Most tweets go ignored by the community, during the Tahrir Protests that was not the case. People around the world were glued to tweets and major new channels were actually reading the content of tweets form Cairo on television.

Measuring the total number of people tweeting could not account for the vastness and popularity of the tweets they were producing. Nor would looking just at the level of tweeting be able to tell you anything about social event that was happening. But keeping in context the events that were happening, looking at the small number of tweeters and the vast numbers of tweets they produced helps to understand the process of producing knowledge and organizing activists that was happening. Few tweeters were able to send their tweeting score sky high, they were also also able to help organize a revolution. Makes us wonder what we have done lately.

The overall network effect of tweeting in Tahrir Square therefore produced a more powerful an verbal network than probably any other similar sized cluster of tweeters anywhere in the world.

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