News outlets, not individual bloggers, are the biggest drivers of Twitter trends, a new HP Labs study has found.
The company's Social Computing Lab analyzed 16.32 million tweets on 3,361 topics sent over 40 days, using Twitter's search API. The analysis found that 31% of tweets of trending topics are retweets. And 22 users were the source of most retweets when a topic was trending in the microblogging site, according to the paper, "Trends in Social Media: Persistence and Decay."
Mainstream media news outlets such as CNN, the BBC, the New York Times, ESPN, and El Pais operated 72% of the 22 Twitter streams responsible for most retweets, HP Labs determined.
"You might expect the most prolific tweeters or those with most followers would be most responsible for creating such trends," said Bernardo Huberman, HP senior fellow and director of HP Labs' Social Computing Research Group. "[But] 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."
No matter the source, Twitter trends typically do not last long, with only a few surviving beyond 40 minutes as a trending topic, according to HP Labs. The more diverse the audience, the greater the topic's chance for longevity, Huberman said, in a company blog.
"We showed that the distribution of long-time trends is predictable, as is as the total number of tweets and their growth over time," he said.
Because Twitter trends are so relatively short-lived, they currently do not have much impact on the public agenda, said Huberman.
"In traditional media, being on the news for several days is enough to start a conversation about that topic. In social media, a few hours might do as well, but we have no evidence yet that it is the case," he said. "When we considered the impact of the users of the network, we discovered that the number of followers and tweet-rate of users are not the attributes that cause trends. What proves to be more important in determining trends is the retweets by other users, which is more related to the content that is being shared than the attributes of the users. Furthermore, we found that the content that trended was largely news from traditional media sources, which are then amplified by repeated retweets on Twitter to generate trends."