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Want to Get a Conversation Going on Twitter? Call a Reporter

For all the cultivating of followers that some brands and people do on Twitter, it turns out the numbers they gather are meaningless - at least when compared to the attention one well-placed article gets on the platform. New research by HP finds that an article in mainstream media is the more effective method of getting a subject listed among the top 'trending' topics on Twitter.

"You might expect the most prolific tweeters or those with most followers would be most responsible for creating such trends," says Bernardo Huberman, HP Senior Fellow and director of HP Labs’ Social Computing Research Group in a blog post. In a new paper, Huberman and three fellow researchers find that the number of followers do not translate into "trend creation and its propagation." Instead it is mainstream media which acts as a feeder of these trends. Twitter users, Huberman says, serve the role of filter and amplifier of traditional media.

The main determinant of whether an item trends was the specific subject of the tweet, the team found -  much more than who tweets about it or how often. That can be seen in the degree to which trending topics are the result of retweets as 31% of tweets of trending topics are retweets.

In the study, the HP identified 22 users who were the source of the most retweets when a topic was trending. Of those 22, 72% were Twitter streams run by mainstream media outfits such as CNN, the New York Times, El Pais and the BBC.

Twitter's Take

Twitter has a somewhat different take on how a subject makes it into the Trends feed, although its approach to the subject is not necessarily at odds with the HP researchers. Twitter explained its processes when Wikileak fans started to grumble that the site was not showing up in Twitter's Trends feed. It said that Twitter Trends are automatically generated by an algorithm that attempts to identify topics about which discussion has suddenly picked up. It is designed, in short, to identify the most breaking of breaking news around the world in real-time.

This is roughly how the process works: of the more than 95 million Tweets sent every day, Twitter breaks the topics of these Tweets into Trends when the volume of Tweets about the topic dramatically increases at any given moment. Sometimes a topic doesn't break into the Trends list because its popularity isn't as widespread as people believe, Twitter said. "And, sometimes, popular terms don't make the Trends list because the velocity of conversation isn't increasing quickly enough, relative to the baseline level of conversation happening on an average day."

Does Advertising Make a Dent At All?

Given all this, it may seem futile to attempt to introduce or sway a conversation via advertising on this platform, but a look at the top Trends for 2010, which Twitter released in December, suggests it is not. Two of the top movies "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "Despicable Me” were promoted at their release with campaigns to purchase trends on Twitter, CNET noted. Tellingly, Scott Pilgrim did not do well despite the promotion.

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