On Friends, Followers, and the Top Twitter Users

An easy way to increase Twitter’s signal-to-noise ratio is to follow less people. I’m sure you’ve heard of Twitter users who follow several thousand twitterers. How they keep up with that many micro-blogs is beyond me. Unfortunately, spammers have discovered that to increase their “following”, they simply follow thousands of other users, a small percentage whom will politely start following them. Granted, number of followers is not as informative as the number of conversations a twitter user starts or posts that get retweeted, it is currently the only metric that is generally available.

The Twitterholic ranking does not appear to have been overrun by spammers, although some of the top users follow a substantial number of twitterers. According to Twitterholic, the top users averaged around 10,200 followers. Assuming that each of the top users follows a fraction (say 5%, or 1 in 20) of those following them, that translates to the top users following about 514 other twitterers on average. It turns out about half of the top twitterers follow a larger fraction than that. In the graph below, the green line represents 5% of the number of followers (friends-to-followers ratio equal to 5%). As per Twitterholic, I use the term friends to refer to the number of users a twitterer is following:

I highlighted the users who follow more than 15,000 other users, including one user (“ringernation”) who follows more than 100,000 twitterers. 100K is about one-tenth of the twitter user base! Over the second half of June, ringernation increased his following by 61%, going from a followers-to-friends ratio of 3.8% to 6%.

Needless to say, when someone is following that many other users, chances are he is no longer paying close attention to what others are saying: just because Scoble is one of your “followers” doesn’t mean he is even speed reading what you’re tweeting. As Tim observed a few weeks ago:

For example, among the top twitterers, it’s pretty clear that many of them are simply following anyone who follows them, which drives their “popularity.” But that makes clear that they aren’t actually following any of those people — the volume is just too great. So ironically, if you follow everyone, you follow no one. (Unless you “friend” them, and only really follow your friends.)

So you can see that there are three categories of twitterers: those who use it for its original purpose, by following and being followed by a small group of friends; those who use it for marketing, by broadcasting to many but following none; and those who recognize the asymmetry, and are followed by many, but follow fewer.

Finally, in case your wondering, 42% of the top users follow more than 666 other twitterers.

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