Category: Twitter

Why your friends on Twitter are (probably) more interesting than you, and what to do about it

Statistical logic means that your lover has probably had more sexual partners than you. Similarly, at the gym, most of the other users train more frequently than you. And your friends have more friends than you do – this last observation was labelled the “friendship paradox” by sociologist Scott Feld. It’s a fact because popular people get counted in more people’s tallies of how many friends their friends have (here’s more explanation).

Now thanks to a new paper by Nathan Hodas and his colleagues, we can add to this humbling stats lesson the fact that for most users of Twitter, our followers and followees (the people we choose to follow), are better connected, more active, and more interesting than we are.

Hodas’ team analysed Twitter data from the second half of 2009 featuring 476 million tweets and 5.8 million users, with 193.3 million links between them. First off, they found that for most of us, the people we choose to follow are better connected – that is, they typically follow ten times as many people as we do. Our followers too are better connected, typically by a factor of twenty.

Seeing as we choose how many other people we want to follow, this first observation isn’t such a blow to the ego. However, the researchers found a similar result for popularity. That is, the people who follow us are typically ten times more popular than we are (in terms of their own follower count). Less surprising, the people we choose to follow are also more popular than we are. Here there are two distinct groupings – in one, the people we follow are typically ten times as popular as us; in the other, they are typically 10,000 times as popular (this is thanks to celebrity accounts and such like).

Not only are our followers and the people we follow better connected and more popular than we are, the people we follow are also usually more active. Eighty-eight per cent of users were found to be less active than a typical person they followed; this rose to 99 per cent when omitting accounts that ceased activity during the period covered by the data. This is probably because we’re more likely to follow accounts that are more visible by virtue of being more active.

A related observation was the link between activity and popularity – that is, more active users tended to be more popular, a correlation the researchers described as “especially strong”. This suggests being more active on Twitter could be a simple way to gain more popularity, although we need to be cautious because there’s no proof here for a causal link. “The detailed mechanism for this explanation is not yet clear,” the researchers admitted.

To connectivity, popularity and activity, we can add interestingness. The researchers looked at the “virality” of links shared on Twitter – literally how many times they were re-tweeted. Here they found that 79 per cent of Twitter users posted less viral content than the people they follow.

Another issue the researchers looked at was what they called “information overload”. Here they found that as the number of people we follow increases, the information that we’re subjected to increases “super-linearly” – each new user that we follow typically equals hundreds of new items of information in our Twitter stream. In part this is because, as we heard, the people we follow are usually highly active (or at least more active than we are). The risk is that we end up subscribing to more information than we can possibly manage to consume.

This last point about overload is relevant to readers hoping to boost their popularity and interestingness on Twitter.  Comparing overloaded Twitter users (the third receiving the most amounts of info), and the underloaded (the bottom third), Hodas and his colleagues found that the overloaded tended to receive information that had gone massively viral, but tended to overlook “mini-cascades” – information that had viral potential. “It appears that overloaded users are only good detectors for information of mid-range interestingness,” the researchers said. “Most likely the information that their friends already know.” This suggests that if you want to be the kind of user who helps to break the next big story on Twitter, you need to be careful not to follow too many accounts in the pursuit of this aim. Pick and choose who you follow with care.

“If you have ever felt like your friends are more interesting or more active than you are,” the researchers concluded, “it seems the statistics confirm this to be true for the vast majority of us.”


Nathan O. Hodas, Farshad Kooti, and Kristina Lerman (2013). Friendship Paradox Redux: Your Friends Are More Interesting Than You. arXiv arXiv: 1304.3480v1

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Facebook or Twitter: What does your choice of social networking site say about you?

Social networking sites have changed our lives. There were 500 million active Facebook users in 2011 and approximately 200 million Twitter accounts. As users will know, the sites have important differences. Facebook places more of an emphasis on who you are and who you know. Twitter restricts users to 140-character updates and is more about what you say than who you are. A new study asks whether and how the way people use these sites is related to their personality, and whether there are personalty differences between people who prefer one site over the other.

David Hughes at Manchester Business School and his colleagues surveyed 300 people online – most (70 per cent) were based in Europe, others were from North America, Asia and beyond. There were 207 women and the age range was from 18 to 63. Participants answered questions about the way they used Facebook and Twitter and which site they preferred. They also answered questions about their personality based around the “Big Five” personality factors of Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Openness and Agreeableness, as well as the dimensions of sociability and “need for cognition” (this last factor is about people’s need to be mentally engaged and stimulated).

Perhaps the most glaring finding is that personality actually explained little of the variance – less than 10 per cent (rising to 20 per cent alongside age) – in the way participants used these sites. This suggests that other factors not explored here, such as intelligence and motivation, have a big influence.

However, the associations with personality were interesting. People who used Facebook mostly for socialising tended to score more highly on sociability and neuroticism (consistent with past research suggesting that shy people use the site to forge social ties and combat loneliness). Social use of Twitter correlated with higher sociability and openness (but not neuroticism) and with lower scores on conscientiousness. This suggests that social Twitter users don’t use it so much to combat loneliness, but more as a form of social procrastination.

What about using the sites as an informational tool? There was an intriguing divergence here. People who said they used Facebook as an informational tool tended to score higher on neuroticism, sociability, extraversion and openness, but lower on conscientiousness and “need for cognition”. Informational users of Twitter were the mirror opposite: they scored higher on conscientiousness and “need for cognition”, but lower on neuroticism, extraversion and sociability. The researchers interpreted these patterns as suggesting that Facebook users seek and share information as a way of avoiding more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. Twitter users, by contrast, use the site for its cognitive stimulation – as a way of uncovering useful information and material without socialising (this was particularly true for older participants).

Finally, what about people’s overall preference for Twitter or Facebook? Again, people who scored higher in “need for cognition” tended to prefer Twitter, whilst higher scorers in sociability, neuroticism and extraversion tended to prefer Facebook. Simplifying the results, one might say that Facebook is the more social of the two social networking sites, whereas Twitter is more about sharing and exchanging information.

These results should be treated with caution. The sample was biased towards young females and the data were entirely self-report. Nonetheless, the findings suggest there are some meaningful differences in the personality profiles of people who prefer Twitter vs. Facebook and some intriguing personality links with the way the sites are used. “Different people use the same sites for different purposes,” the researchers said.
_________________________________ Hughes, D., Rowe, M., Batey, M., and Lee, A. (2012). A tale of two sites: Twitter vs. Facebook and the personality predictors of social media usage. Computers in Human Behavior, 28 (2), 561-569 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.11.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.