MIT researchers analyzed Twitter’s user acquisition between 2006 and 2009 in 408 U.S. cities with relatively high numbers of Twitter users. They found at first the network spread through “young, tech-savy innovators” with little regard for geography. It took off, for instance, both in its birthplace San Francisco and across the country in Boston. But from there, its popularity traveled only short distances — to areas just outside of these cities — which indicates that more traditional networks played a big role.
“Even on the Internet where we may think the world is flat, it’s not,” said the study’s co-author Marta González in a statement. “The big question for people in the industry is ‘How do we find the right person or hub to adopt our new app so that it will go viral?’ But we found that the lone tech-savvy person can’t do it; this also requires word of mouth. The social network needs geographical proximity. … In the U.S. anyway, space and similarity matter.”
Media attention also played a key role in Twitter’s popularity. González and her co-authors Jameson Toole and Meeyoung Cha used the number of news stories appearing weekly in Google News to show its key influence in their model of Twitter’s path to prominence.
In 2009, for instance, there was a huge spike in user acquisition after Ashton Kutcher challenged CNN to a Twitter popularity contest. The week Kutcher went on the Oprah Winfrey show to announce his victory was the largest increase in Twitter user acquisition throughout the entire study. Like many bestselling books have gained from the Oprah effect or politicians have gained through the Colbert bump, it seems that Twitter gained users through the right media attention. But, Toole points out, it’s hard to get mentioned on Oprah without gaining some traction first.
“It isn’t surprising that people watch Oprah,” Toole told Mashable. “What’s surprising is that word of mouth mattered so much until the media got involved…we don’t usually think about social networks being embedded in the real world.”