Is Twitter a Two-Way Street? (Ep. 25)

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How social do you need to be on a social-media site? (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Freakonomics has more than 270,000 followers on Twitter. And we love every one of you. No, really! But we don’t follow anyone back. (When we first signed up with Twitter, some very smart media consultants said that reciprocity was the name of the game; but we didn’t want to get involved in some massive online tit-for-tat.) So, does that make us jerks twerks?

That’s one of the questions we ask in our latest podcast, “Is Twitter a Two-Way Street?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the box above, or read the transcript here.) We try to find out just how social you need to be on a social-media site; if you want a lot of followers on Twitter, do you need to follow a lot of other Tweeps?

Is Twitter a Two-Way Street?: To get a lot of followers on Twitter, do you need to follow a lot of other Tweeps? And if not, why not?

You’ll hear from the network-theory whiz Duncan Watts, a former Columbia sociologist who now works at Yahoo! Research. He’s the author of the very good book Six Degrees, as well as the brand-new Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer). And he co-authored a recent paper called “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter.” From the podcast:

WATTS: It’s true that, you know, there are millions of users on Twitter who are listening to other users. But we also find that there is a remarkable concentration of attention. So about 50 percent of all tweets that a random person on Twitter receives on any given day come from just 20,000 users. So that’s about .05 percent of…so one half of a tenth of a percent of all users on Twitter.


WATTS: It’s worth emphasizing again that Twitter is not a social network. Now, social networks are characterized by very, very high levels of reciprocity. So if I say that I’m friends with you, it’s very likely that you will also say that you’re friends with me. It’s not always true, but it’s very often the case. And if not, I stop being a participant in that social network. It’s a funny kind of friendship if only one person thinks that it exists. Whereas, in communication networks it’s totally different.

You’ll also hear from Justin Halpern, who parleyed his Twitter feed “Sh*t My Dad Says” into a best-selling book and a TV show. Halpern has millions of followers but follows only one other person. (I don’t want to ruin the surprise by naming the person here.)

And you’ll also hear from Steve Levitt, who talks about a fake Steve Levitt Twitter feed and tries to help me come up with a Freakonomics following strategy. For now, we’ve latched onto one person.

Anyone who cares about Twitter should spend some time on Twitaholic, a site that scrapes follower/followed data from Twitter. You’ll see that the top Tweeters — Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Barack Obama — have a relatively high follower-to-follow rate. Lady Gaga has nearly 8.7 million followers, and follows more than 144,000 users; Obama has nearly 6.9 million follows, and follows more than 700,000 users. (Presumably someone other than the President himself does the following.)

All of which seems to argue that reciprocity matters a great deal. But once you look below the very top of the list, the ratio plunges. So: how important is reciprocity?

We asked Duncan Watts to look into the follower/followed numbers and see what trends he could identify. He came back with some results that he warns are “quick-and-dirty,” but worthwhile nonetheless:

Here are two sets of results (1) for the top 1000 most-followed users; and (2) the 1000 users who follow the most others (i.e. with the most “friends” in Twitter parlance). [These numbers were taken from Twitter a few weeks ago, so are slightly outdated]

In both cases, the x-axis is # friends (i.e., how many they follow) and the y-axis is the # followers. The results are binned, so the labels are a bit deceiving, but you get the drift. The boxes represent the interquartile range; the horizontal lines in the boxed represent the median; and the bars represent the 95% confidence interval.

1000 Most-Followed Users:

Bottom line is that there isn’t any trend: for the vast majority of most-followed users, there is no relationship between following more people and being followed by more people. The only exception is the far-right bin, which actually contains just a handful of users, listed here:

And for these users, it’s not clear what is going on. Barack Obama may follow lots of people, but it’s unlikely that that’s why he has lots of followers. Same for Britney or Yoko Ono. Guy Kawasaki and StartupPro are more interesting: they have almost exactly as many followers as friends. My guess is that in these cases, the causality is the opposite of what you were told — that is, they automatically follow anyone who follows them, so it is followers leading to following, not the other way around.


1000 Users Who Follow the Most:

Here we do see a clear positive trend: on average, the more users they follow, the more followers they have. But again, it’s not clear what the explanation is. Some of them are probably spammers, and in those instances, it probably is the case that they are getting followers by following tons of people — as there wouldn’t be any other reason for people to know about them. But other instances may be a result of well-known people auto-following people who follow them. That would also generate a positive trend, but the causality would be the opposite. Without looking at the data over time, it would be impossible to differentiate these two explanations, and even then it would be hard.


Thanks especially to Duncan for all his input on this episode. Feel free to tweet it.


After listening to the podcast, it appears that you made your assumptions about reciprocity and popularity based on the number of followers of the top 1,000 Twitter users. In a total Twitter population approaching 200,000,000 it's impossible to make any sort of generalizations about Twitter as a communication mechanism or a social network based on such a poor sampling methodology. It would basically be like describing the entire United States population based solely on the characteristics of U.S. billionaires. In the end, it would have been a much better story, and I assume you would have had much different findings, with a random sample of 1,000 Twitter users.

Derek Bruff

I second this, and I'll add that just looking at who follows whom gives a rather incomplete picture of how engagement happens on Twitter. Following someone like @BarackObama, who follows hundreds of thousands of people, isn't like following, say, a colleague in one's profession who only follows a couple of hundred people. In the latter case, there's a much greater chance that a "follow" will lead to an interaction of some kind, even a conversation. Looking at the tools of conversation and engagement on Twitter (like @-replies and retweets) would provide a much better picture of how Twitter works.


I've always found the obsession over increasing Twitter followers, as well as Facebook friends (or "Likes") to be kind of ridiculous. What really matters isn't the number itself, but how many of those people actually see what you have to say / interact with you. Quality over quantity holds in social media too, after all.


Nobody really gives a s*** on what's said on Twitter. Try to open an account and follow ... let's say... 100 people. You'll see that it is incredible difficult to focus on what are they saying. Then, follow 1,000. You'll see that it's simply impossible to discern any single useful message. And then follow 10,000. You'll understand why 99.99% of Twitter it's just non-sense.
Then make the reverse exercise. Browse your followers. How many are following more than 50 accounts? 99.99%? Wow, congratulations! You just found out that you have invested a lot of time, energy and MONEY to develop a non-sense... communication.


Although the issues introduced in this blog seem to shed light to a problem in social media, are the positives being overlooked? Specially in the past events such as the earthquake in Japan, the social media network has allowed the news to spread extremely quick, allowing quick aid from other nations.

Bruce White

Problem in social media? What problem?
Tsunamis interest me because I sleep less than 2 metres above high water mark (sea level).
It is not difficult to know who to follow for information about tsunamis.
I have a twitter list called "noisy ones" on the topic of football and watching it go nuts is like being at the game.
It is a matter of working out what you do with these tools. Generalising on the topic of social media is like talking about shovels instead of digging or moving earth.
[Don't get me started on why it is important to follow people. I posted that to @freakonomics]

Andres Garcia

Twitter does give off an annoying sense of popularity. The sight seems quite useless considering the existence of Facebook, texting, and phone calls. All of these forms of communications which I mentioned are immediate and efficient. Twitter also possesses these qualities however other than sharing short sentences on live feed, as does facebook, it really doesn't do much. If there are twitter followers that do not have access to a phone and/or Facebook then I suppose it is a legitimate communication outlet.


The idea that twitter gives you the choice of who you follow and also allows other people to decided to follow you is nice because you're not required to be in a "friendship" with them or have to read about things you honestly do not care about. But at the same time, twitter really isn't an effective way to socialize, and for the most part only seems to benefit business people and promoter. Twitter seems like a waste of time and effort.


Twitter.....tut, tut, a social phenom it might be useful i am yet to be convinced.

How can Barack Obama actually follow 703937 other people ! Come on thats just ludicrous.

As for the concept of the article doesn't it make sense that those who have lots of followers will follow more people, they obviously are the ones that actually are worried about Mr x visiting the washroom.

Twitter is nonsense and this article is close to pointless, why not ask the questions -

How many lives has twitter saved !

I am sure the 200,000,000 million would be interested enough to tell you how it saved theirs or others lives, then maybe you could calculate the social value of twitter! or perhaps they might all lie to you, like the bogus steven levitt twitter.

sorry its rubbish.


I am followed by almost the same number of people as I follow.I started by following a friend who is an influential blogger and his followers liked and followed me, then their followers saw our tweets and began following me or a follower would tell one of her followers to follow me so we could all participate in our group conversations and in a few months,just from being retweeted I gained about 200 followers.

Also, my followers are primarily female,progressive,feminist,black and/or latina between 25-45,college educated- the and we do socialize and converse a LOT on twitter.Every day I look at my timeline and see that a few of my followers are now following one another and conversing- our circle keeps expanding. But, of course you know that minorities use Twitter one way and white people another way.

Focusing on the most popular users is the wrong way to go. They are like radio stations- broadcasters. Those with few friends are more likely to be using twitter like a CB radio network.


Rodge Bucao

I think there might be issues with the sample you analyzed. To really get a good correlation, we also need to get a sample of users who are not in the top 1000, i.e. samples in the middle, bottom, and then calculate r from all the combined samples. This maybe the reason why we didn't get any trend. It's just like zooming in a diagonal line and seeing only black because we're just too close to see the whole picture (at least if there's really a correlation). It may even be a curvilinear function, which makes sampling even more important.

Andreas Moser

What is a Twitter?

Lisa Farneman

I like that you chose to follow one person. I think it's humorous. Was your choice random?

Thanks for the podcasts!


While I thought the topic was interesting, I stopped listening after the umpteenth utterance of the four letter word for excrement. Even the author of the book about the things his father says could not put that on the cover of his book. I don't think using the word so many times was appropriate. I don't think profanity is cool or hip. It is just unimaginative and possibly ignorant, Please try to do better in the future or at least label your podcasts as "explicit."


Is that music from the anime series Hajime No Ippo?