Don’t Even Bother Retweeting This: Elizabeth Taylor Overtakes Crises in Japan, Libya on Twitter

In the past few weeks, crises in Egypt, Lybia, and Japan have dominated the public dialogue. But as Elizabeth Taylor’s death and some interesting stats on retweets prove, social media’s shelf life for news is incredibly short.


Remember the swine flu? Not since the pandemic of 1918 has the public so feared influenza. Health organizations worldwide warned of the potentially global threat to our wellbeing. Vice President Joe Biden, Mr. Amtrak himself, suggested we avoid using public transportation (including trains!) for fear of H1N1 spreading. And every news organization in the U.S. featured updates on the virus round-the-clock.

That is, until the next round of crises…the Gulf oil spill, the shooting in Arizona, the health-care bill, General McChrystal’s swipes at his superiors. The news media runs on a crisis-to-disaster cycle–and often, it’s difficult to determine why an issue that caused so much concern could evaporate from the public awareness so quickly.

In the world of social media, that cycle is even more hyperactive. Take Twitter. In the past few weeks, crises in Egypt, then Lybia, and then Japan dominated the public dialogue. But yesterday, Elizabeth Taylor passed away…and how quickly our conversations changed. 

Thanks to data compiled by Crimson Hexagon, which uses a statistical human-assisted approach to monitoring Twitter chatter, we can see how the conversation changes once a new event occurs. In this instance, on March 23, conversations surrounding Elizabeth Taylor dominated some 500,000 tweets. Japan? Just 119,397. And Libya? Around 97,499.

Crimson is also able to determine public perception, with green representing positive sentiment, gray neutral, and red negative. It’s interesting to see that Elizabeth Taylor’s death was able to drum up more emotion–either positive or negative–than either crisis in Japan or Libya.


Perhaps this ADD focus shouldn’t be surprising for a platform ruled by 140-character missives, which require limited effort for tracking even the most mercurial of moods. According to a September report from analytics firm Sysomos, tweets generally have an incredibly short shelf life. Sysomos analyzed more than 1.2 billion tweets and determined that just 6% of tweets are retweeted, and nearly all occur within the first hour. What happens after those precious 60 minutes? Just 1.63% of tweets are retweeted in the second hour, and only 0.94% in the third.

As those tweets disappear, so do the topics they cover. So, we might be thinking of you now, Elizabeth Taylor, but in an hour’s time, we’ll probably be on to the next disaster, crisis, celebrity death, or unfortunate mishap.

[Image by Classic Film Scans]

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.