Twitter’s Influence Problem, Visualized

BuzzFeed‘s internal data shows that Twitter is a trendsetter–but competing social networks drive more traffic.

Twitter’s Influence Problem, Visualized
[Graphic: courtesy of BuzzFeed]

Twitter’s influence on the media business is substantial, and it’s long been considered the social network of choice for newshounds. But Twitter’s scale is smaller than some other social networks (cough: Facebook); for many sites, including BuzzFeed, this is particularly true when measured in click-through.


But one slide from yesterday’s SXSW presentation by BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti offers a fresh take on why Twitter matters even more than you might think. BuzzFeed found that Twitter has a big cascade effect on other social media platforms. Put simply, it appears that huge stories often start as tweets, then get shared by influencers to Facebook and other networks, where the original piece of content subsequently gets far more distribution.

Here’s one graphic model, courtesy of BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed‘s data shows that the now-famous dress post first took hold on Twitter, but the link was then shared on other social networks where it ended up having far greater reach.

Peretti showed more than one example of this effect.

This represents something of a strategic challenge for Twitter. The company needs to grow its audience–but that will likely require adjustments to the way the service works to make it more accessible to more people, and keep people on its stream longer, rather than losing them to competing networks like Facebook. At the same time, audience growth strategies (and the content filtering that usually accompanies them) usually risk losing the original influencer audience that liked the original platform and stuck around to be part of a tight-knit community.

There’s already been some public hand-wringing over whether or not Twitter will soon begin algorithmically filtering its firehose the way Facebook already does. At a technology conference this past September, the company’s CFO acknowledged that the reverse chronological stream wasn’t the best experience for users, but Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded that it was a misinterpretation to say that filtered feeds were coming soon. (For details on how the whole fracas unfolded, read this story from The Washington Post).

In the meantime, Twitter has been testing a new home page that makes content discovery much easier for new users:


There is another option for Twitter: change the way it measures itself. Right now the company’s focus is on monthly active users, but a shift to total time spent, or engagement–metrics that Twitter cofounder Ev Williams has been experimenting with on Medium–might yield more meaningful long-term results, especially if the company finds more ways to capitalize on its burgeoning data licensing business.

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I'm the executive editor of Fast Company and Co.Design.