Hi I’m Gilad

I love data, analysis and visualization. Chief data scientist at betaworks.

The Anatomy of a Viral Tweet

Here’s the crib of my 140#conf NYC talk, given on June 15th at the 92nd st Y:

I’m here to talk to you about my work on digital audiences, with a focus on information flows. I’m sure that to this crowd I don’t have to stress the potential that social media is unlocking. Whether you’re a brand, knitting circle or just an individual surfing the web, social media is an invaluable medium to seek and disseminate important information in realtime.

We are all part of the emerging information economy, building and using applications that create overflowing streams of information. Social network sites create compelling spaces, where social interactions act as lubricants, accelerating the flow of information. Users are encouraged to respond, add to, consume and redirect content. As information flows by, some may grab a piece when it is most relevant, valuable, entertaining or insightful, and at times, choose to pass it onwards.

Attention = Power

While the threshold to publishing nears zero, attention has become the bottleneck. One cannot demand attention anymore, or expect to have it at certain times of the day. We all need to understand the preferences and behavior of our respective audiences, and adapt our own behavior in order to attract the attention of others. The ability to attract attention is power, and in this 140-character economy, understanding how people manage their attention is incredibly powerful.

Because information spreads through people, networks of friends, fans and followers, by understanding information flows we have the ability to unlock insight about where people place their attention. Some data spread at an unpredictable viral speed, while the majority are only seen by a handful. In order for messages to propagate, people along the way must be attentive: notice them at the right time, and pass them onwards. How this happens is the million dollar question. Here are some examples:

Gaining your Network’s Trust

This is a visualization from a recent study we published about the spread of the tweet on the Osama Bin Laden operation. Media that monday morning was focused on the story that “Twitter broke the news”. Over an hour before the formal white house announcement, people on twitter had figured out that it was Bin Laden. There was much speculation on why the presidential announcement had to take place on sunday night. Some were on the Gaddafi side, and others, Bin Laden.

It was a single tweet that triggered an in credibly fast information cascade. A single tweet from Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, drew 80 retweets within a minute, and generated over 300 within two. This message spread like wildfire. (see study for more detail)

Before May 1st, not even the smartest of machine learning algorithms could have predicted Keith Urbahn’s likelihood to spread information on this topic, or his potential to spark an incredibly viral information flow. While politicos “in the know” certainly knew him or of him, his previous interactions and size and nature of his social graph did little to reflect his potential to generate thousands of people’s willingness to trust within a matter of minutes.

Tight Knit Network or “Tribe”

Another example of an interesting information spread is that of Urban Outfitters vs. the NYC crafters community. In this case, the ‘I heart NYC’ necklace design was ripped off an independent designer by UO. The artists put up a blog post, and Amber Karnes published the following post to Twitter:

my boycott urban outfitters tweet

This led to an avalanche of reactions, to the level that her username was trending in LA, Portland, New York, Toronto and then the United States.

In an incredibly insightful post, Amber wrote:

I am not a Twitter celebrity by any means. I barely had over 1,000 followers when the day began and I’m pretty sure about 200 of those are spam-bots. What I do have – and the reason that my call for a boycott on Urban Outfitters spread so fast and wide – is a tribe. A tight knit group of independent artists and crafters that follow me. My cause resounded with them. They spread it, and their friends spread it, and a few big influencers on Twitter spread it, and then it was gone.

Topic + Network + Timing

We see this over and over again: The right social-professional networked audience, along with a relevant piece of information, all at the right time, led to an explosion of public affirmation, many times, unexpected by the author.

Paradox of Social Networks

While networked sociality promises us equal opportunity, the ease and frictionless connection to literally anyone across the globe. But what plays out is in effect very different. As James Gleik notes in his seminal book ‘The Information':  “The structure of the social web stands upon a paradox. Everything is close, and everything is far at the same time.”

These small world networks usually offer 4 degrees of separation. And even though the distances between people may seem short, finding the right route that will provide us with the wanted outcome is extremely difficult. This is why cyberspace can feel not just crowded but lonely .You can drop a stone into a well and never hear a splash. But alternatively, you can be received with a flood of water. And while the latter is less common, the more people spend their time in SNS, we’re seeing that happen again and again.

the promise of data

Whether you’re interested in socializing or in selling a product, understanding your network’s habits around information consumption and production is imperative to attaining people’s attention, and building an engaged audience. We all build these mental models in our heads, imagining our invisible audiences; the people who give us attention. But as long as its all in our heads, it doesn’t scale. We need to build and use tools that drive insight and help us find effective ways to makes sense of all the digital breadcrumbs left by our online audiences.

Psyched to be working at the heart of this.

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