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Nicholas Christakis on the networked nature of Twitter

Earlier this fall, Alyssa Milano — known for being on “Who’s the Boss” and, more recently, for being on Twitter — sent out a somewhat surprising tweet to her nearly 1.2 million followers: a link to the Amazon page of a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives.

For a book like Connected, penned by two social scientists and built on longitudinal research and academic inquiry — a book, in other words, that may hope to achieve influence over our thinking, but doesn’t aspire to huge sales numbers — you’d think that a message broadcast from a heavily followed Twitter account would lead to a proportionally large spike in sales. Amplification, after all, comes from size: The more followers a person has, the more people who will see a message and who will, potentially, retweet it — and, thus, the more people who will potentially act on it. We know it intuitively: In general, the greater the numbers, the greater the viral power.

So, then, how many extra books did Connected‘s authors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, sell in the wake of their million-follower tweet?

None. Literally, not a one. In fact — insult, meet injury! — in the days and weeks following Milano’s tweet, the book’s sales actually declined. The actress’ follower numbers, in this case, hadn’t been a force for much of anything. “At least with respect to the influence of behavior,” Christakis noted, “these links — these Twitter links — are weak.”

But, hey, maybe it was just an Alyssa Milano thing: It’s pretty fair to figure that the overlap between her followers and the universe of people who might buy a sciency book by two professors would be, you know, low. So Christakis and Fowler asked Tim O’Reillynearly 1.5 million followers, with, ostensibly, more book-interest overlap — to send the Connected link out to his feed.

The result? “We sold one extra copy of the book.”

Same experiment, with Pew’s Susannah Fox (4,960 followers)? Three extra copies.

If you’re interested in the way information spreads online — and if you’re interested in the future of news, you probably are — then the low volume-to-impact rate the authors found (which, though completely anecdotal, flies in the face of so much conventional wisdom) is fascinating. And it begs a question that appears so often in academic inquiry: What’s up?

In a talk yesterday evening at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Cambridge (we wrote about another IBM event, with dataviz guru Jer Thorp, this summer), Christakis, a professor at both Harvard Medical School and its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, dove into that question, discussing the particular (and peculiar) ways that social networks — online and off — work.

The talk focused on the epidemiology of action — how and whether certain behaviors spread through a population. (More on that here.) Though we often talk about social connections in terms of simple binaries — friend vs. not-friend, weak ties versus strong — the ties that bind people together, Christaskis’ research suggests, are nowhere near as simple as we often assume. There’s the obvious — your Facebook friend may not be your friend friend — but also, more murkily but more fascinatingly, the complex of connections that affect our behavior in surprising ways.

For the Lab’s purposes, one especially intriguing element of the discussion focused on Twitter — and the extent to which ideas spread through Twitter’s network catch on and have impact. One binary that might actually be relevant in that regard, Christakis suggested: influencer versus influence-ee. “If we’re really going to advance this field, we need to figure out how to identify not just influential people, but also influenceable people,” the professor noted. “We need not just shepherds, but sheep.” And “if we’re going to exploit online ties,” Christakis said — say, by creating communities of interest around news content, and potentially monetizing those communities — then “measures of meaningful interactions will be needed”: We need metrics, in particular, to determine “which online interactions represent real relationships, where an influence might possibly be exerted.”

For that, he continued, “we need to distinguish between influential, or real, ties online, and uninfluential, or weak, ties online.”

The next question: How do you do that? How do you look beyond standard (and, per Christakis’ anecdotal evidence, misleading) metrics like Twitter follower/Facebook friend counts and find more meaningful metrics of influence? One benefit of social networks’ movement online is that their dynamics are (relatively) easily trackable: We’re able as never before to put data behind the interactions that define society as a whole, and, in that, understand them better. (Connected, on the other hand — whose conclusions are based on data sets of social flow that were cultivated, over a period of years, from physical documents — didn’t have that luxury.)

And while Christakis’ talk raised as many questions as it answered — we’re still in early days when it comes to measuring behavioral influences online — one of his core ideas is an insight that several news organizations are already putting to practice: the power of the niche. Much more significant and influential than single celebrities — individual nodes in a network — are the “niches within the network where you have the particular assemblage of influential people and their followers.” When influence is layered — when its fabric is made stronger by tight connections across a smaller network — it’s more predictable, and more powerful.

And that has big implications not only for news organizations, but also for the platforms that are hoping to translate their ubiquity into financial and social gain. If you want your work to have impact, then targeting a bundle of closely connected networks — with news, with links, with messages — may make more sense than going for numbers alone. Spreading a conversation is not the same as affecting it. “I’m not saying that Twitter is useless,” Christakis said, “but I think that the ability of Twitter to disseminate information is different than its ability to influence behavior.”

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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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  • Paul Keers

    It’s very important that we acknowledge the difference between influencing attitudes, and influencing purchase. Let’s see it as the difference between the work of a branding agency,. and the work of a direct marketing agency – perhaps then we can see the difference (and the nature of Twitter influence) more precisely?

  • Joel Abrams

    What all of these analyses of influence tend to disregard is the huge disproportionate influence of Twitter’s suggestions to new users of who to follow. Alissa Milano and Tim O’Reilly (and the NYTimes) both got huge numbers of followers from that list. But those followers aren’t really interested in their tweets, and would be much more likely to not stay as active Twitter users. Or to reframe the issue: those tweeters aren’t in the niches that their followers are passionately interested in.

    Anil Dash has a great analysis of the non-impact the suggested follower list:

    The other factor that pollutes discussions of follower counts is the “follow scads of random people so they’ll follow you back” strategy.

    Finally, the issue of influence is polluted by the busyness of the Twitter stream: if you follow dozens (or hundreds) of people, any particular tweet is unlikely to be seen. You may pay more attention to particular accounts which you are passionately interested in, but even there, there are far too many links for you to click on every one.

  • Stephen Tiano

    That’s certainly interesting. Leads to the question, tho’, of whether the people who follow, Ms. Milano or, say, Ashton Kutcher, are interested in the books those celebrities read or recommend. He’ll, or whether their followers are interested in books and reading at all.

  • Ruth Seeley

    Having two people send a single tweet is hardly a social media strategy – it’s about as effective as sending a physical review copy of a book by a first-time author to the New York Times and expecting them to review it. While the rest of your article seems sound, your headline and the example you’ve chosen is, frankly, specious.

    Talk to some of the authors I’ve worked with, one of whom has sold 850 books in 8 months with an actual social media and PR strategy to back him up.

  • Ruth Seeley

    Ooops, my apologies – it’s not your headline, it’s the way that naughty @Slate tweeted your article, saying, ‘Fancy that! Turns out twitter doesn’t help sell books!’

  • Sarah G

    Is it possible that the subject matter of the book was the problem? By the time it came out, it was probably already obsolete – and social media wonks (the sort of people interested in the subject) would know that.

    Plus: how many social media wonks are there, really? Even on Twitter?

  • Bryan Beck

    Twitter is what growing at 200,000 accounts per month? Something like that..Soon it will have over 20 million users…It moves fast these days, even faster on smart phones, no one goes back more than an hour, so if you miss the tweet it’s gone! I barely caught this one! And I just checked my account and 22 new tweets have arrived since I commented here! Crazy!

  • J12345

    Alyssa Milano is not Oprah.

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  • Ryan Sholin

    I’d love to see the same experiment with a call to action for something other than a purchase: “Sign this petition” or “Fill out this survey” etc. Each would have their own set of intervening variables, but “get out your credit card and buy this book right now” seems like the least likely to succeed, no?

  • MM

    Not surprising. There is a reason that people do book tours and spend many butt numbing, mouth drying hours in interviews with the likes of NPR and sitting in the lobby of book store chains to touch their readers.

    Same reason bookstores exist. To give readers the chance to browse and click with one particular book, after they walk in looking for books.

    Twitter is a great information vacuum that people can use to get bits of data they can use. It is a great comm tool. I have never heard of somebody going there to shop for anything at all, however. Twitter is maybe more likely to get people to vote one way or think about a social/cultural issue than it is to get them to remember what book they heard about, IMO.

    Improving odds of getting people to take action on something, like buying something, only works if the people you touch have time to decide that they do want to learn more about your stuff and follow-up away from the interaction. Not twitter.


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  • TweetSmarter

    Linking to an page is well known as an awful way to sell something. Most visitors will simply hit the back arrow once they see the page. So this is an example of something that is well known NOT to produce sales.

    Tweeting is not selling. If you’re not using sales techniques, either by accident or intention, you won’t get sales.

    People forget there is an entire industry both in business and academia built around how to sell and market. Because marketing is so pervasive, many people think they understand it, and wonder when they hear of exposure or advertising that doesn’t produce sales.

    Few who know little about mathematics talk about it as if they understand it, but almost everyone talks about marketing as if they understand it.

    For example, I’ve had many clients over the years come to me after running ads that got ZERO sales. They see other similar ads running every week, or know someone who has sold similar products via advertising, and they say “Why didn’t it work for me?”

    Most ads (& tweets) produce ZERO sales, because the people don’t understand how to use ads to sell products. They THINK only they understand.

    We tweeted about some Twitter books for sale to people interested in Twitter and sold ten via, and over $1,200 in other Amazon merchandise from people who visited via those links. They sold because the tweet and the blog page emphasized why these books were worth buying:

    Had we linked to a blog post explaining individually why you should buy these books, we would have undoubtedly sold even more because that would have been an even stronger sales technique.

  • Joy Mayer

    Fantastic post, Megan. So many news organizations are trying to figure out how to measure influence, but in my interviews with newsrooms, I haven’t found any that are getting beyond the number of followers. It seems like there’s lot of room for experimentation around the idea of identifying key influencers in specific communities or on specific topics.

    For the project I’m working on, trying to define and measure engagement, I’d love to hear from people who have success with or skepticism of services like Klout, that claim to measure true Twitter influence. There’s a lot of opportunity there if someone can figure out how to do it right.

  • Geri Stengel

    May be it’s not about strong and weak ties. Perhaps we need to study this with the lens of a direct marketer: How good is the list, the offer, the creative, etc. I’m more curious to know who is selling what through Twitter and what lessons have they learned.

  • Kathy Sierra

    @Ruth Seeley, if your comment was not a typo… And you really did mean sales of 850 books in 8 months using “an actual social media strategy”, then you have proved the point of this post. Because anything less than 3,000 is (for most publishers) considered a total failure. If my books don’t sell at least 850 on the first DAY they appear on amazon, I start to worry. And no social media strategy can fix a broken book.

    The only truly viable, sustainable “social media strategy” for a book is to make the book that readers will naturally want to share with others, not because they like the author but because they like their friends. In other words, social media DOES sell books… But is not the author or publisher’s social media use that matters. It is one reader talking to another, because the book is That Useful/Awesome.

    Yes, a book must be discovered… Someone must set the ball rolling, but if the book is deeply useful, getting it to a few niche people in the target audience is usually quite trivial. The rest is up to the book. When I quit Twitter, I immediately heard people question how I would ever promote my next book. My feeling is that if I must rely on my social media use, to get my sales up, I wrote the wrong book (or the right book, badly).
    Disclaimer: I have no idea how fiction works. I speak only to non-fiction, and make my living 100% from royalties.

  • Megan Garber

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I agree with many of them — especially the ideas that come down to the “wouldn’t it be cool if we tested X” line of thought, which I think was very much Professor Christakis’ point in giving the talk. We need more experimentation, and testing, and clarity, when it comes to the metrics we rely on to determine influence. And there’s a huge gulf, of course, between “affecting behavior” and affecting the particular behavior that involves purchasing a product; the “Connected” story uses sales to illustrate one of the professor’s broader, and more basic, points: that influence is a much more nuanced phenomenon than we often assume.

    Also, to be clear, the Milano/sales example was an “experiment” only in the most casual sense of the word. It certainly wasn’t scientific; while the rest of Christakis’ talk centered on his rigorously tested, peer-reviewed findings, the book-sales evidence was entirely anecdotal. He mentioned it because it was funny. I mentioned it because — sparse though it is as a data point — it serves as a window into a more complicated problem. That, and to have an excuse to put the Lab’s “Alyssa Milano” tag to use once again.

  • Mark Poepsel

    I’m a social scientist, a social media researcher and a former journalist. I follow all kinds of people including TheRealShaq, Alyssa Milano and Joy Mayer (what’s up, Joy?).

    Hearing about a book that is perfect for me does not mean I’ll buy it, and I’m seriously motivated to access this book.

    Usually I’ll check to see if my library has it or if I can get it through interlibrary loan. I only buy the books that I know I will want to take with me after I finish grad school, and that’s if they’re less than $30. I simply can’t afford all of the books that are suitable to my line of research.

    I’m the target audience for this book. I didn’t hear about it from Alyssa Milano’s single twitter. Even once I had heard of it, I wasn’t sure if it was the kind I could easily cite (something with specific, focused articles) … or something I should read and absorb over time.

    I’m more likely to buy something I can cite right away, since I’m working on my dissertation.

    Alyssa Milano’s tweets don’t sell books, but they might sell NFL jerseys for women.

    A bump in nonfiction “accessible” scholarship books might be the wrong measure for social effect.

  • Kevin Cantu

    Are you kidding? I get like 500 spams every day titled “blah blah Power of Our Social Networks blah blah” from “gurus”. Anyone with a brain sees a title like that and it hits the brain’s SPAM filter.

    Do an actual study with more books and more before drawing ANY conclusions.

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  • Ruth Seeley

    @Kathy Yes I was talking about fiction, and I’m also a Canadian, where the market is 1/10 the size of that in the US, press runs are correspondingly smaller and the competition for readers and buyers comes not only from other Canadians, but from authors throughout the English-speaking world (because we in Canada pay far more attention to books from the US and Commonwealth countries than folks in the US do). We managed to get the book reviewed in two mainstream (traditional) media outlets, but that was a very slow process. Without a social media strategy that got the book into the hands of bloggers – who subsequently posted their reviews on online retailing sites and book networking sites – the author wouldn’t have been able to arrange readings and signings. So I’m glad what you’re doing is working for you, but my sources in the US book business tell me that the vast majority of most novels published sell fewer than 100 copies. So selling 850 in the first year of publication? That’s a triumph.

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  • http://facebook Mike Fischer

    It just goes to show, that it’s more important what car you really drive, than what car you wish you drove.

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