The unpredictable nature of Twitter cascades and social marketing

Tim Harford in the Financial Times discusses mathematical sociologist Duncan Watt’s research on why certain information in social media catches fire among a large group of people (like in a “Twitter cascade”) and other information does not. Watts suggests several factors are important: we tend to see what becomes successful and what is not, popular posts are small and uncommon, and “it’s impossible to predict which tweets will start cascades.”

There are lot of people who would like to take advantage of social media to share information and sell products. This sort of research suggests it is more difficult to do this than some might think. On one hand, having a lot of friends or followers means that more people could see your information. But on the other hand, this does not necessarily mean that people will pass along your information to their own set of friends. If Watts is right, does this mean that companies or organizations should change their strategies or even limit social media marketing?

This is not just a problem in studying social media. It is also difficult within other fields, such as film, music, and books, to predict what will become a success and what will not. A common solution there is to simply produce a lot of material and then wait for a small percentage of products to generate a lot of money and help subsidize the rest of the material. This also seems to be the case with social media: there are a lot of people sharing a lot of information but only a small part of spreads through a larger population. This might also mean that gatekeepers, people who have the ability to sift through and analyze/criticize content, will continue to be important as the average user won’t be able to see the broader view of the social media world.

Could some of this problem be the result of the actual design and user experience of Twitter? If so, might companies and others work toward creating different forms of social media that would increase or enhance the sharing of information across a broader set of users?

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