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The Twitter Influence Ratio

24 April 2008 119,863 views 15 Comments

“@kevinrose how do I get you to follow me back???” – anonymous self-proclaimed “social app guru”

This is Part 2 of a series that explores the science of Social Media Measurement. Let me preface this post by saying that this is a lighthearted post trying to come up with a simple measurement regarding a hugely successful social web service.

Previously, I explored the measurement of popularity, novelty, and attention on the very popular crowdsourcing news aggregation site Digg. My post was based on an arcane academic study involving the half-life of popularly “dugg” items. It turns out that stories frantically “dugg” by Digg members that make it to the coveted front page have a half-life of only 69 minutes. That’s a lot of work for a relatively short period of attention. Having that knowledge should prove useful to some marketers.

Why do we want to be able to measure social media? Why should we attempt to develop metrics? The ability to measure our efforts gives us valuable information to guide changes or course adjustments. It gives us baseline comparisons to measure against. It allows us to set measurable goals. It also helps us to make decisions when considering outside consulting help. In the social media space, there is a preponderance of self-styled “social media gurus” or “social app gurus”Cartoon - Popularity and Influence who try to trade off of non-existent influence. Like snake oil salesmen, they make grand claims about their reputation and expertise but their products or services are essentially worthless. Perhaps a few hard measurements could help marketers and advertisers identify the frauds from the really reputable experts.

This time around, I’d like to keep it a little lighter with a simple measurement I came up with to measure that amorphous quality called influence. This is a light-hearted attempt and nothing nearing the scientific exactitude I cited in my previous post. I consider influence as much more important than popularity, novelty, or attention. Indeed, influence implies popularity and attention. More specifically, I’m measuring influence on the hugely popular Web service known as Twitter. Twitter is a micro-blogging or mobile blogging service that essentially asks the question, “What are you doing right now?” When used correctly, it can be a helpful service for networking, sharing ideas, and staying abreast of buzz.

Twitter’s format is conducive to understanding and measuring influence because of its reciprocal structure of “follows” that makes for easy measurement. You can elect to “follow” other members of the Twitter service. Every time someone you are following “tweets” about something, you will get that update on your cell phone. People who elect to follow you are “followers.” Your followers get an update every time you twitter about what you’re doing or thinking.

Twitter Screenshot

Initially, most people “follow” their friends and family but eventually move to following other people on the Twitter network. Implicitly, people follow each other because they find each other interesting. I wouldn’t want to be following someone who is telling me and the whole world, “I’m going to the bathroom.”

There is a small group of highly influential members of Twitter that are so interesting and have such important thoughts to share that they quickly draw a whole army of “followers.” Their follower bases grow organically, naturally, and virally because they add a lot of value to the network and their followers. They don’t need to actively campaign for followers. Not surprisingly, their follower base is much larger than the number of people they follow.

Cartoon - Twitter AddictThere is also a larger group of sycophantic, self-branded “social media gurus” or “social app gurus” that have very little actual influence. We all know a few of these “leaches” and if they weren’t so spammy, they’d actually be mildly amusing. They are actively trying to get more followers. They spend a lot of time in self-promotion mode. They kiss your butt and play nice so that you might decide to follow them. They trade “follows” like high schoolers in a popularity contest. So instead of “I’ll vote you for best looking if you vote me for most popular,” they say “I’m following you so will you please follow me too?”

Not all “social media gurus” are frauds. However, you can spot the ones that are frauds when they try to build their follower base by asking truly influential Twitter members questions like this, “@kevinrose how do I get you to follow me back???” This is one case of a self-proclaimed “social app guru” asking Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg and a member of Twitter, to follow him. How inane is this? Please get a life.

So let’s get right into the Twitter Influence Ratio. It’s very simple really and very similar to the price to earnings or PE Ratio found in stock investing. In the financial PE Ratio – you get an idea of how much in earnings you getting for every dollar you pay for the stock. It’s a nice, convenient measure of how much value you’re getting or your bang for the buck.

Stock Price / Earnings = PE Ratio

EMC Corporation: 15.56 / 0.77 = 20.21

In the above example, EMC Corporation (EMC), a data storage company, saw its stock close at a price of $15.56 for the day. During the last twelve months, EMC earned $0.77 per share. Dividing $15.56 by 77 cents gets you a PE Ratio of about 20.21 – pretty simple right? Essentially, what the PE Ratio tells you is that for EMC Corporation stock, you are paying approximately $20.21 for every one dollar of earnings. Like I said, bang for your buck.

With the Twitter Influence Ratio, we’re going to try and get a read on someone’s true influence level. It stands to reason that if you are interesting, have neat thoughts, and add value to the network, people will naturally gravitate to you and “follow you.” Some of the most influential members of Twitter have many more followers than people they follow. So the Twitter Influence Ratio will attempt to express this relationship as;

Followers / Following = Twitter Influence Ratio

Example: 533 / 609 = 0.875

In the above example, one such self-branded “social app guru” has 533 followers and is following 609 others. This gives him a Twitter Influence Ratio of only 0.875 which means this person is not very influential. Intuitively, you ought to have more followers interested in what you have to say than the number of people you’re following. One might say that 533 followers is nothing to sneeze at. I agree, but the fact that this person has so many followers and is following so many more makes it highly probable that he is what is known as a “friend whore” or “follow whore.” Like the desperate high schooler, he’s just trading votes. Someone with a TI Ratio of less than 1 but is only following 30 others is probably not out there actively trading votes or follows. If I were looking for a consultant, I would run away from this guy and find someone more influential.

Let’s take a look at some folks who are truly influential. The aforementioned Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, is one of the most influential members of Twitter. As of this writing, he has a Twitter Influence Ratio of:

18,416 / 72 = 255.77

The Twitter Influence Ratio attempts to give you a sense of how influential someone is. In Kevin Rose’s case, for every one person he follows, he has just over 255 persons following him.

Justine Ezarik, or iJustine, a talented web designer is another influential member of Twitter:

12,652 / 1,047 = 12.084 Twitter Influence Ratio for iJustine

Of course, the TI Ratio doesn’t always work. If I claimed that it did always work, you could peg me as one of those phony, self-branded “social media gurus.” In the case of Robert Scoble, one of the most influential journalists and bloggers in the technology industry, he actually has a really low TI Ratio:

20,939 /21,243 = 0.985

Scoble’s a journalist so he has to follow as many people as possible to get the scoop. He is basically following as many people as he has followers. His Twitter Influence Ratio is almost a ratio of 1.

Well, there you go, the Twitter Influence Ratio is not a perfect measure of influence. But it does give you a sense of who is truly influential and who is just pretending. OK, this will probably be the last time you here me talk about the Twitter Influence Ratio. Tell that “social media guru” or “social app guru” you know to stop his Twitter spam before you “unfollow” him!

Update: I just found someone, Andreas Gohr, who wrote a script to tell you if someone on Twitter is likely to be a spammer. It’s based on the same principles as the Twitter Influence Ratio and is very well thought out. It helps classify users on Twitter in these categories: Newbie or Social Climber, Twitter Spammer, Twitter Caster, Notable, and Socially Healthy. Good stuff. My friend, the “social app guru” is definitely a Twitter Spammer.

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  • Gautam said:

    Nice. My TI ratio is 1.5, but I’ve only got 255 followers…

    I guess the ratio needs to be seen the actual number of followers to actually make more sense.

  • Allan (author) said:

    @ Gautam,

    The TI Ratio, while a fun little measurement, is definitely not perfect. I hope your 255 followers are getting a lot of value from following you.

    Did you see Andreas Gohr’s new classification script?

  • John said:

    This is a great post, especially your point regarding ‘self-branded gurus’. It’s an interesting exercise to step back and look at who is actually listening, and who is merely looking for yet another another channel to promote themselves. (The script is pretty cool, too – thanks for posting a ref to it).

  • Allan (author) said:

    @ John

    Good point! You can tell who the real experts are by the amount of listening they do. The frauds are the ones standing on rooftops or twittering incessantly saying, “look at me! look at me!”

  • BloomBurst - The Official Vox Pop Design Blog » Blog Archive » Allan Young: Twitter Influence Ratio said:

    […] any interest in social networks at all run – don’t walk – over to Allan Young’s post: The Twitter Influence Ratio. Given that I’m in the midst of some gnarly deadlines I can’t post the insightful […]

  • Matthew Reinbold said:

    Fascinating analysis. I find the calculation follow/following extremely analogous to Clay Shirky’s thoughts on fame in his latest book ‘Here Comes Everybody’. He’s talking about fame but, for many practical applications, that could be the same as influence (pg 91):

    Fame is simply an imbalance between inbound and outbound attention, more arrows pointing in than out. Two things have to happen for someone to be famous, neither of them related to technology. The first is scale: he or she has to have some minimum amount of attention, an audience in the thousands or more. (This is why the internet version of the Warhol quote – “In the future everyone will be famous to fifteen people” – is appealing but wrong.) Second, he or she has to be unable to reciprocate. We know this pattern from television; audiences for the most ppular shows are huge, and reciprocal attention is technologically impossible.

    Those statements imply some problems with the calculation (although I know its original intent was just a fun exercise). First, I could create a dummy public twitter account and just let whatever spammer or numbers happy guru link to it that they want – in which case I’d have a large number of followers and would be following no one: a division of zero resulting in infinite ‘influence’. But while the formula implies influence (and lots of it) the actuality is a very non-influential bot. There is no minimum amount here and so the numbers are misleading.

    The formula also doesn’t take into account the nature of those following. It implies that every person following is equal in influence to every other person. As nice as human equality is this just isn’t the case. A twitter account may only have one follower but if that follower is the head of a multi-million dollar hedge fund its arguable that the account has tremendous influence.

    But overall, great, thought-provoking piece!

  • Allan (author) said:

    @ Matthew – Unfortunately, I’m a bit innumerate so although I wanted to do some kind of weighting similar to Shirky’s “some minimum amount of attention,” I got lazy and skipped that step. He’s much more of an expert than I’ll ever be, but I think he’s dead on with the part about reciprocation. Twitter’s reciprocal structure allows better measurement but, as you suggested, also allows gaming and posturing. What you’re also suggesting is similar to Google’s PageRank algorithm (of course I’m just guessing here) in that the “nature” or “quality” of the people “linking” or “following” you also has an impact on your “score.” I absolutely agree and I wish I had the mathematical chops to have baked that into the Twitter Influence Ratio. :)

  • Sonny said:

    The twitter influence ratio looks like an interesting idea. However, it seems it is only useful if there is a large enough sample size. For example, a person with 5-3 split will have a higher “ratio” than a person with 1000-1000 split, although the person with the 1000-1000 split likely will have a higher “influence” simply because he/she has a much larger sample size. Is there a way to account for the sample size in the ratio?

  • Rachel Strate said:

    You never cease to amaze me. I just found your blog and have only read two entries, yet am smiling from ear to ear. I wish I could write / think like you.

  • Allan (author) said:


    I’ve got $20 in the mail addressed to you. Thanks for the kind words. You were always the sharpest in the UVF shed, so it means a lot coming from you.


  • How many followers do you have on Twitter and does that make you influential? | Business on Twitter said:

    […] post from Allan Young with his thoughts on ‘The Twitter Influence Ratio’ or how you can decide whether […]

  • Mike Chapman said:

    Doesn’t it depend on what your reasons for being on twitter are? I have more following me than I follow, but I try to follow almost every human who follows me. Why? I’m not trying to broadcast to an audience using twitter, I’m working on building relationships. I also make it a point to unfollow anyone who isn’t in the business of following back. Why? I’m also not interested in being part of someone’s broadcast audience on twitter. Finally, influence is much subtler than twitter follower numbers for what I need to achieve. Great post.

  • kelly said:

    Oh so you’re saying I am a friendwhore! haha

    Well, at least I have people who are willing to read my public updates and know me as a person and more. NONE of my friends (except a few from Facebook) are on Twitter. Sad! So I view my “Twitter stats” as “good results”.

    But more importantly I DON’T look at the number of followers as just NUMBERS – they are human beings with motivation and desire too! Twitter is always about 2-way communication, and if used solely for broadcasting, people will unfollow.

    Students have an easier time, they can get class-loads of people to follow them anytime! Getting followers is one thing – keeping them (interested for long) is quite another.

    Thanks for the discussion Nikki!

  • sandrar said:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  • Twitter ratio – restrictions? « Sylwia Presley said:

    […] what it means? Is Twitter restricting the amount of friends or followers? I looked for the info on different blogs writing about Twitter ratio (ratio of our Twitter followers to our friends) but I cannot see […]

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