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Traditional social networks fueled Twitter's spread

December 22, 2011 - Cambridge

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers who studied the growth of Twitter from 2006 to 2009 say the site's growth in the United States actually relied primarily on media attention and traditional social networks based on geographic proximity and socioeconomic similarity.

In other words, at least during those early years, birds of a feather flocked - and tweeted - together.

In their study of Twitter's "contagion process," the researchers looked at data from 16,000 U.S. cities, focusing on the 408 with the highest number of Twitter users and seeking to update traditional models of how information spreads and technology is adopted.

Just as marketing experts sometimes label consumers as early adopters, early majority adopters, late majority adopters or laggards, the researchers characterized cities in those terms, based on when Twitter accounts in a given city reached critical mass. Critical mass is generally defined as the point when something reaches 13.5 percent of the population, which for this study was 13.5 percent of the highest total number of Twitter users in a city through August 2009, the end of the study period.

As with most technologies, the growth in popularity initially spread via young, tech-savvy "innovators," in this case from Twitter's birthplace in San Francisco to greater Boston.

But the site's popularity then took a more traditional route of traveling only short distances, implying face-to-face interactions; this approach made early adopters of Somerville, Mass., and Berkeley, California.

The study data include the growth spike that began April 15, 2009, when actor Ashton Kutcher challenged CNN to see who could first attract 1 million Twitter followers.


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