I don’t know which 80%

Legendary retailer John Wanamaker (who pioneered fixed price stores in the mid 1800s) is supposed to have said that “half of all advertising is useless. The trouble is I don’t know which half”.

I was playing around with my twitter archive data, and was looking at the distribution of retweets and favourites across all my tweets. To say that it follows a power law is an understatement.

Before this blog post triggers an automated tweet, I have 63793 tweets, of which 59,275 (93%) have not had a single retweet. 51,717 (81%) have not had a single person liking them. And 50, 165 (79%) of all my tweets have not had a single retweet or a favourite.

In other words, nearly 80% of all my tweets had absolutely no impact on the world. They might as well have not existed. Which means that I should cut down my time spent tweeting down to a fifth. Just that, to paraphrase Wanamaker, I don’t know which four fifths I should eliminate!

There is some good news, though. Over time, the proportion of my tweets that has no impact (in terms of retweets or favourites – the twitter dump doesn’t give me the number of replies to a tweet) has been falling consistently.

Right now, this month, the score is around 33% or so. So even though the proportion of my useless tweets have been dropping over time, even now one in every tweets that I tweet has zero impact.

My “most impactful tweet” itself account for 17% of all retweets that I’ve got. Here I look at what proportion of tweets have accounted for what proportion of “reactions” (reactions for each tweet is defined as the sum of number of retweets and number of favourites. I understand that the same person might have been retweeted and favourited something, but I ignore that bit now).

Notice how extreme the graph is. 0.7% of all my tweets have accounted for 50% of all retweets and likes! 10% of all my tweets have accounted for 90% of all retweets and likes.

Even if I look only at recent data, it doesn’t change shape that much – starting from January 2019, 0.8% of my tweets have accounted for 50% of all retweets and likes.

This, I guess, is the fundamental nature of social media. The impact of a particular tweet follows a power law with a very small exponent (meaning highly unequal).

What this also means is that anyone can go viral. Anyone from go from zero to hero in a single day. It is very hard to predict who is going to be a social media sensation some day.

So it’s okay that 80% of my tweets have no traction. I got one blockbuster, and who knows – I might have another some day. I guess such blockbusters is what we live for.

2 thoughts on “I don’t know which 80%”

  1. The last bit of this post reminds me of research on how unpredictable, intermittent rewards generate a greater effort than predictable ones. Most modern game apps (and gambling apps) are designed around this.
    Your summary appears to be falling straight into that category. Regularly getting 50 interactions on most posts wouldn’t be as rewarding/inspiring as occasionally landing a blockbuster tweet.

    It’s another reason why all social media companies like algorithmic timeline over chronological. I’m algoritmo timeline, they can occasionally boost a tweet from everyone, giving them as little shot of interactions to keep them hooked.

  2. Another thing: the proportion of tweets with zero interactions is bound to decrease if there volume (frequency?) of tweets remains steady while the number of followers increase. If your follower count has increased by a multiple, the zero interactions tweets are bound to come down.
    I’d be interested in finding a metric that can be a proxy for low interaction after accounting for follower count changes.

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