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What People Say When They Tweet

Everyone is talking about Twitter (to the consternation of many of our readers, I’m sure), but what are people talking about on Twitter? It is really just a flood of inane status updates and fragmented chat, or are people actually talking about things that matter to them via the service? We’ve talked about Twitter as a platform for serious discussion, but is anyone really using it that way? We teamed up with Summize to take a closer look about what people are talking about in the Twitosphere.

Summize looked at about 4 million Twitter status update messages (tweets) collected from the public time line over a seven day period running from April 27 – May 3. We saw approximately 200,000 active users (users that sent at least one message) during that period, of which 60% tweeted in English. Japanese was the second most popular language on Twitter with about 9% of the tweets that we gathered.

Most strikingly, we found that a whopping 5% of all Twitter (in terms of tweets) is powered by the top 100 active accounts. Those 100 users post updates 200-3000 times a day, which might even impress uber-Twitter users like Robert Scoble or Jason Calacanis.

What we saw was that the top Twitter users are not always people, but rather, they’re sources using Twitter as a feed publishing platform. For example, the most active user we saw was an account called “lejddfr,” which does “push journalism” (sending out frequent links to new stories) for French news service Le Journal du Dimanche. lejddfr has just 315 followers, is following no one, and has made over 101,000 tweets. Another example we saw is “GSSP,” which tweets links to stories on the news web site NewzOf.com. Our favorite high volume Twitter user, though is “chandraxray,” a space station that tweets its location up to 350 times per day.

To get a feel for the distribution of tweeting activity across the Twitter universe, we sorted users by the number of tweets per day and graphed that vs. the total traffic. 66% of the users only tweet once per day.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of what people are talking about. So we started analyzing tweets and came up with a list of the top five words people send. Apparently, the first thing anyone sends out on Twitter is a “test” message.

  1. test
  2. lol
  3. working
  4. 🙂
  5. sleeping

Unfortunately, while we can guess from that list that Twitter users tend to be sleepy workaholics who are generally happy, we still can’t tell much about what they’re really talking about on the service. So we next applied some fancy topic extraction and started calculating trends over our week’s worth of data.

What we found is that there are three main types of conversations going on. First, there are status updates of every day occurrences such as, “getting coffee,” “check out this post on X,” “going to sleep,” or other mundane life things. Second, there are short term memes where many people talk about some event before, during, or after it. These conversations are usually short lived — ranging from a few minutes to a few hours. For example a TV show like “Lost” will have some buzz, before, during, and for a short time after the show airs, but will drop out of the stream very quickly. We saw that happen with “LSD” when the drug’s creator Albert Hoffman died last week. The final type of discussion we see on Twitter, are long term memes. These are topics of interest that people talk about for days, weeks, or even months. Politics or new video games are great examples of these longer term discussions happening on the platform.

Below we selected a subset of the automatic trends found for the week to illustrate this phenomenon. Each column from left to right shows the days of the week. Topics on the top of each stack represent shorter lived memes, while topics lower on the chart represent items of longer term interest.

You can click on the links below to explore the memes on those days:

Sunday, April 27:Obama,
Mario Kart Wii,
Monday, April 28:Obama,
Mario Kart Wii,
Rev Wright,
Social Brew
Tuesday, April 29:Obama,
Iron Man,
Rev Wright,
Ben Jerry,
Deal or No Deal
Wednesday, April 30:Obama,
Iron Man,
American Idol,
Violet Hill,
Neil Diamond,
Thursday, May 1:Obama,
Iron Man,
RSS Awareness Day,
Baskin Robbins
Friday, May 2:Obama,
Iron Man,
DC Madam,
Saturday, May 3:Obama,
Iron Man,
Kentucky Derby,
Free Comic Book Day,
Maker Faire,


While technology, politics, and geekery (sci-fi movies and video games) tend to dominate the long term memes, people are discussing all sorts of things on Twitter — from sports to pop culture to cooking. Could that indicate that the site it starting to have some mainstream appeal? Or maybe just that even us tech geeks occasionally find time to talk about things other than technology? Either way, the way memes flow on Twitter is an interesting topic and one that we had fun looking at.

Special thanks to Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, co-founder of Summize, a conversational search engine. Dr. Chowdhury did all of the data mining and analysis for the this post, as well collaborated on the text and created the charts.

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