Wither wends my tweet?

I was attempting to write a vignette yesterday about how the tweet which prompted this post actually got in front of the eyes of some people who might be so inclined to respond. If we’re asking a question or seeking advice, rather than sharing a resource or thought, then the audience becomes even more significant than it normally would. Without an audience, like the falling tree in the forest needing someone to hear it, the tweet and the query it carries may as well not be there.

As I wrote, my description of what was involved got longer and longer until I couldn’t bear to write any more, let alone expect a reader to wade through it. At times like these, I invariably attempt to sketch out the process and see whether it might be better expressed visually rather than textually. Lacking the skill to simply draw an acceptable version (or patience to develop the skill), I instead, as usual, transferred my sketch into a neater, digital form

“Wither wends my tweet” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/37357930201 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

[Click on the image to go to the full-sized version]

Whether your tweet is seen by someone who might be able to offer an answer is largely a numbers game. For example, the fewer followers you have, the less likely someone will a) see your tweet, or b) have the capacity to respond. Similarly, even if you do happen to have the ideal person within your list of followers, whether they see your tweet will depend on the way they access Twitter – is it regular and routinised (better chance of them seeing your tweet) or irregular and rare (lower chance).

Not that it matters for my research, but I began to wonder whether it might be possible to calculate the odds, since if you were armed with that knowledge, you could take steps to maximise the potential of your tweet being viewed. As I thought about it, it became clear this was a Rumsveld scenario, so returned to more pressing matters. In teasing out some of the factors which ended up in the visualisation however, I was once more confronted with how individualised our Twitter experiences are. Imagine two Scottish teachers of physics, with the same teaching experience, who have both been on Twitter for around the same time and follow roughly similar people. Now assume they asked exactly the same question, at the same time; whether one, the other, both or neither gets an answer is still largely unpredictable. Even a slight difference in the people who follow them is just enough to make the outcome a far from foregone conclusion. If the ‘right’ person sees your tweet, they may answer themselves, or retweet it, or ‘send’ it to someone they think might know the answer. If the tweet moves on, who knows where it might end up or what the outcome will be. A manifestation of the Butterfly Effect perhaps, or certainly a complex problem.

What also struck me was how important the hashtag can be. It delivers your tweet to an audience beyond those who have chosen to follow you and will reach people at whom you might never have considered to direct your question. It’s like an ‘Ask the audience’ question to an audience of experts … which of course can sometimes be a bad thing! The tricky part is being aware of which hashtags to include to improve the chances of resolving which queries. Both the hashtag and the retweet (by one of your followers, or someone else) introduce the unpredictable element. Initially, it can only be your followers who see your tweet (Although it does go into the main Twitter stream, the odds of anyone seeing it by chance, given the current rate of nearly 8000 tweets posted worldwide per second, is obviously fairly small). If you don’t get an initial response, what happens next depends on what your followers do and what other actors come into play. Hashtag, retweet, quote tweet and @mention all increase the potential audience. And if the person doing the quoting or hashtagging also happens to be someone who is highly followed, then your audience can really increase.

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