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Ashton Kutcher, friends key to Twitter's success

Christine Daniloff

The rise of the microblogging site Twitter was fueled by media attention and traditional social networks based on geographic proximity and socioeconomic similarity, a new study says.

Developers of the next-big social networking application stand a greater chance at skyrocketing success if Hollywood stars and big media go gaga over it, according to an analysis of Twitter's meteoric rise in popularity.

Data collected on the number of users adopting the microblogging service in its early years (between 2006 and 2009) show that it first spread gradually via traditional social networks — real-world friends, work colleagues, neighbors — then took off when media stars started to gather their flocks.

 


"The first big run up in the number of Twitter users corresponded to the months that Ashton Kutcher was trying to be the first one to a million followers," Jameson Lawrence Toole, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-author of the study, told me today.

 

 

The Hollywood actor, who is most recently in the news for his recent divorce with actress Demi Moore and starring role in the hit TV series Two and a Half Men, touted his Twitter flock on Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show. And that's also when Oprah herself sent her first tweet.

"The most number of people ever signed up for Twitter during that week," Toole said.

A visualization showing the adopting of Twitter across the United States. From late March 2006 through the early August 2009, nearly 3.5 million people signed up for twitter. 2.3 million of those users signed up in the 408 cities displayed here.

From there, Twitter's rise was unstoppable. News reporters wrote about Kutcher and Oprah and more people signed up for Twitter. More media personalities wrote their own stories about sending 140-character tweets. More people signed up. More stories, more users.

While the data isn't all that surprising, it suggests a new way for researchers to model the power of media influence in their analyses of what drives a company to success, according to Toole.

In traditional models, he said, the role of media is considered a constant across time. What the Twitter analysis illustrates is the existence of a feedback loop present in today's media. "The more people sign up, the more news articles are written, and then more people sign up," he said.

The effect has been named elsewhere as the Oprah Effect, which is particularly prevalent in book sales. Aspiring authors know that if the talk show host picks their book for her monthly book club, for example, a spot on the best seller list is almost certainly in their future.

The comedian Stephan Colbert has a similar effect, known as the Colbert Bump, which is particularly effective for politicians, according to Toole.

Given the analysis of Twitter data from its early years, the power of big media stars seems to apply to Internet-based applications as well. So, if you want millions of users to use your app, make sure a big name pitches it, preferably in a quasi-viral way. That should mean success, according to the new model.

"What we can't model is if Oprah is going to pick up your Web service," Toole noted. 

More stories on Twitter and the power of media:


The study is scheduled to appear this month in the journal PLoS One.

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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