Behind the numbers: how to understand big moments on Twitter

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Every two and a half days, a billion Tweets are sent. Put another way, that’s three for every man, woman and child in the United States — or five for everyone in Brazil.

Behind the numbers: how to understand big moments on TwitterClick here to explore the interactive chart.

When you look at your own Twitter data around an event, what are you really measuring? When we talk about 110,000 Tweets per minute during the London Olympics or 26.7 million sent during the NBA finals, how big a deal is that, really? And how do these spikes compare to the waves of Tweets we’ve seen in the past around major events?

Numbers become more meaningful when you can compare two similar events. 

This is a selection of some of the water-cooler moments that really got people on Twitter talking. (Of course, there’s always a chance that tomorrow something even bigger will happen.) It’s not a complete list of the biggest moments on Twitter - this changes all the time (see what happened when Japanese TV showed Castles in the Sky). And, before you start comparing these to events that haven’t even happened yet, it’s really important to read the context further down this article.

The measurement you see is primarily Tweets per minute (TPM) — which we have written about previously. It gives you the highest number of Tweets about a specific topic or hashtag within a given minute. The number by itself doesn’t tell you much — but when comparing the TPM around different events, you begin to see how significant an event can be on Twitter.

Here are a few questions to ask:

  1. Are you comparing apples to apples? Can you really compare the impact of a cult TV show cast live-tweeting to the conversation on Twitter during the Super Bowl? Probably not — because they will take place at different times and with different audiences. Numbers become more meaningful when you can compare two similar events — for instance, when comparing the conversation during two games during the World Series. Different types of live events also prompt different responses — a breaking news event, such as the Boston bombings, will lead thousands of people to Twitter to find out what is happening. That is entirely unpredictable — compared to a scheduled sporting event, for example.
  2. How significant is the event compared to other events taking place at the same time? Timing is everything. People tweet at different times of the day around the world. What if your event is taking place when not many people are tweeting? Conversely, when there are lots people tweeting about lots of big trends on the same day at the same time? There may be times when a smaller number of people tweeting around an event could actually be more significant than a bigger number.
  3. How big is a big number? It’s about proportion. Keep in mind how many people your huge number is a percentage of.

Something else to remember: The other factors matter, too. Who are you talking to? How engaged are they? Do they follow or retweet you? Without context and interpretation, numbers are just numbers.

Have you seen any innovative uses of Twitter? Email us at [email protected].