Do a lot of followers equal authority?

Twitter has been growing in Sweden lately, challenging Finnish Jaiku, which has been pretty dominant in the social media sphere, and Swedish Bloggy. Meanwhile, over in the US, there seems to have been some discussion on whether many twitter followers equals “authority” (like here and here).

Here is my quick take: Not necessarily so.

That was a little bit too short maybe. Let’s get a little deeper.

“Following” is often an act of reciprocity. Someone follows me – I follow back. If someone follows a lot of people, a lot of people will follow back. But, these people will not necessarily read the tweets. So, “authority” in this case is low.

What if you just follow a few then, and they follow you back?

Imagine a tweeter following the 100 most followed tweeters (the “twitterati”). They follow him/her back. So, what have we? Well, this tweeter has 100 followers and they are the most followed ones on twitter. Does it mean this user has authority? It depends!

Do they only “follow” out of courtesy – just to reciprocate? Or do they follow every tweet this user makes? There is a world of difference here! So, we can’t really say if having many followers or even just a few important followers really equals authority.

But, in general I would say there is probably a correlation between many followers and high authority.

There is also something else playing a part in the influence they have.

Duncan Watts showed in his Fast Company article – Is the tipping point toast? – that influentials are not as important as we’ve believed (I wrote a take on it too – Influentials not as influential?). So, many connections doesn’t necessarily mean that a message will go viral, but once it does, it usually spreads further. So, why can the “twitterati” get these effects?

Part of why tweeters with many followers are able to kick start twitter storms is probably because they put the “big seed marketing” approach that Duncan Watts suggested to work. Basically, they “light a lot of small grass fires” with their tweets. If the environment is susceptible (“dry”) enough to the message, there will be a big fire. If not (the grass is “damp”) it doesn’t really go far.

But, as Mack Collier writes:

“But instead of having one person with 10,000 followers link to my post, I had a guy with 900 followers link to it, and that led to another dozen or so people following suit.”

The most important thing isn’t whether you get one tweet that goes to potentially 10 000 followers, or 100 retweets that goes to 100 followers each. What is important is that the environment is susceptible to the message. Context matters a lot for virality, because once in the right context, a receiver of the message will know it will appeal to a certain group, and therefore passes it on to the right people. It can be as if the message already had a label on it, saying where to pass it on.

Besides the probable correlation between many followers and authority, I would guess that inbound links and retweets is a (-n even stronger?) indication of authority. What do you think?

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