by Richard Fisher, technology features editor
(Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty)
What makes one tweet get passed on, and not another?
On Twitter, your followers can repeat your messages to their own followers. Getting such retweets is a way to increase your profile and network size, and it's arguably part of the reason why many users keep coming back: that little dopamine squirt you get when you discover somebody has liked your wittering can be addictive.
Retweeting is also one of the main ways that information spreads across the social network, so researchers, companies and governments want to know how it works. Previous research has shown that if your message is retweeted it will reach, on average, 1000 people, no matter how many followers you have.
Nasir Naveed and colleagues at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany wanted to find out how the specific content of a message can affect its probability of a retweet.
They studied a combined dataset of over 60 million tweets and around 4.5 million users, looking for the common conventions for retweets, such as the acronym "RT" or "via...". They then classified the content of the messages according to various factors, such as whether the tweets contained hyperlinks or emoticons, as well as analysing the language and types of sentiments expressed in the tweets. They presented their findings earlier this month at the International Conference on Web Science 2011 in Koblenz, Germany.
In general, tweets containing URLs, usernames, and hashtags - usually used to denote topics - were more likely to be retweeted than those without such paraphernalia. But not in isolation - other factors matter. Naveed and colleagues identified five such rules to increase your chances of a retweet:
1) Watch your punctuation
Tweets with exclamation marks were unlikely to be retweeted. The opposite was true of question marks. The researchers speculate that in some cases this could be because tweets that pose questions are passed on to provide or find an answer.
2) Nice words trump nasty
Tweets containing strong positive words like "great" or "excellent" and negative terms such as "suck" or fail" were likely to be retweeted. But positive terms were slightly more so. The researchers suggest that this might be because people could be a bit more reluctant to retweet rude or harsh terms.
3) Use emoticons wisely
Conversely, including a positive emoticon, such as :-), is a sure way to lower your probability of a retweet. A negative one, such as :-( increases the chances.
4) Be relevant
The team identified more than 100 different topics that people tweeted about. Not surprisingly, those that addressed broader public interest were more likely to be retweeted than, for example, messages about how users felt that day, or messages directed specifically at another person (@replies). The most popular retweeted topics in the dataset concerned social networking, public holidays and the economy. The researchers reckon this suggests twitter is better suited as a service for channelling news than for personal communication.
5) Bad news is good
The researchers studied the sentiments expressed in their dataset of tweets, by looking for words that are known to correspond to certain feelings. These were given a numerical value on various scales that range from, for example, pleasure to displeasure, or excitement to calmness. They found that tweets which were annoying or not pleasant tend to get retweeted often. Likewise for tweets that expressed exciting or intense sentiments. In other words, they say, bad news travels fast on Twitter.