Part of the research I do here at UNC looks at how people and the news media react to each other on Twitter. Recently, I wrote a little Python script that interacts with the Twitter API and fetched follower counts for a random sample of 1.2 random Twitter users, after a pass for spambot users was conducted. Interestingly enough, given Twitter’s rate limiting, this took about a week. I wanted to see who had the most followers and how many followers news outlets had.

The top 10 in the dataset were:

BarackObama 27727102
britneyspears 24060533
instagram 16090418
SnoopDogg 10518946
onedirection 10091460
BillGates 9845694
Louis_Tomlinson 9164142
zaynmalik 8193636
danieltosh 7750821
KingJames 7402839

All celebrities of some sort: political, musical, athletic or Hollywood. The one exception being Instagram, the popular photosharing service. The first news service we see in our dataset doesn’t occur until the 38th spot with @TheEconomist at 2,909,398 followers. Interestingly enough, all the spots above it are again, celebrities. This should put to rest any doubt you may have: the most followed people on Twitter are celebrities.

Below, you’ll see the most popular 7,500 users and the number of followers they have. Notice the sharp fall off.

Note that the top 20 users were removed to better show the x-axis. Click to enlarge.

The number of “super users” is so small that according to this sample, only .1% of  Twitter users have above 200k followers. Still, the “super users” appear to throw off the average for all users. The mean follower count for a Twitter user is 1,876. Makes me and everyone I know except @joebobhester and @smalljones  feel unpopular to say the  least. (You might be interested to know that by luck, all three of us were included in the random sample).

To take a further look at news media, I pulled a sample of 295 of the most popular known media on Twitter. This included regional newspapers, national newspapers, online news services, cable news networks and blogs. Or, as Dr. Shaw would say, horizontal and vertical media.

user followercount
nytimes 7690631
CNN 7577918
MTV 6843626
espn 6088752
eonline 5201063
TheOnion 4688179
peoplemag 4632139
TIME 4337958
andersoncooper 3753514
whitehouse 3695043
piersmorgan 3295086
mashable 3179266
TheEconomist 2955578
HuffingtonPost 2737861
TechCrunch 2622906
Reuters 2599650
WSJ 2553956
maddow 2507288

Here we see a few surprises. First of which being that three individuals made the list: Anderson Cooper, Peirs Morgan and Rachel Maddow. The rest is a mix bag of all types of national media ranging from sports, entertainment, traditional news and technology. Again we see a sharp Zipf’ curve, with only 33 media with above 1 million followers.

Click to enlarge

Above anything, the big takeaway here is the large differential news media have to celebrities on Twitter. While many use Twitter for news, it appears that many more use Twitter for following individuals they have interest in, i.e. celebrities. While Twitter and the news now work together for many news outlets, journalists and people, it still looks like this use of Twitter takes a backseat to the iconic members of american culture.

As always, if you’re a researcher and would like access to my datasets, or some of the tools I use to fetch tweets and Twitter user info from Twitter, just drop me a line. I need more followers, anyway 😉 @chrisjvargo

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