Posted by on Feb 17, 2012 in Research & Data

If someone posts an incredibly important message–that a cultural icon has passed away–in a densely active stream, will anyone listen? The answer is…it’s complicated.

We saw again this week how essential networks like Twitter and Facebook were in disseminating the news of beloved pop singer Whitney Houston’s death. But the question of who “broke” the news and caused it to ignite across social media is an interesting one, and one we delve into the in the visualizations below.

News about Whitney Houston’s death appeared on Twitter some 42 minutes before it hit the press. While that fact is true, and a number of Twitter users had indeed found out about Whitney Houston’s tragic death before press announced it, the story did not actually break until the AP and TMZ posted their announcement. Why didn’t the news spread from the people who first knew about it? Surely such a hot piece of information would easily spread like wildfire.

Yet that didn’t happen, and in the following blog post we try to understand why. In this case, what we see is what happens when a user gains access to a highly potent piece of information, while not being situated within the right kind of network that enables the content to spread in time. Contrast this effect with Keith Urbahn’s Tweet about Osama Bin Laden’s death. In this case, even though media outlets were not first to publish the news, they played a critical role in spreading it. The information was in the network, yet nobody listened until the press came in. Why?

Here’s what happened

On the evening of Feb 11th, at 7:15 PM EDT, @AjaDiorNavy (Aja Dior M.) posted the following Tweet:

Within less than an hour, thousands of  Twitter users were lamenting the loss of the legendary singer, along with all major media entities. The following day, Mashable claimed that Twitter broke the news many minutes before the press. But was that really the case? The AP published the news at 7:57 PM, 42 minutes after @AjaDiorNavy’s original tweet. Yet during this period only 16 people found out and tweeted about Whitney Houston’s death (coming from two separate sources). Only after the AP had posted the information, did it actually start spreading across the network.

The First

The first tweet by @AjaDiorNavy, is part of a siloed network of friends. The graph below is a zoomed-in view of the first Twitter users who found out about Whitney Houston’s death. Each node represents a user who responded to the news, and the connections represent the path information flowed. The brighter-colored orange nodes published their response before the darker reds.

First reports of Whitney Houston's death on Twitter

The users represented in the graph above were responding to information posted by @AjaDiorNavy, but only within their little siloed group. The information did not catch on and spread to other parts of the network.

The Second

The second information source came 19 minutes afterwards, in a tweet by Jasmine Moore (@OmgSoJas) whose aunt was supposed to do Whitney Houston’s hair (perhaps the same aunt?). In this case, the graph seems denser as there are many more connections between users. However, only three took place before the big media (Orange nodes) accounts came on board. The majority of users in this cluster responded at a much later stage (red colored nodes) after the news had already spread.

Second Information Source announcing Whitney Houston's Death

The Press 

At 7:57 PM EDT, the AP posted the news to its Twitter account. Up until then, 42 minutes had passed since the first published reference, and only 16 users had responded. Within 5 minutes of the AP’s post, we see over 3,000 responses, with an increasing acceleration in number of reactions. Within minutes, TMZ, Eonline and a number of media & entertainment press accounts confirmed the news. And it spreads like wildfire.

the AP reports the news

What We Learn

Just because you’re first doesn’t mean your content will spread. In this case, @AjaDiorNavy had an incredibly hot piece of information many minutes before anyone else knew, yet @AjaDiorNavy didn’t have the right network to spread it.

We’ve seen this many times before, the combination of the right timing, network and topicality make or break an information cascade. @AjaDiorNavy had a topically relevant piece of content, at the right time, yet lacked the network that could spread it in time. In this case, Twitter indeed broke the news, but not the way reports claimed earlier this week. The information was fed to the network, but nobody listened until the press came in.

Download the full-sized visualization

Questions, Thoughts or Comments? Ping me on Twitter – @gilgul




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    [...] Tracking a Death Across Twitter | News of Whitney Houston’s death was on Twitter 42 minutes before it was reported by The A.P. Why only 16 people found out. — Quentin Hardy [...]

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    February 26, 2012

    [...] Social Flow, Timing, Network and Topicality: A Revealing Look at How Whitney Houston Death News Spread on Twitter. (There was a 42-minute period where the news had been tweeted but almost nobody knew about [...]

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