When a contentious issue takes flight on Twitter, a general consensus on it starts emerging within hours, according to a new academic study. And within a few days, it’s easy to see what the majority opinion is.
Initial discussion of a contested topic will cause debate, with frequent spikes in tweets supporting either side. But within hours and days, those tweets level off. While those who disagree might be unconvinced by the new general consensus, they’ll become the minority, and stop gaining new supporters.
Tweets on the subject generally plateau—with one opinion clearly in the lead—without the conversation disappearing entirely. After a few days, there’s virtually no growth in support (number of tweets) for either side. So people who care about a topic make up their minds on it quickly, and can’t be easily swayed after the initial wave of discussion.
Researchers at Beijing Jiaotong University gathered around six million tweets for the study, then used an algorithm to sort them by topic and underlying sentiment. The data set is around two years old, so some of the topics seem quaint—like the relative superiority of iPhone 4 versus BlackBerry. But the researchers say it’s unlikely that this behavior has changed since it was collected.
Opinions on Twitter don’t necessarily match up with the conclusions of other polls on issues. A 2013 Pew Research study compared Twitter reactions to US political events with national poll data and found that they usually differ quite a bit. This is at least partly due to limitations in how representative the active Twitter population is of the broader public and how traditional polls fully reach younger, mobile generations.
But although Twitter may not perfectly mirror the broader population, politicians and marketers can still learn from the way its users behave. Those looking to curry favor with the site’s users need to act quickly—as soon as their name or product enters the Twittersphere—or they’ll miss the best chance they have to sway opinion.