Skip to Content

The Elusive Power of Tweets

Study shows mixed answers to the question of whether Tweets drive ratings–revealing limits to what we know about social media’s real-world effects
March 20, 2013

Can Tweets drive television ratings?  Meaning, when people are gushing about a show, does it change other people’s choices and behavior?  If it does, it means we know something new about how social media activity affects events in the real world.

You’d think we’d know the answer by now.   More than $70 billion gets spent on U.S. TV advertising every year. Anything that provably drives up viewership a percentage point or two is worth big bucks.  So a whole crop of analytics startups have arisen in recent years to chase these dollars by analyzing what it means when people Tweet about things they see on TV, as they tend to do (see “A Social Media Decoder”). (In fact, the company featured in that story, Bluefin Labs, was bought by Twitter.)

The hard science on Tweets and ratings isn’t quite there.  Nielsen, another major analytics company, today released a study on the question, performed with SocialGuide, a Twitter analytics company now part of NM Incite, a joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey and Company.  You can read it for details, but the bottom line is this: they can’t say conclusively that Twitter activity actually causes changes in TV ratings.  They do, however, see a statistically significant correlation.

This question may mainly be of interest to the entertainment and advertising industries, but it also speaks to the limits of what we know about how online social activity drives events in the real world.  It surely does in some cases: one dramatic and highly structured study showed that certain Facebook messages on Election Day can drive real-world voting turnout (see “How Facebook Drove Voters to the Polls”).  But in the messy world of Tweets—despite all the money and startup activity devoted to the analytics–the answers are still a little murky.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.