Why Some Hashtags Take Off and Others Fail

You know those often-frivolous hashtags you see trending on Twitter at almost any given time of day? The ones like “#Idontunderstandwhy” and “#questionsidontlike”? Well, it turns out there is a scientific explanation as to why some of them rocket up to a trending topic and others fall dead in the water.

The New York Times reported a study from Cornell researchers that examined a massive amount of tweets to discover why some people participate in these hashtag conversations and others don’t.

The researchers discovered that most people participate in a hashtag conversation based on the participation of those in their network. Most people usually ignore or choose not to participate in a hashtag conversation the first few times they see them, and some people never dive in.

Twitter users that are subjected to repeat exposure to a similar hashtag – say a group of politically-charged ones – may eventually add their own tweets.

The research found that different types of hashtags are adopted in different ways. Some of the more frivolous ones catch one quickly and then die out, while more serious or controversial hashtags take a while to gain momentum. And how these hashtags are used depends more on the structure of a network of Twitter users than on its size.

This adds a new dimension to the term “viral” in social media marketing. In order to get something to stick, marketers and other interested parties – like politicians, news organizations – cannot simply rely on one person passing along a link or a thought to another. On Twitter, at least, trends such as hashtags appear because of more complex structural factors. People react to others in their network, and most aren’t ready to jump on just any trend they see. They wait, and watch, and choose when to tweet or retweet carefully.