The Half-Life of a Tweet



I’ll be the first to admit that I was never much of a science person in school. I liked science a lot, and still do–I just wasn’t much good at it.

But when talking with a coworker about how ephemeral social media is, compared to a lot of other marketing mediums, we started talking about the half-life of a tweet, or for that matter, any post on social media.

And that got me wondering–what might the half-life of a tweet be? What does the life cycle of a tweet look like after it’s published?

Both with a good bit of experience with social media and a little bit of speculation, I started plotting it out. The lifespan of a tweet generally isn’t very long, but knowing what its life cycle looks like may be useful to understanding why it’s so important to always be timely on social media.

If the half-life of a tweet is about thirty minutes–and that may very well be a good first estimate–here’s what it might look like throughout its lifespan:

  • Go-time: the tweet is published. It’s go-time. The tweet is fresh and new. At this point, it will show up in the feeds of followers currently on Twitter (of which there may not be many, depending on what time it is). Even for those not on Twitter just yet, all hope is not lost.
  • Ten minutes later. Ten minutes later, you catch the people just signing on to Twitter. At this point, your tweet is still relatively fresh–it will show up without a lot of scrolling on your followers’ part. It’s starting to lose some speed, but not at a rate which we should be concerned about just yet.
  • One hour later. An hour later, your tweet is one-fourth as likely to get noticed as it was when it was first published. Assuming that your follower follows 500 people–a pretty standard number–your tweet is already around 500 posts down if everyone they’re following publishes regularly. And even if they don’t, you’re still more than a few scrolls away. More diligent Twitter users will still see hour-old tweets (it’s not uncommon for me to scroll through several hundred over lunch), but for the casual follower, you’re working your way towards the bottom.
  • Six hours later. Six hours later, and your tweet is very much at the bottom for those usual followers we just mentioned. There are still a few people who will pick it up at this point–some people really just love reading tweets–but those people are hard to come by. The best chance your tweet has of being seen after six hours is if a follower who’s scrolling fast just happens to see something that catches their eye (pictures do work, remember!). And even then, they’re much more likely to be paying attention to the top of their feed.
  • Twenty-four hours later. One day later, and things are pretty much over for your tweet. If it’s a weekend–when people tend to publish less–there’s a better chance that they’ll come across your tweet. Or maybe it’s the morning, and your tweet from a day ago just happens to show up after a Twitter page break and a bit of scrolling. There’s still a chance they’ll see the tweet, but at this point, that chance is very small.
  • Two days later.​ At this point, unless your followers have record-breaking thumb endurance and attention spans, they’re extremely unlikely to come across your tweet in their feed. There is, of course, still the off chance that a follower (new or old) may check out your individual feed just to see what you’ve been up to, but even then, if you’re tweeting 8-12 times per day, this tweet will still be at the bottom of the page. At this point, all eyes are on whatever you’re publishing next. This tweet, for all intents and purposes, is dead.

This relatively short half-life on Twitter manifests itself in a lot of ways. 42 percent of customers complaining on social media expect a response within about an hour. And generally speaking, most of the favorites or retweets that you’re going to get on any given tweet will happen within the first hour or two.

This is in many ways a function of how Twitter works. After the first time that a customer follows your brand on Twitter–something they’ll usually visit your page for, and maybe poke through your feed to do–it’s very likely that the rest of their exposure to you will happen directly in their feed. It’s convenient to work that way, and with a well-tuned feed, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to continue making your way to one specific page when you could just get it in your feed. Why take that extra step?

The short half-life of a tweet is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because those who are timely are rewarded with huge benefits (I’m looking at you, Oreo). It’s also a blessing because it offers you many opportunities throughout the day to put yourself in front of your customers.

It’s a curse, though, because it means more frequent publication for you (read: more work). And it’s also a curse because the ephemerality of Twitter can be frustrating to work with for people who are used to old-school publications that lasted much longer. But no matter which way you look at it, that’s really just the way it is.

On Twitter, timeliness and regular publication are essential. And in thinking about the life cycle of a tweet, it’s easy to see why. Unless you’re publishing multiple times throughout the day, you’re just not going to get noticed. You need to publish at relevant times–when is your audience most active on Twitter? Make sure to give followers many opportunities to see your work throughout the day, whenever they may happen to sign on. That, as I just mentioned, is just a function of how Twitter works.

It may not make a lot of sense to people new to social media, but there’s a reason that social media is often referred to as ephemeral. And while looking at the half-life and life cycle of a tweet may not give you all the answers, it ought to at least serve as a nice little reminder that on social media, timing really is everything.

Reprinted by permission.

Image Credit: CC by MDGovpics

About the author: John Darwin

John is a recent college graduate from Creighton University. He earned his B.A. in English, specializing in British Literature, and is currently working as an editor at Social Media Contractors.

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