Below are three of the most-clicked-on tweets ever published from @NYTimes in the time that I’ve been helping run The New York Times’s main Twitter account.
They all share something in common. Can you guess what it is?
If you said “they’re all breaking news stories where The Times had an exclusive,” that’s true. But when you start digging into these tweets, something else emerges. Large quantities of the clicks on the URLs in each tweet came from Facebook, not Twitter (as measured by Bit.ly).
In much of the thinking about social media and how it drives readers to the websites of news organizations, we think of Facebook and Twitter as bordered off from one another. We talk about Twitter people and Facebook people like they live in different nations. Facebook and Twitter’s audiences are often compared in a way that is not favorable for Twitter. For Twitter’s superfans, these user base contrasts seem at times to create angst. Twitter’s co-founder Ev Williams once proclaimed that Twitter having a smaller number of users than another social network did not much matter to him (as a Times employee, I am not allowed to use his more colorful language).
But what these three tweets show is that looking at Twitter and Facebook users as distant tribes doesn’t always hold up. A conversation that The New York Times starts on Twitter sometimes ends up on Facebook where it then gets amplified (of course, our Times Facebook posts for breaking news generate their own substantial audiences of readers, too).
And we’re not alone. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti talked to Peter Kafka at SXSW this year about “The Dress” and what he described as a “cascade.” People saw @BuzzFeed tweets about “The Dress” and started sharing it on other social networks. It’s possible that a phenomenon like “The Dress” — or a giant news story like my three examples — might have made its way over to Facebook without Twitter’s help.
But we know that something else happened in these cases:
Readers of news saw a Times story on Twitter.
They copied the link we tweeted.
They pasted it into their Facebook feeds.
Some of those readers of our journalism had sizable followings on Facebook. And their posts on Facebook helped spread our stories to an audience that is much larger than we usually expect of any individual tweet. And it’s possible even more news is first seen on Twitter and then moved over to Facebook by Twitter users without traceable URLs. With these links, we were able to confirm this behavior because of the particular method of sharing and the scale of the response.
These tweets demonstrated that there is a flow of conversation between these two social networks. Twitter with its sequential, reverse chronological feed and rapidly-shifting trending topics often starts a discussion. Facebook, with its algorithmic Newsfeed, is where a discussion gets carried on after the initial surprise of the news.
I do this all the time. Today I saw a tweet about President Obama’s Easter Egg Hunt story time getting invaded by bees. I opened the link, watched the video and shared it on my Facebook page with a really dumb joke. I didn’t just do that for this Medium post. It’s a reflexive behavior on a daily basis where I take something from my sometimes impersonal TweetDeck columns and share it back at my homey Newsfeed.
So here’s a hypothesis for you to consider:
Twitter is where a lot of people first learn about news. Facebook is a place where many of us then go to talk out loud about it.
And if it’s true, maybe we should stop talking about Facebook and Twitter like they are bitter rivals attempting to displace one another for our attentions. They may see each other that way, and a lot of news coverage focuses on that narrative. But a lot of us care quite a bit about what’s happening in both places, enough to hop back and forth between the two.