Dec 17, 2011

The Anatomy of a Twitter Storm

Hi! I'm @johnwilander and yesterday I unwillingly created a Twitter storm.

#GodIsNotGreat and Twitter Trends
It was Friday afternoon in Stockholm, Sweden and I came across a tweet with the interesting tag #GodIsNotGreat. Earlier that day I had read about famous atheist and writer Christopher Hitchens passing away but there was something else going on around this tag. In the tag stream I read about christians threatening tweeters using the tag and several claims that Twitter had pulled the tag from the trends list.

I couldn't find the tag in my trends list nor in the US or European list. Still, tweets with the tag were pouring in. In the stream I found a tweet from @HillyFoz saying:

"So Twitter, it's ok for #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend to trend but you saw fit to put a stop to #GodIsNotGreat ?"

Apparently #ReasonsToBeatYourGirlfriend had been a trend. Now that's interesting too. So I wrote The Tweet what would become a Twitter storm:

As you can see in the screenshot, numerous people eventually retweeted this.

I could see the amplification within a minute. Suddenly around 10 people had retweeted it and new retweets where being reported faster than I could open them on the activity tab.

At this point I reviewed my tweet and saw that I had claimed something I couldn't back up with a source or a reference. Such things make a about-to-be-PhD blush a little :). Soon enough I started to get complaints. I considered deleting the tweet but decided to let it live on to see what this storm would be like.

Here Come the Trending Bots
Time for the first bot to spot me. Apparently I was trending in the UK:

While the retweets, complaints and comments were pouring in I quickly became a trend in USA and Canada too:

About 30 minutes later the spam bots had caught on and I started getting all kinds of weird stuff. Some of them I couldn't tell if they we're real people or bots. For instance this (not even a reply to my tweet):

I did not respond :).

The final bot step was when the @favstar50 bot congratulated me to my first 50+ favorited tweet.

Trying to Find a Source
Some of the complaints I got where getting nasty so I thought I might be lucky enough to find a source and patch my earlier tweet. UK online paper Huffington Post gave me at least half an excuse as they wrote:

"The hash tag #GodIsNotGreat also began trending, which was followed by a storm of protests by the religious, many unaware that the hash tag was a tribute to the author's passing.

Twitter reportedly removed the topic from the trending lists following threats of violence towards the creators of the hash tag. The irony that Hitchens book, one that makes stark the link between religion and violence, had stirred the religious to then threaten violence was not lost on the twitterati."

But my antagonists quickly dismissed Huffington Post as a bad source and also pointed out that they said "reportedly" which I failed to do in my 140 chars. So much for the patchwork.

The Day After
When I got up Saturday I checked my email. Well ...

I had got quite a few new followers. Woot! But I guess most of them will unfollow when I go back to tweetin' about JavaScript and application security. Easy come, easy go, huh? Note the browser tab for Twitter with 19 new notifications that dropped in while I was taking the screenshot.

I checked my Klout score:

It looks like the revenue diagrams Uncle Scrooge has on his wall :).

Later I found out that Gizmodo had written an article about it – Shutup, Twitter Isn't Censoring Your Dumb Trends. There, in the middle of their bashing was my tweet! Luckily, Gizmodo didn't dig out the source but rather took poor Jessica K's commenting retweet as an example. Phew.

Lessons Learned
My lessons learned:
  • I should probably check the sources of every tweet, not just my tech tweets.
  • Rumors spread extremely fast on Twitter. As long as the message is interesting, people retweet.
  • Twitter trends are not based on volume, they're based on derivatives, or speed if you will. If the increase of the #GodIsNotGreat tag would have been steady it would have still been a trend. But it wasn't.


  1. Twitter isn't censoring your trends, they suspend your account instead.

  2. Hitch would be amused, not only by this but by the ridiculous reactions and threats of violence.