Twitter users big and small were saddened to learn today that their followers had shrunk — to the sum total of zero. Trying to fix a bug where individuals could force any Twitter users to follow them, the company temporarily deleted all the follower count for every user.

That stark zero disturbed more than a few users who had carefully curated their follower list. But the entire event coincided with a new study out today, that shows that those with the most followers are not necessarily the most influential.

As Perez Hilton tweeted:

“We will all remember today! #TheDayTwitterExploded”

Perez has since had his nearly 2 million follows restored. But according to Meeyoung Cha at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany, that number is likely meaningless anyway. In a study called “The Million Follower Fallacy” (pdf here), Cha explains:

“Popular users who have a high indegree [number of followers] are not
necessarily influential in terms of spawning retweets or mentions.”

Cha looked at data from all 52 million Twitter accounts (and looked more closely at the company’s 6 million “active users.) She tells Harvard Business Review:

“Our claim is that follower count is not sufficient to capture the
influence of a user (i.e., the ability of an user to sway the opinions
of her followers). It only shows how popular the user is (i.e., the
size of her audience). But, as we showed in our paper, retweets and
mentions, which measure the audience responsiveness to a user’s tweets,
do not correlate strongly with number of followers.”

What does that mean? That celebrities with high follower counts — and marketing companies that claim they can boost follower numbers — aren’t peddling much when they try to use follower numbers in place of influence.

Of course, the study still does not have the answer to the more important question of how influence should be measured on Twitter. As I’ve written before, having influence in the past cannot predict future influence on Twitter.

What can businesses and marketers take from the study? Focus on niche branding and engage Twitterers with original content in their area of expertise. Says Cha:

“Businesses, rather than trying to put emphasis on the follower count,
could try to increase audience responsiveness in their fields…As you might have guessed, mass media played a significant
role in spreading popular topics. But when it comes to non-popular or
even niche topics, small businesses and opinion leaders were far more
effective in engaging audience than mass media.”

Image: Twitter