Grace and Favour? A Study of Twitter Favourites.

June 23, 2014 • Digital News, Research • by

Twitter is a key platform for information dissemination and exchange and a significant tool for journalism but there is as yet little research on how one of its key functions – the favouriting of tweets – actually works.

Researchers Florian Meier, David Elsweiler (both from University of Regensburg), and Max Wilson (University of Nottingham) studied the motivation of Twitter users to use this function.

Favouriting appeared on Twitter in November 2006. The users can favourite tweets by clicking on an accompanying small star-shaped icon. As a result, the favourited tweets can be located on separate timeline and accessed faster by both the user and their followers. Meier, Elsweiler and Wilson’s research shows this function is becoming more popular: in May 2013 the star was clicked 1.6 billion times, four times higher than a year before.

The research studied 606 Twitter users to explore the factors that motivate users to favourite tweets. The sample represented generally well-educated people of whom 51.9 percent were working towards or already received a bachelor’s degree.

Most participants (74.8 percent) were long-term Twitter users. Most were aware of the favourite button. Around 65 percent of participants said they were aware of the favouriting function, and of that group 73.5 % of them had used it.

The participants were asked a series of questions about the frequency with which they used favourite function and the motivating reasons to do so. The results have shown a surprisingly heterogeneous array of motivations. The paper’s authors found 25 reasons for using the favourite button, that can be divided into 3 groups.

1)As a response/reaction to tweet content or its metadata. This assumes a tweet provides information that the user wants to disseminate, or that the user wants to build or maintain a relationship with other users, who may be celebrities, friends, or people with whom they want to engage in conversation.

2)for a specific purpose such as bookmarking, unwritten communication, competitions. In this group, favouriting a tweet is very similar to retweeting.

3) accidentally or unthinkingly favouriting tweets.

Liking was the most popular motivation for favouriting a tweet and applied to 206 participants. Many people associated the star button on Twitter with the like button on Facebook. Only 58 respondents favourited tweets because they found them informational. The users decided to click the button because specific content (e.g. on topics of news, sports, music or religion) appeared as significant and relevant to their interests. The creator of the tweet was an important factor to encourage favouriting. 31 respondent said they clicked the star because the author was their friend/lover, family member or celebrity they endorsed. 49 users reported to favourite ego related tweets, namely because they felt the tweets were ‘important’ and ‘relevant to me’. 40 respondents said they used this function because tweets evoked emotional response. For example, they would find them ‘inspiring‘ or ‘exciting’.

Favouriting as bookmarking was another prominent category reported by 75 users. They marked tweets in order ‘to read, to show, to view, to search or to re-find’ information.

40 respondents said favouriting was a means of non-verbal communication to express approval or agreement and to show engagement, awareness, and more generally support causes or people.

Some users – reported 13 – favourited tweets to participate in competitions in order to win freebies such as tickets.

Finally, 9 respondents reported no particular reason for favouriting. Some clicked the button by accident. Others routinely favourited nearly all tweets that appeared in their feed similarly to marking email as read.

Many users stressed how the favourite functionality differs from retweeting, especially with reference to privacy. Retweeting a message always involves reposting it on one’s own timeline. It implies the user not only approves the information but also considers it worthy of mass broadcasting. The respondents said that favouriting was a more private form of approval as some has to take more steps to seek out a favourited tweet. Therefore, it could be considered a more interpersonal form of non-verbal communication opposed to retweeting as a form of mass communication.

Florian Meier, David Elsweiler, and Max L. Wilson (2014) More than liking and bookmarking? Towards understanding Twitter favouriting behavior.

The study is published by Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

Photo credit: Garrett Heath / Flickr Cc

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