The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where do Twitter trends start? Try Cincinnati.

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If you want to be up on national Twitter trends before they happen, look to L.A., New York, D.C., Seattle … and the bustling metropolis of Cincinnati, Ohio, says a head-scratching new study from researchers at Indiana University.

The study sought to measure how “trending topics” -- the popular hashtags and phrases in the left rail on Twitter -- grow and spread across the country. It found that users in some cities, termed “sinks,” adopt proportionately more national trends than they generate. Other cities, like New York and Los Angeles, seem to generate proportionally more trends then they adopt.

It should be pretty obvious why major cities play such an outsize role in spreading information online: Not only do they have more people and a higher concentration of Twitter users, but those users tend to be closer -- and thus, more connected -- to the types of things that trend on Twitter, such as Hollywood or Congress or the New York Stock Exchange. This paper even hypothesizes that the presence of a major airport plays a role in spreading Twitter trends, an interesting parallel to the spread of disease.

But how, then, do you explain Cincinnati? It has neither a major airport, nor a particularly large population nor a reputation for social media savvy.

“The raw number of trends generated by Cincinnati is lower than average, and especially much lower than other cities at the top of that ranking,” Emilio Ferrara, the study’s lead author, says. “Nevertheless, a significant fraction of those little amounts of trends produced in Cincinnati eventually spread out and reached other cities. For this reason it ends up highly ranked in that classification.”

Ferrara isn’t sure why Cincinnati’s trends seem to catch on elsewhere. I floated a few theories of my own. Could it have to do with migration flows in and out of the area? Cincinnati suffered a net population loss from 2004 to 2010, according to the Urban Institute. Maybe the Cincinnati exodus -- see a very cool visualization of that here -- maintains virtual ties to its hometown and helps spread things to other markets that way. (An “extremely interesting” hypothesis, Ferrara says, but not one he has any proof of thus far.)

What about Cincinnati’s proximity to other midsize cities? There’s plenty of research suggesting that geographic proximity fosters the spread of ideas online, and Cincinnati sits within a few hours of Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Indianapolis. Or maybe Cincinnati’s culture is just blissfully average -- corporate researchers often use Ohio as a test market because middle American tastes mirror, in the words of Ohio State marketing professor Neeli Bandapudi, “the broader trends of the nation.”

Bottom line: We don’t know why Cincinnati is so trendy on Twitter. We just know that it is trendy on Twitter, which is an interesting fact in and of itself. As Ferrara points out in the study, social media users tend to think of the Internet as some vast, post-geographic utopia when in reality, the types of ideas and information we see online are profoundly influenced by where we are in real, physical life.