The story appears to be apocryphal – I’d always thought it was Archimedes but apparently there’s also the inventor of the chessboard (an Indian bloke, according to certain online sources that can’t be used in scholastic research) and a Roman geezer. Everyone has done the old ‘one grain of wheat on the first square, two grains on the second and so on doubling with each square’ trick.
The exponential growth of figures through the 64 squares of a chessboard results, of course, in more wheat than could be grown in the kingdom – 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, to be precise. I do like the version of the story that has the ruler agreeing to the impossible bargain, but insisting the mathematician count each grain of wheat individually to be sure the ruler wasn’t cheating him.
The same mathematics potentially applies to the humble retweet, of course. It’s one reason why news can travel so astonishingly quickly over Twitter. If I find something interesting and share it with my followers on Twitter, they can in turn share it with their followers. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that each of my followers has 100 followers of their own, then if five followers RT my Tweet, we’ve just reached the eyeballs of 500 people, as well as the original audience of followers.
If five of their followers RT the Tweet, we’re looking at 2,500 people. And if we play that scenario again, 12,500 people. One last time gives us 62,500.
That’s pretty impressive – and it doesn’t begin to take into account the potential for average growth of a Tweet – which would be more likely based on a percentage than an absolute five number. The percentage would, of course, be based on the broad appeal of the Tweet or the link it contains. In other words, a Tweet can quickly reach large audiences of tens of thousands of people – millions, if it’s big news.
A more realistic everyday example would look at the thousands mark – and Tweets can easily reach audiences of thousands – and generate significant traffic to links, too. As the Internet’s current ‘go to’ darling, Twitter is great at allowing people to ‘discover’ stuff and share it with followers – I recently Tweeted a link with ‘This is funny’ and saw over 250 people hit the link within minutes.
It’s actually hard to track Twitter traffic in absolutes because people will tend to use their own link shorteners and so on, but you’d have to agree that any tool that can generate 250 views on a Website within minutes – in return for an investment of three words – is pretty powerful.
An analysis of random Tweets by a team at Microsoft found that 11% of Retweets contained a Retweet. At 11%, by the way, my ‘test tweet’ above (which would have to be, obviously, pretty sensational!) would in four steps reach over 2 million people. Which is slightly scary, isn’t it?