The role of Twitter in our crowdfunding success

January 15, 2013

Here’s our super secret recipe for crowdfunding a science project. Keep in mind that crowdfunding is more like cooking than baking. Our proportions may not be to your liking, so feel free to substitute creatively. However, there are some essential ingredients, beginning with a pinch of angels — family and enthusiastic early pledges (2%). Next, add some Facebook friends (25%) from the various phases of your life, along with some Twitter followers (25%). Don’t forget those evangelists on both Facebook and Twitter who tirelessly promote your cause on their news feeds (8%). Finally, round it out with a healthy measure of strangers (40%) who learn about your crowdfunding campaign from print, online and social media coverage.


In a follow up post, I will speak to that 40% of Crowd4Discovery (C4D) supporters who are “out of network.” In this post, I’ll finish the preliminary analysis of the in-network 60%. During the C4D campaign, I blogged about the distribution of donors in my Facebook network. Two results jumped out at me. First, my “science” friends turned out strongly, and by science friends I mean current or former scientists whom I met over a decade of academic training. Second, donation size was more a measure of individual cash flow or personal resonance with the project, and less a reflection of the strength of our friendship per se, or where donors are located in the network.


Thanks to Tony Hirst, who kindly generated my Twitter network data files on December 3, 2012, I was able to generate the above graphical snapshot of my dynamic follower network, at the time numbering 1,315. Keep in mind that unlike my Facebook network, the above is a directed graph, which means the connections, or edges, are one-way — A follows B, but B doesn’t necessarily follow A. I’m the biggest node (in blue). Like all the network graphs I’ve visualized using Gephi, the size of each node is directly proportional its degree, or connectivity.


98% of my followers — the other 2% are orphans — comprise 6 modularity classes, or clusters, as shown below:



These clusters represents distinct online scientific communities to which I belong, with the exception of an orphans cluster (blue), which contains mostly non-scientists. I first ascertained whether C4D donors are spread out randomly across my follower network or concentrated in specific clusters:



The total turnout of my Twitter network was 10%, which is lower than the 17% turnout of my Facebook network. The distribution of donors in my follower network (right; donors in yellow and non-donors in blue) appears to be random with respect to cluster membership (left), with some clusters performing slightly above or below the network average. Interestingly, there is no correlation between the amount donated and donor degree, just as we observed no correlation in the Facebook network data:



One regard in which donors in my follower network behaved differently from donors in my Facebook network is the timing of their donations. It’s fair to say that our closing surge was stoked by a fusillade of retweets and mentions. 38 of my “tweeps” turned out on the last day of the campaign, and almost half of the 124 donors in the final 26 hours came from Twitter:


Our closing surge was more robust on Twitter than on Facebook. It appears that I had “tapped out” my Facebook network over the course of the 52-day campaign. I can think of several reasons why Twitter proved to be so pivotal in the home stretch. First, the ephemeral nature of tweets plays well with a looming deadline, and it didn’t hurt that I tweeted hourly funding updates in the final 8 hours of the campaign, adding to the sense of urgency. Second, the amplification potential on Twitter due to retweeting is higher than that of Facebook. Even though one can technically share content on Facebook, we never got much traction with Facebook sharing.


What do you think? Did we use the Twitter megaphone effectively? Is 10% Twitter turnout an underperformance, and overperformance, or right on target?


  • Cristy

    As a member of the last minute twitter surge, I can confirm that it’s just way more fun to donate money (even the squiddly amount I gave) when time is running out.

    • Ethan Perlstein

      You definitely weren’t alone!

  • Graham Ruby

    Hey Ethan – cool analysis, both generally informative and certainly helpful to those of us who will likely seek out funding in this way in the future! But I have one annoying question that has been nagging me for a while, and that this post indicates may be a legitimate reason for concern. You pointed out that much of the funding came from scientific contacts. For crowdsourcing as an alternative to traditional NIH funding, this is perhaps a concern. The question is: when NIH (and other traditional) funding is cut, can crowdsourcing pick up the slack, or are the crowdsource donors also scientists who are ultimately paid by traditional sources, so those cut reduce the power of the primary donor pool to give?

    • Ethan Perlstein

      Thanks for the comment, Graham!

      Based on the survey commissioned by NPR, slightly over half of respondents identified as scientists or researchers or academic trainees in the sciences. But I think that’s an over-representation. The reality is somewhere between 30-40%. That’s still a plurality, even though I don’t personally know all of these self-identified scientists. But I take your point that the 99% of NIH funds come from non-scientists.

      I’m not worried about the scalability of science crowdfunding at all. Look at two recent science crowdfunding projects on IndieGoGo that have each raised well over $100,000, including µBiome. Granted, these projects are not pure basic research projects like ours because they’re actually providing a service, namely microbiome sequencing, that also happens to create discovery opportunities.

      Crowdfunding is maturing rapidly and has already breached the $100,000 mark. The first $1,000,000 project will almost certainly happen this year. That’s still not the answer to the sustainability question. But I’d rather watch the competition of ideas in the wild that theorize in the abstract. Crowdfunding has more than overshot the proof-of-concept phase. The debate should now be about competing news ideas.

  • Andrea

    Where can I find a tutorial on extracting Twitter network data files? I found this ( but not sure if there are any code-free tools out there for noobs like me ( :

  • Sharon Dudgeon

    I heard this on NPR this morning. Is there still a way to donate? (I admit I skipped lightly over your article and a donation link didn’t catch my eye).