THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 48, Spring 2015

William A. McEachern, Editor


The Economist magazine recently published a ranking of "influential economists" based on "how much attention was paid to their utterances in the mainstream media, the blogosphere and in social media over a 90-day period up to December 11th, 2014" (1/3/15, p. 59). Because of the timing, Jonathan Gruber of MIT (and the Affordable Care Act) headed the list. Seven of the top ten were current or former central bankers. But knowing that central bankers make news is not that instructive.

The Economist rankings were developed by a consulting firm, but the methodology is unclear. I propose a narrower, yet simpler and more transparent measure of public influence: Rating academic economists based on the number of people who follow them on Twitter. I know, I know, how can we take Twitter seriously, when Katy Perry and Justin Bieber are the most followed people on the planet? I would argue that the number of Twitter followers yields useful information, the product of some sort of market test of attention, even for economists.

Twitter was launched in 2006, went public in late 2013, and recently had a market value of about $24 billion. Engineers make up half the company's 3,600 workforce. You must join Twitter to send a message, or tweet, but you need not join to read anyone's tweets or to use some of the search tools. The company claims to have about 300 million active account holders worldwide, sending about 500 million tweets a day. Another sizable number, estimated as exceeding active account holders, use Twitter without signing up. Twitter supports more than 35 languages. Membership is free.

Although a tweet is limited to 140 characters, each can also deliver, within that same frame, photos (including a page of text), exhibits, graphs, slides, even videos. The character limit is a neat gimmick aimed more at conserving the reader's attention span than satisfying any technical constraints of the system. And tweets are more forgiving than email or text messaging. If you have second thoughts about a tweet, you can delete it from your account and from your followers' accounts. You can also set up a private account accessible by only you and followers of your choosing, such as students, but over 90% of Twitter accounts are public. Note that I claim no special knowledge of Twitter; I joined to carry out this analysis

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