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Twitter not as popular as you think

Everyone who’s anyone is on Twitter, right? Well …

The Twitter research released by Queensland University of Technology’s Social Media Research Group today brings some much-needed science to discussions that have until now been dominated by Silicon Valley hype merchants and the self-important PowerPoint-waving of SMEGs, or “social media expert gurus”. But watch out — this good science will be ruined by them regardless.

The team, led by QUT’s Professor Axel Bruns, has identified 2.8 million Australian Twitter accounts as at September 2013, out of 750 million globally. The growth chart shows a typical pattern for internet startups that manage to turn into something that real people use — as opposed to the vast majority, which either fail to ignite their hype rocket, or do so only to crash and burn soon after.

Bruns said in a press release:

The early hype that saw substantial numbers of early adopters flock to the service may be gone,  but as an established social medium Twitter now enjoys a relatively steady influx of new Australian accounts. What we cannot see from our data, however, is the number of existing accounts that were deleted each month.”

Assuming that each account represents one person — a dangerous assumption, since some people have multiple accounts and some accounts are operated by multiple people — that translates into a national Twitter adoption rate of 12%.

According to Leslie Nassar (Crikey’s own Department of Australia), who developed the Twitter integration for TV programs such as Q&A and set up and managed Victoria Police’s Twitter presence, the numbers are in line with other estimates. “It’s nice to finally see some rigour applied to calculating the number, rather than the voodoo of Global Users x Australian Global Population Percentage = Number of Australian Users,” he told Crikey.

The SMRG researchers note that the burst of new user registrations in August 2013 took place in the final weeks before the last federal election, and that the ACT has a significantly higher Twitter adoption rate of 30%.

While Canberra does have a massive concentration of political, media and public relations operatives, a key demographic in Twitterland, it still seems remarkable. Even Bruns describes it as “astonishing” in The Converstion today:

So far we have not seen any indications that an unusually large number of false positives have slipped through our net; there are, however, unusually many accounts whose only identifying feature is their ACT timezone setting, and it is possible that people from other UTC+10 timezones (for example in the northern hemisphere) might have chosen the ACT timezone rather than searching for their own options in the pull-down menu.”

Bruns said in the press release:

If this concentration is confirmed by further analysis, it would point strongly to the growing importance of Twitter in the public debate of political and social matters.”

Or, it could be a bunch of political robots and other sock puppet accounts, ready to re-bleat the day’s talking points but contributing nothing of substance.

Or it could be something else entirely. Twitter has clearly become “important” to the political process. Witness the effort put into Twitter by many politicians. According to NPR’s On the Media, the Israeli government has around 40 people working on social media propaganda right now. But is it “significant”? That is, does it actually result in anyone changing their opinion, behaviour or vote? In the commercial world, does the buzz of Twitter really translate into more products sold? We simply don’t know. That would be a whole new scale of research.

SMEGs simply crow about the success of campaigns that generate “buzz” and “engagement”, and the failures go down the Memory Hole. Their castle is built on the sands of survivorship bias. We see the same sort of thing in their talk of influencers, which is little more than internet astrology, proven to be rubbish.

Today’s SMRG research is a fine foundation for further real, validated research on Australia’s use of social media. More will appear in coming months, and I’m sure it will be as much a joy as their mapping of Twitter’s political connections. But while Bruns and his team will know its limitations, SMEGs will not. Beware of their dodgy factoids.

6
  • 1
    David Hand
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    The Canberra connection is obvious. Canberra is full of lefties. Twitter is full of lefties. A leftie ghetto lives in a lefty ghetto.

    A discussion designed to shift thinking requires more than 140 characters.

    But then again, 140 characters is plenty of space to insult Tony Abbott.

  • 2
    Dawson Colin
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Canberra is full of lefties? I had no idea! I obviously don’t follow twitter with sufficient rigour.

    When it comes to terse, vacuous insults, Tony Abbott set the benchmark. He rarely needs more than three words.

    I guess I should tweet this?

  • 3
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    So, all that’s Left to say is - that’s 140 more than Abbott?

  • 4
    Keith Thomas
    Posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    I work for an NGO and send out 20-50 tweets a day. In my choice of material, I am not trying to change anybody’s mind. Rather, I am reinforcing the decision of our supporters to continuing to supporting us, with information, opinions, images that exemplify our rationale for our existence and for the way we go about things.

    As you know, people are more likely to change their mind hearing from trusted acquaintances than from an organisation like ours.

    That’s where the skill comes in - I select links, draft comments, re-word headlines, provide stats and forward jokes that will make sense when retweeted to people who may never have heard about us.

    Our followers are steadily rising in number and I like to think that - if you will bear with the ghastly American phrase - “authentic helpfulness” really works in increasing our reach.

  • 5
    MAC TEZ
    Posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    A discussion designed to shift thinking requires more than 140 characters”
    A discussion designed to shift the unthinking requires only 3 words…
    “stop the boats”,”axe the tax”.

  • 6
    David Hand
    Posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Keith has it correct.
    Twitter is just advertising in drag.

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