As we reflect back on what Twitter has become over its 13 short years and how its evolution has been so dramatically different from its peers, one particularly stark finding is that Twitter has become a platform to listen and talk to elites. Twitter has shrunk dramatically from its peak, to just over 320 million daily tweets, reversing six years of growth. Moreover, retweets have increased to nearly half of its total volume, while verified accounts and their retweets account for more than 10% of all tweets and the platform’s user base is steadily aging as it fails to add new users. The result is an elite-dominated platform where users come to listen and talk to the world’s most influential people, from elected officials to journalists to prominent academics and community leaders. In contrast, Facebook and Instagram have become the places to listen to ordinary citizens. Ironically, however, Twitter is the dominate dataset for social analytics today, while PR staff often focus more on Facebook and Instagram. What does this tell us about the state of our online landscape?
Over the last seven years, Twitter has become a fading platform, falling from a high of 500 million daily tweets to just over 320 million at the end of last year and falling steadily. Retweets have increased linearly to more than half its total volume, while its aging user base has failed to expand beyond a small core. Twitter is no longer even a place to talk, but rather has become a behavioral platform where users merely “like” or “dislike” posts by retweeting them, rather than commenting on them.
The result is a highly insular echo chamber of elites speaking to elites, while the public comes to listen and retweet those elites.
Twitter is no longer a place to come and listen to the everyday citizenry of the world. Much like each of the defunct social networks that preceded it, Twitter has entered the dreaded stagnation phase in which new users flock to alternative platforms, leaving Twitter to become an ever more insular community of elites reinforcing one another.
In contrast, social media’s new users seem to place greater value on being able to control the distribution of their posts, sharing only with friends, family, colleagues or carefully constructed communities of followers. Most importantly, as the world has become about images rather than text, they have turned to visual-first platforms like Instagram.
Twitter is thus the perfect platform for pitching journalists, getting insights into prevailing political winds and reaching directly to policymakers. It is an almost unprecedentedly powerful medium through which to reach the world’s most influential and powerful people.
Yet, this richness of elites is often underrecognized by such communicators, meaning they fail to see the benefit of engaging on Twitter over the visual-first platforms they themselves may prefer like Instagram.
The end result is that communications staff frequently fail to properly triage their messaging and leverage Twitter’s elite-rich user base.
At the same time, Twitter has ironically become the dominate social media dataset for listening to “ordinary people,” just as that citizenry moves off Twitter and to Instagram and Facebook.
Instead of receiving insights from how the general public perceives their products, services and companies, social media analysts studying Twitter are seeing how elites view them.
Understanding elite perspectives is critical from a business standpoint, in that it can help companies better influence coverage and regulation, but at the same time, those narrow perspectives mean their insights do not reflect the everyday customers that provide their revenue.
Facebook and Instagram’s relatively closed data models and privacy-first distribution settings means social analytics platforms aren’t able to offer firehose-based keyword searching or analytics of their userbases, leaving Twitter as the only accessible social dataset for mining.
Putting this all together, Twitter has become the place to pitch journalists, gauge prevailing political winds and reach policymakers directly. Facebook and Instagram are the places to hear from the public at large. Yet, social media analytics companies nearly exclusively focus on Twitter to provide insights on the public at large, while communications professionals too often focus primarily on Instagram and Facebook to reach journalists and policymakers.
In the end, Twitter is where one goes today to reach elites, while Instagram is where one goes to listen and communicate with the everyday public. As the younger generation of social media users gravitate away from Twitter and towards Instagram, our view into the pulse of society and our ability to reach our elected officials and journalists is closing. At its current pace, it won’t be very long before Facebook controls not only the online world, but our ability to engage with the offline world. We’ve never in history had a single platform able to control the global flow of information to the degree of our growing digital dictatorships. As Facebook increasingly inserts itself as the global gatekeeper, it will only be a matter of time until Mark Zuckerberg really does become the most powerful person on earth.
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