Twitter is only the 15th biggest social media site
I began writing this post before Elon Musk started the process of bidding for and then, it would seem, agreeing a takeover of Twitter1. This short piece isn’t an attempt to add more to the commentary on that. It was supposed to just be a brief contextual note. My thought was to make a general comment about the coverage of Twitter. Then Musk’s bid put Twitter back in the news again, so I've had to add this opening preface. I wonder if what I say below in some way relates to Musk's pursuit of Twitter. It may be that one thing Musk is seeing in Twitter, if we put the fog of promises to the side, is one of the few prominent and established social media sites that still has scope to radically increase its user base. The relatively small number of users could be seen as an opportunity. This is something that seems to have been largely missing from the coverage of Musk's bid for Twitter, perhaps because Twitter is already imagined to be of greater standing than it actually is.
If asked, I suspect that few would accurately position Twitter within a league table of social media sites. This is partly because it is so adept at appearing larger than it is. The above chart ranks the most popular social media sites2 based on the number of active users (taken from a Statista report). One thing that stands out is that Twitter, which is perhaps the social media platform that gets the most comment, coverage and citation, is only the 15th largest in terms of number of users (presuming, of course, that the data are accurate). Smaller than Pinterest. Smaller than the video sharing app Kuaishou. More than a hundred million users smaller than the often maligned and seemingly out of favour Snapchat. And so on. Yet Twitter seems so prominent.
There is plenty of academic research that covers other social media platforms - with key journals publishing on various aspects of a range of social media - but in terms of news, journalism, comment, opinion, broadcasting and the wider public sphere Twitter is particularly prominent3. Given its scope and position, perhaps disproportionately so. Twitter might well even be the social media that is referred to most often in this wider type of coverage (as described in this piece by Helen Lewis on the frequent use of Twitter by journalists and the ‘Ant Mill effect’). We might wonder why this seemingly disproportionate attention occurs. There are perhaps three key reasons.
The first is practical. Despite some restrictions to access and some use of privacy settings by a small number of users, Twitter is a largely open platform. Where other platforms are based on end-to-end encryption, network settings and privacy controls, Twitter has mostly retained the broadcast-yourself type ideals of early Web 2.0. So anyone can dip in and see posts or interactions, within some limits4. A profile is not needed to see much of the interaction. And anyone who does have a profile can see almost anything on the site. This makes it easy for Twitter to get quoted in news articles and brings it to the forefront of events and commentary, also making it more prominent in the collective imagination. One reason for its wide discussion and referencing is its architecture. Posts can easily be accessed, shared and embedded into other content.
Second is its population. Who is on Twitter might impact its coverage. There are a high number of high profile users, particularly in the political classes. The profile of certain users perhaps drags Twitter along in their wake. This type of visibility of the individual is also a visibility of the platform. The presence of politicians on Twitter, for instance, means that it gets quoted more frequently in news coverage. Celebrity Twitter usage has a similar impact. For a social media site, perhaps Twitter has managed to attract the right type of user to gain attention beyond the sheer numbers of users.
Third, which combines the first two, is about the type of interactions. As well as only allowing short bits of content, Twitter's structure effectively promotes discussion threads on topics. It is a reactive platform. Combined with the visibility and openness mentioned above, this creates the sort of comment and response that lends itself to being deemed newsworthy. The visibility of this call-and-response on virtually any issue you might search for means that Twitter is a ready archive of opinion that can be called upon to make or reinforce virtually any point.
Beyond that, the machine behind Twitter appears to be highly capable of inflating its position, making it appear more than it is. Tech companies generate much value from such a practice - a great deal of the value in tech is in how they can capture and be inserted into an imagined future. Twitter’s profile compared to its position in the social media landscape may be partly down to this type of hype generation, which is something that needs to be unpicked.
All of this is not to say that Twitter doesn’t matter, it clearly does. Nor is it to say that we should only pay attention to social media with the most users. Rather, it is about asking how and why certain platforms take on such seeming power and centrality in the wider discourse, commentary and opinion formation. Thinking in terms of overall numbers pushes a reflection on context and on proportion. It might also make us reflect on why Twitter has become so prominent a source and topic within the so-called public sphere.
At $44bn, I calculate that Musk is paying around $100 per Twitter user.
Social media has been quite broadly defined in this table.
This is difficult to gauge in different national contexts. If we take the UK as an example, which is where I’m consuming this journalism and comment, Twitter does have a 45.1% reach in 2021 according to a Statista report on UK users. So there is perhaps reason for it having so much attention in the UK.
Although this is not unique to Twitter. TikTok and Instagram, for instance, are comparable in terms of the circumscribed openness of content to no-users.