How Important is Twitter Really?
Founded in 2006 at the birth of social media, few platforms have had as large a cultural impact as Twitter. Yet, one has to wonder if its importance is not overstated, especially in politics.
By The Numbers
Publicly available date indicates that only two out of every ten American's use Twitter on a regular basis as opposed to the seven in ten using Facebook .
Further, content generation on the site is comedically lopsided with 25% of the users producing almost 98% of the Tweets .
Looking purely at the statistics the site does not appear very important at all yet stories about it flood the news cycle. Which politician tweeted what? Who is weighing in on the platforms future? What is Elon's censorship policy? It is impossible to pick up a paper or watch the news without seeing that little blue birds feathery footprints at least once. How can this be and why?
While we can see that most Americans do not use Twitter, most journalists do! The platform is the social media site of choice for the media with seven in ten using the platform regularly . When looking at political figures the numbers are even more stark; all but six members of the 435 members of Congress have accounts , all but one U.S. Senator have handles , and every living President has a Twitter presence even if it is only through centers started in their names . This is not even taking into account many of these same lawmakers maintaining duplicate accounts, personal accounts, and campaign accounts!
The digital congregation of public officials and writers creates a feedback loop. Some issue or story gets traction on Twitter causing reporters and politicians alike to comment on it. Said comments then become stories themselves as they gain traction and other users react to the reaction. Pieces are written and published about the initial incident and the reactions from Twitter users which, in turn, creates a new item that warrants reaction and reactions to those reactions which again warrants coverage.
To compound matters, the various lawmakers and reporters who spend their time on Twitter begin to think that the items they are seeing on the platform every day reflect the outside world and it's interests and not just their own curated algorithmically designed echo chamber.
In the same vein, the people on Twitter begin to think that the demographics on the site reflect the real world when nothing could be farther form the truth. A recent study by Gallup found the Country to be almost evenly divided with 46% of Americans identifying as Democrats and 43% identifying as Republicans . Despite this, Democrats outnumbers Republicans on the platform by almost two to one .
Democrats and Republican users also view the platform different with the 47% of the former believing the platform is good for democracy while 17% of the latter believe the same . However, this was before the company was taken private and other changes which may have effected the data.
So Does It Matter?
The math indicates that Twitter should not matter to the extent it does but, as long as policy makers and reporters (not to mention celebrities) patronize the site in disproportionate numbers, Twitter will maintain its relevance. Like a single billboard facing a building, to those inside the message is well known and common even if no one beyond its walls can see it. Short of the sites complete implosion Twitter is likely to effect public discourse and public policy for many years to come.