Twitter's 16 million silent voices

Most users have little use for their 140-character limit.

New research has cast the social networking site Twitter as somewhere hordes of people have signed up, tuned in and vegged out: only 21 per cent of its 20 million account holders are "true" Twitter users.

The analysis, by the technology vendor Barracuda Networks, looked at 19 million Twitter accounts. It found that only 21 per cent are "proper" Twitter users, which they define as a user with at least ten followers, following at least ten people, and who has tweeted at least ten times. Arbitrary, perhaps, but not a particularly high bar to set, either.

We shouldn't be overly surprised. Similar research by Harvard Business School last June found that 10 per cent of Twitter users were generating 90 per cent of the "noise" at that time.

Meanwhile, an analysis of 4.5 million Twitter accounts by HubSpot, a technology start-up, found that 55.5 per cent of Twitter users are not following anyone, while 52.7 per cent have no followers. And 54.9 per cent had never tweeted (and probably never will).

The Barracuda Networks analysis also found that the cult of celebrity is nowhere more pronounced than in the 140-character world of Twitter: 49 per cent of Twitter users, and 48 of the top 100 most followed Twitter users, joined during the "Twitter Red Carpet Era".

The "Twitter Red Carpet Era" -- yes, they are really calling it that -- apparently occurred from November 2008 to April 2009, when loads of celebs started Twitter accounts and started banging on about Twitter both online and offline.

The silence of most of Twitter's approximately 20 million account holders, and the comparative noise generated by Twitter celebs, somewhat contrasts with the idea that the site is full of people having conversations and discussions. Rather, it appears to consist of a few people talking to the masses. Much like most other "traditional media", then.

Anecdotally, readers will have noticed that any conversation about Twitter invariably includes the sentence: "Didn't Stephen Fry tweet about being stuck in a lift once?"

What all this also suggests is that the immense growth of Twitter -- from zero to ten billion Tweets in four years -- is thanks at least in part to celebs. Which means that if the allure wears off for them, as it so nearly did for Stephen Fry last October, that could have dramatic consequences for Twitter. A caTwastrophe, perhaps (sorry).

Jason Stamper is the NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review; and yes, he confesses he is a "true" Twitter user.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.