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

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.