Forget the algorithm: Here’s what really makes Twitter unique

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Elon Musk calls Twitter the “place of the digital city where vital questions for the future of humanity are debated”. Twitter is certainly vocal, but it may not be as big as you might expect for the place for discussions about the future of humanity.

With 89.6 million users, Pinterest accounts for 40% of users of the American social network. That’s much higher than Twitter’s US numbers (somewhere between 56 and 77 million) – but Twitter has many more users outside the US than in the US. There are just under 400 million Twitter users worldwide, just over half of them (217 million) access Twitter daily and only a quarter of these frequent users are in the United States. United. Worldwide, Twitter has less than 10% of social media users worldwide, somewhere between Pinterest and Reddit.

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Graph of overall social media usage

Twitter is at the bottom of the list of the most popular social networks in the world in January 2022, ranked by the number of monthly active users (in millions).

Source: Statista

The high proportion of journalists on Twitter and the way tweets find their way into news stories are likely part of the reason why Twitter is so much more prominent than the numbers suggest. But more important to many users is the unique flattening of hierarchies on Twitter, combined with the constraints of what are frankly quite primitive tools.

On Facebook and LinkedIn, someone has to accept your friend or connection request. On Twitter, unless someone makes their account private or blocks you, anyone can follow anyone else. And while Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook have better and more powerful tools for creating posts with images and other elements, Twitter lets you post short bursts of text (animated by images, memes, videos and links) with threads, replies and hashtags that connect in content networks.

The fact that it doesn’t take much effort to tweet or reply might explain why so many people you can connect with on Twitter will take the time to reply. So not only can you connect with the person who designs differential privacy for the US Census, anti-poverty activists who share recipes, expert meteorologists, the author of your favorite book, and the app developer that you use every day – but if you ask them something, you’re very likely to get a response and have a conversation.

Twitter’s outsized popularity means there are a host of tools and services that work with Twitter data: if you want to track the impact of changes to Twitter on your own account, TweeThingz is a handy free service that doesn’t. only needs read access to your account (so it doesn’t post annoying stat tweets without you realizing) and if you’re a developer look at options like this audit tool which uses GitHub Actions to automate the collection of information about your subscribers.

SEE: No, Elon, Twitter will never be a platform for ‘free speech’

The choices platforms make about everything from UI (should there be a downvote button and should it be exactly where the like button was?) to moderation (what can get banned and what type of conversations are exposed to more people by the recommendation algorithm?) and how they make money (can advertisers choose their exact audience demographics or which posts are promoted are they shown to random users?) affect those conversations and the networks that form, either directly through people following and replying or indirectly through hashtags.

These networks have made Twitter a great place to study conversations and connections, but they won’t survive people moving to different platforms because even if you can upload your twitter archive and even a list of your followers and the accounts you follow, there’s no easy way to find those accounts on other services – even assuming everyone you want to connect is moving to the same service.

Alternatives like Mastodon and Discord will bring you a lot closer to technology than Twitter because you’ll be running your own server or worrying a lot more about who’s running that server. You’ll want to know how good they are at admin and billing (and find other admins to take over if they move or get too busy) and whether you trust them and the admins of each instance with which they federate (because the administrators of these instances have access to your private messages).

Want Twitter availability? You’re going to need a rig that makes enough money to pay for infrastructure and engineers.

But in the end, what experiences the platform are the people on the platform (if Mastodon’s growth rate continues, it would only take the network just over 30 years old to match Twitter’s user base) and the standards that the platform generates and enforces.

It only takes a small number of users to create conflict: a 2018 study pointed out that 1% of communities on Reddit accounted for 74% of conflicts on the service, with 38% of attacks on others coming from just 0.1 % of communities. The researchers suggested an “early warning system” using machine learning to alert moderators. But alongside tools, you need policies and the will to apply them consistently.

Over a decade ago, Anil Dash (now CEO of Glitch, once the first employee of social media maker Six Apart, home of Movable Type and – briefly – LiveJournal), penned some guidelines on how to create a thriving and welcoming online community. .

This year, he wrote a companion piece with step-by-step instructions for getting the community management wrong. Hopefully this isn’t confused with a how-to guide.

But all of this reminds us that social media is about people, politics, and networks — and for all the promise of algorithms, technology is the smaller part.

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