Within the past 15 years, Twitter has become a powerful and influential channel of communication, which affords millions of people to have their voice heard and reaching a wide (and increasing) audience of followers.
Established in 2006 in California, this social media platform went from just a few thousand users by that time to over 320 million monthly active users in 2020, according to the most recent available data.
Although these figures seem impressive, they are much lower than those observed on Facebook (2.23 billion users), YouTube (1.9 billion), and WhatsApp (1.5 billion). However, even so, it is undeniable that Twitter has become very influential and relevant in today’s digital technology landscape.
Another important aspect to consider regarding Twitter and many other social media platforms comprise their engagement metrics. Introduced and fostered mainly by Facebook, these metrics encompass ‘like’, ‘share’, and ‘comment’. In the case of Twitter, instead of ‘share’, this function is called ‘retweet’, which is just a different way to indicate that a particular post is being retransmitted to other users. Moreover, ‘like’ and ‘sharing/retweet’ also represent a way to express endorsement regarding the content of the post and that the user has appreciated or agreed with it. Within this context, one of the key aspects of these metrics comprises the fact that they are very intuitive and easily understandable by anyone from any age group.
Having said that, the relevant question that we can make is: what is Twitter’s relative engagement power? In other words, how likely it is that a post you publish will be able to engage many of your followers or other users on the platform?
Therefore, to address this provocative question, I have explored a random sample of 20 publicly available Twitter accounts within the first half of March 2021, to understand the pattern of engagement rates among different demographic profile of users.
These 20 accounts belong to users based in 07 countries (Brazil, Cuba, Italy, Nicaragua, Spain, the US and the UK), and 55% of the users are male, whilst the remaining 45% are female. Finally, regarding their occupations, there is a wide variety of 13 different professions (ranging from postgraduate student up to successful footballers). Thus, even though this random sample does not have the ambition to statistically represent the whole universe of Twitter users, I consider that it is diversified enough to provide us with an interesting perspective on the proposed topic.
It is also important to explain that, although several of these 20 accounts belong to public figures, I do not disclose their names in this article to safeguard their privacy. Moreover, I have also deliberately not included the world’s top Twitter users in terms of followers (e.g. Barack Obama: 128 million, Justin Bieber: 114 million, or Cristiano Ronaldo: 90 million), because they would bring ‘disturbance to the force’ (i.e. exaggerated statistical distortion). In fact, in the sample of 20 accounts, the first position belongs to a successful Spanish footballer with ‘just’ 16.7 million followers.
After compiling the data collected from these 20 accounts, namely, their engagement metrics comprising the number of followers, comments, retweets, and likes, naturally emerged a differentiation among the users, which I classified into two distinct groups.
The first one comprises users with at least 100,000 followers, which I have called users with high levels of media exposition. Indeed, within this group, the users’ occupations are: a) TV presenter, b) singer, c) actor, d) writer, e) footballer, f) politician, and g) YouTube influencer. Moreover, in this group, 60% of the users are male and the remaining 40% are female.
The common feature among the users in this first group is the fact that all of them enjoy a strong exposition in means of mass communication (e.g. TV, magazines, newspapers, radio, movies, etc.), which afford them a high level of share of mind among the general public (i.e. their names and faces are easily remembered and recognisable).
On the other hand, in the second group with limited or no media exposition, the users are engaged in the following occupations: a) academic, b) journalist, c) diplomat, d) postgraduate student, e) social activist, and f) corporate management. In this group, there is an exact balance regarding gender with 50% male and 50% female. Nonetheless, different from the first group, this second group of users is predominantly composed of ‘anonymous’ people or ordinary citizens, which are not easily remembered or recognised outside their community of peers, close friends, relatives, co-workers, etc.
The findings emerged from the analysis of this random sample of 20 Twitter accounts reveals some interesting aspects regarding distinctive differences in engagement capacity among the two groups:
- As one could expect, users with high levels of media exposition enjoy a massive number of followers. In this sample, for example, the user with the lowest number of followers is a male Italian singer with 105,400 followers, whilst the one with the highest number of followers, as already mentioned, is a Spanish footballer with 16.7 million.
- In contrast, users in the second group enjoy a more modest number of followers ranging from just 364 (an American female postgraduate student) up to 87,900 (a female corporate manager based in the US).
- The median number of followers in the first group is 2.1 million, whilst in the second group is just 5,931 followers (i.e. more than 350 times lower).
- Given the high levels of media exposition experienced by users of the first group and their high number of followers, they also enjoy much higher rates of engagement than what is experienced by users in the second group. In this regard, the median engagement rates in the first group are: a) 392 comments, b) 1,200 retweets, and c) 18,550 likes. In contrast, these same metrics in the second group are the following: a) 2 comments, b) 24 retweets, and c) 79 likes. In other words, the engagement power experienced by users with high levels of media exposition is, at least, 50 times higher than what can be achieved by ordinary people regarding retweets, and up to 234 times higher regarding the number of likes.
Therefore, these figures help us address the provocative question raised and reveal that if you do not enjoy high levels of media exposition, it is very unlikely that your Twitter post can reach a considerable reverberation to engage many other users. Although some users in the second group hold a considerable number of followers (above 5,000 people), it is was possible to observe that even among them, the level of engagement triggered by their posts was relatively low.
Then, does it mean to say that Twitter posts from ordinary people are irrelevant? Not at all, especially because what matters is the topic of your post and which users are connected to your network, or who the posts can potentially reach outside your direct network.
I consider that a good example in this regard comprises spontaneous social movements, which oftentimes starts small (and triggered not by celebrities but by ordinary citizens), get spread among a cohort of supporters and when least expected, they are mobilising thousands of people on the streets (e.g. the movements known as the Arab Spring or Occupy All Street).
Yet, the point raised in this article is that, although Twitter affords voice to literally millions of people around the world, this platform replicates and reinforces the same unbalanced power structure we have witnessed before in society. In other words, whoever enjoys strong positions of power, privilege and social prominence, has the loudest voice in the room. In addition, their voice encourages people to follow them and also trigger high levels of engagement.
Does it mean that people with high levels of media exposition have much more to say than ordinary people? Not necessarily, but it does seem that their position of being constantly or regularly under the spotlights becomes a sort of magnet attracting a large cohort of followers and, consequently, when they talk their voice echo much louder and longer than everybody else.
Ultimately, we can observe that this social media platform reverberates the same type of voice that we were already exposed to prior to its establishment, while for several other emergent voices, unfortunately, it remains very challenging to be effectively heard and taken into consideration.