Twitter (probably) isn’t dying, but is it becoming less sociable?

Jean Burgess
Nov 6, 2015 · 12 min read

Twitter’s demise has been announced so many times over its lifetime that it’s hard to keep track of all the premature eulogies (and this one from a year ago is actually pretty insightful), but there seems to be a new intensity in the circulation of decline narratives at the moment. A couple of weeks ago there was quite a bit of heat on umair haque’s Medium story, in which he proclaimed:

Twitter’s a cemetery. Populated by ghosts. I call them the “ists”. Journalists retweeting journalists…activists retweeting activists…economists retweeting economists…once in a while a great war breaks out between this group of “ists” and that…but the thing is: no one’s listening…because everyone else seems to have left in a hurry.

Haque went on to offer his theory of the source of the trouble — abuse, incivility, and a lack of care on the platform’s part:

Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit. And while there are people who love to dive into mosh pits, they’re probably not the audience you want to try to build a billion dollar publicly listed company that changes the world upon.

Leaving aside the problem that “we” is unspecified there’s a strange contradiction here (hint: when ‘we’ is offered unreflexively it usually means ‘people like me’ — and who said we wanted it to be a town square anyway? Why not a cosy corner of the pub?) Haque’s image of death seems to involve a ghost ship populated only by blind, mutually retweeting ‘-ists’, while ‘everybody else’ has left the building; and at the same time a writhing mosh pit populated by a seething mass of too many of the wrong kind of users. I don’t want to diminish the feeling being expressed, but there is also a certain amount of early adopter angst here — it’s a structural imperative that self-defined cultural avant-gardes throw their hands up in disgust when their scenes go mainstream.

Haque’s primary issue with Twitter, however, is a loss of civility — and the platform definitely has a problem with online hate, bullying and mob justice, as anyone involved in discussions around race and gender online knows. And people at the receiving end of online hate and who are committed to — and good at — using Twitter as a political platform in the face of it are becoming increasingly frustrated at the platform’s primarily identity-blind, libertarian, free speech-dominated approach to behavioural regulation and governance, despite the recent revamping of the platform’s ‘safety’ policies and procedures.

But more broadly too, the narratives of decline around the place at the moment that have to do with a certain loss of sociability. And to those of us for whom Twitter’s pleasures were as much to do with ambient intimacy, personal connections and play as they were to do with professional success theatre, celebrity and breaking news, this is a real, felt loss: sociability matters.

There have been a number of halting attempts to get at what has gone on here. The other day there was another flurry of agitation around the Atlantic piece on The Decay of Twitter by Robinson Meyer who draws on some of Walter Ong’s ideas about orality and literacy as well as of Bonnie Stewart’s work to suggest that by losing its ‘orality’ and reverting to the codes and conventions of print culture, Twitter is losing its soul.

And then, earlier this week: #heartsontwitter exploded. After umpteen platform changes designed to make the platform more media-friendly and less SNS-like, Twitter suddenly replaces ‘favorites’ (represented by a star) with ‘likes’ (represented by a red, Instagram-esque heart that explodes when you click it like you’re playing Candy Crush or something). The move, which came with loads of self-congratulation and saccharine PSAs, was apparently done to appeal to new and especially youthful users who might be confused by Twitter’s quirky native conventions, many of which draw on older web culture practices like bookmarking (remember, and that more importantly aren’t actually the same as Facebook’s or Instagram’s. While there was plenty of cheerful optimism, a large and vocal chunk of Twitter’s core userbase protested with a mixture of passion, comedy and despondency, for various good reasons. Not least of which is that Twitter really does matter to people, and such acts of apparently casual violence to how it works are seen as serious business. Osman Faruqi’s cri de coeur in The Guardian (if you’ll pardon the pun) is a great example:

It’s infrastructure for basic communication, which is why people are so upset over the change to hearts: imagine if, instead of saying “OK” on the phone to a relative stranger, you were forced to say “I love you”. It’s that basic.

Despite spinning the heart to existing users as a more “expressive” and “universal” symbol, Twitter has admitted the change is really about making the platform easier for new users.

But how many times can the company change what works in pursuit of more users before its base packs up and moves on? It’s not the relatively recent new features — sharing images, videos and Vines — that catapulted Twitter into the mainstream. It was the idea that your 140 character message, no matter how inane, could be read and shared across the world, sparking conversation, debate, new ideas and friendships.

I admit it, from my own perspective Twitter in 2015 feels very different to Twitter in 2013, let alone 2006. I have a sense that where once there was mundane intimacy and listening there is deafness and noise, and I know I’m not alone in the feeling. Where once it felt like there was a special convergence of personal and public communication, it seems as though the personal has been crowded out, which may indeed bring with it a degradation of the personal connections that both animated Twitter’s ad hoc publics and kept them accountable. Twitter’s structure of feeling has definitely shifted.

And, you know what, I pretty much blame the “We don’t care about your lunch! Twitter is for news!” brigade for this, and so part of me wants to say, “Well, I hope you’re happy, tech-biz/journo/public-sphere people. I hope you’ve got the Twitter you always wanted.” *mic drop here*

But I would be a terrible, terrible researcher if I didn’t wonder how much of this perception of Twitter’s decay of sociability is true beyond my own individual perceptions, or even my own ego network. Since we’re doing some work together on a book about Twitter, over the past few days Nancy Baym and I have been listening to other people’s thoughts on the question:

While posing the question in this way and in this context isn’t very scientifically robust, the answers have already been revealing. For a start, most of the responses have come from early adopters — only one person who joined after 2011 has so far felt moved to respond, with the majority being very old hands who joined between 2006 and 2009 — the early years of growth, experimentation, and third-party innovation. The responses seem to suggest an awareness of change and a knowledge that these changes have much to do with Twitter’s perpetual search for a business model and the challenge of retaining newer users. Few have said it was ‘dying’ as such, but that’s not surprising given we used Twitter to ask the question. We’d be happy to hear more thoughts on this!

I wanted to have at least a first go at addressing the problem with some Twitter data too. I’ve generated a few quick charts showing patterns in Australian Twitter activity from 2006 through to now, based on a dataset developed by a consortium of Australian universities led by the Social Media Research Group in the QUT Digital Media Research Centre.

The data collection as of today contains information on close to 1 billion tweets posted between 2006–2015 (to August) from the 2.8 million Australian accounts that had been created by September 2013, and identified as ‘Australian’ on the basis of their profile information (further information at Axel Bruns’s blog post at Mapping Online Publics). For each account, we have only the last 3200 tweets posted before we started continuous forward tracking (as per Twitter’s API rules) in 2013. This means that we don’t have a complete history for either defunct accounts or currently active early adopters; and we don’t have tweets from any users who have joined since 2013. We hope to provide a major update to all of this later this year.

So, with all that in mind:

First, is Twitter really ‘dying’ — are people leaving, slowing down, or going quiet?

Even accounting for the fact that tweets by users who joined after 2013 aren’t included, the number of tweets per day coming from Australian accounts was definitely still increasing in August this year:

But what if Twitter’s decline is more about a certain diminishing of its social life, its sense of community? If Twitter used to be buzzing and sociable (whether town square or living room), and now it’s really just the ‘-ists’ retweeting each other with nobody really listening, there should be traces of this in the accumulated data on our practices of use, right? I think we can learn a lot from running some simple metrics over a decent chunk of time.

So I’ve used Tableau to divide the tweets into four categories that try to get at the extent to which they are primarily expressive, conversational, or ‘pass-along’ in their function:

  • Reply — where the text of the tweet begins with “@user”
  • Retweet — where the text of the tweet begins with “RT”
  • Mention & modified RT — where the text of the tweet contains but does not begin with other usernames and is not a retweet.
  • Plain tweet — where none of the above conditions are true

Of course in reality lots of retweets contain @replies and @mentions, but in this case I wanted to get at the primary communicative act of posting the tweet — to just say something (plain tweets), to say something about someone or riff off something they said (mentions & modified RTs), to say something to someone (@replies) or to pass along something someone else said already (Retweets). This tells us precisely nothing about affect, though — lots of @replies might as easily indicate abuse as they do conversation; and RTs, as we all know, are not endorsements.

Tweet types over time

Like I said, this is very preliminary. But based on this (Australia-specific) data it does appear that there is good reason to think Twitter is becoming less conversational and more like a news platform. Not only are retweets increasing, but both direct replies and tweets that mention other users (including old-school modified retweet practices like via, H/T and MT) are in relative decline. The plain tweet category, which once accounted for 100% of tweets in answer to the question “what are you doing?”, is in relative decline as well. (But it’s important to consider that the new and misnamed ‘quote’ feature embeds the tweet you’re commenting on as a URL, so they’d show up as plain tweets, when they’re actually pretty conversational in comparison to retweets).

Of course, a lot has happened to the platform’s features and affordances in this time, as well as new cohorts of users joining or falling away. Twitter’s die-hard users are sharply aware that not only are their practices of use shaped by what the platform allows or invites, but that most of the platform’s distinctive features were originally user innovations — and that is what much of the outrage over #twitterhearts is all about. Platform changes like these are far from trivial; and the core features at the centre of them have consistently revealed themselves through controversy to be objects of intense feeling, to draw on work by digital media scholar Taina Bucher.

Back to that last chart, look for example at the change in retweeting after ‘new Twitter’ introduces the button retweet in late 2009 (and starting with the web version in April this year, removing all other means of copying the text from, and hence quoting or riffing off, other users’ tweets, instead treating the original tweet as an inviolable, embeddable media object that you can attach your own commentary on, a change widely applauded as a ‘feature’ but one that to my mind screams copyright, not conversation).

To take a closer look, I’ve gone ahead and run a similar set of metrics on my own archives of tweets.

I have two personal Twitter accounts (plus a bunch of other work-related ones, and a couple of parody ones too). My private one, @jeangenie, dates from 2007 (and which I switched back and forth between being public and private a number of times before setting up the public one). I opened my public account, @jeanburgess, in 2008 — I remember there was a sense already that Twitter was going to be important for public personae as much as interpersonal connections — but I didn’t want to give up the intimacy and connection I associated with my private account, which felt more like a chatroom.

Here’s what these two accounts look like visualised as patterns of activity over time — I note here especially the unmistakeable dying off of activity in the past three years to almost nothing in 2015, and the extremely low proportions of tweets that do anything other than say something or respond directly to someone else.

Tweets and tweet types for @jeangenie

My public account is something of a contrast to this, with periodic peaks of especially high activity but a reasonably steady baseline hum of presence; on the other hand from the beginning in late 2008, this account was always pretty interactive (with lots of replies, mentions and retweets in comparison to my private account). Note the sharp shift in my usage style from 2008 to 2009 though , shifting rapidly from an expressive to a conversational (or probably sometimes argumentative) mode with lots of replies and far fewer plain tweets — arguably the height of ‘interpretative flexibility’ as Twitter was mainstreaming, the journalists were arriving, and there were lots of struggles over what it was for. And there is a sharp uptick in retweets from 2013 to now, while it does look like the conversation is dying down (look at the steady fall of the red @replies line).

Tweets and tweet types for @jeanburgess

But across both accounts’ timelines, I am way more conversational than the Australian Twittersphere as we have captured it above.

Another way to get at the question of whether Twitter is becoming less about personal connections and more about media sharing and newsiness is to look at another pair of simple metrics: the prevalence of URLs and hashtags.

Hashtags and Links for @jeangenie
Hashtags and links for @jeanburgess

Here there is a big contrast between my two accounts — in the intimate world of my private account there is less use for hashtags or URLs; but in the quasi-professional, out-there performance space of my public account, participating in hashtag publics is more important, and linking to media (or images, or other people’s tweets given the new ‘quote’ feature) is increasing inexorably.

On the one hand, as it turns out, I seem to be a bit of an outlier as a Twitter user — in particular, I’m unusually conversational in my Twitter use in both public and private. Of course, like most people, when I look at the patterns in my activity on the platform I can attribute most of the weird spikes and dips to what was going on in my life at the time.

But overall, especially against the backdrop of the Australian twitter data above, the trends over time are unmistakeable. My own usage has changed in ways that map onto broader patterns of change in both the platform and its culture of use. And somewhat poignantly my use of the private account as a chatroom has declined as fewer of my friends have a small enough stream that we can maintain the intimacy we used to share. :(

If you’re so inclined, it might be interesting to download your own Twitter archive and take a look at whether you think there are significant patterns of change in how you use it, and whether they seem to map onto shifts from social networking to news sharing, from personal connection to publicity, or something else entirely (the archive comes with a nice HTML interface for exploring your data, so you don’t necessarily need to be able to replicate what I’ve done in Tableau here).

Of course there are likely to have been major life events, job changes and other circumstances affecting how you’ve used the platform, too. Or maybe you’ve been totally consistent in your patterns of use? And I’d be more than happy to have a long, rambling @reply conversation about what you’ve found, if you have the heart for it. (♥)

DMRC at large

Opinion and analysis from members of the QUT Digital Media Research Centre

Jean Burgess

Written by

Professor of Digital Media & Director of the Digital Media Research Centre (@qutdmrc), Queensland University of Technology.

DMRC at large

Opinion and analysis from members of the QUT Digital Media Research Centre

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