It’s been a rollercoaster over at Twitter. The last decade has taken the micro-blogging platform from relative anonymity to POTUS’s most trusted media platform.
However, in parallel, the growth in its user base has significantly slowed in the last three years. Today, estimates suggest 45% of UK internet users actively use Twitter, far behind the 78% who use Facebook. And Twitter has never turned a profit in its 11 years of existence.
This has not prevented Twitter from becoming the platform of choice for UK politicians – 85% of the current generation of MPs actively tweet.
However, the recent election represents a landmark. It is the first time a new Parliament has not resulted in an increase in the share of the parliamentarians active on the platform. Prior to this, Twitter’s penetration rate had risen steadily over the life of each Parliament, and sharply with each new election.
While we can’t read too much into the 2% fall between the end of the last Parliament and the start of this one, what we can say is that Twitter’s penetration rate among MPs has not grown. And that, in itself, is significant.
Furthermore, we shouldn’t expect this number to rise organically over the course of this Parliament. As a now-proven campaigning asset, any MP inclined to tweet would have created an account to support their campaign. If anything, we expect to see a number of accounts falling into disuse now the election is over.
So is Twitter on the wane?
It would be premature to jump to this conclusion. Twitter occupies a unique place in the social media ecosystem.
Yes, Facebook offers reach that Twitter can only dream of, and for this reason MPs use this platform to engage with constituents and – in a few rare cases – the wider electorate. Meanwhile, Whatsapp is used for internal messaging among themselves (read plotting).
We have also seen experiments with Snapchat to engage millennials, notably by Jeremy Corbyn and his team. However, its limited reach (20% of the UK population online), coupled with the fact that its young audience hasn’t historically turned out to vote, means that it will be a while before it is considered a serious challenger to Twitter.
For MPs, Twitter offers a number of advantages over other social media platforms:
- It enables real-time reactions.
- The format is soundbite-friendly.
- It is an open platform, allowing MPs to engage with any other user publicly.
- MPs’ content is visible or searchable, even for non-followers.
- The overheads in terms of channel management are minimal.
- Tweets can be posted on the fly, without the need to source images or links.
- Twitter is where journalists, policy influencers, and increasingly CEOs, hang out.
- Twitter shapes the news agenda in a way no other platform does.
The last two points are perhaps the most significant. They are Twitter’s USP over all other platforms. And they are the reason Twitter’s limited reach among the UK population is beside the point.
Forget reach – Twitter is a platform for political influencers
While Twitter is often seen as a vehicle for celebrity gossip and misbehaving footballers, it is also a platform for exerting influence and cementing relationships publicly among political, media and policy heavyweights, keen to grow their personal brand. The value of a platform is in its users – and no other platform can boast the same penetration among that group.
A good friend of mine – a senior editor at Bloomberg – argues with conviction that Twitter is one of the wonders of the world. He is not alone. 54% of UK journalists now say they cannot carry out their work without social media, and Twitter is by some distance their most popular platform (75% – far in front of Facebook at 57%).
Rather than Twitter running out of steam, a more accurate characterisation is that the platform has simply reached maturity among the political class. The penetration rate has now stabilised, and further growth is likely to be very slow.
Any growth will have to come from the natural attrition of an older generation of MPs, who have fiercely resisted the call for social media. Of the 95 MPs who are not active on Twitter, 85 were in office before the election.
Where next for Twitter?
There are many challenges ahead for Twitter, not least to become financially sustainable. Facebook has been hoovering up the lion’s share of parties’ advertising spend, and Twitter needs to find a way to compete.
Long term, Twitter can’t afford to stand still. No platform is immune to a new platform usurping its place. But among UK political influencers, Twitter has cemented its place at the top table, for the time being at least. A plateau, no doubt – but the view is glorious when you can see above the trees.