Is Twitter overblown as a mass medium? An analysis of Irish Twitter users indicates that there may be far fewer people using the medium for political discussion than has been commonly portrayed.
A Dublin-based research company, Knexsy, analysed tweets over seven days (October 20th to October 26th) to try and gauge the scale of commentary relating to the Irish presidential election on Twitter.
The company measured three ‘hashtag’ topics: #aras11 (the tag most commonly used in discussions about the election), #vinb (used for discussions relating to TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Browne programme) and #rtefl (used for discussions relating to RTE’s The Frontline programme).
The company found that there were 10,200 individual accounts that used the #aras11 hashtag between October 20th and October 26th. It also found that there were just over 60,000 tweets using the same hashtag in the same period.
10,200 people over a seven-day period is a relatively tiny number of people. It is equal to about 0.5 per cent of the national population and is a small fraction of the million people who, for example, buy a newspaper (or several newspapers) over the same seven-day period.
Knexsy also found that the number of individual accounts using the #vinb and #rtefl tags was less than 10,200. And it found that there was a “high incidence” of individual accounts using both #aras11 and either #vinb or #rtefl.
In other words, there were probably no more than 15,000 people engaging in discussions about the presidency using those tags.
This does not, of course, mean that the only people discussing the presidential contest were using those tags. Nor does it mean that the reach of those discussions was confined to 10,200 people or 15,000 people -- it is possible that many more people passively engaged with those discussions by reading tweets instead of writing them.
But it also opens the possibility that there really are not that many people tweeting at all.
Officially, Twitter does not disclose how many Irish user-accounts it has. But a conservative estimate would be at least 250,000 (more likely closer to 350,000 or even 400,000).
Those who laud Twitter’s influence say that it is not the overall numbers, but the profile of the users that gives Twitter its power. Editors, journalists, celebrities and other ‘influencers’ are fascinated by the medium and use it every day. Broadcast media, in particular, are enthralled by its detail.
There certainly could not have been a more effective demonstration of this than last Monday’s Frontline programme, when a tweet read out by Pat Kenny (about a press conference purportedly to be given by a Fianna Fail donor) set about a process that may cost Sean Gallagher the presidency.
Nevertheless, Knexsy’s analysis is timely and welcome. Maybe it’s time we reconsidered how important -- or not -- Twitter is to the national debate.