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Twitter users mostly retweet politicians and celebrities. That’s a big change.

Unlike Facebook, it has not spread virally across the planet.

- March 7, 2019

Social media was supposed to usher in an era in which we could hear from ordinary people across the world going about their daily lives. We would listen to their dreams and fears. We would experience breaking news through those participating and witnessing those events.

In its early years, Twitter embodied this notion, but a closer examination of its evolution over the past several years suggests Twitter has fundamentally changed. It’s less of a place to hear from the world’s citizens and more a place those citizens go to retweet elites. Here are five key Twitter trends to understand.

1. Twitter is shrinking.

Seven years ago, Twitter averaged about 260 million tweets a day, and within a year hit 500 million tweets a day. Since 2013, the number of daily tweets has steadily fallen to 320 million as of October of last year. Twitter is slowly shrinking.

2. Tweets are being replaced by retweets and link-sharing.

At the same time, the percentage of those tweets that are retweets is increasing — from 20 percent in January 2012 to more than 50 percent by the end of 2018. More than 10 percent of all Twitter activity consists of tweets and retweets of verified accounts alone. In other words, instead of flocking to Twitter to share their own thoughts and experiences, people today come to retweet the commentary of others.

Link and image sharing is also increasing, from around 13 percent of tweets including a URL in 2012 to around 40 percent today. After breaking news happens, most tweets are merely retweets and forwarded links.

This explains how social media can both weaken — and strengthen — democracy.

3. Twitter has less original textual commentary.

As a consequence, less on Twitter is original textual commentary from ordinary people. In 2013, there was about 20.5 gigabytes of original text posted to Twitter every day. Today, it’s just over 10.5 gigabytes per day. In fact, Twitter’s daily tweet output is actually not much larger today than the traditional mainstream news it was supposed to replace.

These three trends suggest that Twitter is changing from a “content platform” filled with first-person commentary into an “attention platform” filled with retweets. It is becoming more like the broadcast media that preceded it, where elites speak and the masses merely share those messages that resonate with them. Instead of treating Twitter as text content to be mined, we should think of it as an attention signal. Like Google Trends, it tells us the stories, users and websites resonating at the moment.

Who was most likely to share fake news in 2016? Seniors.

4. Twitter users are aging.

Twitter is changing in other ways as well. Its user base is aging, and more and more tweets come from long-term Twitter users. The average tweet in January 2012 was sent from an account that was about one year old. Today that average tweet is sent from an account that’s over three years old. With its growth rate in decline, Twitter is not adding the new users who could help revitalize it. The service is becoming increasingly insular.

5. Twitter tells us less about where users are located.

In addition, Twitter isn’t expanding geographically. Tweets that are “geotagged” to indicate the user’s location show that the platform is still centered in the same geographic areas. Unlike Facebook, it has not spread virally across the planet.

Growing privacy concerns are also making Twitter users less willing to share their location, including their GPS coordinates and even the GPS-verified city they are tweeting from. The tweets that do have location information may just indicate a U.S. state or a country. Thus Twitter’s geographic resolution is becoming fuzzier and the maps we create from Twitter are becoming less precise. It is little better than traditional news media in helping us understand the precise geography of a story’s spread.

This explains the strategy of Russia’s internet trolls.

Twitter’s decline is slow enough that it is not in danger of disappearing yet, but the signal it provides us about the world has changed dramatically. The early dream of Twitter as a global town square in which ordinary people would share their GPS-tagged experiences in real time is fading. Instead, Twitter is becoming a traditional broadcast medium in which ordinary people merely rebroadcast more prominent people.

Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.