The golden age of Twitter is over

tim burrowes landscapeThe spam, the analytics, and the lack of human interaction all suggest the same thing – Twitter’s golden age is behind it, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

My life was so different in 2008.

Back on Wednesday September 10, at 7.18pm, I was stuck in an ugly office block in Chatswood.

I think it must have been my last week as editor of B&T. We were sending the mag to press and we were, as usual, running late.

I know that now, because that was when I decided to join Twitter, so my first tweet is still there.

And like most people’s first tweet, it was mundane. Seven years on, quite deservedly, it’s never had a retweet or a like:

“sending the mag to press”

It was as self conscious and self referential as everyone’s first tweet always is.

I wasn’t to realise, but I was embarking upon something of a love affair.


In the intense months, and even years, that followed, Twitter was to become a big part of my life.

For me, it was to help create a business, make new friends and enhance my digital life.

I really loved Twitter.

But I fear I’ve developed the seven year itch.

These days, it’s merely a useful tool, and at that a tool that I no longer get excited about.

It was all so different when Twitter broke through though.

I was lucky that it coincided with the launch of Mumbrella. Our audience were exactly the sort of people who would be early adopters.

Twitter became a topic to write about; a means of connecting with our audience in the real world; and, of course, a huge traffic driver.

When Social Media Club Sydney launched in 2009, it might as well have been called Twitter Club. And it was all three of those things I just mentioned.

Our news story about the launch of #SMCSYD became a great news topic for Mumbrella from the off, with controversy about whether it would become a platform for careerists. (That was before the phrase “social media guru” was popular.)

Meanwhile, that first #SMSYD event itself was electrifying. The tickets sold out within hours of going on sale. I wasn’t directly involved in organising it, but I did moderate the Q&A.

Two or three hundreds people packed the bar venue on Sydney’s Oxford Street and spilled onto another floor to watch it relayed on video. Here’s a photo tweeted at the time by Heather Ann Snodgrass of what it looked like from the stage:


I interviewed Adam Ferrier about his then agency Naked’s hoax on the press in which “Heidi” launched a hunt for the man who had left his Witchery jacket behind in a cafe.

And then I chatted to Leslie Nasser about his Fake Stephen Conroy Twitter persona.

It all felt so new.

And it kept growing.

A few weeks later we filled a lecture hall at UTS to hear from MC Hammer about his social media profile. Yes, MC Hammer – it seems a bit surreal now.

shtboxAnd if that wasn’t enough real world social media, every Friday night, The Clock in Surry Hills became the home of #SHTBOX (pronounced “shitbox”, but standing for “Surry Hills Beer Exchange”) where Sydney’s social media gang used to hang out. I made a lot of friends there.

But soon the real world part began to break down. There were fallings out and splinter groups. Briefly, some of the #SMCSYD gang launched Digital Citizens as a breakaway organisation..

And in the digital world, Twitter was going mainstream. And there wasn’t much point getting together in pubs to talk about it.

Social Media Club and Digital Citizens gradually fizzled out.

#SHTBOX kept going for a little longer, dropping from weekly, to monthly, and eventually ending altogether. I didn’t make it to the reunion in 2014.

In the digital world though, Twitter was driving Mumbrella’s audiences.

As a proportion of our social media traffic, it was the most important – far more so in those early days than Facebook.

Vitally, it drove people to our comment thread. So by the time our daily email went out to our wider audience, the conversation was already humming.

Looking at our Google analytics, Twitter (on the Google Analytics pie chat below in green) was driving more than two-thirds of our social traffic in 2009.

twiiter facebook 2009

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue

The next year, Twitter was still massive for us – driving 60%, even as Facebook began to become significant.

twitter facebook 2010

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue

And even in 2011, Twitter was still our biggest social referral engine, driving more than 40% of that traffic, ahead of Facebook (in dark blue). That was also the year of peak Reddit for us, as it happens.

twitter facebook 2011

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue; Reddit: light blue

But in 2012, there was a brief changing of the guard. Facebook narrowly overtook Twitter as our biggest social referral site.

twitter facebook 2012

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue

Then in 2013, for us at least, Twitter was to go through a brief resurgence. It pushed back past Facebook and drove half of Mumbrella’s social traffic.

twitter facebook 2013

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue

But by then, the conversation was moving to Facebook. In 2014 it surged to driving more than 55% of our social audience ,while Twitter dropped back to just over a third.

twitter facebook 2014

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue

Last year, the trend accelerated. Twitter fell to just over 20% of our social traffic, while Facebook claimed nearly 70%. LinkedIn rose to 7%.

twitter facebook 2015

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue; LinkedIn: orange

And in these early days of 2016, the trend has continued. So far this year, Facebook has driven 77% of our social traffic, while Twitter has given us just 13%. LinkedIn has also risen again.

twitter facebook 2016

Twitter: green; Facebook: blue; LinkedIn: orange

Looking at the trends, it wouldn’t surprise me if, by the end of this year, we’re getting more social traffic from LinkedIn than we are from Twitter.

All of this, of course, has come against the backdrop of growing traffic number for Mumbrella across the board, so it wasn’t until 2014 that Twitter declined for us in actual numbers.

Deep down, I’ve known it was going that way for a little while.

And I’m aware that I’m sounding a bit like a hipster complaining about how the first album was better when the band was still underground.

Those early days felt a bit like discovering a hot new bar or cafe ahead of the crowd. Everything – and everyone – was exciting.

Then it became a bit more like a loud nightclub. It was popular, and you could still have a lot of fun.

But in recent months, Twitter has begun to feel more like that experience you have in a shopping centre when the person on the teeth whitening stand tries to get you to stop, as you scurry past.

The ratio of spammers to real people has become annoyingly high.

Last year, I noticed a sudden jump in the number of followers my @mumbrella account was getting. When I looked at the types of followers, the ego boost didn’t last long.

I was paranoid because a few weeks before, newsletter Crikey had suggested The Australian’s media writer Darren Davidson might have bought himself some fake followers to boost his numbers. I feared somebody was setting me up to look like I was buying followers too.

So, using ManageFlitter, I did a mass cull of about 12,000 suspicious followers -those without a profile image, who had never tweeted, or only posted spammy messages.

Since then, I’ve watched more carefully as new followers accumulate.

It feels like the spammers now vastly outnumber the authentic voices.

Last week, I tried an exercise.

I examined my most recent 100 followers.

I quickly concluded 55 of them were obvious spam accounts.

twitter spammy followers

Another 14, I just couldn’t tell – they hadn’t yet tweeted anything, but could simply have been new to the platform.

Being very generous, I concluded that the other 31 were probably real people, although I was only certain with about half of those.

The same goes, when you try following new people, which is something I’ve also been making a point of doing.

The result is an incessant drizzle of grubby direct messages to my inbox. At best mildly spammy, but often offering porn links.

twitter spammy dms

On the occasions where a real person DMs me, I often miss it in the spam drizzle.

In part, my experience is not the same as everyone. Having started early, I’ve got 95,000 so-called followers. And in turn, I follow nearly 30,000, all of whom I’ve gradually added manually over the last seven years.

So of course, the signal is at greater risk of getting lost in the noise. And their are third party apps including TweetDeck that help with that.

But the problem for Twitter is that there’s now just so much noise.

Twitter has been trying – it recently began to introduce a “quality filter” to try to cut down on trolls.

twitter quality filter

And it’s been rolling out new initiatives.

Video service Periscope is now embedded directly in to the tweetstream.

Admittedly, that feels a little late though. The time would have been when everybody was madly experimenting with on air broadcasts via Google Hangouts.

And Facebook got there earlier too, including with its recent move into live video.

Twitter is still fighting for a future though.

I remain open minded about Twitter Moments, which launched in the US late last year. Effectively this offers a curated “best of Twitter” experience. I can see that it stands a chance of improving engagement.

But Twitter is no longer a competitor to Facebook. It has a different role now.

After the brief rise and fall of TV companion apps, Twitter remains the ultimate TV companion app.

Hashtag TV viewing, including for live sport, is fun and efficient. These days, it’s the only time, I feel like I’m having real conversations on Twitter.

Imagine trying to watch Q&A on the ABC without being able to follow the snark via the hashtag.

This alone will probably save Twitter from the same fate as social network predecessors like MySpace.

But it’s always a bittersweet experience. I preferred the first album.

Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella. You can follow him on Twitter @mumbrella.



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