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200 billion reasons Twitter will survive

Published: 21 March 2016
Professor Dame Wendy Hall
Professor Dame Wendy Hall

As Twitter celebrates its 10th anniversary, Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Director of the University of Southampton's Web Science Institute, examines its global impact and how we are observing Twitter through our research.

It’s hard to believe that just 10 years ago – on 21 March 2016 – Jack Dorsey set-up and sent the very first tweet on the new social media platform Twitter.

His message was simple – ‘just setting up my twttr’ – but Dorsey effectively created the new phenomenon of microblogging by limiting messages to just 140 characters, the same length as a standard text message using an original mobile phone.

Today, some 6,000 tweets are published each second amounting to 500 million tweets per day and around 200 billion tweets per year. And there are no bounds to what people will tweet about, from their daily activities to their political views, but how are we following the evolution of Twitter and, more broadly, the World Wide Web? How does the Web impact our lives and how do we impact on it?

Web Science development

Interestingly, the 10th anniversary of Twitter coincides with the 10th anniversary of the academic discipline of Web Science, established by the University of Southampton and MIT in November 2006 as the original vehicle to explore and make some sense of the Web.

“The work we do now at the Web Science Institute at Southampton is all about studying how the Web evolves,” says Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Director of the Institute and co-founder of Web Science as a discipline alongside Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Open Data pioneer, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt. “The Web has become such an important part of our life today and it is essential that we understand how we currently use platforms like Twitter and how we may wish to use them in future, especially if we want to try and ensure that the Web exists more for the good than bad.”

Among those from the Web Science Institute observing Twitter through their research are Sarah Hewitt from our Web Science Doctoral Training Centre who is looking at how the number of voices taking part in education and higher education discussion and debate is increasing through the use of social media platforms such as Twitter, despite teachers having less say in policy and decisions at the highest level.

PhD student Nora Almuhanna is examining how antisocial behaviour impacts on the use of Twitter, which factors really matter when using Twitter, and how antisocial behaviour affects them. Nora is also investigating if culture has an impact and how different cultures cope with negative behaviour on social media.

We didn’t envisage what Twitter would lead to but we’re now using Web Science to gain an understanding of all the things we use Twitter for because of the importance we now place on social media in our daily lives.

Dame Wendy Hall - Director of the University of Southampton's Web Science Institute

Taking Twitter for granted

While they weren’t particularly thinking about Twitter at the time they launched the Web Science initiative, Dame Wendy and her colleagues are now at the forefront of observing and asking questions about how we currently use Twitter and how we may wish to use it in future.

“We didn’t envisage what Twitter would lead to but we’re now using Web Science to gain an understanding of all the things we use Twitter for because of the importance we now place on social media in our daily lives,” Dame Wendy emphasises. “Even things associated with Twitter that we now take for granted like the hash tag, the retweet, the modified tweet and sharing photos all came about because of what people wanted to do with it and given these applications and technologies, we’re now able to analyse and try and understand how and why people behave in the way that the do.

“We’re not just computer scientists; we represent a mix of disciplines from social sciences, social sciences, economics, psychology, law, maths, the list goes on,” Dame Wendy continues. “We monitor new social machines as they emerge and we even try launching a few ourselves just as experiments. Equally important is to monitor the death of social machines, just like the physicists look at the death of stars, in order to understand how social machines grow, how they die, or how they evolve when they are taken over by another company; that’s a very important part of what we do at the Web Science Institute here in Southampton.

#TheFuture

Even with society’s emphasis on Twitter after its first 10 years, Dame Wendy believes that the medium is still in its infancy and within the next 10 to 15 years, the social networks we use today may not look or even be used as they are today, including Twitter.

“All of our current social networks are so embryonic, in terms of the evolution of communication in civilised society over the last two millennia or so,” Dame Wendy adds. “Twitter has been around for 10 years and Facebook for 15 years, which is nothing - not even a blink of an eye - but I predict that in another 10-15 years our social networks won’t be anything like they are today. They probably won’t even be called what they are today.

“I think Twitter’s problem is that you see the whole of human nature writ large in a fairly uncontrolled way,” she continues. “The nasty stuff, the misogyny, the bullying, the trolling, the beating up on people because it’s so easy to hide behind anonymity - Twitter suffers from all those problems probably more than other social networks do.

“At the same time they haven’t found a good business model,” Dame Wendy concludes. “When you think about it, it’s really hard to get companies to pay for advertising because all they have to do is tweet.”

But because microblogging has now become such an essential activity, I don’t think Twitter will die although eventually, it’s likely to get swallowed up by something else.”

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