Are social media ghost users really a problem?

UK2 Group, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 13.08.13Are social media ghost users really a problem?

Just because people don’t post on Twitter or Facebook, social media networks can still be valuable to them.

What constitutes an “active user” on social media? Do you have to tweet to count yourself a genuine Twitter user? You certainly have to post on Instagram to be considered an active user of the photo sharing network, as users discovered just before the holidays. Instagram cracked down hard on fake, spam and inactive users, causing a drop in follower counts all around.  Celebrities were hit especially hard, with poor Justin Bieber losing 3.5 million followers in the Instagram rapture.

While no one is going to mourn the loss of spam accounts, so-called inactive accounts are arguably another issue. Lots of people use Twitter or Facebook just to look at stuff posted by others, and they are very much enjoying these social networks even though they don’t contribute anything themselves. Twitter has 218 million monthly active users, which is not much compared to Facebook’s 800 million, but this only counts the people who actually log onto Twitter. Lots of people look up Twitter pages without logging in – aren’t they users of some sort too? And what about when presenters on TV read out Tweets – does that make the listener a user?

Twitter has no way of counting their “ghost users”, but they are aware of them. “Twitter is everywhere,” said Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, according to ‘AdAge’. Costolo said the Twitter audience was “two to three times” larger than the monthly active user numbers, and the company is experimenting with ways to “improve the content” for visitors who’re not logged into the platform. Still, Twitter is only really making money from users who’re active in the traditional sense: “We are focused one-hundred percent on the user experience today. We’re not monetising those audiences [who’re not logged in].”

It sounds like ghost users are becoming an asset for Twitter, in part because their presence is an acknowledgment of Twitter as a place of breaking news and debate. Even among members who rarely check their news feed, Facebook is gaining a reputation as the place to go to check birthdays, and the quick and easy place for sending off a message to someone when you don’t have their phone number or email address. Even for ghost users, social networks is often the place where the conversation happens.

How social media is changing breaking news

UK2 Group 2014 – on VPS.net

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 21.21.09How social media is changing breaking news
Is Snapchat the future of breaking news? According to NowThisNews, this may well be the case. Or it may be Instagram or Vine that emerges as the winner – as a new video network that delivers news through social streams, NowThisNews uses all these platforms to deliver medium-appropriate headlines.

As breaking news has been moving from news outlets to social media for years now, this is not entirely unexpected. But as John Herrman points out in ‘The Awl’, which has some telling examples of what a NowThisNews message on Snapchat looks like: “On one hand this is literally finger-painting. On the other, it’s not not news.”

In other words: Snapchat may seem like an odd choice for news distribution, but it’s better than nothing. The internet is now the main source of news for everyone under 50, according to PewResearch. While 55% of people aged 18-29 still saw TV as one of their two main news sources last year, this number has dropped dramatically since 2001, when it stood at 72%, pointing to a definite downward trend.

These kinds of statistics don’t take into account factors such Vice News, however, and this network is one of the fastest-growing channels on YouTube with over 130 million visitors per month. The popularity of Vice News suggests younger people are certainly interested in watching TV-style news if presented in a manner they find appealing. Louisa Compton, editor of BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat, told ‘The Radio Festival’: “[Vice News] has obviously cornered the market and doing something really really well that the BBC hasn’t been doing, across the board on BBC News.” This includes having the technology to upload video quickly, added Compton, something that can take hours at the BBC: “They have definitely taught us something, and the BBC across the board is learning from that”.

While few would argue that Vice News is on track to displace the BBC, there’s a point here about established news players needing keeping up with new technology or risk being sidelined. There’s room for a range of players, as getting a quick headline on Snapchat is unlikely to be the end of the story – recipients will hopefully want more information and will have to go elsewhere to get it. While less likely to be the first to break a major story, trusted news outlets and magazines still have an important role to fill: providing context, analysis, authority, and filtering. But Twitter may be better than a newswire if someone wants to follow a story as it’s breaking: people on the ground can share what they’re seeing, with photos, in real time.

“For us the most important thing is who’s the person on the ground with the camera-phone standing there right now. Authenticity has replaced authority as the new currency of this environment,” said Mark Little, CEO of news agency Storyful, at November’s Web Summit in Dublin. “Now everyone out there is a creator of content, and our job is more as managers of an overabundance of content.”

The lack of a fact-checking desk means social media is more prone to spreading inaccurate information, but Anne-Marie Tomchak, presenter and producer at BBC Trending, thinks people are becoming better at taking social content with a pinch of salt. Tomchak said at Web Summit: “It’s not just journalists who are asking lots of questions about what’s being shared online. […] Social media users have become really discerning about what they’re seeing.”

In Qatar, a country without a free press, sources like Twitter are arguably even more important for keeping up with current events. Over 90% of people in Qatar rely on the internet for news, according to a 2013 study from Northwestern University in Qatar, meaning being able to verifying authenticity is important. Luckily there’s an app for that: TweetCred scores each Twitter account for credibility using a simple plug-in, making it quick and easy to figure out which source on a feed is most likely to have genuine information. Authenticity may well, as Little said, be increasingly important, but it hasn’t quite replaced authority yet – we still need to know if we can trust someone before we can believe them.