First Survey Finds 2.8 Million Twitter Accounts in Australia

4 August 2014, 8.29am AEST

The Conversation

For a social media platform which has assumed such a prominent space in public debate and popular media, we still know remarkably little about the structure and demographics of Twitter in Australia. Hashtags may be everywhere from the ABC’s Q&A talk show to the A-League Grand Final, and prominent politicians, journalists, sports stars, and other celebrities have all joined in droves, but how many of us are actually active on the platform, and what do we do there? Except for some well-publicised uses (from television audiencing through crisis communication to political debate), we still know very little.

This applies even to the most basic numbers: how many Australian Twitter accounts are there, exactly? Some rough guesstimates by commercial monitors put that figure at around 2.5 million accounts, while Twitter’s own spruikers have apparently even claimed 4 million sign-ups, as Mumbrella reports. A Sensis survey from 2013 suggests that 15% of Australians are using Twitter – this would translate to almost 3.5 million users.

To address this divergence in numbers and develop a more rigorous evidence base for the study of Twitter in Australia, my colleagues and I in the QUT Social Media Research Group have undertaken a comprehensive survey of the global Twitter population, in order to identify accounts which can be considered as ‘Australian’.

Using tools developed by data scientist Troy Sadkowsky, and gradually working our way from user ID 0 through to a number above 2 billion, we used Twitter’s Application Programming Interface to retrieve the publicly available profile information for every Twitter account currently in existence (as of late 2013); this resulted in a dataset of more than 750 million public Twitter profiles. We then filtered these accounts by a number of criteria: mentions of Australia, its states and territories, and the 50 largest population centres in the profiles’ location and description fields, and/or selection of one of the eight Australian timezone settings available in Twitter’s profile settings.

We also endeavoured to remove any false positives from this filtered dataset, including mentions of Perth (Scotland) or Brisbane (California), or of fictional locations such as thePowerpuff Girls’ City of Townsville or Finding Nemo’s 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. I’ve outlined this process in more detail in a blog post at Mapping Online Publics. By contrast, we have no immediate way of addressing false negatives – for example accounts that have no information in their location, description, or timezone fields which would identify them as Australian. This means that we may underestimate the total number of Australian accounts by some margin, while a small percentage of remaining false positives may in turn partially cancel out this underestimation.

Findings

Following this approach, we identified 2.8 million Australian Twitter accounts. This number represents the size of the Australian Twittersphere by the start of September 2013, when our first run of the total Twitter userbase survey concluded; we will repeat and extend this survey in order to capture more recently created Twitter profiles in the near future. It must be noted that some users may operate several Twitter accounts, while other accounts may be shared between multiple users, so per capita sign-up rates should be treated with a degree of caution; 2.8 million users in September 2013 would represent a 12% sign-up rate for Twitter in Australia.

Twitter population growth in Australia follows a clear pattern: from a slow start in the early years (which is similar outside of Australia, too), there is a sudden and rapid rise in new registrations per month in early 2009, peaking at over 100,000 new account registrations each in March and April 2009. (There may well have been more registrations than this, in fact: the accounts we see for these months are only those which were still in existence when we gathered our data in late 2013, of course.)

 

Growth in Australian Twitter Accounts Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

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From this early excitement, things slow down considerably towards the end of 2009 – and then trends start to point upwards again: the average number of new accounts joining per month during the following years is somewhere around 40-50,000. Finally, there is a substantial increase in new registrations in August 2013; this may be partly related to the impending federal election, but probably also reflects the fact that at the time we gathered our data, Twitter’s spam bot elimination systems may not yet have had a chance to remove any offending new accounts.

Note that our data do not allow us to directly identify deletions, however: the average sign-up rate of 45,000 new accounts per month may well be cancelled out at least in part by users deleting their older accounts. A comparison of this first dataset and future iterations of our survey will enable us to determine more clearly whether Twitter in Australia is still growing, or has plateaued.

Some sign-up is clearly driven by current events. During the first quarter of 2011, for example, we see a considerable spike in new Queensland-based accounts on 11 and 12 January, as floodwaters threaten inner-city Brisbane, and during the following days; in Victoria, New South Wales, and other states the sign-up rate also increases notably. Similarly, as a devastating earthquake hits Christchurch, New Zealand, on 2 February, Australians (especially again in Queensland) also sign up in larger numbers than usual. The pattern does not repeat (other than perhaps in Queensland, once again) following the 11 March earthquake and tsunami on the east coast of Japan, however.

 

Growth in Australian Twitter Accounts: Q1/2011 Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

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