This post creates an understanding of the growth of Twitter uptake among MPs in the UK. In this I graphically demonstrate the increase of account creation and the metric development of the ways MPs Tweet. Alongside this demonstration I suggest two further claims. Firstly, that although Tom Watson has previously been considered the ‘kickstarter’ behind Twitter uptake amongst current MPs, I argue that a greater significance can be placed on the electoral campaign for the 2010 election. Secondly, the MPs who adopted Twitter first remain to be the users who use it the most.
The significance of this type of study remains with the impact social media has had on political communication. Much like the way TV changed the news roll from the once a day headlines in the press to the hourly update of the news real on twenty-four hour news. Social media has removed the middleman, directly and instantly sending updates from politicians themselves. Since the first account creation by Alan Johnson in 2007, MPs and citizens alike have rapidly increased in their uptake of Twitter. A quick look shows over 59% of the UK population are on at least one social media website (Kemp, 2016). Furthermore, 10% of people have claimed to have used social media to discuss politics (Hansard, 2016). Meanwhile the news has regularly quoted politicians statements made from Twitter. With journalists under increasing pressure to find MPs positions on issues or events quickly, they often turn to the Twitter feed of MPs. Increasing the dissemination of social media communications far outside the twittersphere.
What I really want to know is how fast this did all change happen? In a good hour of Googling, I couldn’t find one report that measured the growth of MPs use of Twitter. So I decided maybe I should produce something. Political theorists can already explain the reasons MPs use a new technological service. The literature suggests three key reasons:
- Bandwagon theory – In layman terms, an MP will see other MPs on a certain service and for a number of reasons such as “keeping up with the Jones” or not to be seen to be technologically behind the times, also use the service.
- Circumvention of the media – Political representatives on the whole strongly dislike when the words they speak are distorted by editorial decisions, or are ignored completely. Therefore, they will seek out ways to communicate directly with their targeted audience.
- Electioneering – Citizens have technological expectations, and not to meet these could damage their standing at the polls. Furthermore, due to the outreach inside & outside of social media itself, social media is a useful campaigning communication channel.
However, as previously mentioned, we don’t know the rate of uptake of Twitter. To answer this, I got a list of every MP on Twitter from a database I maintain that tracks what MPs are on certain social media websites. The list (n=561) was then imputed into data collection software that collects information directly from Twitters API. The output of were the account details for every MP on Twitter alongside certain meta-data: the date joined, number of tweets, who they follow, and who follows them. The data is limited due to the fact it doesn’t include previous MPs before the 2010 or 2015 General Elections, so I can’t make some overarching theory of uptake from this. However, the data is useful for a demonstration of the growth amongst current MPs – which is interesting by itself, and probably a little more useful if you wanted to shout at your current MP for being slow to the club.
Measuring the growth of Twitter accounts held by MPs
The growth among the current 561 MPs on Twitter seems to be a steady rate of increase with three main incremental sparks of uptake. This somewhat suggests that Bandwagoning is the biggest factor overall after 2010 for explaining uptake among current MPs, even when some created their accounts before they became MPs. This is suggested due to the slow and steady rise fits patterns of engagement with other services that have growth through word of mouth, or through websites that have grown in use in line with the populations overall knowledge of its existence.
However, before 2010, I have found three main ‘sparks’ followed by periods of uptake:
The first was the account creation of Julian Sturdy MP (York Outler) who seems to have created the account in August 2007 ‘for the sake of creating an account’. His account was promptly set to private and he has 0 followers. From this account creation, there were 4 more accounts held by MPs created following. These accounts made little impact as they were seldom used, and people little engaged with them. I’d argue that this was the period where there was one or two news stories about the Twitter service (due to the novelty of the 140 character message limit), it could potentially be the case these people saw these and made the accounts to “reserve their name” and little used it since.
The second, spark was Tom Watson’s entry to the Twitter service in March 2008. From this came an influx of early adopters who started to use the service. What might have sparked this was Tom Watson’s prevalence amongst the blogging world – seeing Tom as the successful early adopter of other new services might have encouraged others to follow in his wake. From Toms account creation came 26 other MPs that followed. I have read in a number of places that Tom was the early adopter that really got MPs onto Twitter; however, I argue that the following surge was far more influential.
The third, and biggest major spark in Twitter account uptake was from around February 2009 where there was a dramatic increase in MPs on Twitter followed the g gradual 7 year growth. From the data, it seems there is a correlation of users who were elected in 2010 who created their accounts in the spark following early 2009, furthermore, it was around this time when political parties had selected their prospective party candidates. I suggest therefore, that electioneering is the main cause of the sudden uptake in Feb 2009 – with candidates eager to start their campaign strategies, they would have certainly started to create their social media accounts in preparation of the 2010 general election. I’d like to do a greater data collection to confirm this, but I feel the times do make sense to support this. Therefore, it wasn’t the early adopters who kick-started the uptake of Twitter accounts by MPs (I won’t dispute it was these who spread the news of the service), but the 2010 general election. Maybe after all the hype and the following disillusionment about 2010 being the “social media” election, it seems that 2010 just might have been the social media election after all.
Measuring the use of Twitter accounts held by MPs
It is often presumed that people who have held their social media accounts the longest should also use the service the most. I argue that is exactly the case (when you ignore the MPs who started their accounts in 2007). Although the numbers of Tweets by MPs have increased on a daily basis, it is the early adopters on average who continue to use Twitter the most. With users who created their accounts in 2008 Tweeting on average 5.3 times per day, this is in stark contrast to users late to the show who have created their accounts in 2015 who only tweet on average 2.4 times a day. The data I collected was limited that it only gave me account totals, and not date breakdowns – so I can’t measure the overall growth over time of Tweet posting. But I am happy with the conclusion although the 2008 early adopters might not be the reason Twitter is so well used by the current set of MPs, it is certainly the early adopters who use the website significantly more than anyone else.
If this was useful, or you would like me to look into the data a bit more, or you’d like me to look into questions you might have, please do let me know in the comments!
Requests for data access are limited to academic use. I’ve seen what happens when large lists of MPs and their social media profiles are put online and all I can say is it is extremely spamy for all MPs involved.
Hansard Society. (2016). Audit of Political Engagement 13: The 2016 Report. Hansard: London. pp. 41.
Kemp, S. (2016). Digital in 2016. [online] WeAreSocial. <http://wearesocial.com/uk/special-reports/digital-in-2016>. pp. 482.