If we look at the news and what the news media tells us, we would be under the impression that Twitter is a big deal in India. How big a deal is it?

The other morning, I tweeted out some figures:

Twitter has 7.91 million monthly active users in India. This is 0.58% of India’s population and 1.75% of India’s internet-using population.

To this Meghnad S responded:

The base is minuscule but the content being put here is carried further than Twitter itself. Every single day news channels flash tweets, SS of tweets are shared over WA/FB/Insta etc.Twitter is like THE place to give official statements, break news and share memes.

I began to compose a reply (on Twitter) to add to his observation. But likhte likhte pura blogpost ban gaya. Therefore posted here. Also wanted more people to read my response then they would have on Twitter 😉

How Twitter became THE place is because of a false premise that triggered a chain.

In the early days of Twitter in India, the media confused chatter amongst early-adopting journalists and engineers (also some MBAs, many of whom also happened to have engineering degrees) for the zeitgeist. Not that much has changed since then.

As sourcing reactions from Twitter was only a search away and much, much easier than contacting someone in person the traditional way, tweets started to find more and more space in the media discourse. This gave those 140 characters (it was 140 then) disproportionate resonance.

Also Twitter was the place where the journalist’s peers also were (and still are). This echo chamber gradually began to get represented as the voice of the nation.

Seeing the media frenzy (and some egging on by Twitter representatives) the rich, the famous and the powerful also logged in (or asked someone else to do that for them). This presence of the big names further established the media’s faith in the medium, giving tweets even more space. Leading to the big names believe that it Twitter was indeed something big. Really big.

And the hashtag, something that Twitter itself took long to officially support, soon found prominent display on linear TV screens (also static newsprint). A lot of editorial time is now spent on deciding which hashtag to display on a non-interactive screen. And let us not even venture into what goes into making your hashtag ‘trend’.

This appearance of size and impact also fuelled the rise of people making a business out of Twitter which involved helping people, businesses and political parties chase the blue bird in hope of finding the pot of digital gold at the end of the rainbow. You know what happened next.

In the past, I have argued about why what’s trending on Twitter in India is largely inconsequential.

In many multi-platform newsrooms, the digital journalists generally see Twitter more as a source and don’t have much faith in the platform delivering distribution returns of any significance. In the digital scheme of things (where audiences are measured in real time) Twitter is often only a rounding error. Whereas, for television news, Twitter is the ultimate authority, the barometer of editorial impact…

Let me give another example. That tweet of mine, having gathered a couple of thousand likes, some hundred retweets and tens of comments would have achieved some degree of virality. Some of the retweeters have plenty of followers. But how many Twitter users did this ‘viral’ tweet reach (most of them wouldn’t have even noticed it, let alone read): 1.89 lakh impressions and 4,915 engagements, at the time of writing this.

Posts on this nondescript blog have been read by more actual readers than this ‘viral’ tweet of mine.

I’ve been on Twitter for quite long. This is my 12th year here. There are many things I like about it and many I don’t. Twitter has many wonderful uses and is something I log in to regularly. Heck, I even live tweeted my wedding and I look forward to the day when I will live tweet my son’s.

The surprising bit here is that in spite of the huge coverage of Twitter in mainstream media (and elsewhere) for so long a time and the who’s who of India flaunting their verified badges, the number of active users is still comparatively very low. Most of India’s leading news websites have much much higher monthly active users in India than Twitter.