Last week billionaire Elon Musk announced his on-again, off-again bid to buy Twitter was … on again. After having tried to negotiate a lower price for the platform and facing a potentially costly court battle over what he would pay, Musk offered to go forward with his original offer of $44 billion for the company.
The news kicked off a wave of conversations about what it would mean for the platform, which has become a big part of journalism and politics in the U.S. thanks, in part, to former President Donald Trump. He tweeted about 26,000 times when he was in office.
But before the conversation about Twitter’s future gets too far down the track, it’s important to understand its place in a constantly shifting social media landscape.
First, while Twitter tends to be a big part of the mainstream media’s coverage of politics to sports to entertainment, its place in the actual world of social media is smaller than one might think.
Overall, only about a quarter of U.S. adults say they ever use Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s a small fraction of the numbers who use some of the more dominant social media platforms. More than 80% of Americans say they use YouTube, and about 70% say they use Facebook. One in 4 Americans say they use Instagram. About 1 in 5 say they use TikTok.
Of course, Twitter reaches a lot more people when snapshots of posts pop up on cable or broadcast television, but that’s not the same as direct contact with users. Usually, there is other editorial context around those on-air posts — sometimes a lot of editorial context.
And beyond the size of Twitter’s audience, there’s the question of what “audience” means. The data suggest a lot of Americans are on the platform primarily in lurker mode.
The top 25% of U.S. adult tweeters produce 97% of the tweets. That’s a relatively small group of Americans producing an awful lot of Twitter’s “content.” The other 75% of U.S. tweeters, the vast majority of users, produce just 3% of tweets.
In other words, a big, noisy 24-hour conversation on the platform may be affecting American politics, but, in reality, all that back and forth is really being driven by a much smaller group. Most of the Americans on Twitter, about 59 million adults, using Pew’s calculations and census data, are watching the discussion happen, not participating in it.
And the Twitter audience isn’t only smaller than many realize — on the whole, it also has a strong Democratic tilt, even compared to other social media outlets.
About 32% of the adults who identify as Democrats or who lean Democratic say they use Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares to 17% of Republicans and Republican leaners, a 15-point partisan gap. The only social media platform with a wider partisan gap is Instagram — 49% of Democrats and 30% of Republicans say they use it, a 19-point split.
The partisan split is actually fairly common in social media. Nearly all the major social media platforms have audiences that lean at least slightly Democratic, according to Pew. YouTube and Facebook, the two most-used outlets, have Democratic leans in the single digits: plus-6 Democratic and plus-3 Democratic, respectively. TikTok is in the same neighborhood, with an audience that leans Democratic by about 7 points. (Of the platforms Pew measured, only Pinterest had a slight GOP lean; its audience is slightly more Republican by about 1 point.)
Age is most likely one of the biggest driving forces behind the partisan gaps. Polls consistently find younger Americans are more likely to identify as Democratic than Republican, and social media surveys find that young people are more likely to use most platforms, particularly Twitter and Instagram.
But whatever the reason, the split on Twitter is what Musk will be inheriting, if and when he closes the deal. And the partisan gap might have some impact on Musk’s plans for Twitter, or at least how they would be received.
Most of Musk’s announced plans and goals center on growing audience and revenue, but he has bandied about a few more explicit ideas.
The biggest news for users, and probably politics, might be his announced plan to welcome Trump back to Twitter. Back in May, Musk said that if he bought the platform, he would end the permanent ban Trump has endured since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Such a move would certainly set fingers to tweeting, and it could have a massive impact on the 2024 presidential race, which Trump has hinted he might soon enter.
Musk has also suggested he might add features to Twitter’s “blue” subscription service with the hope of adding tens of millions of paid subscribers. That could have a big impact on how and how many people interact with the platform.
And then there is the project that Musk calls only “X” — “the everything app.” In a tweet, Musk said buying Twitter is an accelerant in the quest to create a kind of universal-tool mobile app that offers a broad range of services — messaging, social networking, e-commerce.
Those are dramatic changes, and it sounds as if a very different Twitter might emerge if Musk succeeds. But that likely wouldn’t be the end of the story. If Twitter changed too much, there would be little to prevent other platforms or new apps from filling the gap. You can change the platform, but you can’t change the world around it. The audience wants what it wants.
Right now, there may be hand-wringing over what Musk would do to Twitter, but the only real constant in the social media world is evolution. Consider Twitter itself. Today some may see it as an indispensable part of politics, but in 2000 it didn’t even exist.