While Facebook has stormed past 1.5 Billion users, Twitter has recently been flattening out around the 300 million mark. Only around 40% of the world's population have internet access which makes the Facebook figure remarkable. 1.59 Billion / (40% of 7.4 Billion people) means more than half of the world who could use Facebook, do use Facebook. I know (almost) all the people I am connected to on Facebook. I don't know most of the people I am connected to on Twitter. I would prefer the number of users to be the other way around if the aim of Facebook were to keep to my 'friends', and Twitter to burst my bubble by exposing me to the ideas of others.
Virginia Postrel recently argued that one of the challenges with Twitter is that new people struggle to break into its world. The juice of Twitter lies in the interaction with amazing people. Authors, Academics, Politicians, Leaders, Artists, Musicians or whatever flavour of thought leadership gets you bubbling. When someone joins Twitter initially and sends out a few tentative tweets, they are throwing thoughts into a river of information. It flows on. No one hears you until you have become a part of the community. The problem is, that once someone is a part of the community, they probably stop looking for new people to interact with. We only have so much bandwidth.
I joined Twitter in 2009 and only started enjoying it in 2014. If it hadn't been for a friend who consistently sung its praises, I would have given up on it. Twitter isn't like Facebook. The metaphor of a river was used by a colleague who loved it. Twitter is a live, flowing, conversation. You don't have to see everything that is going on. Just take a dip now and then. But Twitter requires participation. It can't just be about you. Otherwise you are just nightswimming. Winking in the dark.
I don't like the idea of 'followers' because it implies Twitter is a broadcast mechanism. A place for you to put your thoughts out into the world. In my experience, people are far more interested in people who are interested in them. Whose story resonates with theirs. Who listen to them. Twitter really starts to work when you are engaging with other people. The beauty is that they can be from outside your bubble. They can present different ideas.
When there is rich engagement, I think we can stop trying to have the big picture. We can also stop trying to help other people to break into it. Twitter has less than 15% of the world's population. Almost all of the people I follow on Twitter are English first language or engage in English. English has about 340 million first language speakers and a further 600 million who speak it as a second language. That is still less than Facebook.
The challenge is we can live a great life in our bubbles. The English bubble is a comfortable one. There are really interesting people. Enough interesting people even. We compare ourselves to people in our bubble, and there is always motivation to focus on the issues within. The justification for trying to spread that has to be something other than necessity. If we want to build a global community that is truly connected, we can't do it by accident. Technology is slowly providing the tools but the primary barriers are psychological.
To quote a friend who was responding to my ideas about community building (consciously creating a group of 150 globally representative individuals)...
'Ingroup bias, fear projection onto others, etc. Other big worries - the average person is struggling to find enough time to raise his kids properly... never mind negotiating language barriers. Also, how will it evolve into something other than missionary work (a kneejerk response for Westerners)'