Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

I joined Twitter in mid-2013. It burst on the scene in 2006, but I long resisted joining it. First, I was convinced that Twitter was mostly people telling each other what they were doing, thinking, or feeling like at various moments. Secondly, even if I could imagine some good usage for the tool, I was much too busy with other duties and engagements. But a student convinced me to join, mainly to answer questions on an astronomy popularisation project we had launched — and my view of it today is what I would like to tell you.

Who could imagine any meaningful and informative exchanges with 140 characters or less? It turns out that it’s not only possible, it can be done better than with long discourse; in fact, it has been shown that the most effective tweets are only 40-60 characters long. Indeed, Christian Rudder, in his fascinating book Dataclysm (2014), where he performs statistical analyses on various online “big data”, including Twitter and Google, informs us that words in Twitter messages are on average longer than those in the Oxford English Corpus (which contains the bulk of all English texts): 4.3 letters compared to 3.4.

More significantly, comparing the 100 words that appear most frequently on Twitter and in other texts, including in literature, one finds Twitter carrying deeper thoughts and feelings: “love” is number 27 on the Twitter frequency list; it is not in the top 100 in the rest of the English corpus; and “happy”, “best”, “life”, and “why” show up at 66, 69, 73, and 77 on the Twitter list. This confirms my 18-month experience with the tool and completely erases my earlier belief of superficiality and mundaneness.

No wonder the world has taken to Twitter in the fastest trend imaginable and with extraordinary effectiveness and impact. Worldwide, men and women are using it equally, as are all segments of the population, from the highest educated to the least. In the Arab world, it is somewhat different.

The most recent data for the Arab world can be found in the 2014 Arab Social Media Report, which was produced by the Dubai School of Government. As of March 2014, there were 5.8 million Arab “active” Twitter users (those who log in at least once a month). Saudi Arabia alone hosts 40 per cent of all Arab users, followed by Egypt with 1.1 million and the UAE with 0.5 million users. In terms of “penetration” (ratio of users to population), however, Kuwait is tops. Females represent 37 per cent of the Arab Twitter community (ranging from 48 per cent in Lebanon and 43 per cent in the UAE to 16 per cent in Yemen). Arabs produce 17.2 million tweets a day, on average, three quarters of which are in Arabic, a growing trend, except in the UAE: the Arabic percentages are now 92 per cent in KSA, 86 per cent in Kuwait, 65 per cent in Egypt, all slightly increasing, but 46 per cent in the UAE, down from 51 per cent a year earlier.

This has important consequences in terms of social impact. I discovered this effect myself: For months I was tweeting almost exclusively in English (wanting to “reach the world”), the number of my followers hovered at a few hundred, but then I was advised to tweet in Arabic, and along with smarter and more interesting tweets, within a few months the number quickly jumped to a few thousand and now stands at over 12,000.

Real business activity

The number of followers has become a measure of one’s social impact and almost a status symbol. Rudder says that getting one million followers on Twitter is equivalent to making one billion (not million) dollars. Indeed, there are over 300,000 millionaires in the US alone, but fewer than 3,000 Twitter accounts with over 1 million followers worldwide. That is why buying followers (both real and fake accounts) has become a real business activity. Rudder mentions one site where a thousand followers can be readily purchased for $17 (Dh62), and shows a data sequence implying that Mitt Romney (former US presidential candidate) or his staff “almost certainly” bought some 20,000 followers on July 22, 2012. But what good is Twitter in real life? One example is that mapping tweets immediately following an earthquake has been found to be much more useful in getting aid and relief to where it is needed than maps of seismic activity. Twitter is an instant X-ray or pulse reading of communities at various scales.

Other activities are shown in the data presented by the 2014 Arab Social Media Report, analysing tweets by ministries of Health, Education, and Foreign Affairs of the UAE and other Arab countries. Dissemination of important information to, and communication with, the public is found to be extremely effective (and immediate) with Twitter.

In education, Twitter and other such instantaneous communication tools are beginning to challenge our traditional way of interacting with students both inside and outside classrooms and lecture halls. We educators must quickly digest this changing landscape of small-bite communication and integrate it in our educational strategies.

As to what one learns through Twitter communication with the public, you may read Dataclysm for a meta-analysis of the US social landscape or wait for another article by me on the Arab scene.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.