Twitter is planning to go public, which means we have an official and up-to-date figure for how many people actively use it: 215 million. But there are two key tech issues which make calculating that number difficult: spam users and third-party apps.
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Twitter's official IPO document, as filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, is mostly filled with the kind of financial minutiae which are a big turn on for my colleagues at Business Insider but not of much relevance here. However, the discussion of how Twitter came up with that 215 monthly active user (MAU) figure does offer up some points of interest for IT pros and developers.
Because Twitter's commercial existence depends on advertising (such as promoted tweets) being seen by as many people as possible, it needs to provide an accurate count of users actively engaged with the platform. Automated access to Twitter via third-party apps can blur those numbers, a fact the IPO filing acknowledges:
Our metrics are also affected by applications that automatically contact our servers for regular updates with no user action involved, and this activity can cause our system to count the users associated with such applications as active users on the day or days such contact occurs. In the three months ended June 30, 2013, approximately seven percent of all active users used applications that have the capability to automatically contact our servers for regular updates.
What that also suggests is that the vast majority of Twitter users aren't using third-party applications; they're relying on the official site and mobile apps. Twitter reinforces that point by noting that it expects "the percentage of active users that use applications that have the capability to automatically contact our servers for regular updates will decline over time, particularly as usage of our mobile applications increases". Seven per cent of 215 million isn't a small number, but it does suggest that trying to make a living from a third-party Twitter app could be challenging.
For Twitter itself, a bigger commercial challenge is dealing with spam accounts. These pop up for a variety of reasons: attempts to use Twitter as a distribution platform for dubious links and selling of fake "followers" to people trying to boost their social media presence are two of the most obvious.
According to Twitter, less than 5 per cent of its monthly active user numbers are false or spam accounts. However, that statement is immediately qualified with an admission that the number is somewhat rubbery:
This estimate is based on an internal review of a sample of accounts and we apply significant judgment in making this determination. As such, our estimation of false or spam accounts may not accurately represent the actual number of such accounts, and the actual number of false or spam accounts could be higher than we have currently estimated.
One other point worth noting: Twitter's head of engineering Chris Fry made $US10.3 million in 2012, most of that via stock options. Who says tech doesn't pay?