Of the 217 survey responses received, 124 selected the option to submit their survey responses anonymously. In the findings below, Twitter handles are used where they were submitted and permission was given. Otherwise responses are used anonymously. All interviewees are identified and their follower count is supplied. More detail about the survey responses can be found in the Appendices. All answers and transcriptions/text of interviews are available at request.
Based on my research I can report the following findings:
#1: Don’t get personal – Twitter is a public platform
Q: What won’t you tweet about?
A: Personal stuff, because Twitter is open access. It’s not the right arena for personal issues.
A: My personal and/or professional life. It’s called what it’s called for a reason. Twitter is not a diary.
An overwhelming number of responses indicated that South Africans avoid tweeting any personal information – especially information that could put themselves or their loved ones at risk. A few respondents mentioned privacy issues as a concern. Some respondents specifically mentioned that they would not tweet things like their location or contact details. One respondent said: “I would rather be safe than sorry. This extends to other people’s personal information too – I won’t tweet their phone numbers or real names or locations”.
One respondent stated that he/she wouldn’t tweet about personal problems because there are friends and family who can listen to that in person.
“I won’t tweet about exercising or how much weight I’ve lost on my diet. I just don’t want people I don’t know knowing that kind of detail about my life. Come to think of it, I won’t really tweet about myself at all. Rather about things that I might have an opinion about.”
Many users noted that they wouldn’t tweet about their sex lives, “because it’s private! And it has nothing to do with anyone else, except me”. Others indicated that they wouldn’t tweet about their sex lives because their parents are on Twitter.
According to @CoenraadB he won’t tweet about personal feelings or failures, but rather about issues of public interest. “I see twitter as bite-sized press statements.” Facebook is seen as the domain for posting personal information. “In my view, Facebook is for personal posts and friendships, and Twitter for professional issues and building professional relationships,” said one user. Tweeting about personal things is seen as “a bit out of place in the Twittersphere.”
One respondent, @siyafrica, said that he has changed his behaviour over the years to tweet less about personal aspects such as partying and his social life. It is my belief that South African Twitter users have adapted their behaviour over the last few years to tweet less about personal details.
Some users – especially those with a large amount of followers – noted that it is necessary to divulge some personal information in order to keep things interesting. Journalist @carienduplessis (nearly 24,000 followers) notes: “I believe you must put some of the personal into Twitter, otherwise it’s not interesting.”
According to Parliamentary Leader for the opposition Democratic Alliance, Lindiwe Mazibuko (@lindimazibuko, 77,938 followers), this is especially true for politicians.
“[Politics] is not a field that is stuffed to the gills with interesting people. What we do tends to be quite dry. It doesn’t help if your Twitter account is dry. People can read that stuff in the paper. There is no point in having a Twitter account if it is just going to be a broadcast platform.”
Mazibuko says her account is “a little bit personal and a little bit work”, but that this is not a deliberate strategy. She won’t tweet about personal relationships or her family.
This is in line with Marwick and boyd’s assertion that “micro-celebrities” tweet personal information to remain authentic and that those with very large numbers of followers use different strategies when tweeting as they have specific and pragmatic understandings of audience (2010: 120). However, for the people that I interviewed, this seems to be a more natural exercise than a deliberate strategy.
#2: Don’t tweet about the mundane. Don’t bore your followers.
Closely related to the first finding, is that users don’t want to tweet the mundane details of their everyday lives. Many respondents noted that they wouldn’t tweet “banal” things because they don’t want to bore or annoy their followers. As @linsensloots puts it: “[I won’t tweet about] anything I think my followers (in this case my friends) won’t find interesting – I am annoyed by useless tweets and don’t want to cause that in others.”
The only exception made was when a tweet is humerous:
“I don’t tweet details about daily habits (unless I think others will find it super hilarious, in which case it will be laced with self-deprecation). My general rules about own tweeting: it needs to be authentic (not a channel for voicing my own narcissistic injuries) and it needs to at least make my followers laugh or think.” – @jeannnne
Another respondent @orchidhunter noted that he wouldn’t tweet about Justin Bieber, bank statements, bowel movements, or mundane tasks like going for a run or waiting at the post office, unless he can make them funny.
One respondent noted that people who do not use Twitter typically think that people on the platform tweet about mundane details of their lives and those are exactly the things that he/she will not tweet about. “You will not see me tweet about what I eat or drink unless it is exceptional and could perhaps be of interest to my followers.”
Journalist and media analyst, Arthur Goldstuck (@art2gee, 18,974 followers), says part of the reason why people outside of Twitter think that tweets are ultra personal, is because celebrities do just that. “They imagine that the trivia of their every day lives is of interest to their fans. So when Lady Gaga tweets about something very trivial, that is assumed to be the way that Twitter is used generally and this enhances that impression.” He notes that not tweeting personal and mundane details is not self-censorship, “it is just good etiquette”.
#3: Keep it interesting. Only tweet about things that you are knowledgeable about.
It is clear that users don’t want to bore their followers. One respondent noted that he/she wouldn’t tweet about anything that he/she didn’t find interesting. “I don’t want to read it, my followers probably don’t either.”
“More and more I refrain from posting things that aren’t really relevant. For example, if I want to post something that is only relevant to 10 or 20 people, I try not to post about it. I like to keep my signal/noise ratio high.” – @simondlr
And it is especially important not to come across as uninformed. According to @sakegesprek, if he tweets about topics that he does not know a lot about it will discredit the value of his other tweets. “I unfollow people who don’t add value and expect followers to do the same… I believe one should have a twitter personality and focus on a few topics, try to remain disciplined in this respect.”
@robmc000 answered that he won’t tweet about anything that he is not completely clued up about. He mentions the Oscar Pistorius case as an example, “because I wasn’t there”. “ I do not think people should have opinions about things they know nothing about, hence I won’t express a view until it’s an informed one.”
Users made it clear that they need to understand what they are tweeting about in order to avoid embarrassment.
Hutto, Yardi and Gilbert (2013) found that informational content attracts new followers with a relative impact that is roughly thirty times higher than the impact of “meformer” content, which deters growth.
#4: Don’t tweet anything that can influence your job or career.
South African Twitter users are well aware of the potential reach of tweets and the public nature of the platform. They know that their tweets are available online and can impact their lives. Many of the respondents noted that they wouldn’t tweet anything that could get them in trouble at work and jeopardize their current job or their future career prospects.
“Despite my Twitter account being personal, I don’t tweet anything that I feel will convey my employer in a negative light”. – @philipmyburgh
Some users like @uberfriend noted that they wouldn’t tweet about specific work related issues as their clients and colleagues are on Twitter. Many respondents said that Twitter is a public forum and therefore not an appropriate forum to write about work situations.
“Anything that could get me fired. Twitter is extremely public so I always try considering if my boss or company would be negatively influenced by my tweet. I try to keep it mostly professional.” – @rfh100
The fear that tweets could negatively impact one’s career, are not completely unfounded in South Africa. In 2012 a 20-year-old white model, Jessica Leandra Dos Santos, tweeted: “Just, well took on an arrogant and disrespectful kaffir inside Spar. Should have punched him.” The term is a racist slur for a black person. Twitter erupted into a fury when it became apparent that Dos Santos had previously made racist tweets and she lost sponsorships and became the subject of international news reports (Laing, 2012).
In June this year Maxim Barashenkov and Montle Moorosi were fired for comments about correctional rape on Facebook (Mail&Guardian, 2013). Barashenkov’s posted a Facebook update saying: “I propose correctional rape and sterilisation for any white person who twerks.” To twerk is to dance by vigorously shaking your bottom. Moorosi commented on this status saying: “I think rape can be quite fun if executed in a romantic manner. Like saying ‘I love you’ before slipping a roofie in her earl grey tea.” The outrage over these comments spilled over to Twitter and the two writers were suspended and eventually dismissed.
This is not the first time that reactions and comments on Twitter have caused people to lose their jobs. Some users even refer to the effect of the “Twitter Tribunal”. According to Goldstuck, holding people accountable for their tweets is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. “Anywhere in the world where people are abusive, they are going to get nailed. If one does see abusive behaviour on Twitter, the national inclination is to ‘nail the bastards’”, a phrase that he used to use when he was news editor at the Mail&Guardian.
Former Governor of the South African Reserve Bank (@tito_mboweni, 24,012 followers), decided to leave Twitter earlier this year, tweeting the following explanation: “My friends. My image managers are saying that I must not tweet anymore without their permission. Wow!! The Gestapo!! So long my friends.” (ewn.co.za, 2013). He returned a few days later and when asked about this, he offered the following explanation: “They [his gatekeepers] were of the view that I might say something that is ‘unfiltered’ by them. They are good people looking after my legacy. They don’t mean bad at all.” Mboweni has also previously ignited a heated discussion about African women’s hair, about which he says: “I got roasted by my managers and the tweeterati for that one. Never touch African women on their hair. Big lesson.”
Competitive advantage was another reason, given by especially journalists, as to why they wouldn’t tweet certain things. “I won’t tweet breaking news because it is in conflict with my employment contract,” said one. @qoroq said that if he is not live-tweeting an event he won’t tweet about stories that he is working on “to avoid being scooped”. “I also don’t tweet about stories that my colleagues work on.”
#5: Race, religion and politics – just don’t go there.
South Africans are weary of tweeting about race, religion and politics, mainly because they don’t want to offend or upset their fellow countrymen, or start a heated debate. Religious and race-related topics were described as “treacherous topics to discuss on any platform”.
Respondents said they wouldn’t tweet about religion as they respect others’ beliefs and “it is everyone’s own business. One respondent noted that the topic is unnecessarily divisive. “South Africans are sensitive about it [religion] and Twitter is not the best place to have a debate about it.”
“There will always be someone who disagrees with you about a religious issue. Because there is no right or wrong opinion, I’d rather not tweet about it and avoid the inevitable debate that’s been had a million times before.” – @alet87
Race was another issue that many people try to avoid. One user said that he wouldn’t tweet anything racist or sexist “even if it is only a joke”. @sunekitsoff also steers clear of race: “I have learnt that you may have the best of intentions when you tweet, reply to or retweet something because you agree or disagree – or even find it funny – but someone is bound to jump on the ‘race’ part.” @jparker notes that race is “already such a hot button issue and is too complicated to deal with in 140 characters”.
One respondent mentioned rape and race as two subjects to avoid. “I don’t mind tweeting about any touchy subjects, but these are too intense, too polarised, too unnecessarily aggressive. I have my views on them, I don’t need to fight needlessly to defend those ideas”.
Another reason why a few people mentioned they wouldn’t tweet about race or racism is because they are tired of race being an issue in South Africa. “It’s time to move on.”
Politics is another topic that seems to rile up South Africans. “I don’t tweet about politics. I don’t like the heated discussions that break out,” said @lenebelle. And @anneliwiese adds: “I’m not interested in joining a debate about my view unless I feel really strong about something.”
One respondent said he/she wouldn’t tweet about politics, race or anything controversial: “It never ends well. Never. Not that I know from experience, but I learnt from seeing others tweet about such things and the backlash that those comments received. Best to keep things light and fun. Still important to stay relevant and interesting though!”
@tcharthew said that he wouldn’t tweet anything that may be offensive to the general public. “Everyone has different belief’s and while I consider myself very liberal, I try to maintain a general respect for my fellow man.”
“I won’t tweet about religion and politics. Very sensitive issues that ‘bandwagon jumpers’ often misconstrue and take up in the wrong way. Also, many people are not open to other opinions, resulting in silly fights on twitter.” – @li_289
Others are scared of getting mired in controversy: “I won’t tweet anything too controversial, as I know opinions may vary and I don’t want to look too radical”, said one user.
There are of course exceptions, and these seem to be people with more followers. Sentletse Diakanyo (@sentletse, 31,680 followers) once tweeted that Jesus was gay and wrote a blog post stating that white people are not Africans, which caused quite a stir on Twitter. Yet his follower count keeps growing. Sentletse contributes his popularity partly to the fact that he speaks his mind. “The things that I tweet about are generally topical and of interest to most. But I know that some are often not happy with my view on particular subjects, e.g. religion, abortion, traditional circumcision, etc. I do not think there should be any subject that should not be tackled, if needs be.”
Most-followed South Africa tweeter, comedian Trevor Noah, recently came under fire for tweeting: “Happy Women’s Day ladies. Hope you all have a great day. Even you Caster.” He was referring to Caster Semenya, the athlete who had to undergo gender tests after she won the women’s 800m world championships in 2009 and her gender was questioned (Pillay, 2013). The story was covered in the news and there was an outrage on Twitter, but that didn’t really affect Noah’s follower count. This is in line with preferential attachment, a phenomenon whereby new network members prefer to make a connection to popular existing members (Hutto et al. 2013). The number of followers a person maintains has been shown to reduce the likelihood that the person will be unfollowed in the future, meaning popular people often remain popular.
Very few respondents answered that there are no topics that they avoid.
“There is nothing I will not tweet about. If it’s news and is interesting, I’ll tweet about it”. – @PaulivW
When Chris Roper (@ChrisRoper, 18,806 followers) was asked whether he thinks South Africans are more cautious to tweet about things such as politics and race, or whether they are careful not to make prejudices apparent given the country’s history, he responded that he thinks the opposite is true. “We’re way more aggressive about tweeting about those subjects, which is a good thing”.
According to Diakanyo, South Africa has a diversity that transcends into the social landscape. “We pretend to have unity as a nation, but generally we are very divided on the majority of issues. Even among Africans”. He lists divisions about transformation, the future of the country, culture and traditions, as examples. “All of these divisions often play out on Twitter. We all have opinions on one thing or the other. And I like that we are not afraid to disagree and often passionately so”.
Racism, sexism or other bigotry was listed by more than half of respondents as the main reason why they unfollow people on Twitter.
#6: Twitter is not good medium for a fight
“I try and refrain from posting too controversial tweets as I don’t really see Twitter as the best place to have an argument. 140 characters per tweet is really really restrictive. A blog post is a better medium to post a more controversial opinion where other people can rebut with more than 140 characters.” – @simondlr
A great deal of the respondents noted that they don’t want to tweet anything that could start an argument, as Twitter is not a good platform for this. One user noted that he won’t tweet anything that will prompt a “knee-jerk backlash” from people who don’t agree or who will require him to defend his opinions. “Most non-obvious opinions can’t be adequately justified in 140 characters.” And another said: “there is not enough space on Twitter to get the message across properly”.
The terseness of Twitter is clearly an obstacle. One respondent noted that opinions about religion and politics for example get taken out of context if you break your thoughts up into separate tweets – even if you tweet them consecutively.
But arguments do happen and especially people with large followings get goaded into fights. Mazibuko recalls how she got into a fight with singer Simphiwe Dana one night. “She tweeted something aggressive and pointless about the DA or about Helen [Zille], and because I was in a foul mood I just laid into her. It is the one and only time that I’ve lost my temper on Twitter. I don’t like it and I don’t think it does anyone any good.” Mazibuko also noted that the number of characters on Twitter is “frustratingly short” and that the experience taught her not to tweet when she’s angry. “I have to remember that I only have 140 characters. I can’t have a diatribe made up of 20 tweets trying to make my point.”
According to journalist Gus Silber (@gussilber, 24,729 followers) when people engage in conflict with one another, they have to do so in a very terse, rapid-fire manner, and this brings a whole new dimension to rhetoric and debate on the medium. “You can’t waste words or pull your punches. You have to get straight to the point.” Silber says that when people tweet that it will take more than 140 characters to explain their point, they basically admit defeat. “They are saying the medium isn’t enough for the message, so they’re backing out.” He jokingly adds that a good Twitter-fight can be a voyeuristic form of entertainment for the non-combatants. “It’s almost like parking your car in a game reserve, and watching two animals have a fight. It has the same sort of compulsion to it.”
#7: Don’t be so negative
“[I wont tweet] complaints and negative stuff about South Africa. I’m excited about the future of South Africa and believe that people who are awake, sharp and smart will see a need and a way to supply for it. Big things can come out of every mess if you’re willing to work a little harder and give a little more. Our nation needs to be educated – that in itself will be hard work. BUT we can do it. We are well able.” – @CarCloete
The above sentiments were echoed by a few respondents who said that they wouldn’t tweet about negative things or complain. They would rather be positive about South Africa. “I try to keep my online presence positive. I follow the principle that I’d rather promote what I value rather than bash what I don’t,” said one respondent. An exception is made for Tweeting customer service complaints. Users note these are resolved promptly and efficiently on Twitter. It is therefore seen as fine to complain about a company or product, but users try to refrain from complaining about South Africa.
This notion is in line with the finding of Hutto et al. that message content significantly impacts follower growth and that expressing negative sentiment has an adverse effect on follower gain, whereas expressing positive sentiment helps to facilitate it (2013).
#8: Awareness of reach and consequences
What was abundantly clear from survey responses received, is the fact that people avoid tweeting about certain topics, because they are aware of the fact that the reach of their tweets is potentially huge, and that whatever they tweet can have serious consequences. Whether they have a correct understanding of the law and legal repercussions or not, South Africans don’t want to risk playing with fire.
One respondent noted that that he/she doesn’t want to be “nabbed for hate speech”. Another answered that they won’t tweet judgmental or insulting remarks aimed towards a specific person, because “it is a criminal offence and can cost you dearly”. And another said that he/she wouldn’t tweet derogatory comments about people “due to new laws”.
Users specifically referred to the fact that “retweets can reach unintended tweeps and even lead to legal issues – not forgetting career suicide.” They also specifically responded that it is too easy for tweets to spread through retweets and reach unintended audiences. “Even if your account is private.”
As @tito_mboweni notes: “You have to be very careful what you tweet about. Once you press the ‘send’ button, its gone!”
#9: They know very well who their followers are
When users were asked who they think is following them (without checking their follower list), the responses were as follows:
About halfway through the survey an additional question was added asking respondents how often they checked their follower list. Just over 140 respondents answered this question. More than a third of these respondents indicated that they hardly ever check their follower list (hardly ever/not often/ seldom or never). About a quarter of respondents said that they check their follower list regularly (All the time/Often/Daily/Weekly). About another quarter indicated that they check between twice a month and every couple of months. A few said they check their follower list every time they receive a new follower notification.
After asking respondents about who they thought their followers were, respondents were asked to check their actual follower list and how this corresponds to their initial assumptions. The overwhelming majority (79,3%) of respondents indicated that this was as expected or mostly as expected.
Only about 6,9% of respondents said that they were surprised by their follower list. Most of this surprise was attributed to the fact that more strangers and more people from elsewhere in the world were following them than originally suspected. About 13,8% of people did not answer this question.
The bigger the follower list, the harder it is to accurately imagine one’s followers. According to Khaya Dlanga (@khayadlanga, 98,033 followers) the brain cannot process more than a couple of hundred people, so he doesn’t know exactly who his followers are. He invokes the imagined audience and says that he imagines his followers to be all sorts of different people. “Some funny, some shy, some outspoken. Basically like most people one would meet at a function.”
@carienduplessis says she knows that fellow journalists, friends, politicians and political junkies and also some spooks are among her followers. “I don’t think about the audience that much when I tweet, other than that I want to inform people.”
Parliamentary leader @lindimazibuko says she does try to check her follower list, but that she wishes there was a way for her to check which famous people were following her. She notes that she was very surprised to accidentally find out that artist Conor Mccreedy and author Zakes Mda were following her. “If there are interesting people who are following me I try to follow them back, but there is no way for me to track who all my followers are, so most of them are unknown to me”.
Mazibuko says she doesn’t keep a specific audience in mind when tweeting, but that she does sometimes think of voters, potential voters and the media. “Obviously I care about the media. The media these days are very quick to write stories off Twitter.”
According to Goldstuck people do check their followers and they do notice when people unfollow them. He used to follow every second person back that followed him, but when he couldn’t keep up with his Twitter stream, he started unfollowing a few people. Goldstuck uses a service that alerts him when people unfollow him and a lot of the people that he unfollowed returned the favour. “That’s fairly common and tells me that by and large people do care about who follows them. When you unfollow them, they do notice and they reciprocate”.
#10: Is South Africa unique? Yes and No.
When Interviewees were asked whether they thought the South African Twitter landscape was unique, the reaction was mixed.
According to Roper, the South African Twitter landscape is exactly the same as any other landscape. “The only differences lie in cultural signifiers. For example Twitter censors threads in South Africa that contravene US mores, but don’t contravene ours (e.g. @khayadlanga’s #thingsdarkiesdo thread).”
Goldstuck agrees that the South African Twitter landscape isn’t particularly unique. “What is interesting is the kind of conversations that happen within a specific cultural group. It happens throughout the world too. It is not a unique phenomenon, but the way in which it is expressed here is unique”.
Former CEO of FNB Michael Jordaan (@michalejordaan, 33,670 followers) responded that the huge diversity in views differentiates South Africa, as well as the fact that South Africans don’t take themselves to seriously.
Journalist James Styan thinks that South Africa’s politics and history sets the country apart. “The issues we debate on are very uniquely South African. These include issues like how do we deal with the legacy of apartheid. How do we trust each other? How do we build the country up? How do we move forward?” According to him, most of the conversations in the South African Twittersphere are linked to those points and he believes that Twitter is helping to bridge some divides and is helping South Africans to better understand one another.
According to Silber, Twitter in South Africa is extremely vibrant when compared to Twitter in other countries. “We have a lot of personality. We are a very self-aware tweeting nation. We know what the triggers are and we know what gets people jumping. We know what brings us together and what divides us. There is a clear and constant awareness of the bigger picture of who we are as South Africans. What people tweet about really reflects that, and it adds to our understanding of what makes us tick, as individuals and as a nation.”
 Most of the respondents submitted their Twitter handles in any case, but checked the option to ask that their handle wouldn’t be used. 185 of the 217 people who submitted the survey filled in their Twitter handle.
 A communicative technique that ‘involves people “amping up” their popularity over the Web using techniques like video, blogs, and social networking sites (Senft 2008).