Why Is Twitter So Popular in Brazil?

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A recent visit to Twitter's worldwide trending list would have shown a woman named Senhora Aparecida listed below the name David Arquette and the word midterm. That the patron saint of Brazil on the eve of her national feast day ranked near the latest American celebrity breakup (Arquette and Courteney Cox) and the prevailing U.S. political buzzword should come as no surprise to Twitter users, given the regular appearance of Portuguese phrases on Twitter's popularity charts. A new study published this month by comScore, a digital marketing firm, found that 23% of Internet users in Brazil — compared with 11.9% in the U.S. — visited Twitter this past August, the highest rate of participation by any country in the world. "Brazilians have just been voracious," says Katie Stanton, Twitter's vice president of international sales and marketing.

Americans are still the best-represented nationality among the 160 million people who use Twitter, an information-sharing website created in 2006 by a pair of San Francisco software engineers. But Twitter's international traffic now accounts for 65% of the website's overall content, with growing followings in Europe and Asia. In Brazil, the site has carved a truly special niche. In a country known for its vast gulf between the rich and poor, Twitter has managed to cut across the class divide. "It's not something that's just for rich Brazilians," says Gabe Simas, who promotes teen bands for MTV Brasil through Twitter. "The main reason Twitter is so huge in Brazil is because it gives access to normal people to contact their idols." Indeed, the country's soccer stars were among the earliest proponents of Twitter. To take one example, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, also known as Kaká, has 2 million Twitter followers, or roughly a million more than NBA star LeBron James.

Twitter's success in Brazil, says James Green, a professor of Brazilian and Portuguese studies at Brown University, is tied intimately to the history of the country's rise from the shadow of authoritarianism to its newfound status as a budding global power. After a 21-year military dictatorship ended in 1985, a narrow set of media conglomerates helped bind together the country's emerging civil society. Despite its geographic immensity — spanning the far reaches of the Amazon to its metropolises on the Atlantic — the country is accustomed to a lack of diversity in its media. So when Twitter arrived on the scene, Brazilians were ready to embrace this latest media phenomenon. "There's a keen awareness of the importance and the power of the country, and the fact that Brazil is away from the rest of the world motivates Brazilians," says Green. "There's a tremendous thirst to find out what the latest trend is."

Much of Brazil's transformation can be seen through the spread of telecommunications and the growth of social media. With telephone landlines once the preserve of wealthy elites, millions have turned over the years to mobile phones as their primary connection. That shift worked well with Twitter, which entered the Brazilian market first as an SMS service. To confront the gap between rich and poor, both the government and private NGOs sought to introduce computer technology to the poorest classes as early as the beginning of the 1990s. "Brazil was a pioneer in creating democratic access to computers and Internet for the poor, well ahead of the United States," says Green. And while many favelas are still excluded from the electric grid, the country's "Popular PC Project" of installing cheap computers in poorer areas has become a model the world over.

The civic participation of a once nonexistent middle class has also fueled Twitter's rise in Brazil. The upcoming second round of Brazil's presidential election, to be held on Oct. 31, was the top Twitter trend of the first week of the month, according to a survey published by the social-media website Mashable.com. "There's a big bias in mass media against Lula," says Green, referring to Brazil's outgoing President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the champion of Brazil's poor who himself only has a fourth-grade education. "The Internet's a way to fight back." Lula's handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla, is favored to win the second round over the right-of-center candidate José Serra.

Brazilians have taken to social-media websites other than Twitter. Google's social-media venture, Orkut, has found little success in the U.S., but in Brazil, the website was the beneficiary of 36 million unique visits in August, according to comScore. Facebook, too, is taking off in Brazil. In just one year's time, Facebook saw a growth of 479% in membership, leaping from 1 million to 9.5 million Brazilian members. It's a phenomenon that's planting deep roots. "My sister is 10 years old. My grandmother is 82," says Simas of MTV Brasil. "And they both have Twitter."