Tweeting Isn’t Just For The Young – Or Rich
Researchers at the Pew Internet and American Life Project have released their latest study of Twitter use in America. Their focus: who’s joining and who’s tweeting. The results may not be what you expect – and they’re already being challenged by Twitter’s CEO. More on that in a moment.
What’s not disputed is that in the past several years the micro-blogging site has gone from a puzzlement to a curiosity to a news source before becoming, at least this week, a source of embarrassment for Congressman Anthony Weiner. And it’s big: Twitter estimates it has at 175 million registered users, and that number increases every day.
However, this likely does not mean that 175 million separate individuals are using the service. It’s very easy to register an account with Twitter, and as Nicholas Carson writing in Business Insider recently noted, many of those accounts – some 90 million – have zero followers. Additionally a growing number of people have multiple accounts for varying levels of public exposure and messaging – for example, one for work, one for friends, and another for private matters.
But as we constantly re-learn, there’s very little that’s truly private on Twitter. Yes, individuals can send private messages user to user. However, by its very design, Twitter is meant to be almost completely transparent. Unlike many other social networks, you don’t have to be registered to view others’ accounts and ‘tweets’. That means once a message is ‘tweeted’ or posted, it’s visible to the entire Internet…and very difficult to erase. Just ask comedian Gilbert Gottfried.
The Pew report contains just three pages of data. That’s short, but still it’s long enough to drive a surprising amount of commentary.
According to report author Aaron Smith, a senior specialist with Pew, 13% of American adults online use Twitter – a “significant increase” from 8% just six months earlier, notes Smith. More men tweet than women (14% to 11%), and the younger you are the more likely you’re a ‘tweeple.’ Users generally range fairly equally across income, are less likely to live in rural areas, and more likely to have graduated from college than not. Those most likely to tweet? People with smart-phones,
“It is a very significant increase in just a short period of time,” says Pew researcher Mary Madden:
“We think that this is due in part to, part of just a larger trend to more adoption of social media across various applications, and then also great adoption of mobile devices. Certainly one thing that this study pointed out is that so much of this activity is facilitated by having access to these applications on your cell phone and so many phones now come pre-loaded with these applications. So it’s very easy for users – it sort of lowers the barrier to entry.”
However there are two findings that are generating discussion. First, Smith says on a typical day Twitter users in the U.S. are much more likely to be African American (25%) and Latino (19%) than white (9%)*. And second, Twitter use by people aged 25-44 has “grown significantly” since the last six months. If the numbers are correct, for the first time the youngest age demographic (18-24) is no longer the most likely to tweet.
But not everyone believes the numbers, including Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.
Sarah Yin writing in PCMag quotes Costolo as saying “There isn’t a third party that correctly measures the Twitter audience.” In other words: Twitter says Pew’s numbers aren’t correct because they didn’t get a detailed-enough handle on Twitter’s complex demographics. Given its loose structure and accelerating growth, there’s likely some truth in that. However Madden disputes Costolo’s charge, telling us “The methodology is a standard methodology that we have consistently used over the years and it’s very well tested.”
Listen to our complete interview with Mary Madden:
Little surprise there are other opinions and ideas as well. Baratunde Thurston, a writer and editor with the satiric news-site The Onion, recently offered one theory why African Americans have taken to Twitter more than whites: “Twitter is basically a black thing.” Specifically, the public give-and-take of comments, jibes and back-and-forth ribbing on Twitter echo the call-and-response traditions first seen in slave communities, and later in American church traditions dominated by blacks.
Slate.com contributor Farjad Manjoo is less convinced, instead putting credence in theories put forward that African Americans tend to form very tight, active online communities. The denser a Twitter group, the more likely others are to follow and re-tweet from at least one of those members. This may explain why a disproportionate number of tweets from African Americans get re-sent, but less so why the service is so much more popular among minorities than white users.
Nearly everybody who has explored these and other questions about Twitter’s demographics has run up against the wall of inconsistent data. As mentioned before, it’s hard to get a hand on who’s on Twitter.
*Asian-Americans weren’t measured in this study, for reasons laid out here by Pew staff.