Commentary

Will the Real Twitter Please Stand Up?

Hmmm. The people I hang with on Twitter are so out there. And here I thought I was part of the Twitter mainstream.

Last night, I did my own rough survey of what my Twitter-verse (or at least those I follow), looks like -- and it in no way resembles what the well-regarded Pew Internet and American Life Project found when it looked at who in America is using Twitter.

My survey -- which consisted of looking at those I follow and counting the most recent, unduplicated tweeters, and then breaking them down by gender, race and approximations of their age and income, looked like this (I excluded accounts from entities, like corporations):  

 

  •      27 tweets were from white males.

  •       Three tweets were from white females.

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  •       On the age issue, I'd wager that most of them were in their 30s, if not 40s.

  •       Income? Surely $75,000-plus -- if not comfortably in the six figures.> 

    But the Pew survey -- which it admitted, like my survey, was from a small sample size -- looked like this. Of the entire U.S. Internet population, here are the percentages that use Twitter:  

  •       Ten percent were female; seven percent were male.

  •       Fourteen percent were age 18 to 29; seven percent were aged 30 to 49; six percent were aged 50 to 64, and four percent were 65-plus.

  •       Five percent were white, non-Hispanic; 13 percent were black, non-Hispanic, and 18 percent were Hispanic.

  •       As for income, ten percent made less than $30,000/year; six percent made between $30,000 and $49,999/year; ten percent made between $50,000 and $74,999 and six percent made more than that.

  •       Only eight percent of the U.S. adult population uses Twitter.

    In other words, if you think, based on your own experience, that Twitter is about mostly white, up-and-coming males, you just might be wrong. The point is not to debate whether the Pew research is right or wrong, but to remember that, as people deeply involved in social media, we should continually question whether the way we experience social networking, and Twitter, is the reality for most people.

    Partly, this little exercise amplifies that social media is inherently self-selecting; the fact is that most of the people I follow are in the marketing and media businesses, and have built enough of a resume that they probably aren't young, and therefore fall into higher income brackets. The people I follow also reflect the general demographics of the tech community in other ways; for better, but probably worse, they are male, and overwhelmingly white.

    But the Pew findings make me not only remember to look at Twitter occasionally through a broader lens, but also make me wonder where it really sits in the social networking universe. One of the most quoted stats about Twitter from a year or so ago was one that showed it was used by a more adult audience. This research shows that maybe it used by younger demos than we thought.

    In addition, the finding that only eight percent of U.S. adults use Twitter underscores either the immense growth it has in front of it -- or its limitations.  It's long been apparent to me that virtually no one I know outside of the social media intelligentsia uses Twitter. A handful of times in the last few years, I've had a friend from college, or the town where I live, follow me, but I can't remember any of them actually tweeting.

    A spot check of a few of their accounts last night bore out my belief that they are among the millions who've registered, but then don't know quite what to do with it. Facebook, of course, is a different story -- it has morphed for me into a social platform almost solely made up of professional contacts into one where there's at least a 50-50 balance between my professional life and my not-all-that-private life. I don't think -- for us older demos anyway -- Twitter has cracked that nut.

    Interestingly, I write this as Twitter celebrates 100 million sign-ups in 2010. But if the Pew research is any guide, those 100 million people might not be who you think they are. 

    (Editor's note: The agenda is posted for our upcoming Social Media Insider Summit, scheduled for nice, warmer climes from Jan. 30th  to Feb. 2nd. We are currently recruiting great speakers. Check it out here.)

  • 10 comments about "Will the Real Twitter Please Stand Up?".
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    1. Frank Reed from Marketing Pilgrim, December 10, 2010 at 2:10 p.m.

      I think you have hit on one of the most obvious yet understated issues when it comes to the social media industry.

      The industry looks nothing like the rest of the world and probably not even of those using Twitter etc. We get caught up in thinking we know so much when all we know is each other. Now, this group can be influencers of the first order so it's important but as far as representing or even knowing the rest of the people using these tools? No way.

    2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 10, 2010 at 2:16 p.m.

      That your sample and Pew's sample are both small is irrelevant. Theirs is random, and thus representative, plus or minus a tiny-but-measurable percentage. Yours is non-random and thus anecdotal (read: worthless). So your conjecture is baseless.

      Please don't use common sense when dealing with statistics. Numbers have a superior logic to intuition, 95% of the time anyway. The whole point of scientific measurement is to eliminate the whole "no one I know" qualification, as much as possible.

    3. Mitchell Millar from Bay Area News Group, December 10, 2010 at 2:33 p.m.

      In your article you wrote, "Ten percent were female; seven percent were male." Hmm, and the other 83%? You're right, then, the Twitter user profile does not fit my perception; I thought just men and women comprised Twitter users.

    4. Stewart Wills from stewartwills.com, December 10, 2010 at 3:51 p.m.

      Catharine, the way this article is written suggests a possible misinterpretation of the survey findings. The Pew study was reporting the percentage Internet users within of each demographic that uses Twitter. Thus, it was not "fourteen percent [of Twitter users] were age 18 to 29; seven percent were aged 30 to 49", etc.; it's that 14% of Internet users aged 18 to 29 use Twitter, and 7% of Internet users aged 30 to 49 do, etc. Similarly, 10% of female Internet users use Twitter, versus 7% of male Internet users -- not "10% [of Twitter users] were female and 7% were male" (the source of Mitchell Millar's wry observation).

      The distinction is important, because, depending on the characteristics of the Internet-using populations, the aggregate numbers might be quite different in their implications on the overall characteristics of the Twitter-verse, which seems to be the point of your article.

    5. Lisa Leverich from Tec Labs, December 10, 2010 at 4:22 p.m.

      Thanks for that clarification Stewart - I had to go back and read the survey findings as I had that same misinterpretation.

    6. Amy Moore from AmysWinningWays, December 11, 2010 at 3:19 a.m.

      We could all complete a similar study and each and every one of us would come up with a completely different set of demographics. That's good because what Medicare insurance salesperson is going to be targeting 18-29 year olds? Would make as much sense as a daycare following the 65+ lot. The diversity of it all is the important part. The key to twitter is that you can actually pick and choose who you follow and even who is following you. Statistics are purely user specific and can't really be compared.

    7. Tyler Newton from Catalyst Investors, December 11, 2010 at 11:59 a.m.

      While I'm not sure exactly how to interpret the statistics given how the author is describing them, it would appear that overall Twitter skews to younger minorities relative to the population as a whole. Like the author I tend to to follow a self-selected group of media and technology types who write and read articles about those topics, and felt that was Twitter's best use. Apparently, it has lots of uses, perhaps as a communications tool separate from and/or complementary to Facebook status updates.

    8. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, December 13, 2010 at 9:21 a.m.

      There are a few observations for twitter I have made over the last year. Most users tend to be of higher intelligence than average (think more tech geek types or capable). Definitely skew older vs younger. And definitely higher income on average. Great demographic!

      But there is also a lot of really nefarious stuff going on. There is the Far Right Wing Hate Hash Tags I have found when I discuss politics on a Twitter handle I use just for that. Stuff that seriously has me concerned for the people who live in the US. Yes the Far Left has its dark side but not the same bigotry, hate, racisim etc.

      That is one the thing that concerns me about sponsored tweets. Will your ad for Nestles show up in the #tcot #tlot #ocra #sgp streams were people think Obama is a Nazi or a N-word and that armed resistance against minorities and immigrants needs to happen now.

    9. Fionn Downhill, December 13, 2010 at 2:56 p.m.

      Almost every person who follows me is in the industry and growing rapidly since Google and Bing confirmed that social media links count towards SEO rankings. I think the few high profile tweeters (Demi Moore etc) made people think that everybody is interested in twitter. Like you nobody I know personally outside of this industry uses it. We are all talking to ourselves again!!

    10. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, December 14, 2010 at 2:09 p.m.

      It's also seemed to me that "virtually no one I know outside of the social media intelligentsia uses Twitter," and yet when I look at the Twitter trending topics, they almost always have nothing to do with social media. They are about Justin Bieber (sp?) and the like. I also wonder if some of the confusion stems from the fact that Twitter is in a different branch of social media from Facebook et al. Facebook represents the social graph/relationships branch, and Twitter represents the information branch. And a lot of people outside the "social media intelligentsia" haven't figured that out yet, or how to leverage the different branches appropriately. Regardless, because of the ascendancy of mobile devices and their form factor, Twitter is very well positioned going forward if they don't blow it.

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