Commentary

More African-American College Students Use Twitter

I'm always curious about the ways different groups use social media, including differing levels of adoption and engagement based on age, gender, ethnicity, and so on -- but I'm also aware that data purporting to show such differences should be taken with a grain of salt. In one recent example, a study says African-Americans are more likely to use Twitter than the population at large. This finding is interesting, but needs to be qualified by the sample population -- i.e., college students.

According to a survey of first-year college students at the University of Illinois at Chicago published online by New Media & Society, Twitter in general is making big inroads among college students, with the percentage using the microblogging service jumping from 3.6% in 2009 to 17.8% in 2010. And there were indeed some remarkable differences along racial lines, with 37% of African-American college students using Twitter in 2010, compared to just 21% of white college students.  Even more interesting was the reason: African-American college students were more likely to describe themselves as being interested in celebrity and entertainment news, and many said they joined Twitter to follow certain celebrity accounts.

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These findings are certainly interesting and valuable, to the degree that they illuminate some of the social media behaviors of college students from various ethnic groups. However, I would warn against generalizing them to the rest of the African-American population, as the study seems to with statements like "African Americans in general report more interest in celebrity and entertainment news and were found to be more likely than whites to start using Twitter."

The UIC findings might not be broadly applicable for a couple reasons, specifically relating to age and class. First of all, college students -- regardless of race -- aren't representative of the population at large in several obvious ways. They tend to be younger (70% of college students were ages 14-24 in 2009, according to the Census); better-educated (99% have high school degrees, compared to 70% for all young adults in that age cohort, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics); and come from better-off families (with an average household income of $74,000 in 2005, versus a national average of $46,426, according to UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies).

The disparities are even more marked within the African-American population. 54% of African-American students graduate from high school on time, according to Education Week, and 61.4% of these then go on to attend college -- 33% of the relevant age cohort. Like the overall population, African-American college students tend to skew younger, better-educated, and better-off than the African-American population at large. They are also much more likely to be connected to the Web, with 85% of college-bound African-American high school graduates using a broadband connection at home in 2007, compared to 56% for the African-American population at large.

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