While I've shared many of my thoughts in these columns, the truth is they are thoughts made on deadline, and therefore often come straight from the gut. The gut is not a bad thing to trust, but on the other hand, it doesn't lend itself to introspection. But thinking about what I would say during my presentation certainly did. And here's what I discovered:
In assessing social media platforms, I rely as much on whether I see my friends, family and neighbors using them as I do on what the pundits say. It's not scientific, I know, because it means that my results are inevitably skewed toward people somewhat like myself: harried mothers of a certain age and their spouses, people from the Northeast, and the assorted archetypes around them, from affluent children to grandmothers who have iPads. But what intrigues me is that you can probably trust this so-called data more than you think. And we should probably pay more attention to it, too.
For the purposes of my presentation, I focused on the traction of four platforms: Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook and, as a grand finale, Google+. I looked at official data from the platforms themselves, where it existed, and also at data from Pew, which does a good job of breaking down U.S. adult social media usage by age group and demo. And then, with the exception of the nascent Google+, I looked at my own lists of friends and followers, and what part of my life they came from.
What those exercises told me is that while Facebook is everywhere, when it comes to the mid-adult demo, Twitter and Foursquare haven't really caught on to the extent you might think. According to Pew, 13% of U.S. online adults use Twitter. While a big increase from the 8% who used it back in November, tweeting is a surprisingly niche behavior. When it comes to how much of my Twitter following - of about 1750 -- comes from my personal life, it's only 9 people:
· One family member, my husband. (Because his significant other told him it might be good for promoting his book.)
· Six people from the town I live -- two who are in the social media biz, one real estate agent, one mother, who has never tweeted; one app developer; and the wife of one of the two people in social media biz.
· One person I went to high school with, who works at TBWA/Chiat/Day.
· One person I went to college with, who just likes social media.
In other words, almost everyone who follows me from my personal life has something to sell.
Foursquare's results also don't match the hype. Sure, the platform has grown from only 100,000 users in the fall of 2009 to 10 million as of June. That's great. But if you think this is truly a mass phenomenon, think again. According to Pew, as of last November, only 1% of U.S. online adults used the service daily; the total percentage of users among U.S. online adults was 4%.
The percentage of people who use social networks who also use Foursquare is 6%. Compare that to the number of U.S. social network users who are on Facebook, which is an astonishing 92%!
Only four people from my personal life are friends of mine on Foursquare, and all are from the town where I live; two are the husband and wife I referenced before. The other two work for Internet start-ups.
This doesn't mean that Foursquare and Twitter are doomed. When one considers their growth rates, such a thought would be ludicrous. But it does suggest the limitations of both. I have trouble seeing, frankly, how Twitter moves beyond being for people who need a public platform and their acolytes, even though that's a lot of people.
As for Foursquare, the big hurdle is in the business model. There have to be strong incentives beyond a potential mayorship or badge to make many of us feel it's worth it to check in. Its recent business deals with Groupon and other daily deal sites, and with American Express, are yet more indication that it's going in that direction, fortunately.
Usually, when we see statistics on social media, they are true statistics, from big, reputable companies that know a good research study when they see it. Still, I think it's a useful exercise for all of us to track adoption of social networks among the people in our lives, who don't work on the Internet or social media; namely, the people who have no skin in this game. You may be surprised with what you find.
(As an addendum, here's another fun factoid from the annals of completely anecdotal research: when I asked the crowd in Tulsa if anyone had poked someone recently on Facebook, not a single hand went up. Meanwhile, about half were on Google+.)