Perspective and context can entirely change how people view numbers. Which number seems larger: 16 percent or 30 million? Without perspective and context, it’s hard to say. In this case, they actually are the same number.
A study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 16 percent of adult Internet users use Twitter (that works out to 13 percent of all adults, doing the math from the survey’s sample of all adults). If that strikes you as a small number, then consider 30 million instead. That’s the number you get if you apply that 13 percent to the nation’s adult population. For comparison, daily newspaper circulation in the United States is 44 million. (Readership is higher.)
Why should journalists or newsrooms care about a service that six out of seven adults don’t even use? That’s where perspective and context come in.
The Pew study also found that 20 percent of the adult Internet users use LinkedIn, substantially more than use Twitter. But what the study didn’t show is how much the people use each service. The question asked was:
Please answer these next questions by thinking about all the ways you use the internet with computers, laptops, mobile phones, and other devices. Please tell me if you ever use the internet or an app with any of those devices to use (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.)
I “use” both Twitter and LinkedIn. I would say I probably use LinkedIn fewer than 10 times a week. I use Twitter dozens of times per day. Twitter has been my primary news source for more than four years. LinkedIn is a professional networking tool where I occasionally reach some people who aren’t on Twitter. So in a study like this, I would count equally as a “user” of both, but there is nothing at all equal about my use of Twitter and LinkedIn.
The wording “if you ever use” no doubt is interpreted differently by people. Some might answer “yes” if they once opened an account but don’t currently use it (“ever” being a pretty long time), but others might answer “no” because the question uses present tense and they no longer use the service.
Facebook, as you would expect, blows both Twitter and LinkedIn away in the Pew study, used by 66 percent of online adults. Again, the study doesn’t measure the intensity or frequency of use. I suspect both Facebook and Twitter have far more intensity and frequency in their use than LinkedIn. And Facebook, I’m sure, has way more heavy users than Twitter does.
So why am I making such a big deal about a tool that’s used by only 16 percent of adult Internet users? Can it really be that valuable to journalists? Yes.
First things first: Facebook is also damned important for journalists. I may blog a similar series about how you should use Facebook when I finish this #twutorial series. I emphasize Twitter over Facebook for several reasons:
- Journalists seem to have resisted using Twitter more than they have resisted Facebook, so I think they need more help and persuasion with Twitter.
- Facebook started out with all of its content private, visible only to the user’s friends. It has been pushing for more of its content to be public, but users have been resisting that, so much of its content remains private (most, I believe, though I haven’t seen figures on that; if you’ve seen a public-private breakdown, please share a link.)
- One of Twitter’s greatest uses is its advanced search capability to find tweets about the very topics a journalist is writing about (sometimes at the scene of breaking news). Facebook’s search sucks, so it’s harder to find the useful updates you want, even if they are public.
- Facebook etiquette favors a handful of updates over the course of a day, rather than a steady stream. So when news breaks, a heavy Twitter user at the scene is going to provide far more useful information than a polite Facebook user.
Update: Apparently I didn’t make myself clear in the statements above, because Robin Lubbock misunderstood:
— Robin Lubbock (@RLma) September 17, 2012
To clarify: I recognize that Facebook can be as useful for journalists as Twitter, more useful in some cases. For instance, if you’re looking for someone who is suddenly in the news, you’re more likely to find that person on Facebook than on Twitter (the Pew numbers absolutely support that). And Facebook drives more traffic and more sharing and often drives more conversation (and its conversations are easier to follow). But, as I said above, Facebook has some limitations that cut into that huge difference in how many people use them.
Here are some reasons why Twitter is more useful for journalists than LinkedIn, even with fewer users:
- Twitter has far more conversation than LinkedIn. You can post updates to LinkedIn, but replies, in my experience, are rare.
- Sharing comments or links posted by other people (similar to Twitter’s retweets) is even more rare on LinkedIn.
- Like Facebook, much of LinkedIn’s content is not generally public, visible only to people in your network or to people with expensive professional accounts
- The most common types of information posted on LinkedIn are résumés and professional connections. Both are valuable (and LinkedIn does have a good search engine, so journalists can find LinkedIn quite useful), but Twitter’s content is more varied and thus more useful to journalists.
- Because you can feed tweets on your news site, using widgets, ScribbleLive or CoverItLive, or curate tweets from the community using Storify, Twitter helps you create content for your site, reaching people beyond the 16 percent (or 13 percent or 30 million).
Here’s why I view a service used by only 13 percent of adults as important for journalists:
- 30 million people are a lot. If, without citing that seemingly low percentage, I told you I could show you a tool that would let you listen to, contact, share links to your content with and ask questions of potentially more than half the number of newspaper customers in your community, you’d want to know how to use it, wouldn’t you?
- Most Twitter users make their content public, so you can see their tweets even if they don’t follow you.
- Twitter has an effective search engine that helps you learn quickly and easily what people are tweeting about events and issues in your community.
- Many (certainly not all) Twitter users tend to tweet about the news stories they are involved with or witness.
- Twitter users are notably younger than newspaper readers (27 percent of Internet users from 18 to 29 years old use Twitter, the Pew study says), so journalists who use Twitter effectively can expand their audience.
I should note that the Pew study was primarily about posting and sharing of photos and videos online. It noted the growing popularity of Pinterest (used by 12 percent of Internet users and 19 percent of women using the Internet, the same usage level among women as LinkedIn and higher than Twitter’s usage among women), Instagram (also 12 percent overall and 27 percent among Internet users 18 to 29) and Tumblr (5 percent overall and 11 percent among Internet users 18 to 29), each used by fewer people overall than Twitter and each also valuable to journalists.
I found it curious that the survey didn’t include YouTube and Flickr. I’m sure that YouTube would be among the leaders in use, probably ahead of Twitter and LinkedIn and maybe pressing Facebook. I’m guessing Instagram and Pinterest have passed Flickr in photo use, but I’d be interested in how they compare.
My point is that each of these tools has value to journalists. To say that you use just the most popular tool or two makes no more sense to me than a court reporter saying she checks only the criminal court cases and civil lawsuits because they produce the most good stories. You’d better check out the bankruptcy and probate courts, too, because they turn up occasional gems for the best court reporters. Heck, my first story for the Des Moines Register came from a small-claims case.
In the same way, a smart journalist today doesn’t use just Facebook and LinkedIn, but masters Twitter and knows how to use Pinterest and other social tools as well.
I didn’t get around to doing a #twutorial post this week (though I did two the week before). I have several more posts planned, and I hope to continue doing them about weekly. Here are the previous posts.