Numbers always demand context.
Twitter is used by “only” 19 percent of Internet-using adults. That was the word Ann Friedman used in a Columbia Journalism Review piece, following up on the discussion of New York Times Twitter use started by Buzzfeed and continued by me, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and others.
Friedman’s piece gave reasons why a journalist might want to use Twitter as well as some why you wouldn’t. She’s enthusiastic about Twitter and I applaud her contribution to this discussion. But I’m going to pick at that one word, because others have used that 19 percent figure as a reason to dismiss Twitter. On Twitter and in a comment on Friedman’s post, people zeroed in on that number as a supposed sign that Twitter isn’t important (Ivan is channeling others here, not expressing disdain):
Q2. But but but … why Twitter and not other tools if only 19% are on it? What is it that makes it better, if at all? #dfmchat
— Ivan Lajara (@ivanlajara) October 15, 2014
But 19 percent of adult Internet users is a lot. Let’s do the math:
- The most recent estimate of U.S. population is 316,128,839. The adult population is 76.7 percent of that, so we’re at 242,470,819.
- 87 percent of adults use the Internet, according to Pew research. That’s 210,949,614.
- So 19 percent of that is 40 million Americans.
How much differently would Friedman’s piece have read if she had written “a whopping 40 million Americans” instead of “only 19 percent”?
My opening point was that numbers demand context. So here’s some context for you: 19 percent of adult Internet users or 40 million Americans is more than:
- The people who buy the 541 daily newspapers who reported figures to the Association for Audited Media.
- The population of California.
- The votes George H.W. Bush received in 1992.
- iPhone sales last quarter.
- The people who watched the last episode of “Breaking Bad.”
The point is: Internet use is huge and 19 percent of its users are a lot of people. Google, Amazon and Facebook have bigger audiences, I presume, maybe a few more. But there aren’t many bigger digital audiences than Twitter’s.
And, as I’ve said many times before, Twitter is an excellent tool for finding sources on breaking news, liveblogging and many other journalism uses that have nothing to do with the potential size of your audience.
Don’t use 19 percent as a measure of how small Twitter is. It’s a measure of how big Twitter is.
Update: I remembered this after initially posting. I made a similar argument here a couple years ago, when the numbers were smaller.