Twitter: Gets more attention than it deserves?

Mr. News Cut is under the weather and not blogging today but to make him feel a little better we’ll tackle one of his favorite mediums: Twitter. You do follow him on Twitter, right?


Twitter looms large in the public imagination, yet only eight percent of Americans who are online use Twitter, according to a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. I was an early adopter of Twitter and am a fan, and as social media editor at MPR News, I find it to be a very valuable tool for distributing news, engaging our audiences and improving our reporting. But given the Pew numbers, it’s probably fair to ask whether Twitter gets more attention than it really deserves.

I just chatted with Pew Internet’s Aaron Smith about the new data. A transcript follows. What do you think?

News Cut: So eight percent of online Americans use Twitter?  I can’t decide whether that’s a big or small number.  

Smith: So obviously terms like “big” and “small” are fairly subjective. But to give you a sense of how that stacks up with some other internet activities, about as many online adults use Twitter as use online dating sites (8%) or buy and sell stocks, bonds or mutual funds online (11%). However, it is less mainstream than things like watching online videos (66% do this) or getting news online (75% do this).

News Cut: Does Twitter’s growth trajectory suggest it will get as big as those activities?


Smith: This is actually our first “pure” read on Twitter use–in the past we’ve asked about the usage of status update services more broadly–so we won’t really know the growth trajectory of the service until we ask this question a few more times. How it evolves will be very interesting to track. On the one hand, the lingo and abbreviations the site uses can make it somewhat challenging for new users. On the other, if I had told you five years ago that in 2010 people over the age of 50 would be the fastest growing cohort on social networking sites you would have thought I was crazy–yet that’s exactly what we’ve found in our recent research. So things can change very quickly in a short period of time.

News Cut:  How does Twitter stack up against Facebook?

Smith: Around six in ten adult Internet users use social networking sites, and of these Facebook is the most popular. We haven’t asked specifically about which sites people use in a little while, but in September 2009 we found that about 75% of social network users had a profile on Facebook.

News Cut: Your research identified some groups where Twitter use is notably higher: African Americans and Latinos, younger people, and urban dwellers. Interesting.  What’s going on there?

Smith: It is interesting, and a lot of that has to do with demographics and mobility. As a group, urban dwellers, African Americans and Latinos each tend to skew relatively young, and are also heavily engaged in using mobile technologies (cell phones in particular) to access the web. Additionally, young people of all stripes are more likely than average to use social media in general. As a social technology which was designed with the mobile environment in mind, Twitter fits quite well with the way those groups access the world around them.

News Cut: With only 8 percent of online Americans using Twitter, why has it captured or imagination so much?

Smith: I think it really depends on whose imagination we’re talking about. I think for the people who regularly use it, it serves as a hub (often one among many) where they can communicate with friends, tap into the conversation around important issues, and connect with politicians, pop culture figures, sports stars and everyone in between.