Random blog-like rambling from Rachel's brain. A mixed up mess of usability posts, fiction, and travel.

On Social Networking Demographics

I've spent more time than is potentially healthy thinking about Twitter recently. This is partially due to conversations at the office about the popular micro-blogging service, but it's ever-presence in the news over the last several months is keeping it on my mind as well. Last time I waxed a bit poetic about how Twitter has become ingrained in our communication system today. This time, it's going to be all about demographics and statistics.

Huh? Here's the thing. Twitter has a really interesting demographic makeup. A demographic makeup that has me really curious about a few things.

My interest was piqued when I saw a set of two fine articles put together by Peter Corbett at iStrategyLabs. The first was a summary of the demographic breakdown of Twitter.  Dig around in the numbers and at least one really interesting thing pops out:

More than half of Twitter users are over the age of 35

Why, you ask, is that so interesting? Well, traditionally speaking, social networking services are the playground of the young. Folks under the age of 35 have, in the past, been the early adopters of this kind of technology and have continued to make up the bulk of the user groups. Thus why marketing attempts on Facebook or My Space are geared to a younger audience.  So - that has me thinking, why it Twitter different?

Ok, first I'll bet you want proof of some kind that it actually is different. That brings me to the second article, which helpfully provides a breakdown of Facebook demographics. We can see here that around 70% of Facebook users are under the age of 35. My Space, although a service that is falling out of favor, skews even younger with over 30% of its users clocked in at under 18 and around 75% total under the age of 35 (that data was pulled from this presentation). So - Twitter is something of an unusual animal in that landscape.

Some folks have speculated that this is a result of the apparent inbred narcissism of the younger generation. Those much-maligned Millennials and member of Generation Y (my own horribly named generation) "realize that no one is viewing their profile, so their tweets are pointless" (read more about a 15 year old analyst who made that pronouncement). I alluded to that a bit last time, that Twitter is a communication device equivalent to shouting into the void. Do younger people find such shouting dreary since the likelihood of anyone shouting back is so small?

The preference of the young does appear to be with services that provide a more immediate feedback mechanism. You post a status on Facebook and your friends comment on it. You link to something interesting, they comment on it. Wait though, it isn't as if this isn't possible with Twitter. I can post an update and my friends or followers respond with a friendly @rknickme. It isn't so different is it?

But it is actually. See, there is so much more you can comment on in Facebook. Twitter on the other hand feels, to someone used to that flexibility, like a status update mechanism without much else going on. Heck, you can't throw a sheep at someone on Twitter can you? (Personal aside: I detest Superpoke).

So, that's my pet theory. Young users want a wealth of features at their fingertips. Twitter by its nature isn't any more or less narcissistic than Facebook or My Space. All the services are ways of broadcasting yourself and awaiting feedback and justification from the masses. What's really different is this:

1. Number of Features

2. Customization

3. Simplicity or lack thereof.

Twitter could not be more simple to get the hang of. Make an account, post a tweet. The tweets can only be 140 characters, so even that initial barrier of looking for something of substance to say is pulled down quite a bit. It is uncluttered with applications and add ons. There isn't (or wasn't until recently) much confusion surrounding privacy settings. Facebook, in comparison, is a landmine of confusion with an interface to match. That, I propose, is why Twitter has become the playground for over 35s.

What's a bit magical about that is it leads to another interesting statistic from those Facebook demographics I mentioned. The fastest growing group on Facebook? 35 - 54 year olds with the over 54s a tight second. Why the influx? Maybe it is as simple as this completely imaginary story:

A 40 year old woman is surfing the web looking for information about why her Comcast internet isn't working. She stumbles serendipitously onto ComcastCares at Twitter. She decides to try this new fangled thing out, and creates a Twitter account in order to ask the kindly people running that service what the deal might be. Now she's in. Before you know it she's sending tweets out multiple times a day, and she's following a slew of celebrities along with her family and friends.

Later, a well loved nephew or niece tells this woman about a service she's only vaguely familiar with. It's called Facebook, and the kids say you can do even more with it than the magical Twitter. They say she'll be able to add applications like Visual Bookshelf so her friends will know what she's reading. They say she can connect to her Netflix queue and everyone can see what she's watching. A couple of months ago all of that might have sounded complicated and overwhelming, but our friend has been twittering for awhile. She knows the basics of how this stuff works. The barrier to entry has been effectively lowered.

Maybe that's part of the picture. Surely, there are a number of intersecting reasons for all those juicy statistics, but the view that it can all be summed up as an effect of those narcissistic 20-something is extremely limited. The landscape of social networking on today's internet is a grand and multifaceted picture.

Of course, if I'm partly right, and the growth on Facebook may in some way be attributed to the already strong numbers of over 35s on Twitter, what does that mean for the future of Twitter? Will we start to see usage slip if people migrate from one to the other?

I doubt it, but I do think we will see an evolution in the way Twitter is used. We're already seeing an increase in marketing and customer service use on the site, and I'm confident that will continue. Could Twitter eventually be overrun by celebrities and companies shelling their personal lives and goods for our consumption while we, the unwashed masses, hide away in Facebook to share when we're going grocery shopping or are attending some rad rock show?

It's hard to predict, but in another year, the internet, Twitter and Facebook will be a completely different animal than the one we see today.