It seems like every week there is a new study about the demographics of Twitter users. The problem that I have with these studies is that usually something seems “off” with regard to the analysis. In fact, the findings often seem misleading and designed to garner publicity instead of answering fundamental questions. This past week, Nielsen published some data from their Nielsen NetRatings panel regarding the growth rates of Twitter users by age group. In this case, to further support the sensationalized Morgan Stanley report about teens use of Twitter based on the habits of their 15 year old intern. The problem is that most people take the headline at face value and never read the details. Furthermore, they then ”retweet” and blog about it without critical analysis until it becomes “fact.”
Consequently, as a result of this Nielsen NetRatings study, the twittersphere is abuzz with the headline that “TEENS DON’T TWEET!” trending to the top of the Twitter search. It sounds so alarming, you’d think the sky was falling.
In their article, Nielsen makes the following statement:
“Perhaps even more impressively, this growth has come despite a lack of widespread adoption by children, teens, and young adults. In June 2009, only 16 percent of Twitter.com website users were under the age of 25. Bear in mind persons under 25 make up nearly one quarter of the active US Internet universe, which means that Twitter.com effectively under-indexes on the youth market by 36 percent.”
It’s true, the growth of Twitter is impressive and the size of the youth market using Twitter is very small. However, I think the claim is misleading, and I’m not jumping on the ”OMG, teens don’t tweet!” bandwagon. Here’s why:
The Nielsen chart is listed as the Twitter.com Website Growth by Age Group. While the graph itself shows the growth visually, the only numbers listed are the percentages for June 2009, which indicate the absolute proportion of users by age range.
While this is interesting information, the numbers don’t really tell us what the change in the proportion has been for each segment over time – or the actual growth rate for that group. That’s an important piece of information — is the proportion of young people less than or more than what it was 6 months ago? Are young people keeping up? Are they accelerating their rate of adoption, despite their relatively small absolute numbers?
The answer is Yes. In fact, it looks like there has been an explosion in the 2 to 24 year old group’s use of Twitter in the past 6 months. Based on a quick analysis of the graph, the 2 to 24 year old segment grew from just under 6% of the users in January to 16% of users by June.
I think that’s pretty huge. The youth segment substantially increased their relative size in the Twitter population. And, somehow, they managed to do this despite the fact that we’re realistically only talking about a 10 year range (13 to 24). This is in contrast to the vast majority of people who fall into the 25+ category, which represents about a 50 year range!
Since the number of users in January was substantially smaller than in June, it’s difficult to simply view the Nielsen graph and make an assessment of the percentages. Just a thought for Nielsen — I wouldn’t have had to do so much work if you had simply included the numbers upfront. To make the calculation reasonably accurate, I put the graph into Photoshop and added a grid to it. I then estimated the audience to come up with the percentages for January. Doing this clearly showed that only 6% of the total were 2 to 24 years old in January, which was about 260k people. By June, the number of younger Twitter users was more than 10 times what it was 6 months ago, whereas the number of Twitter users over 25 was only 3 to 4 times what it was 6 months ago. So, yes, the absolute numbers are larger for the overall population but the kids are catching up!
Using the grid overlay, I was able to get a good estimate of the numbers behind this graph…
I’m attaching my spreadsheet here for anyone who would like to look at the calculations.
As mentioned, on the surface, the study shows that 2 to 24 year olds are under-indexed by 36% when it comes to tweeting. This group represents 25% of the Internet audience and only 16% of the Twitter audience. I don’t have an issue with that. My issue is that rather than the misleading headline “Teens Don’t Tweet, Twitter’s Growth Not Fueled By Youth” it would be more correct to say:
“Teens Are Less Likely to Tweet. Twitter’s Growth Not Fueled By Youth”
or, even better:
“Teens Less Likely to Tweet, But Numbers Are Growing”
“Youth Market Finally Catching on to Twitter!”
In other words, take teens out of it, unless you are going to publish a story specifically about teens, who are generally 13 to 17.
Let’s further address the age range. The study aggregates children, teens and young adults. Why do that? The behavior of these three groups is very different, for obvious reasons. To lump them all into the same category makes for an uninspired and confusing analysis. There are plenty of issues related to this:
Terms of Service: The Twitter terms of service prevent anyone under the age of 13 from using the site. So, why are we talking about 2 to 24 year olds? Seriously, are there any 5 year old tweeters? Most 5 year olds are just learning to read, so the idea that they would be on Twitter is ridiculous. They may be on the Internet, but they are doing other activites designed for kids. Given the recent amount of porn spam, I don’t think I would want any kid under the age of 18 using it.
Public Environment: Twitter is a public place and I can’t see many parents allowing their teens on Twitter — a lot of people I know are still debating when to let their kids get a Facebook account, which is as private as you want to make it.
Again, Nielsen, why are you reporting the age range of 2 to 24? And, more importantly, did that 25% you mentioned actually include kids under 13? If so, you should remove them and recalculate your percentages.
Even still, I’m not sure 13-24 is really that useful of a group anyway. It would have been more interesting to break it out into 13 to 17 and 18 to 24 olds — pretty standard categories in the research world. I’d like to know more about the differences between teens and young adults and their adoption rates of Twitter.
Assuming that we’re really talking about teens and young adults, and not children, there are a host of other reasons which have already been brought up about why teens, in particular, don’t use Twitter as much as adults:
- Teens aren’t in front of a computer all day
- Many don’t have smart phones, which would make interacting with Twitter difficult and not particularly engaging.
- They don’t want to use up their text message limits on Twitter
- Their friends are elsewhere (Facebook and other social networks)
- It’s public — and they don’t want their parents to see what they are up to
- They are (generally) not selling anything (which is why a lot of people use Twitter)
- They are (generally) not interested in sharing and discussing business articles (ya think?)
- They are (generally) not interested in discussing world events (war, politics, etc.)
- and so on.
So, as Mashable asks, what does this mean for the future of Twitter?
Well, as presented it doesn’t mean much, for the reasons listed above. I think we should be more focused on the trend and the trend is looking good for the youth market. The base is much smaller, so it’s not surprising that the numbers seem relatively small. However, time will tell.
In terms of young adults, as young people migrate into the workforce, if they are not adopting Twitter – for networking purposes or news/information, then this is something that could be a problem in the long run. However, by that time, all the adult early adopters may have moved on to something else as well.
In terms of teens, if Twitter wants to accelerate the growth of the youth market, then they should develop some features that would make it fun and safe for teens while relieving parental anxiety over public tweeting. Since the parents are likely to be the gatekeepers anyway of some of their teens Internet use, the parents need to feel comfortable with it.
There is still plenty of growth possible for Twitter so I don’t think we need to worry that teens are under-indexing on Twitter use just yet. Despite all the buzz, we’re still not talking about that many users relative to Facebook, for example. And, until Twitter can provide a stable, scalable platform, do we really want to encourage rapid growth? Nothing is more of a turn off to both new and existing users than super-slow page loads and fail whales. Just think about how unusable Twitter was this spring when Ashton Kutcher and Oprah got onboard.
Presidential elections are not the only domain for sensational headlines and sound bites, the business community is predisposed to latching onto them too. The problem is that they muddy up reality and most people never get past them. It’s like when the CEO of a company comes to only one focus group and it happens to be the anomaly. He/she will only remember what they saw in the one group and think that this represents the behavior of all customers. Generally speaking, it would be better for everyone if we all bothered to read the full report.
Let me know your thoughts and take a look at my spreadsheet to make sure I’m not missing something.