Instagram, Like Other Social Media, a ‘Police Scanner’ for a Demographic

Recognizing a new tool at The Boston Globe is a gateway to worthwhile discussion on social media strategy: not everyone likes, has access to or uses the same digital thing. And that’s great for journalism. has a nice read on the wall-o-local-Instagram pics that the Globe is test-driving in its newsroom. Appropriately named “Snap,” the project is a result of a partnership with the MIT Media Lab, and it displays every local Instagram image on a big map of the area. Neat on its own (i.e., worthy of an Instagrammed pic of its own), and notably, it’s also being used for helping find sources for local stories.

There’s definite newsroom utility to display social media data like this on a map. You naturally are exposed to events, with pictorial evidence, that you may not have otherwise paid attention towards. And you can can pinpoint where that action is happening. That’s practical on a day-to-day basis, and particularly helpful during event like Hurricane Sandy, where much is going on and you’re looking to move your reporting fast. It’s clearly a useful tool (and if it isn’t yet clear, I’d certainty love to play with it.)

What I think is worth noting beyond the obvious ingenuity, however, was the main story that according to the article Chris Marstall, creative technologist at the Boston Globe, actually produced during Hurricane Sandy. After spending “about eight hours staring at Snap” during the storm, this piece says that Marstall didn’t know what story to pick up and write. “Eventually I figured out that the interesting story to tell was that everybody was staying home and getting drunk in their apartments, doing a lot of day drinking,” he said.

This isn’t the only story Snap has been used for, of course. But the existence of the “Lost Monday” of drinking story based off Instagrammed pics makes for a good point to pause and remember that demographics – and who’s doing the engaging – differ among different social platforms. (This is also probably a good time to pause and look at the “”fun blog post that went a little bit viral” itself. [I like the inclusion of Wild Turkey and “stove top s’mores.”])

There’s a reason this barrage of cocktail images seemed like the most interesting story to write about. Snap isn’t a snapshot of everything, because Instagram isn’t a snapshot of everything. And neither is Facebook or Twitter. Or Pinterest or Tumblr.

I’ve outlined who is on Twitter before, but I thought it may be good to outline a few quick stats relevant to discussion on Instagram, too:

Just 12 percent of U.S. online adults say they use Instagram, according to August 2012 research by the Pew Internet and American Life project. That compares to 66 percent of U.S. online adults who use Facebook, and 16 percent of U.S. online adults who use Twitter.

That said, the percentage of U.S. online adults is not 100 percent of the U.S. population. According to a September 2012 Pew report on politics on social networking sites, only about 80 percent of Americans are “internet users.” So the 12 percent of U.S. online adults who say they use Instagram, notably, is not 12 percent of the American public (i.e., it’s likely a few percentage points lower).

Some 27 percent of internet users between ages 18-29 use Instagram, according to the same August research. To compare, only 8 percent of internet users 30 – 49 years of age said they use Instagram, and those ages 50 – 64 came in even less: only 6 percent said they use Instagram.

You can safely guess that the youngin’s (admittedly like myself) would be more represented on a younger platform like this, but it’s worth noting the actual size of this group because of the small portion of U.S. internet users, mentioned above, who are actually on it. In short, the medium is dominated by young adults.

A significant 16 percent of internet users with an annual household income of $75,000 or more use Instagram, according to the same research. To compare, the research suggests that only 8 percent of internet users making under $30,000 a year use Instagram.

The basic point, Instagram’s usage – like other digital services – may be more popular among certain socio-economic classes.

About the same number of men and women internet users say they use Instagram, again according to the Pew data. To compare, only 5 percent of male U.S. internet users say they use Pinterest, as opposed to 19 percent of female U.S. internet users who say they “pin.” On Facebook, this research suggests the male-female usage split among internet users is about 63 percent for men and 70 percent for women.

The basic point: Instagram has about an equal percentage of men and women using it, though not every digital service can claim the same.

If you take into consideration the make-up of who is on Instagram, the interesting story of Bostonians day drinking during a big storm and a day away from work makes sense. You’re going to see those sort of pics pop up because there’s a certain population that dominates that social media space.

This is a good thing. If you, the journalist, take the time to understand who is on and make up the various social media services out there, you’re going to be able to leverage them for the right stories. You’re going to be more apt to push the most likely content to be successful in the right spaces. You’re going to be more apt to crowdsource in the right spaces. And you’re going to me more aware of a certain space’s limits, or better yet, the probability of finding what you’re looking for.

You may have heard people talk about how Twitter is a new police scanner, the modern version of a tool that has for years helped journalists know where to focus attention. This is basically true, but it’s important to note that just like how the police scanner only picks up a certain type of wavelength and the main population using it (police), the same is true for social media.

For more on Instagram from 10,000 Words, check out this recent piece on Instagram’s new web profiles and what that could mean for news organizations.