5 Stats on Who Makes “The Twitter Narrative” (and/or Who’s On and Uses Twitter)

It’s increasingly rare (at least from a digitally entrenched perspective) to imagine a journalist watching a presidential debate without simultaneously watching his or her tweets. This is certainly fine, and in many cases, helpful. But with CJR’s recent piece on “pack journalism” and in light of some recent studies on Twitter makeup and preferences, I figured it’d be good to review a handful of the findings together and what they may mean for journalists.

The larger aim is that a thorough understanding of the Twitter community – placed at least in the back of one’s head – could help one from being heavily influenced by that scary hive-mind (if it’s true), and regardless, put into perspective the general sentiments that may soak in when one repeatedly scans TweetDeck.

Understanding the community in any medium you regularly use, not just Twitter, is a good practice. There is always a filter bubble wherever we engage online—we tend to regularly admit that, and some of us take steps to pop it by whom we follow and what we search for. The recent findings I’ve compiled about Twitter, however, seem of a particular importance, for they shed some light on what may be a wider filter bubble (“filter fish tank”?) of what is increasingly many journalists’ anchor.

The items in the outline below are largely intended as 1) gut-checks for journalists while particularly covering the X number of tweets sent during a debate, sentiment during a large news event, and other social-focused stories, and 2) things to keep in mind just for day-to-day Twitter use as your resource (or “newspaper”). In short, if Twitter somehow influences your reporting and coverage, it’s good to have a handle of its user and usage realities before any influence on your decision-making spreads outward to other media and consequently, the general public’s knowledge. (And, because knowledge influences it, the general public’s opinion.)

A line from a BBC piece on a connected topic (“Is Twitter good for democracy?”) captures the idea: “even voters who aren’t on Twitter find themselves influenced by the Twitter narratives.” It’s worth knowing who is on Twitter, because who is there (and active) does have some definite effect, whatever it may be. Here is just my look and half-formed thoughts—I encourage you to look at recent data and do your own analysis.


1) 13 percent of Americans “ever use Twitter or read Twitter messages”

Source: Pew Research Center’s 2012 News Consumption Survey

“While news gathering is very common among Twitter users, the overall reach is limited because the audience remains relatively small.”

Twitter may be an increasingly popular and influential stronghold for journalists in the U.S., but it’s worth noting that according to Pew’s data, it isn’t hugely popular among the public. While some early 2012 data suggests that 15 percent of Americans are “on” Twitter, that may just mean they have an account—according to this more recent data, just 13 percent of Americans “ever use Twitter or read Twitter messages.” Comparatively, more than half of Americans (54 percent) use other social networking sites (such as Facebook, Google Plus, or LinkedIn). As such, “far fewer” people get news on Twitter than elsewhere on the social web, even though as a journalist, you couldn’t imagine not using it for news.

An according to that same data set, just 11 percent of Americans “ever” see news on Twitter, and only “3 percent got news there yesterday.”

So, if the data holds up, while news gathering is a common practice on Twitter, the folks doing the gathering and sharing – and using – are a small portion of the American public. The reach is small, and consequently, so is any sample of opinion (or sentiment).