Last week Pew Internet and American Life Project came out with its latest fascinating set of statistics on Twitter use. It found that Twitter use among African Americans remains more than twice as high as that of whites; 28 percent of online African Americans use Twitter, compared to 12 percent of whites. Twitter use among young people ages 18-24 doubled in the past two years. And people with household incomes less than 30K/year use Twitter on par with or slightly higher than higher income groups.
These stats scream HUGE OPPORTUNITY for news organizations who are interested in connecting with communities that have been traditionally underrepresented as both sources and audiences for news. Of course, like everything else social media-related, Twitter is not some kind of magic tool that will automatically make it rain money and/or increase audience without a lot of hard work.
But even aside from the obvious civic value in better engaging and representing all segments of society in news coverage, we all know that as newspaper readers and other traditional media consumers age and the nation rapidly diversifies, it is essential that journalists attract a new generation of loyal audience members to survive.
Not to mention that among social networks, Twitter has been found to be one of the most conducive to news and information; in 2010 Pew also reported that minorities are more likely than whites to identify social media as an important way to keep up with what is going on in their neighborhoods.
Given that I live in a majority African American city that also has a high poverty rate and teach students who are primarily between the ages of 18 and 24, this has been an area of particular interest to me. Memphis seems like the ideal place for aggressive journalism Twitter efforts.
Last year I conducted an exploratory study with my colleagues Elizabeth Hendrickson at University of Tennessee and Jeremy Littau of Lehigh University. We conducted 19 in-depth interviews with young Twitter users at our respective universities, many of them African American. We presented the study at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in 2011, and you can read it here. We later added an online survey and updated the paper; we have not published it yet but hope to soon. Our sample size was small, so take the findings with a grain of salt; certainly it is not our intent to make any sweeping claims about how any particular demographic group uses Twitter but rather to take a preliminary but in-depth look with the hopes of gaining some useful insight for news organizations. To very briefly sum up a few of the findings:
First, the primary use for Twitter among the younger people and particularly among African Americans we studied was as a social tool for informal communication between peers. For example, many said they knew 50 to 90 percent of their Twitter connections in real life. This stands in sharp contrast to how I and most other journalists, older professionals and academic types use Twitter (I’ve never met the majority of my Twitter connections) and is more akin to how most people traditionally think about Facebook. In many ways, respondents used Twitter almost like texting, a kind of constant communication on friends in which they share thoughts, feelings and observations while going about daily life. For example, a 22-year-old African American male we interviewed said:
“It’s mostly my university name friends. So I like to post what I’m doing and keep up with friends during the day, or when we’re at different parties. Most of my posts are where I am, what I’m doing, or making funny comments during classes. My friends and I, we all reply to each other when a class is going bad and it’s funny. It keeps me entertained in classes. I feel like it’s a good way for us to be together even when we’re going about our days.”
Not surprisingly, hashtags and joking around with friends are popular, as this 22-year-old African American female explained:
I know it’s kind of weird, but I see the black community here as like a family and we all kind of each lunch together and we’ll all go in on a certain trending topic or we’ll make our own. We’ll just come up with a trending topic and start tweeting. Like there’s a song called “Shake Life,” and about two or three weeks ago we were sitting there and we made #UTKshakelife and we talked about the party life at UT. And then other schools started making their own, like #MTSUshakelife. I eat at the UC about three days a week and those three days we talk about Twitter. But they’re always funny. I’ve never participated in a serious trending topic. It’s all goofy.
These results are of course not especially applicable or encouraging for news organizations, but it is still useful I think to understand the general environment you are entering when seeking to interact with various kinds Twitter users. But while news and information was not the main reason many of our research subjects used Twitter, it was one of them, and many were amenable to journalists’ efforts to reach them there, provided their feeds weren’t suddenly saturated with an overwhelming number of links to news articles. Strikingly, the survey also showed that participants were consuming more news than in their pre-Twitter days. Participants said that it is a convenient way to stay updated on the news, making it easy to quickly scan a headline. For example, a 22-year-old African American male said:
I also use it as a news source because I realize that the older I get, the less interested I am in watching the news, because sometimes I find it can be a little depressing. And so, what I can do, I can follow different media outlets like Fox 13 or New York Times and get little, like, quick feeds and just by reading the little 140 characters, if I read something that sparks my interest, then I can click and read more, but if it’s one of those things where, uh, I really don’t want to read about that, I just keep going down my timeline. But I definitely see it as a source of news. I read newspapers every now and then, but I kind of stray away from those too, so I believe Twitter can be used as a good news source for people who want to – as a filter I guess you could say, for what they want to read and what they don’t want to read.
Similarly, a 22-year-old African American female said:
People retweet the traffic in the morning. I’ve clicked on several links, several from Katie Couric, and I’m like, this is really cool, it’s instant, it’s right there in my face, so I don’t have to try to find a television or a radio station, if I’ve got my Wi-Fi and my computer everywhere. I’ve got it right here, in my hand, what I need, even the Egypt stuff [Arab Spring in 2011], it was constant, so I got an update, I knew what was going on.
A 22-year-old African American male said:
“I know some people who haven’t picked up a newspaper in years, so I think if they [journalists] were to get on Twitter, it would help keep news alive. Journalism is kind of dying. If people did that more often, people would feel like people had a closer relationship with the person that is delivering the news.”
Other uses of Twitter included fun and entertainment, such as following celebrities or athletes, and, gratifying for their professors, professional networking. There’s more in the paper.