Social media: it’s not about technology, and it’s not about Gen Y

As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, social media adoption rates are staggering, but one of the more striking aspects that I’ve recently come across is social media’s generational transcendence.

I think many people have the perception that social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and others represent a “technology” phenomenon lead by teens and their older siblings in Gen Y, a group historically prone to take up new technology faster than their parents and grandparents. This theme echos in the comments of companies taking insurance marketing surveys as they seem to single out Gen Y as the group worth pursuing in social media marketing efforts.

However, recent statistics paint a different picture and suggest that what we’re seeing is not really about technology. Rather, we’re witnessing a marked societal change enabled by technology.

It may come as a surprise that 18-to-24-year-olds, the most independent and mature of the Gen Y’ers, are actually a minority in the social media population. Pingdom recently assembled the following age distribution from Google Ad Planner data:

Gen X and middle-aged individuals make Gen Y look like a much quieter group than many seem to believe.

I decided to go another step and compare the distribution of social media users presented above by Pingdom to the distribution of the US population. The green bars in the chart below are the same as those in the graphic above. The blue line represents the distribution of the US population in 2000 using US Census data. (I’m making the assumption that today’s population is distributed roughly the same as it was in 2000.)

With the exception of the youngest (0-17) and oldest (65+) segments of the population, social media use basically follows the shape of the general population’s distribution. This suggests that social media adoption is not really dependent on age. In other words, the reason there are so many 35-to-44-year-olds on social media sites is simply because they have the greatest numbers in the general population, though their group does appear to have an especially keen interest in social media.

The disconnect in the 0-17 group is likely explained by the fact that many of its members are just too young to engage in social media use. Technology barriers or general resistance to change may be factors for the oldest members of the population.

Recent statistics on the habits of mobile social media users also support the hypothesis that social media is not a Gen Y phenomenon. As of December 2009, Nielsen reports that women and the middle-aged are responsible for most mobile social networking. Considering the growing popularity in always-on smart phones–many of which make updating and checking social networks effortless–mobile users are well worth paying attention to. In fact, ComScore reports that Facebook and Twitter access via mobile browser grew by triple digits from January 2009 to January 2010.

Marketing Charts makes the following observation from the December 2009 Nielsen study:

Despite the stereotype of teens spending every waking moment on a mobile device, Nielsen data suggest their parents actually spend more time performing mobile web surfing. Only 7% of mobile social networking activity was represented by 13-to-17-year-olds and only 16% by 18-to-24-year-olds in December 2009.

Marketing Charts also points out another interesting finding from a Ruder-Finn study: “45% of all mobile internet users go online to post comments on social networks, with 91% of mobile internet users going online to socialize.” Put another way, the rapidly expanding mobile population is an active, chatty group.

So to summarize. . .

  • Social media adoption is fairly universal in the population
  • The vast majority of social media users are 25 or older
  • The middle-aged are particularly active in social networks
  • Use of mobile devices to access social networks is growing at triple-digit rates
  • The typical mobile user on a social network is middle-aged and highly active while there

To emphasize, technology should not be the focus in this new era of society. Technology is merely a facilitator, not unlike iron and steel in the Industrial Revolution. To focus on technology is to miss the big picture.

Social media sites and mobile devices are merely instruments that give society the ability to take on a whole new level of visibility and dynamism. Our new electronic infrastructure serves to accentuate and elevate the basic human desire to connect, and this desire is by no means limited to the youngest members of the population.


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  1. #1 by Una Coleman on April 1, 2010 - 7:59 am

    Thanks for this very informative review of SM usage Eddie. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Gen Y and younger are using social networking sites but not FB or Twitter. These are too open and they don’t want to be on the same spaces as their parents or give their parents the opportunity to see their conversations. I suspect phone and text usage remains a number one social networking tool.

    What’s interesting from a business perspective is the take up of Facebook in the last 12 months – and not just by B2C companies. In the case of Ireland nearly a quarter of the total population is on Facebook with 80% over 25- staggering figures – and agreeing with your trends.

    However, not many companies have yet managed to understand how to use it. There are 3important points to remember in any event: 1) Google now does a blended search – the more one is active across the social networking platforms, using one’s key words, the better one’s organic ranking will become: 2) social networking platforms are another means to get one’s company messages out there and build brand and name awareness and 3) social networking tools support cost effective and highly targetted marketing (in time).

    Una Coleman
    Twitter: unacoleman
    10 Tips for Cross Cultural Marketing & Networking:

  2. #2 by Bill Free on April 14, 2010 - 3:09 pm

    I agree that expanding social media use reflects societal change. I’m just not sure what, exactly, is changing. Certainly SM taps into some basic need to connect. The question for me is why we’re doing it. Is it about developing relationships? Studies suggest that an individual can maintain around 300 meaningful relationships. If so, then it makes little sense to have 20,000 Twitter followers and 8,000 Facebook “friends.” It seems to me we’ve barely tapped into the real potential of social media. Whether and how we do will say a lot about who we are.

    • #3 by Eddie on April 14, 2010 - 8:08 pm

      I do agree that we’ve barely tapped social media. I think many of us are still trying to understand it. It is evolving so rapidly, that it’s difficult to form a “strategy.”

      I don’t think it’s possible to maintain hundreds or thousands of “meaningful” relationships online–at least not in the traditional sense. But I do think there is a lot of value in developing and cultivating a large network. As my Twitter follower count has grown, I’ve noticed that I get quicker and better responses to various questions that I pose. This can be incredibly useful. What’s more, none of the people responding are obligated to. This is one key distinction between social media and email.

      I think that people have a basic desire to share and help each other. This is heightened if you have some common ground. If 2 people on Twitter each follow each other, they’ve made a statement that they value the other in some way–even if it’s small.

      So what you end up with is a social “asset” or social “capital” base that was never possible before the web. It’s worth something, but what? Can it be “valued” in some quantitative way? That’s probably a discussion for another post.

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