How do Americans use social media in 2021, during a pandemic and a massive wave of anti-Silicon Valley outrage?
Pew Research just published another one of their very useful surveys on how people engage with technology. Here I’ll summarize what I see as the highlights, then add some remarks about implications for higher education.
The two most popular social media platforms remain, by far, YouTube then Facebook. Solid majorities use them. Instagram follows at a remove. Next is Pinterest and LinkedIn:
Facebook also leads the rest in terms of how often people use it: “Seven-in-ten Facebook users say they use the site daily, including 49% who say they use the site several times a day.” For all of its horrendous publicity, Facebook is a triumph in everything except growth, and its size is already enormous.
Age differences are apparent, even stark:
Some 84% of adults ages 18 to 29 say they ever use any social media sites, which is similar to the share of those ages 30 to 49 who say this (81%). By comparison, a somewhat smaller share of those ages 50 to 64 (73%) say they use social media sites, while fewer than half of those 65 and older (45%) report doing this.
In particular, “a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds say they use Instagram (71%) or Snapchat (65%), while roughly half say the same for TikTok…”
Those youth habits also appear in terms of how often they use certain tools:
71% of Snapchat users ages 18 to 29 say they use the app daily, including six-in-ten who say they do this multiple times a day. The pattern is similar for Instagram: 73% of 18- to 29-year-old Instagram users say they visit the site every day, with roughly half (53%) reporting they do so several times per day.
Other demographics are fascinating. Higher levels of wealth or education never correlate with lower levels of social media use; in fact, they often track each other. In terms of race, black and especially Latinx populations lead white people in several platforms:
Instagram: About half of Hispanic (52%) and Black Americans (49%) say they use the platform, compared with smaller shares of White Americans (35%) who say the same.2
WhatsApp: Hispanic Americans (46%) are far more likely to say they use WhatsApp than Black (23%) or White Americans (16%). Hispanics also stood out for their WhatsApp use in the Center’s previous surveys on this topic.
Gender differences open up for several technologies, notably Pinterest, which remains female-dominated: “women continue to be far more likely than men to say they use Pinterest when compared with male counterparts, by a difference of 30 points (46% vs. 16%).”
So what does this mean for education?
If a given academic individual or institution wants to use social media to reach out to specific audiences, this Pew survey is a very helpful guide. Think, for example, of the platforms relied on by Latinx users, Instagram and Whatsapp. A would-be Hispanic-serving institution may rethink its communication strategy if it isn’t already working on those technologies.
Many academics will continue to weigh using the two giants, Facebook and YouTube, balancing their enormous audiences with their persistent ethical problems.
Twitter remains a niche. It barely cracks 20% of users, and fails badly with people over 50 years of age. Black Twitter’s presence is visible, as 29% of black people use it, compared with 26% of Latinx and 22% of whites, but that’s still a low number. 42% of young people use Twitter, but more young folks still use Snapchat (65%) and TikTok (48%). Twitter’s representation in the media clearly exceeds its adoption by the population at large.
Reddit’s rapid growth is interesting. Like Twitter, it remains a niche, but unlike Twitter Reddit is growing fast. Down the road it might be a platform higher education may consider engaging with more extensively.
I have some questions or criticisms of the survey. I wish they hadn’t cut Asians out of demographic identifications. I also wonder about unsurveyed technologies that plausibly count as social media, such as podcasts and blogs. Is Mastodon unlisted because its user base is tiny, or because Pew hasn’t approached it yet? I would liked to have seen questions themed around the pandemic. Yet I think it is a useful snapshot of some ways Americans use the technology in COVID’s second year.