Twitter Skews Young and Is Still Run by Power Users

Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a saying on Twitter, the online platform that I pray you do not use, presumably because your life keeps you otherwise fulfilled and preoccupied. The saying goes something like this: Twitter isn’t real life. In other words, whatever sort of opinions or consensus you see as the mainstream on Twitter does not reflect the actual consensus of normal people who are not cursed with the pathological need to refresh the bird web page all day.

This is a helpful attitude to have, given how much filter bubbles seem to dictate our online lives nowadays. Remaining cognizant of it keeps you open to new ideas, concepts, and possibilities. A new report from the Pew Research Center seems to, in broad terms, back up the idea that Twitter is not real life in that it does stray from the overall demographic makeup of the United States.

A survey of 2,791 respondents found that “Twitter users are younger, more likely to identify as Democrats, more highly educated and have higher incomes than U.S. adults overall.” Only 22 percent of American adults use the service. Even within that 22 percent, Twitter has always been driven by so-called “power users,” a fractional segment of obsessives who post constantly — celebrities, media personalities, stans, and trolls. This dynamic has not changed much over the years and can make the service seem deeply alienating to new users. Eventually it got to the point where Twitter’s marketing materials made clear that it was fine for users to lurk and observe without posting anything.

Pew’s survey determined that 80 percent of all tweets come from the most active 10 percent of tweeters. Put another way, much of the conversation happening on Twitter comes from about 2 percent of Americans. “Compared with other U.S. adults on Twitter, they are much more likely to be women and more likely to say they regularly tweet about politics,” the researchers Stefan Wojcik and Adam Hughes write. “That said, there are only modest differences in many attitudes between those who tweet frequently and those who do not.”

That Twitter skews toward certain demographics makes some sense. Its power users are people who have the privilege of spending all day connected to the internet, even at work, probably via a smartphone. That explains the younger user base, and since young people tend to lean leftward on the political spectrum, the youth factor explains why left-leaning users are more present on Twitter than in the general population.

From the report:

Twitter users as a group express distinct opinions relative to the public as a whole on some political values, particularly when it comes to views having to do with race, immigration and gender. A larger share of Twitter users — who as noted above are more likely to identify as Democrats relative to the population as a whole — say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites (64% of Twitter users vs. 54% of Americans). They are also more likely than the U.S. general public to say that immigrants strengthen the U.S. (66% vs. 57%) and that barriers exist in society that make it harder for women to get ahead (62% vs. 56%).

I guess here is where I should write about what this study does not cover: the demographics of Twitter, the company that administers the website of the same name. Overrepresentation of young, Democratic people within Twitter’s user base does not point to any sort of liberal bias within the company. The accusation of bias has become a popular talking point among conservative politicians, who fear that Twitter is somehow limiting their ability to reach users and followers by pulling some partisan lever behind the scenes. Just yesterday, Trump complained about losing followers — a consequence stemming from Twitter’s efforts to fight spam, not any sort of ideological preference.

That Twitter is not real life in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the country’s makeup precisely doesn’t not mean it lacks value. The power-user effect is one of its most valuable! Twitter is not a good place to get a read on popular sentiment about anything really, but it is a great place to get your sentiments echoed and in front of people with large megaphones: politicians, celebrities, cable news hosts. It’s how MAGA memes make their way onto the president’s feed. Conservatives don’t need a critical mass of demographic representation to exert influence. Twitter isn’t real life in a strict sense, but it’s where the people who can determine the quality of their constituents’ real lives gather to take stock of what everyone’s mad about and craft a rhetorical strategy.

80 Percent of Tweets Come From 2 Percent of Americans