the news frontier

Beware the Twitter Echo Chamber

Pew study shows the limits of the Twitter-verse
December 10, 2010

The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report on Thursday, the result of their study of Twitter demographics. Among other findings, the report focused on the fact that about 8 percent of American adults who use the Internet are Twitter users. Only 74 percent of American adults use the Internet, so that means that Twitter users make up about 6 percent of the adult population of the country.

Mandy Jenkins riffed on the study in a post on her blog Zombie Journalism, writing, “This news shouldn’t be surprising, but maybe it is to those who live in the Twitter echo chamber.” Frequent Twitter users can lull themselves into believing that the Twitter-verse is representative of society at large; likewise, journalists and editors can mistakenly trust that their Twitter followers are representative of their organization’s audience. (You can’t blame Jenkins for not being self-aware, by the way; she jokes in the blog’s “About Mandy” page, “I am almost never not online—and someday I’ll need therapy for it, I’m sure.”)

The fact that Jenkins’s points about the study’s findings are obvious does not negate the importance of repeating them:

While I still think it is very important for journalists to use Twitter, the following facts must be emblazoned on the brains of media Twitterati:

• Twitter represents a very small group of people in your area.

• Being popular on Twitter doesn’t necessarily make one popular or important in real life.

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• Re-tweets, replies and Twitter referrals do not adequately represent the larger interest in or importance of your work as a journalist.

• Most people that use Twitter don’t use it to get news.

While Jenkins’s post mainly focuses on the role of Twitter in journalists’ engagement with our audiences, I’d add that the same caution should be taken against an over-reliance on it as a source of news and opinion. It’s perhaps an inevitable side effect of the digital age; with an increasing glut of information available comes the need to employ more—and stricter—filters to that information. But because of those filters, our networks can become insular, and sometimes it feels like the more new information that’s out there, the less we end up talking about.

What’s true in life is true on Twitter: the loudest people aren’t necessarily the smartest ones, and there are a whole heck of a lot of people out there who we haven’t heard from yet.

(Via Muck Rack—and, no, the irony of that has not escaped me.)

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner