Pew on Social Media: It’s Bigger than You Think

An example of a social network diagram.
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On Jan 14., the Pew Internet and American Life project released a report on Adults and Social Networking Services. It said, “The share of adult Internet users who have a profile on an online social network site has
more than quadrupled in the past four years — from eight percent in 2005 to 35 percent now.”

Over at the Knight Digital Media Center News Leadership 3.0 blog, Michele McLellan observed: “It appears that American adults are moving into social networks more quickly than top 100 news organizations…”

The Pew report defines social network sites as “spaces on the Internet where users can create a profile and connect that profile to others (individuals or entities) to create a personal network.” MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn are classic examples of this model, and they’re useful to research. But this research leaves out other powerful services that enable people to easily self-organize into social networks: Twitter, Ning, Meetup, Delicious, Digg, Slashdot, LiveJournal, and even news communities such as Newsvine and NowPublic. As such, I suspect Pew’s research vastly underestimates the proliferation and growth of online social networking among U.S. adults.

McLellan cited recent Bivings Group research which found that only one in 10 major news org sites offer social networking features such as the ability to create profiles and “friend” others. According to McLellan, “This suggests news organizations are limiting their reach to being familiar destinations or findable on search — both of which are valuable, but not enough. …I fear the problem is cultural, and perhaps less tractable than technical constraints.”

Furthermore: “The old, still powerful culture of the newsroom may suggest that there is ‘one way’ to get readers just waiting to be discovered, a quick fix that will build audiences and create revenue. Now. That fix used to be home delivery. Now it’s the Web site — if only we can figure it out. That’s a fallacy: It’s not the site, it’s the links, the connections and the network. It’s trial and error and trial again.”

I think McLellan is on to a couple of interesting things here. First, that mindset and culture — not resources and technology — are the key barriers to news orgs benefiting from social media. This is especially true since most social media can be leveraged for no cost at all. Second, she notes that the willingness to continuously experiment is the most likely path to success in media. This includes not just trying out new technologies, but learning how to value engagement other than pageviews on your site.

Right now, in the midst of industry-wide retrenchment and even despair, it can be hard to put energy into opening up, reaching out, and making connections. But trying to hold on tight to a shrinking piece of the action is no way to move forward. As Pew, and McLellan, indicate, social media can be one of the more rewarding ways news orgs can connect more fully with their audiences and communities. Investing in this particular mindset change, and treating social media as a priority rather than an afterthought, might yield surprising advantages.

(NOTE: I originally posted this article to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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3 thoughts on Pew on Social Media: It’s Bigger than You Think

  1. The question is how many of those adults actively maintain their social site profiles or just signed up for one because they were told it’s the thing to do? I haven’t logged onto my MySpace page for months. My Facebook page and LinkedIn pages normally lay dormant for weeks at a time. I end up on news sites more often than I do social networking sites.

    Adults with profiles is not a good measure of usage. Adults who use these sites for communicating with friends and/or business associates more than once a week would be a much more important measure.

    Social media is important for kids, but a lot of adults are there because they think they should be, not because they’re necessarily digging on it.

    Disney doesn’t make its theme park money off people who’ve *been* to Disneyland. It makes its money off people who *go* to Disneyland.

    Newspapers are beholden to 73-year-old print subscribers who threaten to drop their subscriptions every time the paper tries to do something they don’t like. So they keep on letting that market dictate their policies while it slowly dies off, and then they find that while they were playing yes men to senior citizens, all the kids who felt underserved by their grandparents’ newspaper went somewhere else and can’t be lured back.

  2. Greg, I’m pretty sure this research addresses the usage issue… And, as I noted, their oddly narrow definition of social media probably drastically underestimates the situation.

    – Amy Gahran

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