My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Teens Don’t Tweet… Or Do They?

Yesterday, Mashable reported Nielsen’s latest Twitter numbers with the headline Stats Confirm It: Teens Don’t Tweet. This gained traction on Twitter turning into the trending topic “teens don’t tweet” which was primarily kept in play all day yesterday with teens responding to the TT by saying “I’m a teen” or the equivalent of “you’re all idiots… what am I, mashed potatoes?”

I want to unpack some of what played out because I’m astonished by the misinterpretations in every which direction.

We have a methodology and interpretation problem. As Fred Stutzman has pointed out, there are reasons to question Nielsen’s methodology and, thus, their findings. Furthermore, the way that they present the data is misleading. If we were to assume an even distribution of Twitter use over the entire U.S. population, it would be completely normal to expect that 16% of Twitter users are young adults. So, really, what Nielsen is saying is, “Everyone expects social media to be used primarily by the young but OMG OMG OMG old farts are just as likely to be using Twitter as young folks! Like OMG.”

We have a presentation problem. Mashable presented this report completely inaccurately. First off, Nielsen is measuring 2-24. My guess is that there are a lot more 24-year-olds on Twitter than 2-year-olds. Unless Sockington counts. (And she’s probably older than 2 anyhow.) Regardless, the Nielsen data tells us nothing about teens. We don’t know if young adults (20-24) are all of those numbers or not. If all 16% of those under 24 on Twitter were teens, teens would be WAY over-represented in proportion to their demographic size.

We have a representation problem. The majority of people are not on Twitter, regardless of how old they are. Those who use Twitter are not a representative percentage of the population. Geeks are WAY over-represented on Twitter. Celebs and celeb-lovers are WAY over-represented on Twitter. Newshounds are WAY over-represented on Twitter. And while Joe the Plumber has an account on Twitter, I doubt it’s him. Age is not the right marker here.

We have an interpretation problem. Saying that 16% of Twitter users are 24 and under is NOT the same as saying that 16% of teens are on Twitter. We don’t know what percentage of youth (or adults) are on Twitter. If you want to compare across the ages, you need to know what percentage of a particular demographic is using the technology.

We have an impression management problem. There are teens on Twitter. Thousands of them. Saying “Teens Don’t Tweet” gives the wrong impression because there are plenty of teens who do tweet (as they so kindly vocalized on Mashable and on Twitter). Still, just because they suddenly became vocal doesn’t mean that those who are there are representative of teens as a whole. Furthermore, the presence of teens on Twitter doesn’t mean that Twitter is a mainstream tool amongst teens. It’s not.

Given all of these problems, I immediately dismissed the Nielsen report and the Mashable post as irrelevant and meaningless. Then it became a Trending Topic. So while I had a million things to do yesterday, I spent 6+ hours reading the messages of the people who added content to the trending topic, reading their posts about other things, going to their profiles on other sites, and simply trying to get a visceral understanding of what youth were engaged enough on Twitter to respond to the trending topic. What I found fascinated me. I’m still coding the data so you won’t get any quantitative data just yet, but I want to give you a sense of my impression.

Teens On Twitter

The majority of teens who responded to the Trending Topic simply responded to the statement “Teens Don’t Tweet” by noting that they were a teen and they tweeted. Others just noted that the trending topic was dumb. Many didn’t know why the term had become a trending topic, were unaware of the Mashable article or Nielsen study, and thought that Twitter chose the trending topics. (I was in awe of how many teens commented that Twitter was stupid for making such a lie a trending topic. Some thought it was Twitter’s attempts to tell them they didn’t belong. One did ask if it was a trap to get teens to come out of the closet about their real age.)

Many of the teens who responded to the TT were not American or Canadian. I saw bunches of Brazilian teens, some Indonesian teens, and a smattering of teens from Europe, China, and Mexico. Many of their Twitter streams mixed English and the local language of their country. English dominated the responses but I did see non-English responses to the English trending topic.

About half of the teens included a link to a non-Twitter page in their bio. The pages were really mixed. Among the SNSes, MySpace dominated, but there were some Facebook links and links to Piczo and Multiply. There were also links to YouTube, Blogspot, LiveJournal, Deviant Art, and personal homepages.

Very few of the teens put their age in their bio, although quite a few made their age available in the content or through links. Teens posted messages like “I’m 16 and I’m on Twitter.” And birthdays are a big enough deal that I was seeing things like, “I can’t wait until I’m 16 and can get a car. Only 3 months to go!” And of course there’s MySpace.

Most of the teens on Twitter followed on the order of 40-70 other people (with fewer followers). Who they followed included a smattering of other teens and a collection of big names – celebs, bloggers, geeks. There wasn’t much discussion on their feeds about the number of people following them but they frequently highlighted how many tweets they had. I was surprised by how many of them would write a tweet saying nothing more than “this is my 1207th tweet!” Their content is primarily phatic in nature with an eye for updating as often as possible.

The most salient visceral reaction that I got when looking at the teens’ Twitter streams was that teens on Twitter seemed to fit into three categories: 1) geeky teens, tech teens, fandom teens, machinema teens; 2) teens who are in love with the Jonas Brothers/Miley Cyrus, musicians, or another category of celebs; 3) multi-lingual foreign teens with friends/followers around the world who seemed to participate in lots of online communities.

While I can’t make any meaningful conclusions until I spend more time with the data, it seems to me that the teens on Twitter – or at least the teens responding to the trending topic – are not representative of teens as a whole. That’s not a bad thing. They’re geeks and passionate creators and trendsetters and pop culture addicts. I don’t get the sense that they’re dragging their friends into Twitter, but rather, focusing on using Twitter to engage with other people who share their interests or people that they admire.

Anyhow, I’m continuing to track this but I thought I should just report out what I’m seeing in case it’s of use to anyone but me.

Be warned: This blog post was written in brain-dump style to get some general impressions out there while I analyze the data. My goal is to give you a sense of what I’m seeing, assuming that you aren’t staring at thousands and thousands of tweets by teens. Please don’t interpret it as a “report” or a “study” or anything other than what it is: a blog post.

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34 comments to Teens Don’t Tweet… Or Do They?

  • This is fascinating and useful, thank you. I’m particularly interested in how these stories are so U.S. or English-centric, and how you found teens from other places using social media in their languages and English. This multlingual use of social media is something I’d like to learn more about.

  • No doubt the majority of this recent interest has come off the back of the Morgan Stanley student released recently that everyone went buck crazy for.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jul/13/twitter-teenage-media-habits

    Followed with more of the same on the Guardian today:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/aug/06/young-abandon-social-networking-sites

    The only people who really give a shit about this are advertisers looking to target that impressionable and susceptible market in the downturn. The headlines should read “where to find easy advertising prey”.

  • i am 14, and i dont use twitter a lot, but i do use it sometimes.
    truth is theres better things out there
    – bebo
    – myspace
    – my yearbook
    – facebook

    and most things have a little box “what are you doing now”

    and then you can comment people easier and comment pictures and upload them a lot easier.

    adults cant be bothered with these sites, so twitter only takes a few mintues but to be honest the amount of my friends that have
    “i dont really get twitter at all”
    and ‘
    “whats the point”
    on their page is unbelievable,

    most of the time you dont get a reply if you send a message anyway ?

  • *`~*`~*`~`*

    The majority of my friends have Twitter and use it regularly. (including myself) It’s a much quicker way to stay updated on what everyone’s doing (especially over the summer) without having to have a complete conversation with them. I happen to like it and think more people should use it.

    Correction: Teens do tweet =]

  • Marci

    Thank you for this analysis. I was read the mashable blog yesterday and was feeling like the stats were not being interpreted correctly. I just couldn’t put it all together so thanks for this post. I work with those 24 and under and my anecdotal experiences suggest that this group is using or not using Twitter as you suggested, like the rest of the population.

  • I liked how you frames the information up as an interpratation problem. This is a problem that has not been addressed because every week their is a new data point being reported, picked up, used as a source or re-tweeted with a different set if assumptions that are not really addressed. Sysomos states one teen fact, then you have investment banking interns saying they don’t, and now Nielson.

    The quote of the week makes news but what concerns me is, the decision makers who work at the large corporations who oversee media, advertising, or shape brand strategy stay out of the space becauae the data is misleading and why put dollars or support behind something when I manage a large PNL. The point is, oppurtunity is getting lost in the translation.

    The way you broke out the difference between Facebook & Myspace teen users as socio-economic, I am curious to see what Twitter users data is. It is a work in progress. I will say, that I live in Greenwich CT, and when I search for tweets near me within 2 & 5 km, it is teens and young adults. Mainly minorities which I find possible because I am near the lower economic parts of Stamford. In Naples this past week, it was teens talking to their friends. It is only a sample size of 2, but it is an experiment I like to conduct.

    Look forward to hearing more.

    Robert @ siatomiclabs

  • I come from Croatia (Europe) where youth or we can say population between 16 to 24 haven’t still recognized the possibilities of Twitter as a type of social software (or media). Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia are recognized.
    Most people in Croatia don’t know what Delicous is or StumbleUpon is!

    Croatian users on Twitter are in most cases computer geeks ;) and young media journalist. Even PR agencies haven’t recognized the possible potential of Twitter or don’t know how to use it…

    So as a conclusion I can say for Croatia that ‘teens in Croatia don’t tweet’!

  • I wrote a much longer post here, but i’ll keep it simple for now:

    Teens operate in bubbles- as in, one group of teens could be using twitter like crazy, and another in the same school or town might not. An entire school could be into a social network, but it’s rival school on a different network.

    It’s because of out limited knowledge and lack of outside knowledge of newspapers and networks like CNN and Yahoo News that keeps us out of the loop, and delaying everything.

  • Thanks! Your “brain-dump style” is most coherent than most folks’ edited and supposedly clearly-thought-through styles.

  • Ruth

    Well, you just saved me a big dig through the internet. I had wondered how it had come up but didn’t bother looking around. I think your categories of teens who ARE using twitter is pretty accurate, but another thing Neilson’s research takes into account is… most teens who are techy enough to be using twitter aren’t going to put their real birthdate down or make it public if they’re under 16-18. Or at least I know all my internet friends back in the day didn’t, we were all very careful about private information like that. So there’s that on top of the really bad stats interpretation. But I do think that teens drag their friends onto twitter but only within the groups you outlined above. Most of my online-only friends have been convinced to start using it in addition to our habitual IM and Livejournal (yes, I know, we’re quite retro) for contact, but I couldn’t convince my geeky-but-not-fandom friend to keep up with it. In some ways its taken up a happy medium between IM and Livejournal posts.

  • As an aside, I love how this getting bandied around Twitter, with all these Teens bouncing up and down tweeting “I’m a teen and I twitter!” lol.

  • Andrew Z.

    Here’s my take: Teens tend to use Twitter in a different manner than adults.

    Twitter for many adults is about social INFORMATION, they use it to get information, and subsequently connect with people who provide information they’re interested in. Even adults who follow friends from real life are generally more interested in the information those friends post (links, ideas, books & movie recs, etc.) than the personal updates, “I just ate cornflakes.”

    Twitter for many of the teens I know is about social CONNECTION, which corresponds roughly to the way they use Facebook and other forms of social media. I think danah’s observations tend to confirm my hunches about this: Teens tend to follow their on-the-ground friends, post relatively few informational posts, and are concerned about quick updates that keep them and their friends in a form of extended social contact. It’s more about keeping in touch than it is with adults.

  • Yesterday I spoke at a Youth Leadership conference – for about 100 teens (Asian American). I asked them a few questions about their social media use and their thoughts on Twitter. What was interesting — those who are 15-18 – feel Twitter is creepy. The kids in the room that used it – 18-25 – the college student group leaders in the room.
    Nothing conclusive or scienctific – but thank you for taking the time to do an analysis
    http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2009/08/teens-and-twitter.html

  • Finally, somebody is trying to understand the meaing of all of these hype-based, headline seeking, self promoting, biased statistics being bantered around. I’m really looking foward to seeing the results.
    Thank-you!

  • I saw this post as well and was rather mystified. But as was true in the dotcom days, often these measuring companies get it wrong. This is clear here. The fact that the mashable post is based on data that is so new and rather scarce says a lot.

    quick thought:
    “… focusing on using Twitter to engage with other people who share their interests or people that they admire.”

    This is what it was like to be into the games and computers in 1983. You looked for people who shared your interest (and played D&D with them.) ;)
    Twitter is a communications option for teens who can meet others like themselves. They also use it for “quick” “easy” “unmonitored” com. with their friends. They can also post to a larger world (to be heard) if they desire. This can be done fairly anonymously.

  • Tom Hancock

    Well done. I’m glad I found this before reading the misinformation presented elsewhere.

  • mgers

    Well, without presenting any hard data yourself, you’re convinced me of nothing.

  • Actually, I think in many ways your post and the Mashable report both seem to miss the point. The numbers themselves for teens on twitter aren’t that interesting. Instead, the real story here has been that in the rapid growth of Twitter, teens and young adults have not lead the way. Even if you presume that they’re on Twitter in numbers proportional to their percentage of the population, that doesn’t change the fact that Twitter’s popularity has been fueled by folks over 35.

    That goes against the conventional wisdom that it’s teens and young adults who tend to be early adopters. Facebook is the classic example, a phenomenon of social networking that started on college campuses and only later spread to the old foggies (like me). To take another emerging example, study location-based mobile social networks provided by companies like Loopt in Palo Alto. Loopt wil tell you their average user is age 21, and they hope to raise that to 22 or 23 in the coming years.

    As I’ve visited college campuses over the past two years talking to campus media organizations, I was always surprised that virtually no one in these groups was using Twitter, or seemed that familiar with it, or even interested. That’s changing, of course. I do think there are teens on Twitter. But they haven’t led the way there.

    Of course, maybe the conventional wisdom about teens and y.a. leading on tech adoption has been more myth, but than that would be another post.

  • Actually, I think in many ways your post and the Mashable report both seem to miss the point. The numbers themselves for teens on twitter aren’t that interesting. Instead, the real story here has been that in the rapid growth of Twitter, teens and young adults have not lead the way. Even if you presume that they’re on Twitter in numbers proportional to their percentage of the population, that doesn’t change the fact that Twitter’s popularity has been fueled by folks over 35.

    That goes against the conventional wisdom that it’s teens and young adults who tend to be early adopters. Facebook is the classic example, a phenomenon of social networking that started on college campuses and only later spread to the old foggies (like me). To take another emerging example, study location-based mobile social networks provided by companies like Loopt in Palo Alto. Loopt wil tell you their average user is age 21, and they hope to raise that to 22 or 23 in the coming years.

    As I’ve visited college campuses over the past two years talking to campus media organizations, I was always surprised that virtually no one in these groups was using Twitter, or seemed that familiar with it, or even interested. That’s changing, of course. I do think there are teens on Twitter. But they haven’t led the way there.

    Of course, maybe the conventional wisdom about teens and y.a. leading on tech adoption has been more myth, but than that would be another post.

  • Thanks for offering a critical look at the data, the questions, and the “conclusions.” The idea that teens are leading the way in online social networking gets turned on it’s head by reports like this from Mashable. We don’t really know what’s happening yet, so we take a data point and riff from there.

    Better to look at the breakdown of the cohort (or lack thereof) to learn about behavior.I am looking forward to @Judson Collier’s post on teen activity “bubbles.” At first blush it seems right, that teens (and others, too?) adopt the tools of their circle.

    For my anecdote, there is my photo-obsessed, college-student niece who was shocked by my posting directly from my camera phone to Facebook. She didn’t know it could be done. Her people used the old camera to PC to FB method. Her bubble is different than mine. Looking forward to more studies as to how networks influence behavior.

  • The other day I used the ‘Nearby’ function of the iPhone Twitter client ‘Tweetie’ and stumbled upon some students of the school where I teach. I explored a little further and in the space of about ten minutes discovered 30 or so students were Twitter users of varying degrees. Some matched the categories set out in your post (Jonas Brothers fans, etc). Some enterprising members of this group had been sending out tweets during class time. Their use varied on simple curiosity through to encouragement from their peers. Most had joined in the last few months and had only broadcast a few tweets.

    Most were following each other. They were using their actual names and were not taking any steps to obscure their identity or their tweets. It is like a small core group within the school that are not determined by age or demographic. I personally enjoy seeing the different year groups mix as I always enjoy seeing students that range in age from 12 to 18 competing in a game of basketball during lunch.

    Judson Collier’s take on teens ‘operating in bubbles’ and Andrew Z’s observation regarding the propensity of teens to focus with their ‘on-the-ground’ friends supports what I have observed, albeit in an unscientific manner.

    The concluding comment of Sarah Kendall, aged 14, above is telling… “most of the time you dont get a reply if you send a message anyway ?”. Twitter may not supply the instant gratification so sorely sought by some members of her age group.

  • I am 17 and after reading this, i would say you have it spot on. at first i didn’t know what the topic was. I read around and found out what it was and concluded that, as i am one of few in my group of friends that use twitter, that so what, there are more adults on twitter. I also read somewhere that apparently teens don’t like twitter because the trending topics can be used to stay updated with current affaris ie. Iranian elections. something that teens generally aren’t interested in.

    What your saying about the teens that do tweet is spot on. I consider myself a bit of a geek/apple fanboy (although i hate to admit it), so i fit into your first group. I am also attempting to break into the music industry so i follow a range of celebrities/musicians, and there i go, fitting into the second group. also, as you said, my bio points to my tumblr page, not a facebook or myspace.

    And as far as Sarah Kendall’s point goes, i don’t like to use the other social networks out there because i feel they spam me WAY too much, especially facebook. so i rarely use them.

    Despite what i’ve read on the internet i do actually use twitter to keep up with the world happenings, various people in my feed supply me with news and i get updated way before any tv news bulletins, one reason i like using twitter.

    And of course the Connection/Information issue. I do follow a small number of “real” friends (about 10 out of the 133 i follow) but most of the people i follow provide me with some sort of information, and believe it or not, i do try to keep my tweets fairly informative, rather than the “JUST ATE BREAKFAST! YAY!” tweets.

  • usestwitter

    I think this a very good post.

    I am a teen on Twitter who saw that trending topic and felt no need to reply. Most teens I know personally are not on Twitter, and many of the people I follow are older, so I took no issue with the Mashable article. I didn’t stay with it long enough to consider the numbers used to defend its claim, and I was interested to read your criticisms above. Anyway, I judged that my followers would gain nothing from me saying “I’m a teen on Twitter!” because most of them are already aware of my age. I try to avoid tweeting frivolously because I don’t want my followers to feel badgered. Plus, it shows little understanding of statistics to claim indignantly that because you’re the exception, the rule must not be valid.

    Just sharing a perspective from outside the parameters of your survey. :)

  • Comment from my resident 21 year old: “twitter is for people who follow celebrities”. So maybe twitter adoption is more about personal orientation, than age.

  • good post, danah.

    regarding your note on seeing a bunch of replies from brazilian teens, recently a major local newspaper has published a piece on twitter usage by teens and interviewed some of them. most have reportedly started using the service because they were jonas brothers fans and thought that by tweeting the tag #jbbrazilwantsyouback (or something like that) up to the trending topics they would get the band’s attention – and they have actually made it to #1 tt for some time. this is pretty much the only reason for them to use the service, and most said they have abandoned it after the objective was accomplished.

    oh, and btw, the “flash mob” was set up via orkut + msn messenger.

  • Roger Johnson

    Please consider these edits:

    I X live in Boston, MA. Buzzwords in my world include: public/private, identity, context, youth culture, social network sites, social media. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I’m thinking X.

  • It’s kind of amusing that a lot of the furore derives from the fact that ‘teens’ and ‘tweet’ are alliterative – hence the misleading headline.

    The Nielsen article’s headline is more complete, and a bit contradictory: “Teens Don’t Tweet; Twitter’s Growth Not Fueled By Youth”

    Something that is often overlooked with regards to tweeting is that it is the most suited for use with a mobile platform. My guess is that the average teen doesn’t have a Blackberry/iPhone, compared to a young professional.

  • jd

    Why is this controversial? If you don’t believe Nielsen, check Quantcast. The fact is, teens don’t tweet. Twitter is neither fun nor useful. Teens have figured this out faster than adults.

  • CharlieH

    For a completely anecdotal, unscientific single data point, I was suprised at how many twittering teens I saw when going to opening night for the movie Bruno at a large theatre in Pasadena, CA. 99% of the huge audience was 25 and under. While waiting in line and while waiting thru 40 (!) minutes of previews, I observed a lot of teens and early-20’s tweeting on their iPhones, presumably doing what social young people have always done – checking in with who is arriving when, gossip, etc.

    A hypothesis is that twitter could replace standard SMS txt’ing for this purpose and for this segment given its advantage over SMS is the ability to browse each user’s msgs on their profile pgs.

  • we have some prominent teen twitterers/bloggers in Ireland.

    not sure how this list below was drawn up, but
    http://www.simplyzesty.com/social-media/irish-influencers-follow-twitter/ – includes a teen twitterer: @TrustTommy (15) and there are others. @alancostello, @endac, and i’ve seen more.

    i think in ireland, people mix amongst ages more/between generation. i don’t know how to describe it. i am from the US, so this is something i noticed living here since 2000. however, my 15 & 16 year old nephews don’t know anyone on twitter (from rural donegal).

    i think it depends on where you’re from (city dwellers v rural; headed for uni v not)

    as an aside… uptake on bebo is v high here amongst secondary (highschool) students here.

  • James

    I teach first year college students. They tell me twitter is for old folks — like the guy on the commercial tweeting “I am on the porch.”

    Non-scientific survey of my students (both grad and undergrad) show that Twitter isn’t that big among college students.

  • A research just come out saying teens are not using twitter and http://www.TeensAbout.com says they are going to change that. Do you think they have a chance? Their tagline is below.

    TeenAbout is a live updates and texting project for-teens-by-teens giving all teens around the world a safe place to keep up with friends and make new friends (Live updats, texting) without having to deal with grown-ups on other social networks. Not only can you tell other teens around the world what you are up to, you can show them using our picture uploading feature. Talk about anything from breaking hot topics, news, to updates from friends. The question of the hour is…what are you doing?

  • [...] Danah Boyd’s post about Twitter and teens. [...]

  • [...] Danah Boyd and Ph.D student Fred Stuzman, both published excellent critiques of Nielsen’s methodologies [...]

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