Expert Commentary

Explaining variation in Twitter adoption among a diverse group of young adults

2011 study from Northwestern University on different motivations among teens who use Twitter.

Twitter saw a surge in its number of users between 2009 and 2010, particularly among teens. Content on the character-limited blogging and social networking ranges from the mundane to important world news, and from personal exchanges to advertisements. This broad range of content leaves open a range of possible explanatory factors driving increased usage.

A 2011 study from scholars at Northwestern University published in New Media & Society, “The Tweet Smell of Celebrity Success: Explaining Variation in Twitter Adoption among a Diverse Group of Young Adults,” used data from a longitudinal survey of 505 students at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The researchers compared users and non-users to determine if there were factors that predict whether or not individuals will use Twitter. “Given that the service is gaining increasing popularity with government agencies, public officials, businesses, and educators to disseminate information,” the authors write, “it is crucial to understand who may or may not be receiving the information presented through this tool.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Teens who were interested in certain types of content were more likely to use Twitter: “In particular, interest in entertainment and celebrity news is an especially strong predictor of site adoption among this particular group of young adults even when controlling for user background characteristics and digital media experiences…. Given the pervasiveness of celebrities on the site … people with related interests may be especially likely to start using the service due to the ‘perception of direct access to a famous person.’”
  • On average, Twitter users reported having higher levels of Internet-related skills. In addition, there was a slight gender gap, with 20.1% of females having adopted Twitter compared to 13.8% of male survey respondents.
  • Use of Twitter varied among racial groups: “African Americans are much more likely than others to report Twitter use with over a third of them (37.2 percent) claiming to do so compared to just over a fifth of Whites (20.8%), 13.7% of Asians/Asian Americans and just a tenth (10.1%) of Hispanics.”
  • Explanations for these differentiations in usage among some racial groups includes the following, the researchers state: “The relationship of site adoption with being African American seems to be due to the fact that members of this group are more likely to be interested in entertainment and celebrity news than Whites.”
  • “Whereas in 2009, over a third (37.6%) of respondents had never heard of the site, by 2010 this figure had dropped to just 2.2%.”

The researchers conclude, “Certain population segments based on factors related to race and ethnicity, Web-use skill, and topical interests seem to adopt Twitter more than others. These findings indicate that scholarship solely focused on Twitter users needs to be conscious of the systematic ways in which it excludes certain population segments from study.”

Tags: technology, youth, Twitter, social media

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