Don’t see social media as representative of full populations

This should be obvious but computer scientists remind us that social media users are not representative populations:

One of the major problems with sites like Twitter, Pinterest or Facebook is ‘population bias’ where platforms are populated by a very narrow section of society.

Latest figures on Twitter suggest that just five per cent of over 65s use the platform compared with 35 per cent for those aged 18-29. Similarly far more men use the social networking site than women.

Instagram has a particular appeal to younger adults, urban dwellers, and non-whites.

In contrast, the picture-posting site Pinterest is dominated by females aged between 25 and 34. LinkedIn is especially popular among graduates and internet users in higher income households.

Although Facebook is popular across a diverse mix of demographic groups scientists warn that postings can be skewed because there is no ‘dislike’ button. There are also more women using Facebook than men, 76 per cent of female internet users use the site compared with 66 per cent of males.

Who does the data from social media represent? The people who use social media who, as pointed out above, tend to skew younger across the board and have other differences based on the service. Just because people are willing to put information out there doesn’t mean that it is a widely shared perspective, even if a Twitter account has millions of followers or a Facebook group has a lot of likes. Until we have a world where everyone participates in social media in similar ways and makes much of the same information public, we need to be careful about social media samples.

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