Wednesday, March 24, 2010...8:30 am

Modern media is rubbish #3: how to mangle social networking stats

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Caught yesterday in the Metro – a brief news report on a social networking survey by InSites (ugh) Consulting.

As reported in Metro:

  • 77% of UK internet users use social networking sites
  • 42% of UK internet users use Twitter
  • 50% of UK internet users use Facebook

Let’s look at those numbers, shall we?

First – 77% of UK internet users use social networking sites. Great – that seems fine. There’s even a graphic (right).

But what about that 42% of UK internet users who use Twitter?

This is clearly nonsense. Twitter is a minority service used regularly by relatively few internet users (and dominated, I contend, by media users).

So, in the spirit of old-fashioned fact-checking, which seems to be beyond most reporting these days, I thought I’d take a look at the survey itself. (Which is here, if you’re interested.)

First, how many people actually use Twitter at all. Mashable says about 18 million. That’s “use” in the sense of log in once a month.

Apparently 79.4% of the UK population are internet users (seems to be out of everyone, not just the adult population). Out of a total population of 61,393,000 (2008), that makes 48,746,042 (you know, roughly).

So – 18 million Twitter users worldwide and fewer than 49 million internet users in the UK. That’s 36.9%, if anyone’s counting. So even if all the Twitter users in the world were in the UK, they still wouldn’t make up 42% of UK internet users.

So where does that rubbish 42% statistic come from?

One possibility is the 42% of users who use Twitter less than they did when they first joined (right). But a more likely candidate is the 42% of internet users who are “aware” of Twitter. That’s aware as in “I think I’ve heard of that”, rather than actually using it.

You can see this in a nice chart (left), helpfully provided by the people who carried out the survey. But you have to actually scroll through as many as 32 slides out of 93 in a really long slideshow, so I guess that’s a bit hard.

This leads us on to the third statistic in our list – the UK’s 50% of Facebook users.

The same graphic that shows 42% of people have heard of Twitter indicates that 51% of internet users are active Facebook members. I assume this is where the Metro stat comes from. But that’s worldwide users. UK Facebook users actually make up 72% of the online population – which is shown in yet another helpful and easy-to-understand chart from the survey slideshow (below).

The upshot is that Metro got two out of three key facts wrong in its tiny (100 word) story. How is that even possible? How hard can it be to look through a sodding slideshow and note down the numbers correctly? And why on earth can’t the writer remember that this is a global survey, not a UK one?

It’s not simply the lack of checking and understanding. If you think about it for just a moment, the Twitter statistic just has to be wrong. How many Twitter users do you know? Is it nearly half of everyone you know who’s online? Of course not – and that’s what the writer of this should have thought. Don’t just parrot figures (especially if you get them wrong). Actually think about what you’re writing, for heaven’s sake.

More from the illiterate and innumerate world of journalism real soon…

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