Twitter, as it turns out, is not a good model of the world.
Hard as that is for the Twitter-addicted to believe, it is true, and a recent Pew Research study presents new evidence about the way that the platform leans.
In the United States, Twitter users are statistically younger, wealthier, and more politically liberal than the general population. They are also substantially better educated, according to Pew: 42 percent of sampled users had a college degree, versus 31 percent for U.S. adults broadly. Forty-one percent reported an income of more than $75,000, too, another large difference from the country as a whole. They were far more likely (60 percent) to be Democrats or lean Democratic than to be Republicans or lean Republican (35 percent).
But Pew’s methodology was able to capture another layer of distortion: The Twitter of the platform’s fanatics is very different from the norm. In other words, Media Twitter is not Median Twitter.
First, Pew split up the Twitter users it surveyed into two groups: the top 10 percent most active users and the bottom 90 percent. Among that less-active group, the median user had tweeted twice total and had 19 followers. Most had never tweeted about politics, not even about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s meeting with Donald Trump.
Then there were the top 10 percent most active users. This group was remarkably different; its members tweeted a median of 138 times a month, and 81 percent used Twitter more than once a day. These Twitter power users were much more likely to be women: 65 percent versus 48 percent for the less-active group. They were also more likely to tweet about politics, though there were not huge attitudinal differences between heavy and light users.
As the platforms age, their devotees become more and more distinct from the regular person. For more than a decade now, many people in media and technology have been feeding an hour or two of Twitter into our brains every single day. Because we’re surrounded by people who live their lives like this—and, crucially, because so many of the journalists who write about the internet experience the internet in this way—it might feel like this is just how Twitter is, that a representative sample of America is plugged into the machine in this way.
But it’s not. Twitter is not America. And few people who work outside the information industries choose to spend their lives reading tweets, let alone writing them.
Twitter is a highly individual experience that works like a collective hallucination, not a community. It’s probably totally fine that a good chunk of the nation’s elites spend so much time on it. What could go wrong?