Who's Doing What Online?

In the U.S., more than four in five adult Internet users make use of social media offerings at least once a month, and half use social networks like Facebook, according to a new report. Sean Corcoran, an analyst with Forrester Research, says that online life isn't just for young people anymore.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

I'm Ira Flatow. You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Have you seen these new ads on TV? There's a cell phone ad in particular with teens trying to stop their parents from incessantly texting and tweeting.

It's sort of interesting because we think that it's the young people who are texting and especially tweeting, but it's not just for young folks anymore, and that's really the result of a new study that came out this week about just who is online.

Who is using these social communities? What are they doing? I mean, there are some people we don't want to know about, you know who I'm talking about, who you meet socially online, but who are the people? Where do they hang out, and what can we expect about the future? And that's actually the subject of this new study that came out this week, and joining me now to talk about it is Sean Corcoran. He is an analyst for Forrester Research in Boston, author of "The Broad Reach of Social Technologies," and he joins us by phone today. Welcome.

Mr. SEAN CORCORAN (Analyst, Forrester Research): Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: I was surprised to read in your study that - but it reflects what we see on SCIENCE FRIDAY, about how much older people who are Twittering are than we might think.

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, well, I mean, Twitter is an interesting tool in itself, but one of the things, you know, the point of the research we did is we've been tracking this for about two years now, and what we found is now we're at the point where about four-fifths of Americans who are online are actually now participating in some form of social media, and a lot of that has been fueled by the growth of people over the age of 35. Some of that's through Twitter. I think Facebook has probably really been the biggest catalyst of it, though.

FLATOW: We're heard rumors that, you know - online sort of rumors on the Internet that Facebook is losing participants in droves. Is that correct?

Mr. CORCORAN: I don't know if that's true or not. I mean, the data I've seen is they're still at 250 million people globally. So you know, I haven't seen that kind of data yet specifically for them, but I mean, if you look at Facebook, they almost have nowhere to go to some degree because if they were a country, population-wise at this point globally, they would be number four behind China, India and the United States. So they're at a point now where they have a great deal of people. So it's a matter, I think, now of fixing - or not fixing, but improving their experience and really starting to make money is probably their focus.

FLATOW: Yeah, number four in the whole world.

Mr. CORCORAN: Certainly, yeah, I mean, the United States is a little over 300 million now, and they'd be at 250 million. So yeah, they'd be ahead of - I think Indonesia would be the next biggest. So, you know, 30 percent of their usage comes from the United States, but looking at the numbers that they have, I mean, it's pretty amazing the amount of people who are still using - I mean, before you start talking about them losing people, I think you have to look at how many people are actually using it now. I think that's still a big news factor.

You know, 250 million people using it globally. Half of them, roughly, are logging in on a daily basis. So you know, people are spending more than five billion minutes a day on Facebook. So that kind of activity shows that it's still doing fine, I think.

FLATOW: Is that the largest place anybody is congregating?

Mr. CORCORAN: You know, it's hard to say. I mean, you could say that, you know, some sites like Google and others have a lot of traffic, but people are spending more time, I think, on Facebook than really any other social network, that's for sure.

FLATOW: Right. Well, people can Twitter to us, as they do every week @scifri. That's @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also, our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Now these people, what are they doing? I noticed in your report, you've broken it down to creators, collectors, spectators, joiners, critics, inactives (unintelligible)…

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, well, what we did is we actually - we created groupings based on activity, and really what we call the social technographics ladder, and really, starting at the bottom, there are people who are just inactive. They're not included at all. Now that group is down to as low as 18 percent. So only 18 percent of Americans who use the Internet don't use social tools in some way.

And then we started to look at what's the most basic way you could get involved, and that's a spectator, someone who just, you know, is online, maybe reading a blog or watching videos on YouTube that people have uploaded.

And then there is the joiners, which is now half of the Americans that use the Internet on a monthly basis have actually joined a social network of some kind at this point, and then we got into other things like collectors and critics.

People who tag things and organize things are collectors, people who do ratings and reviews are critics. and then finally at the apex we have creators, and at this point about a quarter of Americans who use the Internet are actually creator now. So that shows you how many people are actually out there publishing and creating information, and that has a lot of impact on a lot of different industries.

I mean, I cover marketing very specifically. So the advertising world is very different now, and also journalism and, you know, seeing what's happening with newspapers. You're seeing a lot of citizen journalists now.

FLATOW: It's interesting because I have some teenagers who I use as my gut checks on these things, and very few of them actually use Twitter. They love Facebook, but they're still doing mostly the old IMing, text-messaging.

Mr. CORCORAN: Sure, and that's actually - that makes sense. If you look at the nature of kind of the beast that Twitter is, and Twitter is kind of an odd counter-intuitive tool. You know, I don't know how often you use it, but I think a lot of people that use it are still trying to figure it out, but there has been some data that's been released.

Now, Twitter's grown so fast that it's kind of hard to really pinpoint some of this stuff. From one hand, it had about just a few million users in 2008. It's up to between 20 and 40 million, depending on who you talk to this year.

So to be able to even get a grasp on what is happening on Twitter is kind of difficult. Initially, it was more kind of adults, I guess, 25- to 44-type-year-old people that were using Twitter. There is some data lately from a company called comScore that just came out recently, I think in the last week or so, that 18 to 24-year-olds are one of their fastest-growing segments.

So younger people are moving in there, but Twitter is really kind of a broadcast tool. It's a little bit more public than Facebook. Facebook's, it's an easier place to control. It's a little more private, and if you think about a teenager, for instance, a teenager is someone whose social network is usually right around them, within their school or, you know, right around them pretty close to them.

So using things like, you know, a cell phone or, you know, for mobile texting or, you know, your Facebook to kind of share your experiences makes sense, but when you get into an older age, I think a lot of us know this, you know, in your career, you start to build a network across the country or across the globe even, and you want to update those people pretty regularly, or you want to follow people that have something to say, and that's really what's brought some of the younger people into Twitter is that, you know, people like Mylie Cyrus and Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher are regularly updating, and people are coming in to kind of hear what they're saying on a daily basis.

FLATOW: Do different demographic, different age groups, find different social media they prefer?

Mr. CORCORAN: Definitely. One of the things that Facebook's found is that women over the age of 35 have kind of flocked there, and they've certainly done that, and Twitter originally had a little bit more of a male twist at the beginning, you know, and then you look at MySpace, which is still around, still has 50 million people using it, but it's definitely for a much younger audience and focused a little bit more towards entertainment.

So people definitely have, based on age, and you can break it down by demographics. A lot of things have ways in which they use these tools very differently, and people's lives are different. So that's the way they do it. There are different life stages, and you know, as you get a little older, I think people over the age of 35 have found Facebook really great because you can connect with people you haven't seen in a long time, and you can, you know, you can kind of see what's going on in their life, but it's a very personal thing.

And then you have people using something like LinkedIn. It's really more for career, you know, professionals, and I use it personally as kind of like my virtual Rolodex. I just keep all the people who I feel like I need to keep in touch with from a career perspective in there.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to John in Berkeley. Hi John. John, are you there?

JOHN (Caller): I'm here. Can you hear me?

FLATOW: Yes, quickly.

JOHN: Yes. I just call myself a Facebook widower. My wife comes home, and she jumps on the computer and on Facebook, and I have to beg her or fight with her to get a greeting out of her, and then when I talk to her about it - and it's Twitter now also. We're both in our late 30s. She basically sees what she does on there as very, very important, even though, you know, six months ago or a year ago it wasn't even important in her life…

FLATOW: All right, thanks. You're dropping out there. Yeah, we heard that about Second Life when Second Life first started.

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, we call it the Second Life - and we have this term in the industry, we call it the shiny-object syndrome, where people tend to flock toward something, and they try it out, and if they like it they stay, if they don't, they drop off, and you know, Second Life, really, it still has a decent amount of people visiting it, but it's just not the same.

I don't think Facebook's at that point. I think Facebook's well beyond that now. I mean, like I said, the amount of people using it, the amount of time they're spending, you know, some of the other statistics you can throw out there. I mean, there's been - there's a billion, over a billion photos uploaded to Facebook on a given - I mean, people are using it as almost, you know, their personal address book, in a sense, and it's beyond that.

FLATOW: Well, that's what I was going to say. If you want to reach people as an advertiser or somebody, do you now go to Facebook instead of creating your own Web page?

Mr. CORCORAN: To some degree, you do, I mean, and that's actually a great point because that's one of the things we talk about with marketers now is, you know, marketers for years now, for decades, have been used to what we call shouting. It's this idea that, you know, advertising is talk at.

You know, you just throw a message out there, and if they hear it, great. But now people have the ability to talk back and talk back even more than you think, and it's very transparent to everyone else when they do talk back.

So what we tell, you know, marketers is that basically you need to start building relationships with people, and yes, you know, you'll have your Web site still, but you're going to have a presence in all these places where people live as well.

FLATOW: And so do you find one person? Let's say you want to find people on Facebook. How do you reach all those people? If there are 250 million people…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, I mean, some of it's just - Facebook, you know, there are ways to search within the Facebook, and it works pretty well. I mean, the way I usually do it is I meet someone, and my personal rule is I only allow someone in my Facebook if I've met them and have a friendship with them. So…

FLATOW: You mean first face to face?

Mr. CORCORAN: Usually, or unless it's someone I spend a lot of time with work-wise - maybe I don't see that much, if they work on the West Coast or in Asia or something.

FLATOW: So you don't want 1,000 quote-unquote friends…

Mr. CORCORAN: And that's what I use Twitter and LinkedIn for. So I actually use it in different ways.

FLATOW: So you've decided where the limits are for each one.

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, and I think that's kind of the nature of each one. Facebook, the way it works is when you built your profile, you have to accept a friend, and a lot of those things that happen, they're very personal. So the things that are on my Facebook profile, for instance, are who my wife is and who my friends are and pictures of my life, and I don't' necessarily need to share that with everyone.

But Twitter, on the other hand, is kind of interesting because that's my way of - my kind of like my megaphone out to the world on, you know, things I'm talking about, you know…

FLATOW: So which are your core social community that you live in?

Mr. CORCORAN: Me, personally? It's the three that I talked about: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

FLATOW: LinkedIn, and each one - LinkedIn for business…

Mr. CORCORAN: LinkedIn for business only. Like I said, it's like a virtual Rolodex. It plays a little bit more of a roll than that.

FLATOW: There's something new that Google is coming out with. There's the Wave? Do you know anything about that?

Mr. CORCORAN: I'm not as familiar with that. I mean, they have this thing called Latitude that they came out, which you are able to kind of track your friends through your mobile phone with Google Maps, which is a little bit different. But you know, everybody's trying to come up with something in this space.

FLATOW: And you've got to be careful where you go and what you say on these places because once you hit that return button…

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, especially Twitter. Sometimes you can't get that stuff back. I mean that's one of the things that's really broadcast out to a lot of people, and if people choose to follow you, they're going to, you know, hear what you're saying, so you do have to be careful.

And then, you know, there's always security issues, and I think these companies like Facebook have done a nice job of increasing the security and making it better, but you know, yet people should realize that when they, you know, they place things out there, it's on, you know, someone else's server and lives out there somewhere else.

FLATOW: Yeah, if you go on a picnic with somebody, and they take your picture…

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, it could end up out there.

FLATOW: It could end up out there, and people you don't want to see could see you on that picnic.

Mr. CORCORAN: And we said 24 percent of people are now creators. So, you know, everyone's kind of a publisher in some way.

FLATOW: And you think everyone, sooner or later, will be participating, even though they may be a lurker now?

Mr. CORCORAN: Yeah, I mean, everyone - it's almost impossible to avoid it at this point. I think social tools, the ability to share, it's just another dimension, another aspect of the way we communicate.

FLATOW: All right, Sean, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Mr. CORCORAN: Thanks, Ira. I really appreciate it.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Sean Corcoran is an analyst for Forrester Research in Boston. He's author of the new report, "The Broad Reach of Social Technologies," and very interesting stuff about Twitter.

You can Twitter us. Our Twitter is @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Also, we're in Second Life. People are grouping there and listening to the program. You can send us email there, or our number, 1-800-989-8255, the old tel-way. So stay with us. We'll switch gears and come back and talk about, well, what's happening to the swine flu and college campuses around the country and what you should be aware of. So stay with us.

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