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How are numbers important?

RazvanNicolescu30 September 2013

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

Young people in the Italy fieldsite using mobile phones (Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu)

This blog post is about some of the significances of the huge difference in the usage of social media between teenagers and other people in the Italian fieldsite. If we are looking at the average usage of social media, we could easily identify a few groups that are corresponding to different age groups. The first group is constituted by teenagers aged up to 16-18 year old who use social media, and especially Facebook, quite intensively. This means that most of them have around 1,000 online connections and if they are not always-connected through a smartphone than they may spend a few hours a day or every few days on different social media.

This definitely contrasts with the rest of age groups. Young people between say 20 and 30 year old use social media in a more nuanced way. Even their subscription to the service is more unpredictable. If most of the young people who use some sort of social media have on average around 200-300 online connections, there are individuals, like the ones described in my previous post, who near 1,000 connections and have very precise strategies for online communication. At the other end of the spectrum around 20% of young users who have a few tens of connections and engage sporadically in any social networking activity. The way these people think about online media is actually very close to the way young people who refuse to subscribe to any social media at all motivate their resistance. At the same time, the way young people use Facebook or Twitter is much more heterogeneous than in the case of teenagers: it ranges from a few minutes a week to a few hours a day and from random to constancy. It is interesting that most of the time this usage is quite consistent for any given individual and does not necessarily depend on the time of the year or on the work schedule.

Then, for adult population figures drop dramatically, from around 30-40% of young adults who are active on at least one social media to around 20% in the case of adults. Old people use social media rarely, and usually in relation to some younger relatives who live elsewhere and actively encourage this usage. Most of the time this media is skype, that seems to respond better to the exigencies of this particular kind of distant relationship. The reasons are many, from its synchronous character, the possibility of high quality video conversations, to the ease of its usage which is a highly important issue for old people who usually have relatively poor computer expertise.

Therefore, we have this highly unequal distribution of knowledge and practice in relation to social media across the town population. As most of the literature in this area focused on teenagers and different affluent, and influent, people or social groups, our project objectives aim to cover other segments of population as well as some particularly overlooked social issues. However, before doing that we need to understand the important differences in terms of penetration and usage that seem to exist in most of the sites in this project.

The questions that have arisen from the preliminary survey on the usage of social media that we undertook in the Italian fieldsite are many. I will discuss here just one aspect: the very different numbers and intensity of usage in relation to social media among the various age groups together with the complex social relations between people belonging to these age groups seem to indicate the fact that it would be completely meaningless to focus exclusively on social media. That is, social media could not account but for a particular part of the society and the relationships that are at work here. At the same time, social media seems to be a very helpful lens through which we, as anthropologists, could make sense of these relationships exactly because they are objectified in a very transparent and accessible medium. In particular, I suggest that the numbers presented in this post point not to an inequality between different age groups, but rather to a very specific mutual completion of these.

Some of the ways society understands to use the numbers related to social media are more obvious: for instance, the educational systems’ inefficient attempts to adapt themselves to the impressive request and consumption of new technology and media. These attempts seldom imply massive public spending on initiatives that are at least questionable, such as the new-technology-for-the-disadvantaged or the ones promising the migration of sensitive schooling processes on different IT infrastructures. These are examples of ‘big numbers’ taken ad litteram, with little, if any, attempts of critical interpretation. As fieldwork shows, whenever ‘big numbers’ are judged independently from ‘small numbers,’ important misunderstandings happen. The simple reason is that either one of these two groups could easily be irrelevant when not considered in relation with the other or when this relation is taken for granted.