On the Joe Rogan podcast Tuesday night, independent journalist Tim Pool told Twitter execs: “As a private platform you’ve become too powerful to not be regulated if you refuse to allow people free speech.”
He later elaborated on Twitter.
As the debate rages on over social media censorship and political bias, it occurred to me how unanchored these conversations are in data.
Are social media platforms too powerful in shaping our discourse, as Tim suggests?
In an effort to advance the conversation, I’ve pulled together some stats to put these issues in perspective. My intent isn’t to advocate for or against regulation, just to offer some data that sheds light on social media’s role in American discourse.
There’s one thing to keep in mind as we look at these stats: social media is participatory. We create and share content on social media, not just consume it. This puts social media in a unique and perhaps more vital role for democratic discourse than, say, watching TV.
The summary findings aren’t surprising but should help frame further discussion: Social media makes up a growing share of media time. It is increasingly relied upon as a news source, especially among young people. Almost all activity is concentrated on eight platforms. Facebook-owned platforms dominate about half of all social media activity, I estimate.
Let’s take a look.
Social Media’s Share of Media Time — The Big Picture
To set context, let’s look at social media’s role in total media time. According to Nielsen, the average American spends nearly half the day interacting with media, including three hours and 48 minutes on digital mediums. 62% of digital time is app/web usage on phones.
Young adults 18–34 spend 43% of their time consuming media on digital platforms. Almost a third of their time spent with media (29%) comes from apps/web usage on phones.
The typical adult spends 45 minutes a day on social media, with most of that time coming from smartphones.
The social media stats may be understated when we factor in Internet-connected video time.
Social Media As A News Source
Now let’s look at where Americans get their news. According to Pew Research, about 20% of Americans say they rely heavily on social media for news.
The generational divide in news consumption is significant. Young Adults 18–29 are about four times as likely to rely on social media for news than those 65 and older. For young adults, social media is the most popular source of news. 36% rely heavily on social media for news, topping news websites (27%), TV (16%), radio (13%) and print (2%).
Social Media Activity
Now let’s look at social media use among Americans. The picture is what one would expect: Relatively few platforms dominate nearly all social media activity.
According to Pew Research, 73% of American adults use YouTube and 68% use Facebook. These two services are the primary social networking platforms for most Americans. 24% use Twitter.
Facebook is the most dominant because it owns Instagram and WhatsApp. Based on the numbers, it seems safe to estimate that Facebook-owned platforms control at least half of all social media activity among Americans.
Let’s also keep in mind that Google owns YouTube. Google’s near-monopoly share of Internet search activity, combined with its YouTube ownership, gives it a dominant role in shaping online content consumption. It’s also worth noting that Google has quietly invested in Snapchat.
Platform use varies widely by age. For example, 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat compared to 27% of all adults. 71% of young adults use Instagram and close to half (45%) are Twitter users.
In terms of site usage, fully 74% of Facebook users say they visit the site daily, with around half (51%) saying they do several times a day. A similar share of Snapchat users (49%) say they use the platform multiple times per day. A majority of Snapchat (63%) and Instagram (60%) users visit these platforms daily.
The median American uses three of these eight social platforms with the significant majority on YouTube and Facebook. Some of the use patterns are notable. For instance, roughly three-quarters of both Twitter (73%) and Snapchat (77%) users also indicate that they use Instagram.
Conclusion & Parting Thoughts
A few things jumped out at me from this exercise.
First is the dominance of two companies — YouTube and Facebook — over social media and other Internet activity. Although much of the censorship conversation has focused on Twitter, it occupies a much smaller overall role in American discourse than Google and Facebook. That said, Twitter’s popularity among media types and thought leaders may give it disproportionate influence.
A second take-away is the growing role of social media in discourse and news, especially among young people. Digital and mobile continue to grow as a percentage of media time, and social media takes up a large part of that. Young adults use social media and rely on it for news more than any other group.
A final take-away is just how concentrated American social media activity is on relatively few platforms. Eight platforms collectively make up nearly all social media activity. (In fact it’s hard to get stats on anything outside these eight.) If anything the trend is moving towards more consolidation, though this could change with new market entrants, innovations, or regulations. Foreign-owned platforms don’t play a meaningful role at this point.
The upshot? Social media is only one component of our media time, but it’s growing, uniquely participatory, highly consolidated, and arguably punches beyond its weight in shaping American discourse.