It’s difficult to deny the power of social media in the United States in 2023. As smartphones have become ubiquitous, so has the posting, reading, and sharing of social media content. A recent survey from MRI-Simmons, a consumer research firm, found that 84% of Americans visited or used the sites in the last year.
But not all social media outlets are created equal in the eyes of consumers. That same survey showed wide differences by social media site and by community type in the American Communities Project.
In short, depending on what site you rely on most heavily, the people filling your daily diet of content can come from different backgrounds and experiences.
Who Goes Where Online
To be sure, social media is a “curated experience” from the start. Users choose who they “follow” or who their “friends” are, but those curated groups come from a universe of self-selected participants. And looked at through the lens of the 15 ACP county types, interesting patterns emerge.
Twitter’s User Group is Relatively Small and Urban
Over the last few months, Twitter has received a lot of attention in the news after the platform was purchased by the billionaire owner of Tesla, Elon Musk. The platform has played a major role in national politics, particularly where former President Donald Trump is concerned.
Trump used the outlet as a megaphone for his views on a wide range of political and cultural topics at all hours and was “permanently suspended” from app after the January 6, 2021, insurrection for violating Twitter’s Glorification of Violence policy. He is about to be reinstated by Musk.
But looking at the chart, two things stand out about Twitter.
First, the percentage of Americans who use the platform is relatively low when compared to other well-known social media sites. Overall, 64% of Americans say they use Facebook and 37% say they use Instagram while only 18% say they use Twitter.
Second, when you look at the chart above, there are noticeable gaps between the most urban and the most rural types. The percentage of adults using the platform is 20% or more only in the ACP’s two most urban and types — the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, which also have large numbers of college degrees. The Exurbs, which tend to be wealthy and well-educated, are next at 18%. Meanwhile, some of the ACP’s least populous types, the Aging Farmlands, Native American Lands, and Working Class Country, are all at 13% or lower.
There’s nothing bad about that, of course, unless you hope you are getting a balanced collection of views of the site. All social media by its very nature connects you to a subset of views, but Twitter, in particular, connects you to a subset of a subset.
In addition, while some on the political right complain that Twitter is “too liberal,” the ACP data suggests there may be some reason for that. If the users create the content and users tend to be more heavily based in urban areas that lean Democratic, a leftward lean may not be a big surprise. (Close to half the nation’s population lives in the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs).
Facebook Still Dominates — Everywhere
The data for Facebook tells the opposite story. More than 60% of the adults in every one of the 15 ACP community types says they use Facebook. In a country that is divided on a long list of issues and that has few common meeting spaces, those are somewhat remarkable numbers.
And Facebook has a higher percentage of users in the ACP’s more rural communities. Almost three-quarters of the adults in the Aging Farmlands say they use the platform. The number is 69% in Working Class Country counties.
The most urban communities use the platform less — 62% in the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs and 64% in the Exurbs.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that those city folk and country folk are all reading the same content. Self-selection, “friends,” and algorithms are a huge part of any social media experience, as The Wall Street Journal explored in 2016. But it does mean that, as a whole, Facebook’s audience is much more representative, and probably more diverse, than Twitter’s audience.
And that’s even more true for Facebook in a broader sense when you look at its parent company, Meta, and who uses Instagram, another social media platform it owns. More adults use Instagram, the image-based social media platform, than Twitter in every community type, and the more urban communities are more likely to use it than their rural counterparts.
Fragmentation is the Rule
This is just a cursory analysis of these platforms. There is no measure here of power users or regular posters and no measure of news consumption or mis- or disinformation. And information fragmentation is very much a way of life in America in 2023.
Long gone are the days of three TV networks and local newspapers. Gone, too, are the days of “57 channels and nothing on.” In a world of millions of “channels” on the web, common views and experiences are hard to find in the United States.
But even within the targeted and niche world of social media, there are big differences in platform use across American communities.