Does Race Affect How You Use Social Media?

Facebook Universally Popular, But Use of Other Sites Shaped by Race

It’s probably no surprise that Facebook is the most commonly used social networking platform among US adults. Of the 81 percent of us who use the internet, 71 percent of us also use the site. That translates to more than half of all US adults–58 percent–using Facebook.

But, did you know that more than half of online adults use more than one social networking site? That more than half of online seniors use Facebook? Or, that there are big differences in platform usage based on age and race? Pew Research Center reported these and other trends following its annual survey of online adults, published in September 2014.

First, let’s take a look at the behavior of those using the most popular site. Pew’s nationally representative survey of 2,003 online adults found that Facebook users are the most highly engaged versus users of other platforms, and their rate of engagement has grown year-over-year. They are accessing the site frequently, with 70 percent using it daily, and 45 percent using it multiple times per day. They are also actively engaged, not just consuming content, with the majority–65 percent–sharing, posting, or commenting at least some of the time. Among those who use other social media sites, the vast majority also use Facebook.

Despite the widespread popularity of Facebook, there are some noticeable differences in terms of how race, gender, and age influence use. The site is quite a bit more popular among women than men (77 versus 66 percent), and slightly more popular among Hispanic users than whites, with the lowest rate of use among black people (though they are all quite close, really).

In terms of age, Facebook is most heavily used by those ages 18-28 (87%). Usage among online adults decreases progressively as age increases, however the majority of all age groups are using the site. Meanwhile, level of education, income, and where one lives do not appear to produce significant effects on Facebook usage. It is, in sum, nearly universal.

The study notes, however, that while Facebook is by far the most widely used social media platform, other sites–including LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest–are growing more rapidly. Despite growth, though, these sites have low penetration among online adults. LinkedIn and Pinterest lead with 28 percent each, followed by Instagram with 26 percent, and Twitter last, at 23 percent. However, usage shows some interesting, though perhaps not surprising, trends. Let’s review.

  • Instagram is overwhelmingly the domain of young adults, with more than half of those 18-29 using the site (a huge 16 point increase over 2013), half of whom use it daily. The site has far lower penetration among older age groups. Use of Instagram is also far more common among women than men, and among black and Hispanic people than among whites.
  • LinkedIn is the territory of those with high educational and economic capital.​ Half of all online adults with a college degree use the site, but it is more common among white and black populations than among the Hispanic one, and is most common among those earning more than $75,000 per year. 
  • Pinterest is dominated by women, with 42 percent of those online using the site, compared with just 13 percent of online men. This year the site enjoyed a surge in users among women over 50 years of age. Use of the site is also more common among whites than Hispanics, with very low usage among black people.
  • Twitter engagement is on the decline, with just 36 percent of users visiting the site daily, down 10 percentage points from 2013. It is most widely used, though, by those aged 18-29, and those with a college education. Like Instagram, use of Twitter is more common among black and Hispanic people than it is among whites, with the highest rates of usage among the black population.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking findings of the survey are those that show usage by race. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have greater penetration rates among minority racial groups than they do among whites. Facebook is slightly more popular among Hispanics than whites, and slightly less popular overall among black people. In fact, among the black population, use of Facebook decreased by 9 percentage points on the year, while it remained steady for whites and Hispanics.

Black folks lead in use of Twitter, but are actually using it less than in 2013, while Hispanics showed a large increase of 9 percentage points in use of the site. It seems that online black adults have turned to Instagram, where they again lead in use, which increased a bit from 2013.

What these trends show is that while Facebook is about equally popular across racial lines, Twitter and Instagram appeal to people of color far more so than they do to white people. These findings raise some questions: Why do Twitter and Instagram not appeal to the white population? Why are they more appealing to black and Hispanic populations?

This trend may actually be more attributable to age, or generational differences, than race. Keep in mind that Instagram is far more popular among younger adults than among older ones. Demographic data show that both the Hispanic and black populations are on average much younger than the white population. While right now the median age among white people is 42, for blacks it is 33, and for Hispanics, 27. So, what we might be seeing in these trends is that Instagram appeals more to millennials, who are the most racially diverse generation in our nation’s history. The Pew survey found that there is considerable overlap between Twitter and Instagram, so if this hypothesis is correct, then it would explain why, like Instagram, Twitter is not popular among white people.

Along with age, these trends may also be a function of unequal distribution of income and wealth along racial lines. Twitter and Instagram may appeal more to those who access the web more from mobile devices than from costly broadband connections. While access continues to increase across racial lines, broadband remains more prominent in white households than among black and Hispanic ones.

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