- September 2, 2009

What Ashton vs. CNN Foretold About the Changing Demographics of Twitter

Lately there’s been quite a bit of discussion about whether or not Twitter is being widely adopted by younger users. Several months back we posted on our blog about the surprising older skew among visitors to Twitter.com, which perhaps originally set the stage for this debate.

Last week, Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times also weighed in on the subject in her article, “Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teens.” While I found the article to be an interesting read that explores the very real reasons behind some teens’ apparent aversion to Twitter, I thought it only captured half the story. What it accurately depicted is the notion that teens were indeed slow to jump on board and that Twitter definitely defied the early adopter model in attracting primarily users age 35 and older in the beginning.

But as the Twitter audience has mushroomed in recent months – to 21 million U.S. visitors in July 2009 (note: this number represents visitors to the Twitter.com website and does not include API or mobile Twitter usage) – the younger age groups are the ones flooding in the fastest. Here is a depiction of Twitter’s growth by age segment over the past year.

U.S. Unique Visitor (000) Trend (Source: Comscore MMX)

Clearly we can see that the number of visitors from every age segment is growing, which is not surprising considering that the total audience has grown 27-fold in the past year.

But if we visualize the demographic changes another way, the shifting composition becomes more apparent. Here we see that the share of visitors to Twitter under the age of 35 is increasing at a breakneck pace. The most notable positive shifts are evident among the 12-17 and 18-24 year old segments, which are coming at the expense of the 35+ segments.

Share of Audience Trend (Source: Comscore MMX)

We can clearly see how the demographic composition is shifting, but what this graph still doesn’t tell us is whether or not these age segments are visiting Twitter in higher or lower proportion relative to their use of the Internet as a whole. The way to demonstrate these changes is by looking at the composition index over time. The composition index tells us how a group is represented relative to what you would expect given their total Internet composition, with an index of 100 indicating average representation.

In this depiction, it’s evident that 12-17 and 18-24 year olds had mostly under-indexed during most of the course of the past year, but in recent months they had begun to over-index. In fact, it is now the youngest segments that have the highest average representation on Twitter, while the 35-54 and 55+ year olds now under-index where they had previously over-indexed. Quite an interesting turn of events.

Composition Index Trend (Source: Comscore MMX)

So what explains this phenomenon? After all, it is pretty rare to see demographic shifts this pronounced occur over such a short period of time. I think that during the early adopter period back in 2008, Twitter was first gaining notoriety in business settings and via news outlets (particularly on CNN), which resulted in an older-skewing early adopter profile. But as Twitter began to filter more into the mainstream, along with it came a culture of celebrity as Shaq, Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher joined the ranks of the Twitterati.

In April, there was a well-chronicled race between Ashton Kutcher and CNN to see who would be the first to reach 1 million followers. Despite trailing for much of the race, Kutcher pulled ahead in the final hours to grab the illustrious crown pulling off what once seemed like an unlikely upset. But maybe this event was subtly hinting at something more significant brewing at Twitter. Perhaps it was a sign of the impending youth invasion.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that around the time of Kutcher’s improbable victory, we first saw signs of younger users beginning to make their move onto Twitter. This event raised Twitter’s profile even further, which attracted more and more celebrities to the phenomenon, which, in turn, attracted even more young users, creating a virtuous cycle. Very quickly, younger users had gone from being the clear minority to the challenging for the majority.

So that’s where we’re at today: Twitter is most definitely popular among younger users and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. They are fueling its continued growth and pushing it ever closer to achieving critical mass. If that happens, it will be the first example I can think of where the younger demographics were not the critical early adopters of a new Internet technology yet still played a vital role in its adoption curve.

But it won’t be the last.