Urban Social Media Demographics (Lit Review, Swanson)

Article Reviewed: Urban Social Media Demographics: An Exploration of Twitter Use in Major American Cities


This article explores intersections between place, race/ethnicity, and gender amongst American Twitter users and makes an argument that studying the intensity of tweets provides insights into how and why particular groups tweet. Given recent events in American political life such as the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and the reactions by young, urban African Americans on Twitter, understanding the role of race, place, gender, and age is important. We observed the time between tweets of urban American Twitter users and explored whether the medium may be providing traditionally marginalized groups, such as young Black men, with potential avenues for mobilizing communication and access to resources.


Urban Social Media Demographics: An Exploration of Twitter Use in Major American Cities

Literary Review

Allie Swanson

The demographic composition of Twitter users has been understudied. Scholarly and media attention has been more focused on the study of hashtags, @mentions, tetweets, and sentiment analysis of tweets. These are all useful modes of studying Twitter, however, what is needed is to address gaps in the literature in terms of demographic understandings of Twitter users. Specifically, there is a need in the social sciences and beyond to understand not only who is tweeting, but how intensely different groups tweet, and this is particularly important when it comes to racial matters. There is a substantial Twitter-based literature that makes claims regarding human dynamics and social communication, but we don’t know who is behind these tweets. Though previous work has mapped out tweet frequency in major world cities, a focus on American urban Twitter users has generally been lacking (Murthy, Gross, and Pensavalle, 2016, p.46).

Twitter is a real-time information sharing and social networking tool that has now become a household name. It is now a source that we can explore and retrieve data from because Twitter allows users to share messages that include everything from what one had for breakfast to notifying the world of a human rights abuse. This medium chronicles many aspects of our lived social, economic, and political selves. In exploring some social metrics we investigate demographic trends and understand some of the complex dynamics and demographic indicators of users derived from tweets, and find which populations are more likely to utilize Twitter or tweet more often. The study of demographics in the light of Twitter has not been thoroughly studied, and we need to understand cultures of urban twitter use, the combination of age, gender, race, and place because it is necessary to answer larger questions (Murthy, Gross, and Pensavalle, 2016, p.34).

Twitter users in America might be declining as a whole percentage, but it is on the rise for American groups who do not have a voice in American political and economic life such as cities with marginalized groups. These people view Twitter as a place that their voice can be heard, and where they can make a difference. An example of this is the Ferguson shooting and the large cultural trend that gained visibility on Twitter soon after.

Researching Twitter has been popular since its early days in 2006. Even though most data researchers were limited to Twitter’s free “Spritzer Stream,” which delivers approximately 1% of all tweets, sources can still collect reasonable data. 15% of American Internet users are on Twitter, up from 8% in 2010 and that teen Twitter use grew 8% from 2011 to 2012. African-American teens are more likely to use Twitter than their White counterparts (39% vs. 23%). Women are also more likely than men to be active Twitter users and some social media behaviors may be mediated by gender. Race is also considered to be an important object of study in Twitter. African-Americans have a higher likelihood of Twitter use than other racial groups and are overrepresented compared to the general American population. The frequency of tweeting behaviors by particular racial groups is important as well. There are 500 million tweets per day from over 316 million active users. The trend amongst social media users is to disclose more identifying information such as race, gender, and age the more they use Twitter (Murthy, Gross, and Pensavalle, 2016, p.35).

Successful methods to code Twitter users by demographic attributes have been developed. For example, Hargittai and Litt (2011) implemented several useful methods to categorize types of Twitter users by age, gender, and race. Their approach places emphasis on a user’s “Use and awareness of Twitter” (Murthy, Gross, and Pensavalle, 2016, p.36). Only coding with greater than 90% confidence was considered a reliable categorization. Anytime someone is trying to code with demographics, they run the risk or generalizing, stereotyping, racial profiling, biases, and some ethical challenges.

The authors discuss the two key methods they employed when measuring Twitter activity at the city and individual levels. Activity on Twitter is generally measured on a spectrum ranging from seldom use to “all the time”. Both methods are computational. First, they studied the distribution of tweet frequency. This method considers whether tweet intervals for individual users are power-law distributed. Second, they studied the intensity of tweeting behavior. To capture this, they measured the average length of time (i.e. the gap between a user’s tweets). The shorter amount of time between a user’s tweets, the more intense their tweeting activity generally is.

The theory that social mechanisms affect the behavior of individuals in a social group (like a city) may draw more from close physical proximity to others rather than simply the size of the group in the case of Twitter, is not the case for cities with large Black populations. While White population density is about equal with the correlation for the general population, Black population density correlates more strongly with InterTweet Interval (ITI). It may be the case that total population of a city is generally correlated with both White and Black populations, however, historical Black population contributes most to the mean ITI of the city.

The authors believe that engagement with twitter indicates some level of perceived utility of the medium for the user. They make the argument that tweet intensity is part of a culture of Twitter. They also argue that one’s behavior on social media is affected by a variety of online and offline networks. Through their research, they found significant differences in twitter use by different races. They pose questions about if there are pressures to tweet or to disclose information in certain socioeconomic contexts.

The authors have found evidence of intersections between urban location, demographics, and the intensity by which users tweet. The authors claim that race remains understudied on twitter, but its intersections with age and gender are fundamentally important. Twitter has been an important site of Black cultural production, and this has been manifested through practices such as the circulation of Black hashtags, “Blacktags.” Ultimately, the data indicates that there is something happening on Twitter in U.S. cities with large populations of Black people. The authors believe there is a politics of Twitter use that needs to be unpacked. The results highlight the possibility that particular groups, such as young Black people, see Twitter as a space where they can be vocal. (Murthy, Gross, and Pensavalle, 2016, p.44-45).

The authors identify that social media is the voice of this generation, and they highlight certain areas of the United States who have used this strategy to their advantage to get national coverage, and to arguably start new culture change. They argue that this medium is a place where people think they can speak and be heard, even though you don’t always. Just the thought that you can, created a community around you, which causes a movement. Ultimately, the argument the authors are making is that a connection to place matters for ITI. Of course, it is only one of the cultural aspects of Twitter use. However, if you are learning about things from people in your network that are near to you, Twitter could be encouraging high levels of interaction amongst those geographically located. This could provide real benefits for voice and self-representation amongst traditionally marginalized groups (Murthy, Gross, and Pensavalle, 2016, p.46).



Murthy, D., Gross, A. and Pensavalle, A. (2016), Urban Social Media Demographics: An

Exploration of Twitter Use in Major American Cities. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 21: 33–49. doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12144

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