It's a feeling familiar to anyone who lives an extremely online life. You spend all day on Twitter watching Howard Schultz get roasted and ratioed or retweeting all of the best definitions of the word "covfefe." Then you log off and enter the real world—the one where your spouse, your friends, your parents, and all the other people in your life who don't spend their days obsessively checking their mentions have precisely no idea what you're talking about, let alone why they should care.
Most of us know intuitively that Twitter is not an accurate reflection of the world we live in. It's more of a fun house mirror, distorting and exaggerating its subjects to sometimes funny, sometimes frightening effect. With just 126 million daily active users around the world, it's about one-third the size of the US population, but this self-selecting group can have a disproportionately large effect on the stories the media tells, the political candidates who rise to the top, and the broad sense of which ideas are gaining cultural acceptance—whether or not they truly are.
Now we have some more some data points to back up that gut feeling. On Wednesday, Pew Research released a report that compares Twitter users to the rest of the US population. Pew surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,791 adult Twitter users about everything from their income and education to their thoughts on issues like race and immigration. They compared those responses to other studies on the broader American population. Survey respondents also shared their Twitter handles with Pew, which enabled the researchers to tap into Twitter's API and study the differences between the most and least prolific Twitter users in their sample.
"The comparison we wanted to make was: Are Twitter users different from the general public?" says Stefan Wojcik, who co-authored the report with his Pew colleague Adam Hughes. In a lot of cases, the answer was yes. The researchers found that in general, Twitter users are younger, wealthier, and better educated than the rest of the country. They're also more likely to lean left.
According to Pew's survey, nearly three-quarters of Twitter users are under the age of 49, compared to 54 percent of the US population. Fully 42 percent of Twitter users surveyed are college graduates, compared to 31 percent of the US population, and 41 percent of Twitter survey takers make more than $75,000 a year, compared to just 32 percent of Americans overall.
The Twitter users were also less likely to identify as very conservative than the general population. On an 11-point scale, where zero is very conservative and 10 is very liberal, just 14 percent of the Twitter respondents rated themselves between zero and two. In the broader population, 25 percent of people rated themselves the same. This difference may explain why Twitter users tend to be more open to progressive ideas than the rest of the country. Some 64 percent of Twitter users say black people are treated less fairly than white people, compared to 54 percent of Americans. Twitter users were also more likely than the rest of the country to say that immigrants strengthen the US, and that women face barriers that make it tougher to get ahead.
Of course, not all Twitter users are created equal. Pew also measured the differences between the most active and least active Twitter users in its survey base. They found that the top 10 percent of Tweeters produce 80 percent of the tweets. Some 65 percent of them are women, compared to 48 percent of the broader Twitter base. And while 69 percent of the most prolific tweeters say they've talked about politics on the platform, just 39 percent of all Twitter users say the same.
These survey results track closely with a recent report in The New York Times, which found that Democrats who don't post political content on social media tend to be more moderate than their outspoken online counterparts. They're also more likely to view political correctness as a problem, less likely to join protests, less likely to donate to political organizations, and less likely to follow the news.
Taken together, these findings reinforce the idea that social media isn't always the most accurate way to take the pulse of a society. That's a fact that sometimes gets lost when the angry online hordes draw their pitchforks or when a presidential tweet about building a wall appears more popular than the policy itself really is. When businesses, elected officials, and even members of the press react instantly to the day's hot topic on Twitter, this research suggests, what they're really reacting to is a relatively narrow audience.
To be sure, that audience does reflect some parts of the real world—and it can push forward ideas and issues that haven't yet hit the mainstream—but, the research shows, objects in the Twitter mirror aren't always what they seem.