“Statistics are like a drunk with a lampost: used more for support than illumination.” Sir Winston Churchill
Working through publicly available statistics for my series on social media in Germany, I ran into some significant methodological issues. While I’m really grateful for the data we have, all the reports I have seen raised questions.
One issue is that the data base being used is always limited to a few social media platforms that are getting mainstream media attention such as blogs or social networks, but other platforms with high user volume are completely neglected. If social media is about people using the internet to create and share their thoughts, you can’t stop at video sharing sites, blogs and social networks. How about opinion portals such as Ciao or Qype? You could also put Amazon or Expedia in that category given all the product reviews you can find there. How about knowledge sharing portals such as Yahoo! Answers? And why wouldn’t you include platforms where people not only exchange thoughts and content but also goods? So, why not include Craigslist and eBay? They all live off the idea that users are empowered to connect directly between themselves based on shared interests rather than through a gatekeeper.
Another issue is that there is a lack of distinction between categories used. For instance, does the category “blogging” include micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter? Or is Twitter considered a social network? And since users increasingly tend to aggregate all their activities such as blogging or video sharing on their social network, how can you sensibly compare numbers between these categories?
Finally, most of the reports I have seen suffer from not differentiating between private and professional use of social media. I believe there is a real danger that the wrong conclusions are being drawn from data without knowing if the time was spent on private or professional purposes. While we all know that the high growth of social media was and is mainly driven by consumer’s private interests, I also believe that the professional use of social media is underestimated. At least we need to know more. Just think of the tremendous growth of professional networks such as LinkedIn or Xing.
There are surely more reasons why we need better research on social media, but these are the fundamental ones I encountered in publicly available reports.
Social networks have become a better indicator for social media activities than any other particular tool, since users increasingly tend to aggregate many of their activities such as blogging or video sharing on their social network. That’s one of the more important insights in Universal McCann’s latest report.
The situation is different when it comes to professional networks. With a unique audience of 3.56 m, local leader Xing is eight times bigger than global leader LinkedIn, and Xing is still growing whereas LinkedIn stays flat (see exhibit 2). Twitter doesn’t have a local competitor in Germany. While it’s still on a low level compared to the US, it enjoyed significant growth in 2009. Nielsen found that its reach increased from nearly 1.2 m to just under 2 m between March and July 2009 (see exhibit 3). Of course, there is a difference between reach and active users. Thomas Pfeiffer calculated that Twitter had approx. 28.000 active German users back in March, 145.000 in July. That is rapid growth, albeit on a low level.