This workshop is great but how do we get more information out of you scientists when we get back home?
This question has been asked at nearly every community workshop I’ve ever attended. It highlights a big appetite for new information. Yet I was surprised at a recent workshop when a member of the audience answered the question, like this: “There’s heaps of great information by scientists on social media, on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.”
It may not surprise you to learn that the person who asked the question was in their 50s and the person who answered it was in their 20s. (I hope I guessed both ages appropriately).
The exchange raises lots of questions about access to information on the web. Does social media create a digital divide across the generations? Do crowd sourcing and citizen science initiatives that rely on smartphones exclude sectors of society? Who is in the tent, and who is left outside?
Diving for data
To answer these questions I searched the web for reliable data on social media usage in Australia. Whoa, what a mistake that was! Who’d have guessed that the web would be chock-full of awe-inspiring bulldust about technology.
Eventually, I came across good information in reports by Sensis, the company that makes White and Yellow Pages phone directories. The Sensis reports are based on well designed, stratified random telephone surveys of Australians aged 14 and older. All the stats below exclude children younger than 14.
Who does – and doesn’t – use social media?
According to the latest Sensis report, seven out of ten Australians (72%) aged 14 and above use social media. That’s over 13 million people. Almost all of them (95%) use Facebook. We can flip this impressive statistic on its head to investigate the demographic divide. Who are the 28% of Australian adults who don’t use social media?
Not surprisingly, the factor that most strongly influences whether we choose to use social media is our age. Almost everyone from 14 to 30 uses it. This declines to 65% of 50-64 year olds, and only 45% of Australians over 65.
The number of people in the Australian population aged 65 and above is roughly the same as the number of people aged 20-29, 30-39 or 40-49; about 3 million. This means that 1.8 million Australians over 65 don’t use social media. So we definitely do have a demographic divide in the availability of information presented through social media. Mind you, the fact that 45% of people over 65 do use social media is a surprise, given how youthful Facebook is. It’s only 10 years old.
Social media in the bush
Many natural resource management (NRM) groups provide information to farmers. Is social media a useful tool for this purpose? The popular stereotype is that Australian farmers are getting a bit long in the tooth. If true then we might expect fewer farmers will use social media compared to other sectors of the community, simply because of their age. But is this stereotype accurate?
A recent report by Neil Barr provides accurate figures on the age of Australian farmers. Compared to the entire population, farmers are indeed getting on in years. Only 7% are under 30, 60% are over 50, and nearly a quarter are over 65. Mind you, this age structure is similar to that for CEOs of large businesses, and we wouldn’t expect many 15 year olds to be running a large farm business.
How many farmers use social media?
Unfortunately, the number of farmers who use social media is unknown. However a Sensis report shows that a similar proportion of people use social media in both metropolitan and regional areas. If we assume that farmers of a particular age are as likely to use social media as any other person of the same age, then we can combine the Sensis and Neil Barr datasets to estimate the overall proportion of farmers who use social media, as in the following chart.
By this estimate, over half of Australian farmers (65%) are likely to use social media compared to 72% of the wider Australian population. The suggestion that fewer farmers use social media compared to all Australian adults is simply a function of their greater age. The key point is:
If we want to know who does and who doesn’t access information through social media, it’s not really an issue of where people live, or what people do, it’s mostly a question of how old they are. The young do, the aged might.
Does this digital divide matter?
How you answer this question will depend on how old you are and, regardless of your age, on whether or not you own a smartphone and use social media. I make no suggestion that everybody should use social media – or for that matter read blogs like this. Most people who don’t simply don’t want to.
Importantly, information producers like me must always remember who our audience is, and distribute information in ways that suit that audience. As information consumers, we all need to acknowledge that more and more information is being distributed through social media, and this trend is not likely to slow down. A reluctance to use social media may mean we miss out on information that others have ready access to.
And we should always base our judgements on good data, so we can avoid being swayed by all that unfounded, awe-inspiring bulldust on the internet.
The original photo of the broken typewriter is from the London’s Lost Rivers web site.
Barr, Neil (2014). New entrants to Australian agricultural industries – Where are the young farmers? Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.