Communicating science. Does social media carve a gap between young and old readers?

broken typewriter

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?

Aust social media vs age 1Not 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?

Aust farmer ages 2

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.

Aust farmer social media 3

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.

What do you think? Do you use social media to send or receive information about the environment? Do you find it useful? What things work well – and not so well – in your experience? Can you provide suggestions for others to learn from? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Related posts

Acknowledgements

The original photo of the broken typewriter is from the London’s Lost Rivers web site.

Further reading

Barr, Neil (2014). New entrants to Australian agricultural industries – Where are the young farmers? Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Sensis (2014). Yellow Social Media Report. What Australian people and businesses are doing with social media.

Sensis (2014). Sensis® e-Business Report 2014. The online experience of small and medium enterprises.

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12 thoughts on “Communicating science. Does social media carve a gap between young and old readers?

  1. Hi Ian, as a long time nature blogger I sometimes felt like offering snippets that on their own weren’t blog worthy, so took the plunge and joined Twitter. I’ve found it to be quite good, I’ve hooked up with quite a number of like minded people and encounter a lot of interesting stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. As for things that work well, just one word, pictures! What’s the old saying…. a picture is worth a thousand words…. As for the age/social media factor, in a few months I’ll be eighty, make of that what you will!

    • Hi Duncan, yes pictures, pictures, pictures. Great images are incredibly important on the web. And congratulations on your big birthday. I hope I’m still learning new things like you are when I get to 80! Best wishes Ian

  2. Hi Ian, I am probably one of many who read your (and other serious ecologists) blogs as a source of science-based information, (and one who rarely comments, I have no qualification and would have little to contribute). But please keep writing, I’m still on a learning curve.

    You are right, I’m 66 and although I view Facebook to keep up with what my niece is up to, I would never think of using it as a source for science-based information. I know no-one my age who views F/B regularly, life is just too short to be sifting through the SOCIAL. I totally understand young peoples’ F/B interest but I assume it’s mainly the social attraction. After I read your post I went to F/B and searched ‘ecology australia’….not much doing. However the Deakin Uni volunteer’s reg is useful to me.

    You note “As information consumers, we all need to acknowledge that more and more information is being distributed through social media ‘ but also say ‘ seven out of ten Australians (72%) aged 14 and above use social media…… Almost all of them (95%) use Facebook.” Seems what you are saying is 7 out of 10 people almost always use Facebook to source their (science-based) information! I wish them luck.

    Maybe it’s easier for older people to view the world in a less anthropocentric way. We’ve been there done that, been young I mean.

    And pictures, night camera traps, before and after pics, all good. Most people never get to wander first hand in a desert or a mountain ash forest in the dead of night. Cheers.

    • Hi Art, great points. There’s undoubtedly a big gap between ‘using social media’ and ‘using social media to access information on science or ecology’. As you say, most people use Facebook to keep up with their friends.

      I imagine that the profile of ‘blogs’ is probably much more poorly defined than Facebook too. The general consensus I’ve found is that using a blog to write about ecology isn’t seen (by people who don’t read blogs) as a particularly useful way to communicate. However I’m pretty sure a lot more people read my blogs than would read articles I might put in a relevant magazine.

      Facebook and Twitter are certainly wonderful ways to attract an audience to blogs too – many of the blogs on the ‘Australia’s Best Ecology Blogs’ Facebook page get quite a lot of readers from the Facebook site. All of these formats are so intertwined now, that I guess it has become a bit too simplistic to talk about one social media site in isolation (as I’ve done above to some extent).

      Thanks for writing in, best wishes Ian

  3. Great post Ian, much food for thought! I wonder if social media creates a divide amongst generations as much as amongst those who are online vs offline?….and, because time speeds up in cyberland (1 internet year = 4.7 earth years!), being offline includes people who have an online presence but don’t use it regularly. The success of online social media (not including blogs*) is based around instantaneous social interactions – if you’re not active online when the content is shared, you often miss out. So sharing information via Twitter or Facebook or similar social media only connects with people who are online at that time (or within a few hours) of the act of sharing…so what about all the people who only check their accounts once every few days because they’re out mustering cattle or something?
    (*Although some people argue that blogs are social media too, most are slightly different in their relative permanency – they are more like an online newspaper column or magazine that can be dipped into at the reader’s leisure.)

    • Hi Manu, thanks for writing in, you make a great point. I have the impression that people use combinations of different types of social media in lots of different ways, and certainly in far more diverse ways than I do – or would ever want to do 🙂

      Many people follow my blog (and perhaps Duncan’s, Artlikker’s and yours too, although I’m just guessing) from Twitter or Facebook, rather than through the blog itself. I have no idea how many readers see my initial tweet or Facebook posting (which the blog software automatically sends out when a new blog is posted) and how many hear about a new blog after one of their friends has shared it. Sometimes shared messages keep getting passed around for days and days after a blog is posted, which provides a time lag after the initial message goes live.

      The rate of change in all of these things is beyond of all of us I guess. I wonder what blogs and Twitter and the like will look like in another 4.7 earth years! Thanks again and best wishes, Ian

  4. Hi Ian,
    I just wanted to add a couple of observations. As you said, there is a huge change in 10 years and in the next ten years the changes will be greater and faster. One factor which changes the use of social media for older people is their children. As they leave home or travel we are finding that social media is the best way to keep in touch. My husband was 58 when first opened his facebook account to keep up contact with our son as he traveled. Now at 60 he is messaging me from Nepal as he is traveling with his son. For others they may be becoming grandparents – another reason to keep up to date.

    Another observation about social media is that I have noticed many local groups or special interest groups have developed eg Natures Creatures, Flora of Melbourne. Urban Ecology, Scab Duty. It is a great way to share and receive topic based information. This was how I saw your article as it was posted by someone else.

    Its great to be able to choose what you receive but still there is so much rubbish and distraction that floods into your feed it changes our use from detailed reading to skimming and it makes it easier to miss things. Information overload seems to be something youth are good at dealing with. Perhaps the future will allow us to sort our feeds in a more manageable way.

    As Duncan said “A picture is worth a thousand words” Well what is a good video worth? I posted a video on our facebook group – (media.https://www.facebook.com/colleen.miller.9659) A tiger snake in the apple tree outside the office window and for me it went viral – 2,700 views as apposed to a couple of hundred. We had a spike in people liking our page. I am still constantly surprised by social media.

    Thanks for a great blog, you keep me thinking, Colleen

    • Hello Colleen, thanks for your great thoughts – and for the link to your video. That’s obviously worth at least 2,700 words 🙂 Thanks again and best wishes Ian

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  6. Many thanks Ian for another insightful post on a very important topic.

    Access to information was the focus of the Land & Water Australia (LWA) Knowledge for Regional NRM Program, on which I worked. As a research investor, Land & Water Australia was wanting to see that the outcomes of research investments were informing on-ground activities, and that the experiences of on-ground practitioners were also informing investment priorities. LWA set about investigating these information and knowledge relationships, initiating the Knowledge for Regional NRM Program to identify and address areas for improvement. Meeting the information and knowledge needs of regional NRM bodies (http://nrmregionsaustralia.com.au/) was found to be one of the biggest challenges. A significant aspect of the Knowledge for Regional NRM Program was the direct involvement of information and knowledge management practitioners. Beyond this, the NRM sector has unfortunately only engaged with information and knowledge management expertise in a very limited way. This sets the NRM sector apart from many other sectors, for example business and industry, where the contribution of information and knowledge management practitioners is seen as fundamental.

    One of the significant outcomes of the Knowledge for Regional NRM Program was an information and knowledge strategy process. The use of communication strategies to facilitate NRM information dissemination is highly flawed. Regional NRM bodies described their situation to be like being at the end of an out-of-control conveyor belt that hurled information at them at such a rate that they couldn’t even consider it, let alone digest and apply it. The agencies and organisations burying them in all that information would be happily reporting the successful implementation of their communication strategies, but the information management reality is very different. The information and knowledge strategy process enabled regional NRM bodies to understand how they were accessing, using and sharing information and knowledge, and to identify and implement ways of improving the effectiveness of what they were doing.

    The use of social media may or may not be part of the suite of tools and processes that any given organisation selects as being the most appropriate and effective ways for them to share information. As you say, information producers must always remember who the audience is, and distribute information in ways that suit that audience. Information circulated through social media might be accessed by a large number of people, but can or will those people act on that information? Or is the use of social media really just feeding “slacktivism”? (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charlotte-robertson/slacktivism-the-downfall-_b_5984336.html). As well as considering age (and probably other) demographics, the use of social media to share information with particular audiences should be based on an understanding of the relevant social networks and how people in those networks will use or apply the information they receive or access. This understanding can be gained though social network analysis (http://www.orgnet.com/sna.html), together with an exploration of the growing body of evidence in regard to how social networks operate (for example the landmark study at http://www.pnas.org/content/111/3/942.full). Social network analysis has so far had only very limited application in NRM in Australia, but I’ve used it to understand the effectiveness of information communication, and two examples of its application to NRM activities in Australia are http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol18/iss2/art30/ (Victoria) and pp. 6-7 of http://www.decision-point.com.au/images/DPoint_files/DPoint_82/DPoint82_low_res_%20pdf.pdf (WA). A new PhD project by the CRC for plant biosecurity will take the further step of exploring how social networks can effectively use social media tools to share information (scroll down the page at http://www.cdu.edu.au/northern-institute/plant-biosecurity).

    At the age of 51, I actively use social media myself with Urban Environment News (http://urbanenvironmentnews.com/). I find Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to be very effective platforms for accessing relevant information. However, I also find more traditional e-lists to be just as useful, particularly for information on new research and initiatives, for example the e-lists of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (http://www.iisd.ca/email/). I have also found social media to be somewhat useful for communicating information, but from observing where information from Urban Environment News is used I think that my more traditional email subscriber list is still more effective.

    As you also say, sifting the information gems from the mountains of bulldust on the internet is a big challenge. Another significant outcome of the Knowledge for Regional NRM Program was the NRM Navigator, which provided a set of online tools and databases that made it easier for NRM professionals to find and share information. It included the NRM Search Engine which delivered more relevant search results than generic search engines because it searched only selected Australian NRM websites and databases, including information repositories that are not indexed by generic search engines. Many people are unaware that generic search engines, for example Google, don’t index a range of important NRM information repositories. The Knowledge for Regional NRM Program also engaged CSIRO to carry out two successful systematic review trials. The information explosion continues to be a reality, with the amount of new information that is generated growing at an exponential rate, as illustrated in the “Did you know? Shift Happens” video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcZg51Il9no). Systematic review is a way of turning masses of information into usable evidence for decision-making. It has long been used successfully in medicine, and is gaining momentum in conservation (see for example http://www.environmentalevidence.org/ and http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901114001142).

    I encourage everyone to read the final report of the Knowledge for Regional NRM Program (http://lwa.gov.au/files/products/knowledge-regional-nrm/pn30027/lwa5552-nrm-report-final-web.pdf). Unfortunately many of the products and services from the program are no longer available or accessible, with the program only being funded for a fixed period and Land & Water Australia itself being subsequently closed down. The short-term nature of environmental programs in Australia means that sadly much momentum is generated and then subsequently lost. However, some products can be viewed in the Internet Archive:
    – Regional Knowledge Resource Kit: http://web.archive.org/web/20130410034031/http://rkrk.net.au/index.php/Information_and_Knowledge_Resource_Kit_(IKRK)
    – NRM Navigator: http://web.archive.org/web/20121224215548/http://nrmnavigator.net.au/

    (The Internet Archive – http://archive.org/web/ – which is not indexed by Google, is where you can find many long-lost websites).

    • Hello Bruce, thanks heaps for such an informative response. It is great to hear that the LWA work can still be accessed, as the axing of LWA was a terrible blow for natural resource management in Australia. Thanks too for all the links, I look forward to following them up. Best wishes Ian

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