Social Media: it’s bigger than you might think

We know that social media and social networks are big and that it is growing. And two reports out this month seem to confirm this for both the US and the UK.

First, in the US, the latest report from Pew Internet on Adults and Social Networks shows that membership of social networking sites in the US has increased over  the last four year. In fact it has increased more than four-fold, from 8% of US adults in 2005, to 35% of US adults in 2008. Impressive growth and a seemingly impressive statistic: more than one in every three adults in the US has a profile in a social network. That’s more than 27 million people in the US using social networks.

In the UK, research from Hitwise reports that social networks account for 10% of UK internet traffic during the Christmas period at the end of 2008. On one day (Christmas Day in fact) 1 in every 22 UK Internet visits was made to just one social network, Facebook, up 69% on the previous year.

Both of these reports are impressive and show the power and reach of social networks, and in particular how traffic and membership has grown rapidly in the last few years. However, I suspect both underestimate the scale of social media, social networking and online communities.

In 2008 we saw a rapid increase in both online communities, and websites adding a social layer – introducing widgets or social media tools. Whilst there has been considerable and significant growth in social networks, there has been a real surge in people engaging on other sites and communities online.

The Pew Internet research, for example, includes the main social networks (and indeed some others) but does not include Ning communities, those using Meetup, Delicious, LiveJournal or even Twitter. Let alone the large online communities such as TripAdvisor, or the more niche online communities such as Nike+.

It’s not that either of these pieces of research are intentionally missing things out, but more that they are looking at just a part of the picture. I think we are missing all the data we need to complete this. We don’t know how many people are taking part in online communities, but anecdotal evidence from the communities that we run at FreshNetworks would suggest that there are a lot of people who join online communities but are not members of social networks. This would mean that the total number of people engaged in social media, using tools and engaging online is much bigger than we might think. Potentially much much bigger.

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