By: Esteban Ortiz-Ospina September 18, 2019
Source: Our World in Data
Photo Source: Unsplash,
The rise of social media
Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world, had 2.4 billion users in 2019. Other social media platforms, including YouTube and WhatsApp, also had over one billion users each.
These numbers are huge – in 2019, there were 7.7 billion people worldwide, with at least 3.5 billion online. This means social media platforms were used by one-in-three people worldwide and more than two-thirds of all internet users.
TikTok, for example, launched in September 2016, and by mid-2018, it had already reached half a billion users. To put this in perspective: TikTok gained, on average, about 20 million new users per month over this period.
The data also shows rapid changes in the opposite direction. Once-dominant platforms have disappeared. In 2008, Hi5, MySpace, and Friendster were close competitors to Facebook, yet by 2012 they had virtually no market share. The case of MySpace is remarkable, considering that in 2006 it temporarily surpassed Google as the most visited website in the US.
Most social media platforms that survived the last decade have shifted significantly in what they offer users. Twitter, for example, didn’t allow users to upload videos or images initially. Since 2011 this has been possible and today, more than 50% of the content viewed on Twitter includes images and videos.
Facebook dominated the social media market for a decade, but five other platforms also have more than half a billion users.
With 2.3 billion users, Facebook was the most popular social media platform in 2019. YouTube, Instagram, and WeChat followed, with over a billion users. Tumblr and TikTok came next, with over half a billion users.
The aggregate numbers mask a great deal of heterogeneity across platforms. Some social media sites are much more popular than others among specific population groups.
In general, young people are more likely to use social media than older people. But some platforms are much more popular among younger people.
For Snapchat and Instagram, the ‘age gradient’ is exceptionally steep – the popularity of these platforms drops much faster with age. Most people under 25 use Snapchat (73%), while only 3% of people over 65 use it.
Since these platforms are relatively new, it’s hard to know how much of this age gradient results from a “cohort effect”. In other words: it’s unclear whether today’s young people will continue using Snapchat as they age. If they do, the age gradient will narrow.
For some platforms, the gender differences are substantial. The share of women who used Pinterest was 3 times as high as that of men using this platform. For Reddit, it was the other way around: the share of men was twice as high.
From a back-of-the-envelope calculation, we know that, if Facebook had 2.3 billion users in 2019, then at least 30% of the world was using social media. This is just an average – usage rates were much higher for some world regions, specifically for some population groups.
Young people tend to use social media more frequently. In fact, in rich countries where access to the Internet is nearly universal, the vast majority of young adults use it.
If today’s young adults continue using social media throughout their life, then it’s likely that social media will continue growing rapidly as internet adoption expands throughout lower-income countries.
The rise of social media in rich countries has come together with an increase in the amount of time spent online.
The increase in social media use over the last decade has, of course, come together with a large increase in the amount of time that people spend online.
In the US, adults spend more than 6 hours daily on digital media (apps and websites accessed through mobile phones, tablets, computers, and other connected devices such as game consoles).
According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, adults aged 18 to 29 in the US are more likely to get news indirectly via social media than directly from print newspapers or news sites. They also report being online ‘almost constantly’.
There is evidence that in other rich countries, people also spend many hours per day online. As we can see, the average for the OECD is more than 4 hours per day; in some countries, the average is above 6 hours per day.
Some perspective on how fast and profound these rapid changes are
The percentage of US adults who use social media increased from 5% in 2005 to 79% in 2019. Even on a global stage, the speed of diffusion is striking: Facebook surged from covering around 1.5% of the world population in 2008 to around 30% in 2018.
How does this compare to the diffusion of other communication technologies that make part of our everyday life today?
Social media’s growth in the US is comparable – in speed and, to some extent, reach – to most modern communication-enabling technologies, including computers, smartphones, and the Internet.
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