The other night I got a survey call. I don’t know what kind of survey it was, because I hung up once the automated voice started. Sometimes, if an actual human identifies themselves, I ask if the survey pays. It never does. I ask them why I should give them something for free that they’re going to make money from. Then I hang up. Also, I use Google Voice to block any telemarketing or survey number that’s ever called before, and I block unknown callers.
I don’t think I’m particularly clever by doing this. When I hung up the phone, I realized that everyone I know probably does the same thing. Why wouldn’t you? Any smart person would realize that there are kids to feed, laundry and dishes that need tending, a dog to walk and things to read. Even a smart person with nothing better to do probably has toes and noses to pick, space to stare at…any number of things better than talking to a survey taker. In fact, real-life, actual survey takers back me up on this: the Pew Research Center notes that the response rate to phone surveys in 1997 was 36% and by 2012 had fallen to just 9%. Americans are getting smarter, and not wasting their time on the phone.
You heard me: America is getting smarter. Yes, places like CBS News want you to think that 80% of Americans support a quarantine of US aid workers returning from West Africa, and 56% support a quarantine of visitors from those countries. Gallup wants you to think that 42% of Americans believe in creationism. That might lead you to think that a majority of Americans are credulous, ignorant goofballs. But look at the methodology of that Gallup survey. There were only 1,028 people surveyed, and 42% of them said they believe that people were created by their invisible friend. That’s 431 whole people. Put another way: Gallup found just over a thousand people who still accept calls from strangers and don’t hang up immediately on survey takers, and of that small group of dupes, only 431 of them prefer to have the world explained to them with fairy tales. That’s super encouraging, and a sign of a country that – except for those 431 people – is relatively smart.
The problem is that Gallup didn’t send out a news release that said “431 Americans Live in Ideological Dark Ages.” Instead, they boldly claimed that their outdated methodology said something significant about America as a whole. And then that story got picked up by various news outlets. Concerned rational people wrung their hands about how forty percent of Americans could fail high school biology.
And this brings me to Twitter. Once you get past the people whose reputations are built elsewhere, the professional writers and the occasional clever celebrity, Twitter is the conversational equivalent of a 24-hour diner full of drunks at 3am on a Tuesday. You might hear something interesting, but you’re much more likely to get puked on. We could all be very upset about all of the general misanthropy on Twitter or we could realize this: most people lose interest in Twitter pretty quickly. A year ago, barely a quarter of Twitter accounts were what the company considers “active.” It’s important to note that Twitter defines “active” as logging on once a month. By this standard, parents of an infant are sexually “active.”
If you accept this definition of activity, and you shouldn’t, that’s something around 220 million users. Impressive, until you consider the number of inactive users: at the end of 2013, that was 651 million accounts. That means that lots of people logged onto Twitter so they could “be part of the conversation,” found a worldwide game of “no, you are!” and left. And surely some of those who stayed did so only so that they could send angry messages to American Airlines. The rest of the users in the United States, being very smart, went to go find something better to do. That’s key: according to Twitter, 77% of its users are outside the United States. If we accept 284 million users with their bogus definition of “active,” that means Twitter has 93 million US accounts.
Does that still sound like a lot? Consider: the median Twitter account has a single follower. Late last year, you could be in the top 10% of all Twitter users with fewer than 500 users. So, most people with Twitter accounts don’t use them regularly if at all, most people have few if any followers, and most people don’t actually click through links to read anything they see on Twitter. The average rate is in the neighborhood of 1%. This is clearly the next big thing.
And yet the drunken “conversation” on Twitter is talked about constantly. Bits of flotsam take on meaning in a relatively small corner of the internet, and then they get magnified on podcasts, in print and on the radio, and on other social media. This is how we end up deeply concerned about an Ebola outbreak in the United States that infected far fewer people than were shot in Chicago on a given weekend. This is how my Facebook feed explodes with outrage about a couple guys who went as Ray Rice for Halloween (above). Statistically speaking, basically no one in the United States has Ebola and no one dressed as Ray Rice. But search for “Ray Rice Halloween” on Google, and enjoy a couple pages of opinion pieces on how misogynist and racist this means America is. Needless to say, the same three pictures were all the rage on Twitter.
America is a smart country. But we have a really dumb hobby: getting all worked up over things that aren’t happening to very many people, if anyone. A vanishingly small amount of people respond to surveys. Relatively few people use Twitter, and no one cares about getting more than 140 characters of information from it when they do. The most tweeted topics in 2013 weren’t stories underreported in the rest of media. They were the same stories that were big everywhere. That’s the good news. The dumb news: the most retweeted tweet of last year was the girlfriend of the dead guy from Glee sending out a picture of him. I’ll give you a buck if you can name him right now. But don’t worry, because this — the most retweeted post last year – was only retweeted 394,000 times. In the wide world of web, that’s basically nobody.