(3) Has social media become less informative in the last year?

Many social technology companies extol the importance of empowering the people who use their products to learn something useful or important to them. What constitutes “useful” or “important” may vary between platforms and between people, but these concepts appear frequently in social technology companies’ value statements. For example, Pinterest aims to be the platform where “people come to search, save, and shop the best ideas in the world for all life’s moments.” Google aims “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And, Nextdoor aims to be where neighbors go to “discover and discuss essential local information… [and] get things done.”
Measuring how successful companies are at achieving their goals of creating informative spaces that help people learn useful and/or important things is particularly challenging in the abstract, because going to TikTok to learn The Git Up dance routine can be useful, just like going to Instagram to find my local precinct to cast my ballot in an election is useful. As a political scientist, I tend to focus more on news than dance moves (which, to be honest, is in everyone’s best interest), and social technology has reshaped the news landscape in dramatic ways over the past 15 years. Increasingly, adults have shifted away from television and print news media sources in favor of content delivered directly to them on their digital devices, and now 71% of US adults get news from social media. When it comes to election information, social media (36%) is one of the top 2 most commonly selected information sources, right behind national television (42%).
This trend towards a greater reliance on social media for news is facing a new headwind, though. Some of the biggest platforms are working to reduce news content on their platforms. For example, Facebook and Instagram have demoted news content in their feed ranking algorithms, and even blocked people from posting links to news websites in some countries. Google even announced it is removing links to news websites in some locations where local governments are discussing legislation that would require Google to pay publishers for their content. Therefore, it is not surprising that the overall percentage of users who regularly get their news on social media has declined steadily over the past 3 years — with some exceptions, which we will discuss below.
Recognizing that news is just one part of learning, we come to the question of today’s post: To what extent do people report learning something useful or important on social media platforms, and how has this changed over the past year?

Learning Experiences Across Online Communication Platforms

In the graph below, I plot the percentage of US adults reporting that they learned something that was useful or that helped them understand something important on any of the social platforms that they used within the last 28 days at each of the 4 time points when they were surveyed. About 60% of US adults reported learning something on at least one of the platforms that they used. This percentage was generally stable across time, though it did tick upward in August-September 2023 and then dropped statistically significantly from then to the September-October 2023 wave. Comparing the most recent survey wave to the 1 year ago period shows no difference in the percentage of US adults saying they learned something useful or important on these platforms.
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The overall steadiness of this number may be surprising to some given the number of product changes some of these companies are making where they literally block people from posting links to known news websites and are deleting tabs that take people to news content. That said, this may also speak to how learning useful things or understanding something important is much broader than being aware of the news of the day.
To try to understand what our survey panelists were learning about, I turned to the ~50,000 words that they wrote in response to the follow-up question where we asked them to describe their experience. While news articles and political discussions were frequently mentioned, the range of other topics was ginormous. Some of the most common non-news-related topics included:
  • How to cook
  • Clothing/make-up tips (including installing a wig on oneself!)
  • Mental health / self-care
  • Exercise / fitness tips
  • Survival skills for going out in the wilderness (e.g., identifying safe mushrooms, repelling mosquitoes naturally)
  • How to raise kids
  • Woodworking
  • Random life hacks
These topics are fairly consistent across time, but each of the waves do have some unique themes that correspond to world events. For example, in March-May 2023, respondents were much more likely to say they learned about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mental health, the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, and Easter. In August-September 2023, respondents were more likely to say they learned about hurricanes, scholarships, and wildfires, which also makes sense because that is Hurricane and Wildfire season, and the start of school for many American students. And, in November 2023-February 2024, respondents were more likely to mention people’s names, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the violence in Israel/Palestine. Overall, when thinking of what useful and important things they learned, US adults do think of major news events, but also many other topics that are much more local and personal -- like how to take care of oneself or one’s family, or how to put on a wig.
In summary, the overall rate of learning something that was useful or helpful in understanding something important on social media platforms is stable, but the topics people report learning about do vary along with holidays, seasons, and world events. However, this analysis is still very high-level and aggregates across many different types of people and different platforms. Any time data are aggregated, there is always the risk of Simpson’s Paradox -- whereby actual differences or trends in subgroups cancel each other out creating the appearance that there is no change. To combat this risk, I examine the rates of learning experiences across subgroups and platforms in the next two sections of this report.

Do Learning Experiences Differ by Demographic and Social Identities?

Technology is often used differently by different subgroups of people. For example, younger, more educated, and wealthier people tend to use technology more than their older, less educated, and less wealthy counterparts. And, in our report on the first wave of the Neely Social Media Index survey where we asked US adults about their learning experiences online, we also found that more educated, older, and wealthier tended to report these learning experiences at a higher rate one year ago. In the table below, I present each demographic category in the rows, the survey waves in the center columns, and the overall change over the from our first and most recent survey waves in the columns on the right. To simplify this table, I also color-coded the cells so that they are printed in red if the percentage of people in that category in that column’s wave was significantly less than the percentage of people in that category in the previous wave. If the percentage increased relative to the previous wave, the text is printed in aqua. I’ve also appended arrows pointing up when the percentage increased significantly and pointing down when the percentage decreased significantly.
First, let’s walk through comparisons between each of the demographic and social identities. Men and women were similar to one another until the latest survey wave where men report a higher rate of learning experiences across platforms than do women. Non-Hispanic Asian people have the highest numerical percentage of learning experiences overall, but because they are a smaller racial/ethnic group in our sample (N = 234), their margin of error is larger, so they sometimes are statistically similar to the non-Hispanic White people. Non-Hispanic Black people tend to report learning experiences across these platforms at a lower rate than all other racial/ethnic groups. Younger people, 69% of whom get their news on social media, report learning experiences at a lower rate than people who are at least 45 years old. People with a college education report learning experiences at a much higher rate than people with any other education level. Similarly, people with annual incomes greater than $150,000 report learning experiences at a rate higher than lower income groups.
Next, let’s walk through changes over time. Learning experiences were consistent through the first two waves, but showed the most decreases for the most demographic and social groups in the September-October 2023 wave. Over the full year, there were only two subgroups that showed a significant decrease in their learning experiences. First, 18-29 year olds exhibited a 6.9% decrease over the year; second, people earning between $30k and $60k per year exhibited a 6.2% decrease over the year. No other groups changed, which further suggests that learning across all of these social platforms has remained relatively stable for most people over the first year of the Neely Social Media Index.
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Are some platforms more (or less) likely to help people learn something useful or important?

Next, we shift to looking at whether users’ learning experiences differed by social platform over the course of the past year. As seen in the table below, YouTube and Pinterest held onto the top two spots with 51.1 and 42.5% of their respective users reported learning something that was useful or that helped them understand something important in the last 28 days. YouTube mostly held steady over the first 7 months of the longitudinal survey, but then showed a significant increase in the most recent wave. Pinterest, on the other hand, showed slight improvements over time resulting in a significant cumulative improvement over the year.
On the other end of the spectrum, Snapchat and Online Gaming retained their positions as the two services with the lowest rates of users feeling that they learned something useful or important. Neither of those services showed a systematic trend over time; instead, their rates alternated between numerical increases followed by decreases that fell within the margin of error.
There was a tendency for users across many of the platforms to be less likely to say that they learned something useful or important in September and October than they were between March and September. This was most pronounced for TikTok and Linkedin whose users reporting learning something useful or important dropped 66 and 46%, respectively, from the first two survey waves to the September-October survey wave. Yet, both of these platforms exhibited a rebound effect in the latest survey wave, where users feeling informed on TikTok increased by 57% and on LinkedIn increased by 55% relative to the previous time point. Additionally, there was an overall tendency for users reporting that they felt informed across platforms in the latest survey wave, which could imply exogenous factors like seasonality or specific world events may explain some of the changes above and beyond platform-specific features.
Over the course of the full year, 4 of the 16 most widely-used platforms showed significant increases in the percentage of their users who stated that they recently learned something useful or important. NextDoor showed the greatest improvement over the year, improving 9.8% between March 2023 and February 2024. More specifically, the 21% of NextDoor users reporting learning something useful or important increased 87.5% from their baseline at 11.2%. Pinterest’s steady improvement over the four time periods aggregated together amounted to a 7.8% improvement over the year. Instagram and Text Messaging users feeling that they learned something useful or important also increased by 4.7 and 3.2%, respectively. No other platforms showed a significant year-over-year change.
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In the plot below, I show the year ago and the current percentages of users of each platform reporting that they learned something useful or important in the last 28 days. The underlying data are the same, but the platform differences may be easier to see in this format than in the above table.
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In Summary

So, we return to our opening question: Has social media become more (or less) informative over the past year? The answer, not surprisingly, is that it’s complicated. Simply looking at the percentage of people reporting that they learned something useful or important on any of the social platforms, we see that roughly 6 in 10 US adults reported one of these informative experiences regardless of time point.
If we split the data by the social and demographic identities of our respondents, we see more variability. In particular, in the third wave of this longitudinal survey, we see that women, Hispanic people, the most and least educated (but not people with a high school diploma or who are currently in college) people, and middle-income people reported informative experiences at a lower rate. All but one of the groups (30-44 year olds) remained at the depressed rate in the subsequent wave of the survey. Across the full year, 18-29 year olds showed a significant 6.9% decline in informative experiences. The only other group showing a statistically significant decrease over the year was people earning $30k to $60k annually. One possible explanation for these groups showing significant declines could be due to the fact that they rely more on social media for news than other groups, and many platforms have actively been demoting news content. Notably, no subgroups became more likely to report an informative experience over this time period. In other words, informative experiences vary by subgroups, and part of this may be due to the specific platforms that those subgroups are more or less likely to use.
If we split the data by social platform, we see relative stability across most platforms, but a few show significant improvements. YouTube retained its position as the platform where the highest percentage of its users reported learning something useful or important. Pinterest, the platform with the second highest rate of these experiences a year ago, not only retains its position, but also showed significant improvement in the past year. Nextdoor, which initially had one of the lower rates of informative experiences, nearly doubled its rate and is firmly the second highest tier of platforms when it comes to these positive experiences. Instagram and text messaging users also reported a slight increase over the year, but most of their improvement happened in the most recent survey wave which overlapped the holidays, which may be a time of year when people use social platforms differently. We will monitor whether their increases persist in subsequent waves of this survey.
In addition to variation in learning experiences by social group and by platform, it’s also worth noting that the overall rate of these experiences is greater when collapsing across all platforms than it is for any particular platform. One lesson to take from this is that different platforms serve different purposes and some may be better for learning specific types of useful things. In other words, if you want to learn the latest dance moves, you’d be better off going to TikTok than Email or Facebook.
It is also worth highlighting that while users of some platforms reported more learning experiences on social media than they did a year ago, they also reported slightly fewer experiences that they deemed bad for the world or that affected them negatively over the same period. These divergent effects across questions help rule out potentially less interesting methodological artifacts, such as respondents growing wise to the fact that indicating a particular experience would result in more follow-up questions. Instead, this longitudinal approach of surveying the same panelists each quarter is robust against acquiescence and response biases. Additionally, the fact that positive experiences are increasing while negative experiences are decreasing makes theoretical sense. If people are having fewer bad experiences on these platforms, they might be more likely to stick around and have more positive experiences.