Increasingly time poor...
Average hours per month spent visiting social networks in
Like me you probably feel that there are not enough hours in the day. Using the Internet really
eats into your time, all that searching for information. According to estimates by Dutch researcher
Maurice de Kunder at Tilburg University, Google’s index hovers around 38 billion web pages, which
provides an exhaustive choice of interesting web pages to view. We’d better get used to it, in our
lifetimes we’ll only be able to look at an infinitesimally small amount of the content that might
interest us. This is a totally novel phenomenon: from the time of our earliest ancestors our
behaviour has been primed to equate having more information with having more success. Up until
20 odd years ago we still inhabited a world where information was a scarce, and valuable,
commodity. Now we inhabit a world with a gargantuan surplus of information, far more than we
can possibly comprehend, let alone consume. As a consequence our brains and our behaviours are
being forced to adjust, although this might take several generations. It’s just the same with our
family and friends.
As little as 10 years ago we only interacted intimately on a daily basis with our families and close
friends, an average of five people. These are known as “strong ties”. Our wider social circle included
more distant family and friends, an average of 11 people, with whom we probably engaged on a
weekly or monthly basis. By engaged, I mean that we actually met them and spent time with them.
These people were very important to us, and the interaction we had with them was vital for our
emotional well-being. And because we had to invest considerable time and effort in maintaining all
these relationships, we were highly selective in choosing our close friends. Of course we also had
more formal and peripheral interactions with acquaintances, neighbours and work associates, but
moving house, or changing jobs, meant that we frequently lost contact with these people.
Nowadays, it is interesting and curious to note that using social networking websites to keep in
touch with work associates and acquaintances has become habitual, (particularly among the
younger age groups) and these hitherto peripheral relationships now make up the majority of our
online social contacts. Sadly, for many people, they may also make up the majority of social
contacts by default. These types of contacts are what computer networking theory calls our “weak
ties.” It is being able to monitor and communicate with these weak ties that make a website like
LinkedIn useful and this perceived usefulness is what drove LinkedIn’s initial public offering (IPO)
share price at the end of May. Set for sale initially at $45 per share, the price quickly rose to $122
per share on the first day of public trading. This result bodes well for the largest social network of
them all, Facebook, which seems on target to sell its shares to the public sometime next year.
It’s up to psychologists and sociologists to determine the emotional impact that maintaining
numerous online relationships are having on our strong ties, but something has to give when
online social networking takes so much time out of our lives. How much time? Let’s see: For this
chart I’m using comScore’s Media Metrix European data. This measured the online social network
behaviour that took place during the socially festive month of December 2010. Facebook statistics
claim that their 500 million active users spend 700 billion minutes on Facebook per month, but all
data should be examined critically and I was suspicious about their numbers. Calculating these
figures means that the average visitor uses Facebook for 23 hours per month. That seemed very
high to me so I went to DoubleClick Ad Planner to investigate Google’s network traffic figures for
Facebook. DoubleClick Ad Planner combines aggregated Google Analytics data and publisher opt-
in data as well as consumer panel data. As this data is used by the advertising industry to buy
display advertising it represents the best form of measurement currently publicly available.
Looking at their UK data for Facebook, DoubleClick reports an average visit time per cookie of 25
minutes, and an average number of 14 visits made during the month. That equates to a little less
than six hours in total for a month. Quite a difference when compared with Facebook’s claim of 23
hours per visitor per month.
They can’t both be right. It has been comScore’s argument for a long time that using Web server
data exaggerates the number of unique visitors because they rely on counting cookies not people.
When comScore measured this effect in the UK back in March 2009 they came to the conclusion
that cookie deletion overstated a website’s measured traffic by 140 per cent. Further studies
around the world seemed to confirm this margin of error. But even allowing for this level of error
Facebook’s average of 23 hours per user per month compared with DoubleClick’s 6 hours still looks
extraordinary. This is a problem I frequently encounter looking at Web analytics data and it is well
worth running a sense check against another measurement system.
In this chart I’m using comScore figures that are derived from consumer panel data. Besides
examining all data critically it’s always important to understand how the data has been captured.
For example, in the UK comScore has a panel consisting of a representative sample of 60,000
consumers who have opted-in to allow their Web behaviour to be tracked. This data shows that on
average just over six hours a month is spent engaging with social networking websites. This
equates quite closely with the DoubleClick data which isn’t surprising as one of the elements that
make up their data comes from a consumer panel, although they won’t say which one. However I
have a suspicion that this is comScore data.
As comScore’s data collection methodology is consistent across Europe it provides a useful picture
of the relative differences in behaviour of the different age groups in each country. One salient
feature of this dataset is how much time, nearly 11 hours a month, that young people in Spain are
spending on social network websites compared to older age groups. Perhaps this difference in
time spent on social networks is related to Spain’s very high (estimated at 45%) youth
unemployment. If one is not busy working, then one certainly has more time, but not the money,
to be social. And, of course, Facebook is free.
This chart also shows the amount of time people across all age groups in the UK spend on social
networking websites. Apart from Spain’s 15 to 24 year age group which tops the chart, people of all
ages in the UK spend significantly more time than other European countries on social websites. Yet
another feature to note is the consistent level of time spent visiting social network websites across
the other European countries. Only the UK and Spanish youth appear to exhibit higher use. The
chart also demonstrates that there is less disparity between the behaviour of the different age
groups in Germany and the Netherlands than in other countries.
All this time spent visiting social network websites obviously comes at the cost of less time spent, or
perhaps, no time spent, on real-life interaction with one’s strong ties. Facebook claims that an
average user has 130 Facebook friends, and apparently 50 percent of active users logon on any
given day. This adds to the stress, and increases the feeling of being time poor, as people try to
maintain ever larger networks of “friends.” Then there’s tweeting and answering emails...
As our chart indicates: weak ties are becoming stronger at the expense of the strong ties. It’s a
topsy-turvy world when the peripheral people in our lives start using up more of our precious time
than our family and real friends.
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