Social networks have become important not just for the sharing and discovery of mainstream news, but also as a place where news can be created by ordinary citizens. Much of the coverage from Egypt, Libya, and Syria has emanated from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter – driven by the ubiquity of mobile phones and the growth of global social networks.
In the early days of the internet, such participation was limited to an online poll or comments on the news stories of mainstream websites, but the last decade has seen an explosion in many more types of participation – photographs, social chat, videos, and blogs.
The Oxford Internet Survey has tracked the rise of online participation since 2005. In its latest survey in November 2011, the authors conclude that new ways of communication continue to increase at a striking rate. They note that in the UK the use of personal websites and blogging is levelling off but this is perhaps explained by the dramatic growth of social networks that incorporate much of this functionality.
Oxford Internet Survey – participation online
This section explores a series of participation metrics relating specifically to news, so we will be able to track changes over time and between countries.
Participation in the UK
Overall almost one in four of our survey respondents engages with the news in some way – by writing comments, blogs, posting videos, sharing links, or taking part in polls or campaigns. The old days of news as a one-way broadcast seem to be well and truly over.
Weekly news participation online
Continuing the theme running through this report, younger people – who are widely thought to be disengaged from news – are the most active group in discussing and sharing news stories online. Much of this activity is likely to be around entertainment and celebrity news, as we noted in an earlier section, but this group also shows more interest in UK politics than the national average so it is likely that political discussions and engagement will be a strong part of this story.
Weekly news participation and engagement online
We can also see that the younger group engages with news in different ways. They are more likely to comment on a news story via a social network (17%) than on the pages of a traditional news site (7%) and much more likely to talk about a news story using one-to- one digital communication (21%) than the older group. This reflects the popularity of different messaging technologies in general amongst younger people (social networking, SMS, and instant messaging) when compared with email, as noted by the Oxford Internet Survey.
Weekly participation types by age and group
The level and type of participation also appears to be affected by device. Those people whose main access to online is through a mobile phone are more likely than computer users to share news and create and upload their own news content. Strikingly they are five times more likely to post a picture or video to a news website than computer users. This may be because they are more likely to witness a news event when on the move, but also because the integration of the camera and connected phone has driven a significant increase in citizen-generated news pictures and videos – as was seen during the Arab spring, the royal wedding, and the London riots. One-to-one messaging and online voting are the only two participation measures where the activity levels of computer users are higher. It appears that new devices and, particularly, the way they make it easy to integrate messaging and social applications, are driving greater participation with the news. These trends will be interesting to track as smartphone penetration grows.
Weekly participation types by main way of accessing news
International participation levels
Across the world we see remarkably different rates of adoption of the new social and participatory techniques. A much higher proportion of US respondents share and participate via social media platforms than respondents from other countries. Overall, UK and German respondents share and participate in weekly news coverage the least.
Weekly participation by country
Each week almost 70% of Americans participate or engage in the news using at least one of the techniques above – compared with less than 50% in most of our surveyed European countries. People in the United States are twice as likely as Britons to share news, engage in an online conversation about news, or comment on a news website or in a social network. Of the European counties, France is the most engaged, with 40% taking part in an online poll each week and 21% commenting on news stories in social networks. The French election campaign was underway when our survey was conducted, so this may explain the slightly higher figures there. The high figure in the US around taking part in online campaigns may be related to the current presidential elections there.