When Facebook exploded onto the social media scene in 2004, the platform seemed primed for world domination—which, for all intents and purposes, it has accomplished. With 2.80 billion users globally, Facebook currently stands as the most popular social media platform in the world, a title it has held onto for over a decade. The platform first inherited this position in 2010, when it eclipsed YouTube usership by a margin of 37.2 million active subscribers and ended YouTube’s three-and-a-half-year reign in the top spot. Today, that margin has only increased: YouTube’s active subscriber count is 2.40 billion, or 84% of the number of Facebook users. And yet, the results of a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center suggest a redistribution of power between these competing social media platforms might be on the horizon.
From January 25, 2021 to February 8, 2021, Pew researchers surveyed 1,502 nationally-representative U.S. adults about their overall social media use, as well as the use of individual sites and apps. They found that roughly seven out of ten adult Americans ever use at least one social media—a number that has curiously remained consistent over the last five years.
As for site-specific trends, Facebook and YouTube predictably emerge far above the rest in terms of overall usage, though with YouTube in the lead. Both platforms tower over newer sites, claiming 81% and 69% of the share, while Instagram (40%), Snapchat (25%), and TikTok (21%) trail considerably behind. Interestingly, the study found that this pecking-order does not always hold up within specific demographic groups. Instagram usage, for instance, matches that of Facebook usage at 71% for 18-to-29-year-olds.
The percentage of YouTube users only increases amongst younger survey respondents, skyrocketing to just 5% shy of universal usage for the 18-to-29-year-old category. In fact, all age groups are above the 81% average in terms of YouTube usage— all except the 65+ population. Whereas usage remains high at 91% and 83% for 30-to-49-year-olds and 50-to-64-year-olds respectively, it drops off sharply to 49% for those 65 and older.
Perhaps the most telling trend captured in the Pews report is the continued growth of YouTube’s popularity over the last two years. The percentage of adult Americans who use the video-sharing site has risen noticeably from 73% in 2019 to 81% today, underscoring how dominant video continues to be not just within the social media space, but the entire digital landscape in general. YouTube is, after all, the second-most visited website in the world, only second to Google. The site’s increase in users is also especially remarkable given the fact that user growth for almost all other social media platforms, including Facebook, has stagnated over the last two years. The only other platform that has shown any significant growth in usership between 2019 and 2021 is the online forum Reddit, increasing from 11% to 18%.
Though YouTube’s ever-increasing popularity does not necessarily spell trouble for Facebook, since most of us are accustomed to using multiple social media platforms at a time, it does invite us to consider the future of social media and its incumbent power players. One important demographic missing from this study is the 18-and-under age group, and, as 80% of American parents with children under the age of 11 say their kids watch YouTube, we can only assume that usership will continue to grow as children age out of that demographic group and begin to have children of their own. Therefore, it’ll be important to track over the coming years if the percentage of YouTube users both nationally and internationally begins to skew again towards YouTube, resolidifying its place as the world-dominant social media platform.
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Maddy Leddy is a Digital Marketing Specialist at Babcox Media, focusing on direct marketing, content creation, and social media. A Shaker Heights native, she received her B.A. in English from Boston College and her M.A. in English from the University of Oxford.