Ask almost any college or university professor about how their students use the Web and you’ll most likely hear this: “Oh, man, these kids today, they’re just so in tune with the online world.”

Well, you know what? They’re wrong.

Don’t believe me? See for yourself. Do the simple test I’ve done a dozen times in the past three years at Ontario colleges and universities. Walk into a post-secondary classroom and ask how many kids:

You’ll see zero hands for RSS feeds, social bookmarking and embeds. A tentative couple will be hoisted at “tag”. Almost none for flickr, zero for Twitter. And seesmic, mogulus and ustream? Zilch. Which is pretty strange, because all of those are either key aspects of social media, or are social media or video sharing sites that are hot right now.

So, you’d think that these supposedly web-savant students would be pretty hip to it all. Nope. And this is true even in classrooms where it absolutely should not be the case. I recently did a guest lecture to a class of students in the MA Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario.

These are smart, privileged students who have self-selected for an interest in media. Same results. Blank stares and almost all hands on desks.

Sure, many of the students know facebook, MySpace and MSN Messenger. They know how to surf the web and write Word documents. After that, they’re pretty much as out-of-touch as their unnecessarily envious profs.

I don’t mean to pick on students. I recently gave a talk to about 30 members of the Public Affairs Association of Canada. Same response. Few seemed to know much about social media, let alone engage with it at all. And, again, this was a group self-selected to be interested in contemporary communications.

So, what’s going on? Bright, engaged students and professionals, many of whom can afford Blackberries, laptops, iPods and cellphones are not engaged in the social media those very devices enable.

That’s because social media isn’t mass media, it just plays mass media on TV.

Despite all the buzz about it, most of the social media content that’s created online is the product of about 15 per cent of the population. And within that group, about eight per cent do most of the heavy lifting.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project calls that core group Omnivores. The Project describes them this way

“Omnivores are Web 2.0 devotees. They are highly engaged with video online and digital content. Between blogging, maintaining their Web pages, remixing digital content, or posting their creations to their websites, they are creative participants in cyberspace. When the next popular user-generated fashion comes along, Omnivores are likely to test-drive it. One might even invent it.”

That would be me and all my friends on Twitter, flickr and You Tube. And we would be in the vast minority. Our median age is 28. Seventy per cent of us are male and we’ve likely been on line ten years or more, according to Pew.

The next biggest group is what Pew calls Connectors. According to Pew, Connectors came on line about nine years ago, during the massive Internet adoptions in the 90s. Connectors are mostly female and in their thirties. They use cellphones to stay in touch with friends and family and are twice as likely as the average person online to have a blog. They make up seven per cent of the population.

After those groups, interest in, and the use of, social media falls off dramatically. About 70 per cent of the population uses cellphones more than the Internet, but is not terribly engaged in content creation on either.

Pew also found that only about 50 per cent of U.S. teens use social networking sites.

Why does this matter?

There’s an old yiddish expression, “to a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.” To Omnivores the world is full of Twittering, flickring social networkers. The reality is vastly different. We are not the norm. Every time I step into a classroom and do my little test I’m reminded of that, but it still catches me up short. I’m a slow learner.

There’s a lesson here for non-profits. When you want someone to raise their hand when you ask for support for your cause, remember how few hands rose when I asked about social media.

Social media is important, it’s coming on strong, but, for now, it isn’t the only way you need to talk to your audience. You need a broader communications strategy with an emphasis on traditional media, with a few social media tactics in the mix for good measure. This is as true for students and it is for an older demographic. As my favourite science fiction author, William Gibson says, “the future is here now, it’s just unevenly distributed.”


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...