How big is the internet and how are we using it now?

Short while? Here are the highlights:

  • The global population of Internet users continues to grow, but the average time online has decreased slightly this year
  • Even so, the use of social media continues to grow as those key networking and messaging channels are also growing to play a bigger role in brand research and discovery, even for studying abroad

Marketing agency We Are Social’s annual global digital trends report is always a must-read around here. This year’s edition, produced in collaboration with technology tools provider Meltwater and industry intelligence specialists DataReportal, is no exception.

“Digital 2023: Global Overview Report” provides high-level, in-depth insight into many of the important trends informing how we find and share information, communicate, entertain and otherwise connect online.

The report points out that the world’s population passed the 8 billion mark in November 2022 and was around 8.01 billion earlier this year. Nearly two out of three of that total (or about 5.16 billion people total) use the Internet. This represents approximately 3% year-over-year growth in the global user base between 2022 and 2023.

While the total number of users continues to grow, the data also shows that average online time per user has actually decreased year-over-year (down about -5% from 2022). “Importantly, this decline does not indicate that the Internet is becoming less important in our lives,” writes Simon Kemp, lead analyst at DataReportal. “Rather, it suggests that people are becoming more proactive in using digital technologies and are prioritizing the quality of their connected experiences over quantity.”

The gradual unwinding of pandemic restrictions over the course of 2022 has also played a part in that decline. “Significantly, this latter figure is very close to the daily average for the third quarter of 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic had its profound impact on the world’s digital behaviors,” adds Kemp.

The report reminds us that a relatively small share of the world’s Internet users are in North America or Europe, with a much larger user population across Asia. Asian users therefore have a correspondingly greater impact on global trends.

Internet use is increasingly fluid on desktop and mobile devices. Just over nine in ten users (91%) now access the Internet through their smartphones (roughly equivalent to those accessing via desktop computers at home or work).

As we see in the summary below, however, mobile usage represents just over five hours of the global average daily time of six hours and 37 minutes that users spend online each day as of January 2023.

Why we are here?

Most users (58%) say ‘finding information’ is their top reason to use the internet, followed by ‘keeping in touch with friends and family’ (54%) and ‘keeping up on news and events’ (51% ). “Search for products and brands” is the main motivation cited by 43% of users while “educational and study purposes” is in 10th place overall with 38%.

Those priorities are reflected in the following breakdown of the top types of websites users visit as of January 2023.

As this summary might suggest, this year’s analysis also finds that despite the global decline in average time online, users are spending more time than ever on social media. “The global total of social media users has increased nearly 30% since the start of the pandemic, equating to more than 1 billion new users in the past three years,” Kemp says.

We can also distinguish, however, between user counts on these various social channels and actual usage, as measured by average time per user. TikTok, for example, is the sixth-largest platform by user population, yet leads all social channels in terms of average monthly usage time with 23 hours and 28 minutes (versus 19 hours and 43 minutes for Facebook and 12 hours for Instagram). ). .

How do we find all this information?

If, as noted above, “finding information” remains the number one reason people use the Internet, what are the most important channels for doing so?

The data says that around 31% of users (aged 16 to 64) still say they rely on search to find new products and services. Social channels also clearly play an important role, especially for users aged 16-24.

As a related report notes, Finding information doesn’t mean exactly the same thing it once did. Social media algorithms can bring it out before we even know what we’re looking for.

We can also see this reflected in how digital advertising spend is distributed across search and social channels, as illustrated in the following summary for 2022.

Kemp adds that “[As of 2022]only Internet users aged between 16 and 24 turned more to social networks than to search engines to look for products and services.

But [the latest data] confirms that this is now also true for younger Millennials, with the 25-34 age group also being more likely to prefer social networks when researching brands online.”

The big picture these data points provide is that the balance is shifting over time, with an increasing emphasis on discovery via social media over discovery via search.

Mr Kemp explains: “This suggests that younger internet users are seeking more serendipitous discoveries, as well as seeking more ‘conventional’ answers to predefined questions.

One way for marketers to approach these shifting expectations is to rethink the somewhat didactic paradigm of conventional online research.

Rather than trying to provide a single, all-encompassing answer, brands may be more successful if they help people learn and discover answers for themselves.

For example, in contrast to the hierarchical ranking of search engine results pages (SERPs), social media search results tend to be much more “cluttered”, offering users a variety of different types of responses and perspectives.

Additionally, on platforms like TikTok, users can quickly and easily identify whether a search result reflects or is at least relevant to “people like me.”

This is in stark contrast to the relatively anonymous nature of the results we see in SERPs, where users have to open several different links before they can identify if the results are really what they’re looking for.

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