With just over 40 percent of German social media users classed as coming from a background of “high formal education” in OECD statistics released in November, a clear dividing line from other nations is clear.
In France, the figure is almost 50 percent, while around 70 percent of British social media users are well-educated – a figure matched by less-developed Turkey and former communist states like Hungary.
— OECD Statistik (@OECDStatistik) November 17, 2015
Stranger yet is the fact that more social media users – in fact, almost a majority – come from a low educational background.
Dr Klemens Skibicki, a professor at Cologne Business School's Institute for Internet Law and Communication, suggested a combination of factors are at work.
Germany is an older society – in fact, it's the second-oldest society in the world.
With the median-aged German 46 years old, most people will look around and see little reason to get involved in social media, as none of their peer group are using it.
That's a big difference from a country like the USA, whose median age is ten years lower, or Turkey, where the median age dips below 30.
“Digital natives in Germany don't behave much differently from those in other countries – but here they're just a much smaller part of the population,” Skibicki told The Local.
So far, so good – of the small proportion of Germans on social media, most are likely to be young and therefore less likely to be highly educated.
But age also has an indirect influence on the problem.
Most people's first impressions of social media come from traditional media – and while newspapers, radio and television in other countries have been enthusiastic, Skibicki accuses German media of over-caution and scare-mongering.
“The advantages are almost never discussed,” Skibicki said.
Instead, a range of fears – for privacy, of profit-making, tax-dodging American companies moving into a German media space dominated by the public broadcasters, and so on – combine into a conscious or unconscious bias against social media among producers and consumers of German media.
“This mixture of protectionism and distate for communication organized through the market economy makes the educated classes see the power of social media more as a threat than an opportunity,” Skibicki suggested.
And even more populist media such as tabloid Bild has turned to producing home-grown apps rather than seeking to build big communities on US platforms like Twitter or Facebook.
Meanwhile, Germans have been happy to give government access to their data through the data retention programme (Vorratsdatenspeicherung) passed this year, Skibicki pointed out.
But at the same time, they've complained about the use that could be made of their information by companies like Facebook – and back new EU regulations to keep data in countries with strong protections.
Ultimately, Skibicki argued, “classical media see social media as a threat to their business model and so don't support it, but warn against it so as to keep their readers.”
Given the way German demographics are developing, that may remain the case for some time to come.
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