What is Social Media?

New Internet technologies are changing media

Second Life

Defining social media
    Social media are Internet sites where people interact freely, sharing and discussing information about each other and their lives, using a multimedia mix of personal words, pictures, videos and audio.

    At these Web sites, individuals and groups create and exchange content and engage in person-to-person conversations.

    They appear in many forms including blogs and microblogs, forums and message boards, social networks, wikis, virtual worlds, social bookmarking, tagging and news, writing communities, digital storytelling and scrapbooking, and data, content, image and video sharing, podcast portals, and collective intelligence.

    There are lots of well-known sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, WordPress, Blogger, Typepad, LiveJournal, Wikipedia, Wetpaint, PBworks, Wikidot, Second Life, Delicious, Digg, Reddit, Lulu and others.

    The definition of social media is evolving with most explanations describing a fusion of technology, social interaction, and the sharing of information.

    Web 2.0 is a general term that refers to recent trends in online media toward new media and social media, rather than a shift in technology.

What Is social about it?
  • Conversation is the informal expression of views and exchange of ideas through people talking among themselves. It's a social skill and the defining characteristic of social media. Conversations allow people with different information to learn from each other. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis and other social media tools give people the ability to communicate easily with each other on a scale and in ways that they can't with traditional media.

  • Collaboration is the underpinning of social media online and, as can be observed in news of political movements, frequently links offline to the world's hotspots. Social networking sites on the Web let people communicate, interact and collaborate with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, associates, colleagues, customers, teachers, students and other acquaintances.

  • Creation of content is relatively easy for people using digital media tools. The communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan told us the content of a new medium usually is built on and expands from the content of an older medium. Social media incorporate traditional media technologies and the digital culture surrounding social media freely borrows from traditional media to create new content, which in turn frequently muddles the ownership of intellectual property.

  • Choice of media content abounds on social network sites where people use a variety of ways to interact. Through search engines, recommendations from friends, RSS feeds, and both traditional and social media, people today are proactive and successful in locating what they seek.

  • Curation means organizing and maintaining a database or a collection of information works and entertainment artifacts. Social media shift a participant's role from the gatekeeping of information or knowledge to gatewatching or curating. Participants gather together to classify, organize and maintain media content on their own without the intervention of professional librarians.

13% – proportion of online Americans on Twitter, according to Pew Research.

59% – proportion of online Americans on a social network such as Facebook.

The Pew Research Center is a non-profit organization at Washington, D.C. that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.                        October 2011
Social media differ from traditional media
  • Traditional media:

    • Information and entertainment are disseminated or broadcast as a one-to-many monologue – a one-way transmission of news and entertainment to an audience.

    • Audience feedback options include long-delay communications such as sharing thoughts in letters to local newspaper editors or media organizations, placing paid ads in media, distributing flyers, or holding a gathering that might attract news coverage.

    • Cost separates users of traditional media from social media. Most people cannot afford to start a newspaper or create a radio or television station.

    • Traditional media serve an agenda-setting function by giving us much of the information we talk about, even as they don't tell us what to think about those topics. Traditional media amplify events by covering them.

  • Social media:

    • Social media disseminate information and entertainment as a many-to-many dialogue with the potential for quick feedback from audience members.

    • Audience feedback options include such quick-return tools as discussion boards, fan sites, mash-up videos uploaded to YouTube, or attracting mainstream news with a video online.

    • Cost divides users of social media from traditional media. The costs of starting social media are well within the reach of many who would like to create and distribute digital content via the Internet.

    • Social media also serve an agenda-setting function by giving us much of the information we talk about, and they amplify events by covering them.

Kinds of social media

Social media appear in many forms including blogs and microblogs, forums and message boards, social networks, wikis, virtual worlds, social bookmarking, tagging and news, writing communities, digital storytelling and scrapbooking, ratings, and data, content, image and video sharing, podcast portals, and collective intelligence.

There are lots of well-known sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Friends Reunited, Friendster, Bebo, Twitter, Ping, YouTube, Flickr, WordPress, Blogger, Typepad, LiveJournal, Wikipedia, Wetpaint, Wikidot, PBworks, Second Life, Del.icio.us, Digg, Reddit, Lulu and many others.
Glossary of new media buzzwords »      Timeline of social media history »
  • Social networking sites on the Internet allow users to share their connections with others. People connect with old friends and make new ones. The sites provide communication and sharing tools in an open environment of collaboration among people. They even encourage members to devise applications that make the sites more useful. Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn are examples of social networking sites.

  • Blogs, or Web logs, are Internet pages of short postings arranged chronologically and updated frequently, like a diary or personal journal. They are used widely because their software programming does not require knowing the HTML code that creates Web pages. Blogs attract readers because they display a raw, unrefined, honest, unfiltered quality. They are important when they uncover the best, most interesting ideas and make relevant comments about that content. Blogs include text, audio, video and multimedia. News organizations encourage journalists to have blogs as part of their media environment. WordPress, Blogger, Typepad and LiveJournal are examples of services providing blog space. Twitter is a microblog. An RSS reader, such as Bloglines, is a service that collects updates from favorite blogs so a user can read them in one place. A vlog, or videoblog, uses mostly video rather than text.

  • Wikis are web pages that allow authorized persons to edit and share information with each other. Wikipedia is the largest and best known wiki on the Internet. Wikis display their editing history and can revert back to an earlier version if needed. A troll is a person who inserts a false or nonsensical wiki entry. Wetpaint, Wikidot and PBworks are examples of services providing wiki space.

    Synchronous communication is two-way communication that occurs when participants are present together on the Internet at the same time. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, refers to an exchange of information that does not occur in real time. It is two-way communication that allows participants to respond at their convenience on their own schedule.
  • Chat is an example of synchronous communication. Chat rooms are virtual rooms on the Internet where a community of users visit and talk with each other through text messages sent in real time. Because they are synchronous, media organizations use them to promote special guests online and let the audience speak with them. People are said to be scrolling when they monopolize a conversation by repeatedly posting the same message.

  • Discussion boards are examples of asynchronous communication. These Web forums are online bulletin boards where Internet users exchange messages on topics of interest. A discussion board is an important form of mass communication because its format and asynchronous nature permit lengthy discussion of a topic. Discussion boards also are valuable to members who don't post messages, but who read what others write. Such an inconspicuous reader is referred to as a lurker. One problem with discussion boards is seen when a few persons monopolize a conversation.

  • Virtual worlds are imaginary places synthesized inside a computer where individuals looking at the monitor can feel as if they are in a real world or a fantasy world. People interact with one another in these three-dimensional graphical environments by networking their systems and sharing the synthetic space. An avatar is the on-screen representation of a person in a virtual world. An individual user experiences telepresence – a sense of presence or being present somewhere with other people and objects. The software that creates a virtual world simulates real-world rules such as gravity, topography, locomotion, real-time actions, and communication. Communication can include keyboard text, voice and other sounds, visible and audible gestures, graphics and icons, and a sense of touch and balance. Second Life is the best known and most popular virtual world.

  • Photo and video sharing sites let people participate in self-organizing topical groups. This class of social application allows users to share and form communities around their content. Flickr and YouTube are examples. Flickr is a photo-sharing website where anyone can upload, tag, browse, and annotate photos. It's a venue for sharing experiences, building relationships and developing community. The YouTube video-sharing service allows users to post personally developed videos of nearly any variety, from animations to personal recordings. It draws users into engaging content as commentators and creators, activities that heighten visual literacy.

  • Social bookmarking involves saving bookmarks one normally might create in a Web browser to a public Web site and tagging them with keywords. Tagging attaches descriptive labels to a web site categorizing its content. A tag is a category name. The resulting community-driven, keyword-based classifications, known as folksonomies, are changing how people store and find information online. Social-bookmarking sites such as Delicious, Digg, Furl and Reddit let a person add, categorize and manage social bookmarks for storing, sharing, and discovering web pages.

  • Email, or electronic mail, normally used for interpersonal communication, can be thought of as a mass medium when it is used to transmit a message to multiple people on a mailing list. Listservs are automated mailing list administrators that permit easy subscription and cancellation, and the mass mailing of messages to subscribers on the list. An opt-in listserv has recipients who have requested and agreed to receive information. Spam is unwanted, unsolicited email.

The impact of social networks
  • Social networks have become critical in the lives of millions of people – in their education, their jobs, their avocations, their personal relationships. Early social media such as e-mail and discussion groups gave people the communication tools to connect, but didn't allow them to visualize their social networks. Today's social networking sites on the Internet make visible the connections with others – friends, followers, influencers, hubs and people with many connections in a network. Bonds with others range from weak to strong with weak connections not as frequent or as close. Mapping social networks is a way to collect information and study social trends, to learn the who, what, where, when, why and how of our lives.

  • The changes brought about relatively quickly by social media are having powerful effects on culture, society and economics. For instance, the different relationships among media producers and their audiences is one of the most obvious changes. In fact, the balance of power between producers and audiences has changed. Through social media, consumers now choose, create and give feedback to producers. Their multifaceted contributions to conversations add substance that creates a greater whole.

  • The elaborate networks formed in online communication environments have empowered people. Collaboration online is important because of the fresh content it creates. Participatory media has grown out of the so-called open-source, free software movement, in which programmers write source code that can be modified and improved by anyone. There is a collective effort to keep information free or at least less expensive than commercial software so everyone can share the benefits.

  • Social media encourage people to create new knowledge and share it across their online communities. People are exposed to an ever greater variety of viewpoints and ways of looking at the world. Critical thinking and media literacy are as important today as ever. Of course, it's always difficult to determine whose information to trust when we receive it from unknown sources. Social media rating systems, in which participants can rank how useful a product, service, review or comment is, help people make decisions about the trustworthiness of information.

Social media foster new legal and ethical issues
  • Who owns user-generated intellectual property – the content on social media sites? There are questions around copyright, fair use and compensation.

  • Privacy is changing as social media sites encourage posting personal thoughts and desires, photos and videos. For instance, educational institutions and potential employers conduct Google searches to gain more personal insights into the character of school and job applicants.

  • Ratings and reviews enhance transparency as people report how long they have had a product and how well it has worked. However, transparency can work against a company's plans when it doesn't want to give away secrets to competitors. Public opinion can sour if a corporation is caught distributing a fraudulent viral video or publishing a faux grassroots blog. That's referred to as astroturfing. The power dynamic between the public and businesses is being changed by social media.

Selected list of some popular social media sites
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© 2013 Dr. Anthony Curtis, Mass Communication Dept., University of North Carolina at Pembroke    email    home page