There are different interpretations of what some people mean with they refer to social media. One way to look at the phenomenon is that all forms of media are inherently social to some degree, or they would not be “mediating” messages between senders and receivers of messages. More specifically, there are three ways of looking at the characteristics that make up what we usually mean when we refer to social media: (1) The technical aspects of social media including the hardware, like smartphones or laptops; (2) the content that includes the programs that make social networking possible with identifiable names like Facebook or Pinterest (sometimes described as the software); and (3) the features of Web 2.0 that allow the Internet to be used as a means of interactive (two-way) communication that has had the greatest impact on other media industries. From the economic perspective, social media have resulted in a variety of new economic models, many of which are hybrids from legacy forms of media as well as some entirely new ways of thinking about how social media are paid for, and by whom. From the social perspective there are a range of ways of looking at the impact and importance of social media ranging from the way one thinks about democracy and political governance to sharing intimacies with those who are emotionally close to you. But whatever variation on a definition people choose to emphasize, social media have become integral components for the way we communicate today and for the way we see ourselves relating to others and in relationships with others.
With social media making an impact on our lives from technological, content, industry-oriented, economic, and social perspectives, we should realize that they are not responsible for all of the changes in our society and in the world. They Page 320 | Top of Articlemay be critical factors, but all exist alongside the media forms that preceded social media, and all are used in environments in which we have a physical presence that has been shaped by socialization factors, and an online presence, some of which we have control over and some of which are created and shaped by others, and then presented to us. If there are unique characteristics that cut across all forms of social media, they are most likely those of time and space, but, even then, all forms of media have used those characteristics in their unique ways.
Instead, what social media do is speed up our sense of time, and change our sense of space faster than any previous form of media humans have ever had. Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Inc., believes that social media have created an environment in which things seem to happen faster and faster, and that the biggest problem we have today is trying to deal with how quickly change occurs ( Wozniak 2015 ). It is the speed of change that he sees as the defining feature of social media, and his assertion suggests that even our sense of place (i.e., geographic boundaries) is changing rapidly. The Internet and cyberspace allow us to be in one physical space and, at the same time, in another space that is hard to fathom, as we send and receive messages from around the world from our homes or workplaces. And, because we can connect with others from virtually anywhere, anytime, those small portable technologies that we often use for social media continually present us with different situations that blur traditional concepts of space, and traditional concepts of public and private behaviors and communication contexts.
Many of those communicative contexts are outlined in the entries in this encyclopedia, but to address the phenomenon of social media, it might be useful to break down the categories that present specific points of entry for us as we analyze the impact of social media and contemporary life. As identified in the entries in this encyclopedia, social media have the ability to help us friend others, follow others, text others (meaning that the forms we use to connect to others are unique to social media), and connect to others. In each one of these communication contexts, social media facilitate the human interactions while increasing the use of technologies of communication that function as tools to shape human interaction.
The industries that use social media to deliver their content have changed and continue to change. Some have become powerhouses for information access and transfer, and others have been short-lived, or acquired by larger companies and forced to change. But all of these industries have developed new economic models for effective delivery of content. We’ve come a long way since the Internet was developed with the purpose of allowing us to collaborate online from distances and the initial idea that the World Wide Web would allow scientists and educators to share knowledge. While these features still exist, the commercial aspects of social media industries have attracted the lion’s share of attention and have created the widest range of economic models for funding commercial services.
Social changes have accompanied our use of social media and have allowed us to develop a new vocabulary and a way of thinking about our place in the world and what we feel is important. New values have been introduced because of the speed of change afforded by social media, and older concepts of what was meant by “democracy,” “privacy,” “security,” and “identity” have all begun to enter our discourse to see if, or how, our lives are changing because of social media.
Social media are also used in businesses and professional life as well as for personal use involving information flow and entertainment. Because social media so often include portable technologies like mobile phones, cameras, or laptops, they are often assumed to be used in very personal ways, sometimes causing a problem for intimacy and inappropriate self-disclosure in public places. One criticism, or trade-off (depending on your point of view), is that participating in social media means that your body and mind respond to an always “on” lifestyle. As danah boyd (she prefers lowercase letters for her name) describes the social media lifestyle, “It’s about living in a world where being networked to people and information wherever and whenever you need it is just assumed” ( boyd 2014 , 72). This feature is in marked contrast to the separation that had previously existed about work and home life, work and leisure, and the way we have become familiar with a number of social practices, like shopping, where we are when we want to be entertained, and what we know about the surveillance of the environment (either from news, or from the changing nature of what it means to know about the relationships of individuals and their communities or governments). The public/private use of social media is often the focus of criticism of how people blur their public and private senses of self, and perhaps these aspects are often some of the most heavily criticized features of the social media phenomenon.
Social media have the potential to allow a different type of community to develop that is not place-based, but rather, more ephemeral, or even considered to be an “imaginary” place. This aspect of using personal technologies, and especially portable technology, is deeply connected to how people use social media, where they use it, and what the form of social media and social interaction then becomes in terms of meaningful communication for that user. In many ways social media are an outgrowth of communication and information industries that have changed the way they function so that they cater to individual use, rather than use by large, heterogeneous, anonymous audiences, often the target markets for mass media. In addition to a strong interest by legacy forms of mass media, like radio, television, print, film, and the earlier music industry, to deliver the same content to as many people as possible, social media allow for much greater individuality in the makeup of the audience. Some social media is person-to-person, while some use a protocol that open up communication channels (often called one of the democratizing effects of social media) for many.
Social media are often criticized for targeting individuals as consumers to the degree that users have choices, but end up choosing messages that are most aligned with their previously held values. Therefore, criticism of social media and the press often devolves into the situation in which people choose only that information that they want, and often, this leads to knowing less, rather than exploring a variety of viewpoints before making up one’s mind.
Social media also can be abused, as in the case of cyberbullying, in which we see individuals use forms of social media to harass, bully, or degrade someone. Even when media allow communities to form for civic purposes, we know that social media can also be used to deceive or control people. Similarly, the more we use the Internet for financial transactions, the more we risk being victims of cybercrimes from hackers or thieves.
See also: Cyberbullying ; Cybercrime ; Cyberspace ; Friending ; Identity ; Privacy
boyd, danah. 2014. “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle.” In The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg. New York: New York University Press, 71–76.
Hanson, Jarice. 2007. 24/7: How Cell Phones and the Internet Change the Way We Live, Work, and Play. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Hunsinger, Jeremy, and Theresa Senft, eds. The Social Media Handbook. New York: Routledge.
Wozniak, Steve. 2015. “A Conversation with Steve Wozniak.” Springfield Public Forum, Springfield, MA, May 1.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6485200149