What is social media? It is amorphous, and definitions of the term are constantly shifting with the rapid evolution of technology. As new forms of online communication become available to us, the delineation between social media and interpersonal relationships continue to blur.
What we think of today as social media began under the umbrella term “social network,” and it was distinguished by its ability to foster multidirectional communication.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, most of the internet consisted of one-way communication—a web developer would post information for others to consume, but mechanisms for active engagement and response were limited. Social network websites like Friendster, Myspace, and the fledgling Facebook empowered people to share updates about their life and then participate in online conversations around those updates.
These social networks, which developed the internet’s capacity for digital conversations, were the catalyst for a radical paradigm shift that came to be known as “Web 2.0” and has come to fundamentally redefine words such as “friend,” “like,” “post,” and “share.”
Types of Social Media
In 2009, researchers Andreas M. Kaplan and Michael Haenlein defined six broad categories of social media:
- Collaborative projects
- Content communities
- Social networking sites
- Virtual game worlds
- Virtual social worlds
In the years since, though, the distinctions between many of those categories have blurred and new categories have been added.
In 2014, Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg, linguistics experts who specialize in digital communication, described social media as any kind of “internet-based sites and platforms which facilitate the building and maintaining of networks or communities through the sharing of messages and other media.” This type of definition would include established social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat, and would also include emerging platforms that provide niche communications outlets, such as Slack (instant messaging and collaboration), Twitch (live streaming of video game consoles), and Zoom (video chats).
As our society becomes more broadly connected to the internet, and as connection speeds increase to allow for faster transfer of data, we are integrating these social media platforms more deeply into our daily existence.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study revealed that in 2017 more than two-thirds of all adults in the United States used social media and more than three-fourths of all adults owned a smartphone. Another study, which concluded that over two-thirds of adults in the United States use Facebook, determined that approximately three-quarters of them use the platform daily.
Psychologist Sherry Turkle, who studies the impact of technology on our perceptions of self and our relationships with others, has spent decades interviewing people about their uses of technology. In her most recent book, Alone Together, she noted that we are increasingly tethered to our smartphones—we are connected today in ways that we have never been before.
The Potential of Social Media
This rapid integration of social media into our lives has not happened by chance. From its earliest days, social media has promised the world to us.
It has allowed us to have routine conversations with friends and relatives from whom we would have otherwise grown distant. It has empowered us to share the ordinary moments of our lives (which are sometimes the most meaningful parts) with the people we care about. It has brought us access to people, cultures, and languages from all over the world. It has given us knowledge and insight into the most obscure corners of our curiosity, and all at the tips of our fingers—or, today, at the prompt of just our voice.
Early advocates for the potential of the internet often referred to it as a “global village” which would make the world flatter—more globalized—and draw the entire planet closer together.
When we cannot remember an acquaintance’s job, we can look it up on social media. When we are looking for a movie recommendation, we can ask our friends online. When we are interested in opposing viewpoints, we can find them and engage with them in real time on social media. This is the power of social media: it has the potential for an unprecedented awareness of the diversity of the human experience and, from that awareness, an increased capacity for empathy.
Turkle, describing her research into the relationship between humanity and technology in the mid-1980s (nearly twenty years before social media became prominent), described her own sense of optimism about how computers could change the world:
[The book] Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a society that subjects people to constant government surveillance, public mind control, and loss of individual rights. I find it ironic that my own 1984 book, about the technology that in many a science fiction novel makes possible such a dystopian world, was by contrast full of hope and optimism. I had concerns… [b]ut, in this first work, I focused on how evocative computers fostered new reflection about the self.Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Beyond the potential for exposure to global perspectives, social media has also created a world in which we can respond in real time to one another. Physical distance no longer needs to cause a delay in communication—we can interact with questions and ideas immediately.
Twitter, as a platform, is built upon this idea of immediacy. Its timeline displays a feed of microposts that are sorted chronologically, so as new tweets are posted, old ones get pushed to the bottom, and the result is that the lifespan of a tweet is usually measured in minutes. Other social media platforms use algorithms to feed users content based on their likelihood to interact with it, rather than based purely on chronology, so their posts have an extended lifespan, but they maintain the immediacy of the medium through comments and direct messages.
The speed with which users interact often leads to entire conversations happening in real time. This immediate responsiveness is possible because we are perpetually connected. By having social media apps on our phones, and by allowing those apps to notify us the instant we receive responses, the only boundaries to our responsiveness are self-imposed.
Perpetual connectivity affects us deeply. For many people, social media has become a default activity to fill in the gaps of day-to-day life. In moments of boredom, we can turn to social media to participate in conversations, see what our friends are doing, or simply entertain ourselves. The potential of social media is that our passive time can become active moments of engagement, learning, and relationship-building.
If you ask almost any social media user, though, they will tell you that the incredible potential of social media is often not fully realized—sometimes as a result of the nature of the medium itself, and sometimes as a result of the way we use it.
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