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In its core meaning, ‘social media’ is closely allied to the terms ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘social web.’ However, while these describe the novelty of the Internet’s second generation, the term ‘social media’ covers the specific types of participatory digital media.
Key Characteristics Of Social Media
Two key characteristics are ‘user-generated content’ (UGC) and ‘produsage’ (Bruns 2013). Both terms connote the idea that people are actively participating in social media; they are generating and sharing content themselves. UGC emphasizes that it is not only professionals who are creating content, but mainly ordinary people, who need only access to the Internet. All types of media – including social media – have a specific audience, but only social media allow sharing, copying, and generating content without having specific professional qualifications or expertise. Thus, social media cannot perpetuate the traditional roles of recipients on the one hand and producers on the other.
Another feature of social media is interpersonal communication. Obviously social networks facilitate communication among users, by offering comment functions, email accounts, or chat capabilities. As research has already shown for social networks, communication partners frequently know their counterparts from everyday life, but this is not always the case. Particularly when dealing with wikis, people with different backgrounds collaborate on a subject of common interest, although they have never met in person. Linking also comes into play in various contexts. It means adding someone to one’s ‘friends’ list; linking hypertexts in wikis; placing web links in personal weblogs; or simply having a URL for connecting content to external networks. Also, tagging can be understood as linking. The opportunity to connect content has significantly changed people’s use of media, as extensive searching is abandoned in favor of spontaneous and interest-based use.
Due to the rapidly developing character of social media sub-genres, new forms of media that meet the qualifications for being ‘social’ media emerge within very short periods of time. The main purpose of publishing tools is the publication of content that can be related to specific authors. Some researchers have called this social media sub-genre personal publishing, thereby indicating that publishing tools are not used mainly by professionals, but rather by lay persons (DeAndrea 2012).
Social networks like Facebook are mainly concerned with interpersonal communication. Each user hosts a public or semi-public online profile to which various dynamic and staticfeatures can be uploaded. This profile offers a platform for various communication tools, such as chat or news feeds or sending private messages by using a specific mail function. The profile owner shares a connection with other users by inviting them to join his or her ‘friends’ list (Good 2013). More and more social networks are emerging that focus on specific target groups. One prominent example is XING, used for occupational networking. Wikis (for collaboration) and search engines are further sub-genres. The latter are designed to search for information on the Internet but, like Google, offer advertisers the opportunity to present information based on the user’s location or his or her personal interests disclosed in previous activities on the Internet.
Areas Of Research
There are five main research questions concerning social media. First, researchers have been interested in the influence of social media on social relations. They have demonstrated that social networks are primarily used to maintain pre-existing relationships, and less often for meeting new people. From a sociological perspective, the particular benefit of using different social media devices can be related to the concept of social capital (Ellison et al. 2014). Results indicate further that social media use impacts networks among socially heterogeneous groups (‘bridging’) and among homogeneous groups (‘bonding’), as well as enabling users to keep in touch with a group after physically disconnecting from it (maintaining social capital).
Second, there is an ongoing debate about negative effects of self-disclosure in social media with respect to privacy. Several studies found that, while users have concerns about privacy issues this does not very much affect their behavior in social networks (Taddicken 2012). A third issue is the use of social networks for self-presentation – i.e., control of the impressions that other people form of a person online. Surprisingly the majority of studies revealed that most users aimed at leaving an authentic impression.
Strategic communication through social media is a fourth area of research. Using social media for strategic purposes is meaningful for various fields such as politics, advertising, or public relations. For these activities social media can be of great use because of the possibility of addressing a large audience. Regarding political communication, social media are used not only for circulating personal opinions but also for professional political campaigning (Bode et al. 2013). With regard to public relations, research has analyzed how nonprofit organizations use social media for free and effective image building (Kent 2013).
Finally, communication researchers have investigated the role of social media for political upheavals such as the ‘Arab Spring.’ Although the role of the social media for causing social unrest cannot be fully assessed (mainly because of methodological reasons), it is evident that social media provided information the regime could not control, shaped the climate of opinion, and thus had an impact on citizens’ decisions to get engaged. According to a study by Tufekci and Wilson (2012), social media use increased the probability that Egyptians attended protests.
- Bode, L., Vrada, E. K., Borah, P., & Shah, D. V. (2013). A new space for political behavior: Political social networking and its democratic consequences. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19(3), 414–429.
- Bruns, A. (2013). From prosumption to produsage. In R. Towse & C. Handke (eds.), Handbook on the digital creative economy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, pp. 67–78.
- DeAndrea, D. C. (2012). Participatory social media and the evaluation of online behavior. Human Communication Research, 38(4), 510–528.
- Ellison, N., Vitak, J., Gray, R., & Lampe, C. (2014). Cultivating social resources on social network sites: Facebook relationship maintenance behaviors and their role in social capital processes. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19(4), 855–870.
- Good, K. D. (2013). From scrapbook to Facebook: A history of personal media assemblage and archives. New Media and Society, 15(4), 557–573.
- Kent, M. (2013). Using social media dialogically: Public relations role in reviving democracy. Public Relations Review, 39(4), 337–345.
- Taddicken, M. (2012). Privacy, surveillance and selfdisclosure in the social web: Exploring the user’s perspective via focus groups. In C. Fuchs, K. Boersma, A. Albrechtslund, & M. Sandoval (eds.), Internet and surveillance. The challenges of web 2.0 and social media. London: Routledge, pp. 255–272.
- Trepte, S. & Reinecke, L. (2011). Privacy online: Perspectives on privacy and self-disclosure in the social web. New York: Springer.
- Trepte, S. & Reinecke, L. (2013). The reciprocal effects of social network site use and the disposition for self-disclosure: A longitudinal study. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1102–1112.
- Tufekci, Z. & Wilson, C. (2012). Social media and the decision to participate in political protest: Observations from Tahrir Square. Journal of Communication, 62(2), 363–379.