It's a social world out there.

Social Media – Where it came from and what it means for tomorrow

Posted on: December 12, 2009

Abstract:

Social media has been part of the world wide web for more than a decade.  This fact might today get overlooked since many know only the social media names that have come about in the last five years, the big guns – to name a few – facebook, myspace or twitter, that today are household names for millions across the world.   Social media outlets of all kinds have built their way into the everyday lives of teens, college students, professionals, businessmen, parents, and even grandparents.  Social media is a fixture that is here to stay, however the way in which it is used will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. In order to look forward to where social media is going, is important to look back at when, how and why the phenomenon that is social media began.

It would have been hard to imagine in 1997, the year social networking site sixdegrees.com launched, what would happen in the social media arena in the following twelve years. Today, as 2010 approaches social media is a vital part of how people consume news, communicate with one another and grow socially.  The growth that social media has seen is far above what other media have experienced.  What is it about social media that is different?  How has it attracted, and maintained such a vast following in recent years? To understand this attraction and look forward to what social media of the future might look like it is necessary to start from the top.

Social media is the combination of many kinds of online activity. It is often misinterpreted as only social networking, however, the world of social media encompasses much more.  As stated by Andrew Schrock in his examination of social media, “Social media” broadly includes blogs, user–generated videos and pictures, social networking sites, message boards, and wikis (Li and Bernoff, 2008).” (6)

It is important to consider each social media outlets named above, each of these draws users for a different reason. Social networking sites (SNS) have often gotten the most attention from mainstream media and taken the social media spotlight. Video sharing and blogging sites such as Youtube and WordPress are equally important to social media’s impact as SNS. To fully understand how and whys social media works, each of these outlets must be a part of any social media strategy.  Social media outlets work best when they work together. SNSs may have come on the scene early in the life of social media, however, since they went live all they have done is make updates and adapt to users needs, all while working with, not against other social media outlets. This difference, the ease of updating and adapting to users needs is one of the reasons social media has been successful in ways other media are not. This is explained by social media experts Danah M. Boyd and Nicole B. Ellison in Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship, saying:

“Since their introduction, social network sites (SNSs) such as MySpace, Facebook, Cyworld, and Bebo have attracted millions of users, many of whom have integrated these sites into their daily practices. As of this writing, there are hundreds of SNSs, with various technological affordances, supporting a wide range of interests and practices. While their key technological features are fairly consistent, the cultures that emerge around SNSs are varied. Most sites support the maintenance of pre-existing social networks, but others help strangers connect based on shared interests, political views, or activities. Some sites cater to diverse audiences, while others attract people based on common language or shared racial, sexual, religious, or nationality-based identities. Sites also vary in the extent to which they incorporate new information and communication tools, such as mobile connectivity, blogging, and photo/video-sharing.” (2)

SNS today realize the importance of adding numerous social media components to their offering. Take facebook.com for example, this site which was launched in early 2004 to only Harvard students has expanded to more than 350 millions users as of late 2009.  Since 2004  facebook.com updated, added to their offers and changed their privacy settings to try to keep users happy. Through the site that began as a simple profile building and social networking among students at certain college is today open to anyone who wants to join, allows link, video, photo and comment sharing among many other things.  While users may change their status’ to something disgruntled when facebook changes its look, as it does semi-regularly, they likely do not realize the site is only making these changes in order to offer a better user experience.  The need for change in social media is great, this medium is evolving daily, as said by E. Sonnenberg when explain how to maintain objectivity around social media,“As technology continues to evolve, every member of the media will face new ethical challenges as well as opportunities. Address both with the critical eye.” (7)

Facebook.com provides a good example of why social media has been able to keep the attention of its following. This site and many others like it must stay on top of the latest social media outlet and work with that technology to give users what they want. Case in point – facebook.com allowing users to update their twitter through facebook. While it seems like it would make more sense for facebook to try to keep their users with them and not with twitter, they realize this is not how social media works. (Note: Facebook.com keeps very interesting and noteworthy company statistics here – http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics)

The facebook story brings forth an idea that is at the very foundation of all social media outlets, that is, sharing.  The premise behind sites like YouTube.com and WordPress are base on sharing, they have no greater purpose than to share information and media with others.  The people who produce this are doing so because they are passionate about it, or at the very least are interested in the topic they share. The draw of social media is about sharing, not only sharing your own thoughts, but reading others and feelings  sense of connection based on their passion.  D. Phillips explains in The Psychology of Social Media:

“People have a ‘need to belong.’ Social groups are important (Baumeister et al 1995).

Desire for interpersonal attachments is a fundamental human motivation and is central to the human condition; indeed, humans fade when excluded from their fellows.

Kimble, et al (1998) show that the online context is important and demonstrate that if the degree of ‘context’ a media provides is ignored this can adversely affect the user’s perceptions of that media. Elizabeth Shove, at the centre for science studies, and Alan Warde of Sociology, Lancaster University (Shove and Warde 1999) note that social theorists maintain that “people define themselves though messages they transmit to others, through the goods and practices that they possess and display. They manipulate and manage appearances and thereby create and sustain a ‘self-identity.’” (5)

Phillips explains here why people are attracted, and now, attached to social media use. They feels a connection in sharing.  Whether a fisherman is sharing a video demo on flyfishing or a chef is sharing cooking tips and recipes, these people are sharing with others who will benefit from their knowledge.  People aren’t using social media for monetary reasons, they are using it to build relationships, whether they be professional or personal, it is certainly working.

Adults are choosing to use social media for reasons different from younger generations.  Teens, who have grown up engrossed in technology, they have learned many social skills from online social interactions. Teens do not know what life, or relationships are like without social media.  They meet new friends, maintain old friendships and even interact with parents and other relatives through social media.  They have grown up in an “always on” world, always had a cell phone in their pocket, always felt the need to check in on facebook. Danah Boyd writes on the relationship teens have with social media and how it will affect their face-to-face interactions, saying:

“The flirting, gossiping, and joking around that takes place (through social media) is not proof that social media is useless, but proof that it’s extremely valuable. Without other spaces in which to gather, youth have developed their own. They want to be social, but we also need them to develop social skills. It’s not like all social encounters between adults are face-to-face; learning how to interpret a Facebook post is a great skill to have when entering an email-centric corporation.  Rather than demonizing social media or dismissing its educational value, I believe that we need to embrace the environments that youth are using to gather and help them learn to navigate the murky waters of sociality.  We cannot “fix” their social worlds, but we can provide the scaffolding that they need to help learn to make sense of sticky social situations. (1)

The above quote emphasizes the need to accept that teens and youth are using social media a great deal, and rather than spin this in a negative context.  This age group will not stop using social media, if anything their use will increase as new and more user-friendly sites are developed. Adults need to ensure that this age group is educated on both the positive and negative aspects of social media.  Young people are not only going to these sites for social reasons, they too visit for news and the ability to share and comment on recent world events.  A fall 2009 Nieman Report article, Engaging Youth in Social Media says; “For Jackie, age 18, it’s a go-to social media site within her Facebook network. She goes there, she told us, ‘to check in to see what articles other people had posted and to read their comments” on thoughts she had shared. Once there, she reads stories about climate change comments on them, and easily share news with her friends. She calls this site her “everyday RSS habit,” a place she goes to read and post.” (3)

Jackie is an example of how young people are accessing and reading news without even realizing it.  When they are clicking through friend’s links on a facebook page they do not think about this as learning, they are simply interested in what their friends, people they trust, are sharing.  The sharing that happens so quickly through social media, often happens between people who trust one another, they almost always share something.  It is common knowledge that consumers value word-of-mouth more than any other advertising, they value what their friends say. Whether it is about where one is going for dinner what kind of phone one should have,  a news story that a friend passes along, social media allows people to share information with those they trusts in ways other media will never be able to.

Social media has, and continues to change the way people use the world wide web.  There is no longer the need to search for news, users can have it pushed to them through many social media outlets.  Consumers can find information about any good or service by simple asking in a facebook status update. Social media without a doubt has effected how users take advantage of search engines, as explained by P. Hersberg in a 2009 Advertising Age article,“This is the new face of the “search” experience online. The separation between search and social media is melting away, and a new paradigm is taking hold. Finding the right content is as much about whom it comes from as where you find it. By building a network of credible sources via social media, we’re able narrow our “searches” to a select group of people whom we trust. For brands, this means a host of new challenges and opportunities are emerging beyond the traditional search channel.” (4)

Before even typing in Google.com today, people are often looking for a subject through facebook or twitter posts and following links from there.  This has become so common practice that in 2009 Google decided to add social media sites to it search, allowing twitter and facebook posts (if privacy settings allow) to come up in search results.  It is important to note Hersberg’s use of the world credible in the above quote.  There are, of course, many social media profiles and sites that are not credible, that are spam and disrupt the system, it cannot be said enough that users must be educated on social media.  Users should be smart about how they use social media and not allow themselves to be take advantage of, this is the same for almost all internet use.

Social media is a phenomenon that has changed the way people all over the world communicate and consume.  Today when social media is mentioned many think of those big guns, facebook, twitter or myspace, sites that have social media tenure in 2009, that doesn’t meant much for the future.  Phillips explains how social media has evolved to date and what this might mean for what is to come,

“Each iteration of social media has been richer in content and interactivity, and each has brought more mechanisms for self expression and our ability to display our likes and dislikes, from favorite film to choice of washing powder, to groups of people who share similar interests. Internet-mediated social networks are offering people a rich array of facilities and content.  Much of this self-expression is replacing many of the benefits humans get from direct, face-to-face relationships. It is a mixture that makes belonging to a group or groups rewarding. (5)”

Humans have altered the way they socialize because of social media, and that social media is continuing to change.  Each new site or outlet that comes to the forefront of social media is, as Phillips says, “richer in content.”  Each site will offers something new, already established sites like facebook.com will continue to change and add to their offerings, in the hopes of making the user-experience better.  It is impossible to say exactly what this means or what kinds of sites will come forth in 2010.  Twitter, a site that is based on an extremely simple concept, took off more than anyone could have imagined in 2009, and tweeting does not seem to fading.  Social media will without a doubt will continue to make sharing easier and quicker for consumers. Teens will continue to learn and grow socially using social media, whether they know it or not.  Adults will continue to adapt to how social media changes their lives. Business of all shapes and sizes will further incorporate social media strategies into their marketing and advertising plans. Social media is much more powerful than other mediums to date, and it will continue to change the way the world communicates.

Sources:

1) Boyd, D. (2009, November 30). Sociality Is Learning | DMLcentral. DMLcentral. Retrieved December 2, 2009, from http://dmlcentral.net/blog/danah-boyd/sociality-learning

2) Boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

3) Greenhow, C., & Reifman, J. (2009). Engaging Youth in Social Media: Is Facebook the New Media Frontier?. Nieman Reports, 63(3), 53-55. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

4) Hershberg, P. (2009). What Social Media Means for Search. Advertising Age, 80(11), 40. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

5) Phillips, D. (2008). The Psychology of Social Media. Journal of New Communications Research, 3(1), 79-85. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

6) Schrock, A. (n.d.). Examining Social Media Usage. First Monday. Retrieved December 2, 2009, from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2242/2066

7) Sonnenberg, E. (2009). Maintain objectivity on social media sites. Quill, 97(7), 24. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

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8) Wong, A. (n.d.). Social Media. Upload & Share PowerPoint presentations and documents. Retrieved December 11, 2009, from http://www.slideshare.net/wah17/social-media-35304

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