Monday, 25 November 2013

Defining our terms: What is “social media”? Janet Salmons, PhD #einterview

Sometimes we communicate by using a few words as a kind of shorthand for big ideas: we know what we mean. Or at least we assume we have a common conception for what we mean when we use certain words, based perhaps on a shared experience of the phenomenon. But when we try to enlarge the conversation and explain it to someone else with whom we do not share experiences or frames of reference, we must be more precise. I believe we are at such a point with some of the words we use in the NSMNSS project. To include and engage others beyond the early adopters and true believers of online research, we may need to build a common language.

As a case in point, last spring NSMNSS conducted a questionnaire about ethical issues in social media research. Using the narrative option many respondents posted concerns about what they perceived as a lack of understanding of online research generally at their institutions and out-of-date guidance from their faculty, dissertation supervisors and institutions. It would seem important to include such scholars and academics in our conversations so they can become more knowledgeable about emerging research methods and topics—and thus better able to guide the next generation of researchers.

How we can begin to more clearly define terms we commonly use? Let’s begin by thinking about that the term social media means. I discovered just how challenging that task might be when I looked for a clear definition to cite for an article I was working on last week.

Some writers conflate “social media” with “Facebook and Twitter”(Baptist et al., 2011; Gibson, 2013; Grose, 2012). This seems inadequate to me for several reasons: Facebook and Twitter are brand names for commercial platforms designed with the unabashed goal of profit for their shareholders. They are not neutral spaces. As well, businesses and brand names change. Other platforms exist and new ones are emerging. What criteria will we use to determine whether those platforms can be described as “social media”?

Some scholars differentiate social media from other online platforms or Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) by describing characteristics. Social media is characterized by the ability of users to create, store, and retrieve user-generated content  (Benbunan-Fich, 2010). The focus is on the user as producer (Bechmann & Lomborg, 2013) who generates content in various forms—including video, images, text, and geospatial data (Schreck & Keim, 2013). The producer of content interacts with readers:  “effective social media use requires engagement with the audience” (Bik & Goldstein, 2013, p. 5) and readers are t, who themselves producers of content “thus blurring the distinctions between audience and producer as a means to create a distinct form of textual production that draws on both roles”(Meyers, 2012, p. 1023).

Given these descriptions and characterizations, is an email list “social media”? It is interactive and users generate content that can be retrieved. What about a virtual world—where users generate spaces, artifacts and events that engage others, and can be revisited or “retrieved.” In a web conferencing or videoconferencing space users can meet to generate and share content that can be saved and later retrieved. Wikis? Threaded discussion forums? Are they all “social media” or is there a more granular distinction missed in the extant definitions and descriptions?

How do you define the term—and what ICTs would you include or exclude from your conception of “social media”? Use the comment area, or respond to this 5-question survey. I will compile your responses and make a post on NSMNSS to share your collective ideas about ways to define social media!


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