Thursday, 19 December 2013

Further Thoughts on Defining Social Media

By Janet Salmons, PhD #einterview and

The New Social Media, New Social Science network is dedicated to an exploration of whether and how social science researchers should embrace social media. But what is “social media”? I considered this need for definition in an NSMNSS post. Subsequently we convened a Tweetchat and also offered the opportunity for input through a questionnaire. After reviewing the dialogue, comments and materials referenced, a more nuanced definition of social media is taking shape.

Helen Mara pointed to the word “social” as key in describing the scope of synchronous or asynchronous conversation possible. "Social" may refer to posts that are public (can be read by anyone) or private (exchange between people in defined group). Antonella Esposito suggested that social media refers to a “complex ecology, not just specific tools.” Some of the comments provide an almost poetic view: Chareen Snelson suggested that “Social media might be thought of as a stream of consciousness shared online,” while a questionnaire responded described “channels without gatekeepers.”

Digging more deeply, Tweetchatters and questionnaire respondents aimed to define social media by how it is used, and its characteristics. NSMNSS staff suggested that “social media is about dialogue & interaction, learning networks & collaboration.” Chareen added that “social media technologies permit or restrict the flow of ideas depending on what those technologies support. We are constrained by what social media platforms permit. Tools can vanish or change without notice during research.” A questionnaire respondent noted the potential for global exchange for “the primary purpose of expanding our virtual society.” Alternatively, one questionnaire respondent noted the potential for individuals as well: “for personal-only advantage (e.g. online back-up of research materials)”.

Joe Murphy augmented the Tweetchat with a diagram from his new book, Social Media, Sociality, and Survey Research (Hill, Dean, & Murphy, 2013). He suggested that a wide range of Information and Communications Technologies could be consider social media “as long as multiple participants are engaged.”

Based on my consideration of the network’s input, I suggest the following working definition.

The term “social media” refers to websites, online platforms or applications that allow for one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many synchronous or asynchronous interactions between users who can create, archive and retrieve user-generated content. In social media, the user is producer; communication is interactive and networked with fluid roles between those who generate and receive content (Bechmann & Lomborg, 2013). Social media allows users to define and create groups, lists or circles of "friends" or "followers" who have access to content and can participate in dialogue.

Social media may include commercial social networking or user-developed sites, blogs and microblogs, photo- and video-sharing sites, chat and messaging tools, virtual social or game worlds, collaborative projects, forums and online communities, and/or crowdsourcing sites.

Feel free to use the comment feature to suggest further refinements!

Bechmann, A., & Lomborg, S. (2013). Mapping actor roles in social media: Different perspectives on value creation in theories of user participation. New Media & Society, 15(5), 765-781. doi: 10.1177/1461444812462853
Hill, C. A., Dean, E., & Murphy, J. (2013). Social media, sociality, and survey research. San Francisco: Wiley.


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  2. Great post. Can you give the references for Chareen Snelson and Helen Mara.

    1. You can cite Helen and Chareen by referencing the full transcript. It can be found here:

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