What is Social Media and how is it changing our lives?

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

What is Social Media and how is it changing our lives?

This article explores the extraordinary phenomenon called social media and its influence on our lives. I will give you some definitions from relevant sources, as well as my own definition, and I will highlight examples of its influence on our day to day lives. One of the arguments I am making in this article is that social media facilitates collaboration, social change and social influence.

Part I: The Definition of Social Media

In order to define what social media is, I feel it is necessary to define what it is not, due to the many misconceptions people have about it.

Social media is not defined as

  • Forums for socializing online (chit-chat, gossip, opinion, personal stories/images).
  • A place to sell your products and services to millions of people.
  • The latest fads in online communication technology.

It would be foolish to say that social media doesn’t have elements of the above, but it would be equally foolish to define social media as any of the above. Unfortunately, many people do see social media as these things because they see people using it for chit chat and gossip, or sales and marketing, and they see new social media platforms come and go.

What is the definition of social media?

According to different experts, both academic and professional, social media has been defined as the following:

  1. “The many relatively inexpensive and widely accessible electronic tools that enable anyone to publish and access information, collaborate on a common effort, or build relationships.”  —Arthur L. Jue, Social Media at Work, published by Oracle (link to book preview).
  2. “Any highly scalable and accessible communications technology or technique that enables any individual to influence groups of other individuals easily.”  —John Blossom of Content Nation (link to book preview).
  3. “A group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, which allows the creation and exchange of user-generated content”  —Kaplan & Haenlein of Users of the World Unite (link to full article).

The first definition talks about the tools, and the things people do with them. The second definition is the best in my opinion; it frames social media as technologies that enable users to have influence. The third definition, the worst of the bunch, puts an emphasis on Web 2.0 (whatever that is) and its implications.

These definitions of social media are informative, but none of them really spoke to me; they didn’t described what I experience with social media. I wanted to develop my own definition based on my experiences, so I researched the origins of the term.

My definition of social media

Social media are the web-based applications that facilitate communication and allow individuals to exert influence through an unmoderated (or user moderated), many-to-many, user generated exchange of information and ideas.

My definition hints at the potential that I believe social media has to transform society positively, and in fact, I believe this transformation is already taking place.  In the following section, we’ll look at some examples.

Part II: Social Media is Transforming Society

The fact that you can talk to thousands of people using social media means that you can also influence them.

The word ‘influence’ can have negative connotations, and in terms of marketing, most people consider the word synonymous with ‘manipulate’. While still prevalent, that type of influence is dying, due to the hugely collaborative nature of the internet. Statistics show that people no longer want to passively receive information; they want to be a part of creating and sharing it with their community—when they see fit, how they see fit, and with a large dose of their own opinion on the side.

So, how can we influence each other using social media?

  • We can recommend or warn against certain products or brands
  • We can share our opinion about events, companies and people
  • We can pass on valuable information
  • We can educate each other through collaboration
  • We can form groups and do all of the above on an even larger scale

We can do all of this influencing relatively cheaply and it’s making a difference.

How is social media making a difference, right now?

Who we are listening to is changing:

  • 62% of content consumed by people born after 1980 is created by someone they know!
  • 47% of broadcast television viewers say they’d pay for tv without ads.
  • 2/3 of all purchasing decisions are being influenced by word of mouth—mostly taking place on the web.

Political landscapes are changing

  • In February of the US elections, Barack Obama attended very few campaign fundraisers, but he earned $55 million on social networks. Social media has been deemed responsible for his election by many.
  • During elections in Iran, citizens used Twitter to leak critical info during a government-imposed media blackout, which resulted in the general public being informed about what was really happening.
  • Many have called the internet the truest form of democracy that we have seen: The internet is made by the people, for the people and it has no will or agenda of its own and is totally unbiased, so it cannot be corrupted.

Gate-keeping and Information Silos are being destroyed

  • “Wikipedia and Google have democratized information to the point where anyone is able to acquire the knowledge they may want—Knowledge is NO LONGER power.”
  • MIT, Harvard and other prestigious universities are offering web versions of some of their classes for free, because they understand that it’s not about the information, it’s about the relation-ship.
  • “The paradigm is now no longer to try to appear perfect, but to be more transparent with your thoughts and feelings, to reveal your humanness”

Part III: Further Reading

Part II discussed how social media is shifting how we receive and share information. In Part III I’ll share further reading on the subject of social media.

  • Social Media, Political Change and Human Rights (2011)  is a paper by Sarah Joseph, professor at Monash University, about the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. She first gives a background to the topics and then goes on to analyses Clay Shirky’s arguments for and Malcolm Gladwell’s arguments against the importance of social media in revolutions. Her conclusion is more on the side of Shirky, stating that where people aren’t given freedom of information, social media can play an important role in change. Below are some quotes from her paper about the contrasting views:

Gladwell argues that social media connections promote weak ties and low-risk activism, or “slacktivism.” He argues that “liking” something on Facebook, or retweeting a story, requires little effort, yet those actions might lull the protagonists into thinking they are doing something meaningful. – Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change, New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010, at 42, full article available here.

Shirky argues that “political freedom has to be accompanied by a civil society literate enough and densely connected enough to discuss the issues presented to the public.” He endorses the theory of sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld that the formation of well-considered political opinions is a two-step process. The first step requires access to information; the second, use of that information in conversation and debate. Under this framework, Shirky argues that social media has revolutionized how people form political opinions and has made information so widely accessible that more people than ever are able to develop considered points of view. – Clay Shirky, The Political Power of Social Media, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2011, partial article available here.

  • Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media by Rory O’Connor has a title that pretty much sums up the book pretty well. Book preview available here.

In an interview with Alternet Rory discusses his book, his research and why he thinks that providing access to the means of media production to millions of citizens is democratizing the news. Full interview available here.

  • An article in the Harvard Business Review discusses 6 ways that new social media technologies are changing our relationships with ourselves, each other and organizations. Full article here.
  • A great report by the Brookings Institute discusses ways that social media is used in and is changing Education. Full report here.


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