'Social Media' – a buzz word that is all the rage at the moment. But what is it exactly ? is it mostly about Facebook and Twitter ? or is there more going on ? how does it effect me or my organisation ? In this article we will have a look at the many diverse and sometimes surprising areas that social media could be said to touch upon.
So what is Social Media ?
Ironically, you could probably find a thousand definitions of social media within the many forms of social media that exist ! In part, this is because there is not an agreed definition of exactly what it is, but it is also due to the fact that technologies are continuing to evolve at a fast pace so what might be classed as social media will inevitably continue to develop. Perhaps a good general definition might be:
'Social media are primarily Internet-based tools for sharing and discussing information...'
This broad definition covers a wide range of tools available today, and perhaps captures the essence of what social media is about. The key thing here is the 'interacting' - a normal website that simply allows comments as an 'add on' to site content would probably not count as social media – yet a site where the commenting and interaction was key to the purpose and design of the website would probably be more so (e.g. a blog).
Looking at it this way, we can highlight different ‘areas’ of Social Media. These rich, diverse, and often overlapping areas are described below with some notable examples to give a flavour of each.
Communication tools are some of the most well known social media tools. They include Blogs such as WordPress and Blogger, websites where you can create articles (typically of news article style length) which visitors can comment on. They also include Social Networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn where people can share comments, personal details, media such as photos and video, or establish relationships with other users (e.g. 'Friends' on Facebook, or 'Followers' on Twitter). We can also include crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter or Zopa which facilitate funding for a business or individual. These sites list the details of various projects/investment options and facilitate typically small payments from many individuals which collectively aim to fulfill the total amount required.
There are tools that many of us use on a daily basis that have a 'social' aspect to them. For example Wikipedia is a collaborative tool which enables many people to simultaneously update and view an online encyclopedia. Google docs allows people to share and edit documents online such as text documents or spreadsheets, and Dropbox allows people to upload or download files (often of large sizes) from a central 'folder' which multiple people can access from a range of devices (from your desktop pc, phone, tablet, etc).
Reviews & Opinions
While review & opinion sites may seem similar to communication and blog sites, there is perhaps a subtle but key difference between the two. Whereas Blog sites may be written by individuals or organisations and may or may not well be well regarded – there are some sites that specialise in being authoritative and well regarded 'good sources' for information and knowledge. Quora and Yahoo Answers are examples of sites that specialise in allowing open-ended questions to be posed and responded to by other users in the community. CNET and Amazon are more focussed on consumer products, whereas CNET has more of a blog format with articles and expert reviews that can be commented on, Amazon allows reviews and comments by consumers on the products it sells itself – including a rating system.
These are tools that are perhaps less well known publicly, but are are increasingly known about in particular by public facing companies and consumer brands. Brand monitoring tools enable you to read and summarize what is being said on the web and social media about particular brands, people, and products against defined keywords. Brands can respond to, but also analyse trends, campaigns and competitors. Notable companies offering these kinds of tools include Brandwatch and Radian 6.
Gaming is certainly not something that started off social, with its origins in self-contained console games and handheld devices. Yet with the advent of the internet, and other social media - the entertainment and gaming industry has now enthusiastically adopted the 'social' aspect to the extent that some games now heavily rely on this in order to retain and monetise players. Zynga for example is famous for its hugely successful games Farmville and Mafia Wars which utilised Facebook for exposure, as well as being designed having player interaction as integral to the game. For Virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, again player interaction is again essential to its purpose.
Some of the most well known video sharing sites include Youtube and Vimeo, where users can upload and view videos, while being able to add comments, create channels, and connect with different users. Examples of music sharing tools include Spotify, and LastFm which are adding increasing features to allow people to share playlists and musical tastes. As well as Youtube, Soundcloud is particularly popular among music professionals, allowing them to listen to, upload and download music tracks for free. Well known sites that offer photo sharing services with social features include Flickr and Picasa. Pinterest is an example of a 'social bookmarking' site that allows you to share interesting photos, events, and sites that you have found on the web with other people.
Political activity & news reporting
When this article was first written (in 2012) it would have been almost impossible to predict the future impact of social media on political activity (if any!). In 2018, we know differently. We have witnessed the Arab spring, where social media facilitated ground-up revolutions in multiple middle eastern authoritarian regimes - allowing ordinary citizens to freely discuss anything and then to organise demonstrations spontaneously - completely by-passing state controlled media channels and top-down controlled social infrastructures.
In the US, UK, and elsewhere - we have witnessed Twitter and other social media channels play an increasingly pivotal role in political debate, campaigning and winning elections, and even setting the media agenda - by-passing the traditional media channels previous monopoly of political framing, analysis and messaging, to allow political leaders to communicate their messages directly with ordinary people, and for voices and perspectives of ordinary people previously ignored by the traditional media - to be given more coverage and exposure.
It would be fair to say that increasingly (especially in the west) the traditional media tends to follow the news agenda set by activity on social media, rather than the other way around! An astonishing development in the history of politics and news.
AI & machine learning
The increasing wealth and breadth of information posted on social media has provided a gold-mine of rich personal data of millions of people. In the most obvious case, this data has been utilised and monetised by many of the social media platforms themselves, through the use of data analysis techniques to draw useful insights from this personal data for the purposes of helping other companies market products to people in more effective ways.
More advanced techniques are now allowing these companies and others to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to this social media data to go much further, to actual begin to anticipate and predict human behaviour to a greater extent, and perhaps even in some cases, to start to manipulate human behaviour using these AI based models that have been trained on social media data.
And so to wrap up...
Social media touches on many diverse areas, from Blogs and Crowdfunding sites, to collaboration, brand monitoring, politics, news and AI. As new tools continue to be developed across an increasing number of sectors, we can expect to see more use of social media features and capabilities.
However Social Media develops, its important to stay informed, upto date and active within the areas relevant to you - to be able to take advantage of the potential benefits to you're business or organisation.
Pranath is our Senior Back-end developer who knows the deepest, darkest secrets of our CMS of choice - Typo3. In his free time he is a keen student of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, and likes to balance the mind and body doing plenty of hot yoga, freediving, and SUP. Find him on LinkedIn.